When the Sounders take the field Saturday afternoon against Cascadia Cup rivals Vancouver Whitecaps, they’ll do so in front of a now-expected 50,000+ bodied crowd. But now in a three-year period of growth stagnation, the era of the Sounders sitting all alone at the top of Major League Soccer’s attendance charts may be coming to an end.
2015 was a massive coming-out party for the league. Average attendance went up by nearly 3,000 people a game to put MLS over 20,000 for the first time. The two newest clubs were second and third in attendance, with Orlando City boasting the highest inaugural attendance mark in league history. Even in an ill-fitting baseball stadium, New York City FC kicked off their own history with just under 30,000 fans each match. The San Jose Earthquakes were a de-facto third expansion team, leaving old Buckshaw Stadium in favor of their own custom grounds and a 25% attendance boost. Those additions, along with a 12 percent bump for a competitive New England Revolution squad, made 2015 an MLS bumper crop.
2016 appears to be another year of change, with a few Canadian teams making climbs up the attendance ladder. The Vancouver Whitecaps are on pace to out-draw the MLS Cup Champion Portland Timbers for the first time since each team’s inaugural season. Thanks to a significant capacity upgrade and their first-ever playoff appearance, Toronto FC is back among the league’s elite for game attendance. After reporting an attendance average of 17,000 last year (and, from the look of things, drawing FAR fewer actual bodies) the Montreal Impact are back over the 20,000 average.
For the Sounders, not much has changed since the last time we did one of these check-ins over a year ago. The club did manage to set a new attendance record after settling a bit in 2014, by opening up more of the upper deck year-round. The 44,247 average was somewhat hampered by some of those seats getting closed off early in the season, as an extra few thousand seats were being installed in the stadium’s south end.
By the end of that season, the Sounders had passed the Colorado Rapids and Chicago Fire to become the sixth-most attended MLS club of all time (and highest-attended expansion team.) That’s after seven seasons in a 20-season league. This year they switched chairs with the Columbus Crew in the number five slot. That’s fifth, all-time, just barely behind the New England Revolution and the likes of Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and DC United. And over the next few weeks, the Sounders will almost certainly replace the New England Revolution, today only about 33,000 seats ahead of Seattle.
However, it’s unlikely that the eight-year fan support kings will rewrite the history books again this season. With four games left, the club is still over 200,000 tickets short of where they ended the 2015 season. Two of those games are expanded capacity, but with a typical capacity of just under 40,000 and a poor turnout at the Sounders-Timbers game a month ago (merely 53,202), it’s hard to expect 60,000 fans against each of the Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake.
Things will change significantly again next season. Atlanta United will join the league as its 21st team, and may be the first legitimate challenger to the MLS attendance record since the Sounders joined the league in 2009. 30,000 deposits have already been placed on season tickets for the club and it’s expected that around 90% of those will follow through with a full package. And that’s before single-game tickets are factored in. The league attendance gains Atlanta represents may be offset by Orlando’s imminent move to their own stadium, with a max capacity much smaller than what they currently enjoy at the Citrus Bowl. Minnesota United was just recently announced as a second 2017 expansion team, currently building a sub-20,000 seat stadium in St. Paul. A year later, the league will be joined by at least one additional expansion side in downtown Los Angeles with an attendance peak of 22,000. Miami may join them. The penultimate stadium upgrade for MLS’ original ten clubs will come in 2018 as well, when DC United finally leaves the Home of the ‘Coons to… Buzzard Point? That doesn’t sound like much of an upgrade, but it actually really, really is.
The last time I wrote this article, I began it by saying that MLS was growing up. That’s no longer the case. MLS is here, finally living up to that lofty name. While the quality on the field is still improving, the support can stand proudly next to any major sports league in the world. A few years ago fan bases like Kansas City and Portland were the exception; now they’re the rule. And the arrow’s still pointing to the upper deck.