We are truly living in a golden age for professional outdoor soccer in this country. All three men’s professional levels of the game set new average attendance records this season, with Major League Soccer drawing 19,149 a game, USL Pro breaking the 3,000-a-game mark and now, the North American Soccer League setting a new record for Division II attendance in the modern era. The fourth-year NASL broke the former record of 5,164 per game set by the USL First Division in 2008 by averaging 5,521 a game.
First, the numbers:
|San Antonio Scorpions
|New York Cosmos
|Tampa Bay Rowdies
|Ft. Lauderdale Strikers
Now, some context: A large part of this gain is from the expansion club in Indianapolis, which became only the fifth lower-division organization in modern history to average more than 10,000 fans per game. Selling out every home game, Indy Eleven averaged 10,465, the highest Division II average since Montreal’s swan song in the second flight in 2011. Without Indianapolis, the NASL average was 4,948 – still an improvement over last year’s 4,670 average, but not a record. Still, there is cause for optimism in the second division, as, outside of Edmonton and the nascent Oklahoma City and Virginia clubs, there don’t appear to be a lot of organizations teetering on the brink of disappearing.
Compared to last year’s numbers, Minnesota was way up (82%, thanks in part to a big doubleheader, but they did draw consistently well all year for their other games as well), Edmonton had the benefit of its expanded stadium for the full year and was up 39% (still not good enough) and Tampa Bay was up 12.5%. That’s the good news. San Antonio and Carolina dropped slightly (2.6% and 3.3%, respectively), but Atlanta (where the Silverbacks may be on their way out) was off 13% and Ft. Lauderdale (despite making it to the league semifinals) was off 15%.
And then there’s the vaunted New York Cosmos. Drawing a season-high 8,565 to their home finale on October 25 helped keep their second-year drop from being worse, but their average announced attendance was off an alarming 28% from their maiden season. They may be counting on 2015 signing Raul to boost the numbers next season, but he turns 38 next June and will be playing a lot of games on turf before and after that. We’ll see.
The split-season format (in which teams played 1/3 of their games before the World Cup and 2/3 after) saw six of the ten teams draw worse in the Fall Championship than they had in the Spring, with only Indy (identical averages), San Antonio (up 7%), Minnesota (up 65%) and Ottawa (up 105%) seeing gains in the second stanza. Southeastern teams Carolina (-22%), Atlanta (-21%), Tampa Bay (-14%) and Fort Lauderdale (-8%) all dropped in the fall. Overall, the league averaged 5,346 in the spring (4,913 median) and 5,608 in the fall (4,513 median).
There was a bit of a World Cup bump (the league averaged 5,346 before Brazil and 5,732 after it), but the two major events in the fall accounted for a lot of that.
Besides November’s small sample of five games, the best month for average attendance was August (6,153, thanks to Man City and Olympiakos), while the rest of the months were pretty steady (June’s 5,150 was the lowest).
With the league scheduling the vast majority of its matches on weekends (127 of the 134 matches were on Saturday or Sunday), days of the week comparisons are hard to make, but Saturday games averaged 5,620 and Sunday matches 4,831.
Jacksonville (which recently finalized its lease at the local baseball stadium) will join the ranks in 2015, with Oklahoma City’s final disposition still up in the air. Assuming Edmonton sticks around (and they appear to be), there will be either 11 or 12 clubs in the NASL next season. Still to be determined is how a split season format would work and what playoff format they will choose this time.
But the overall takeaway from the 2014 season at all three levels of the pro game should be an optimistic one. Never have so many enjoyed so much for so long.