The Seattle Sounders’ eight-year run atop the MLS attendance charts has come to an end. After leading the league in attendance, usually by a significant margin, every year of its existence, earning accolades for their almost Premier League-like atmosphere at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders were beaten out this year by expansion team Atlanta United, which beat the Sounders by 5,000 fans per game, 48,200 to 43,666, and ended the season by setting the all-time single-game record for a game not associated with some other match. It’s a pair of tremendous feats only slightly undermined by the fact that the two teams play in the only two stadiums in MLS with capacities over 40,000 (and in fact the Sounders can only climb above that mark by taking the tarp off the upper deck), with New York City FC, playing at Yankee Stadium, and Toronto FC being the only other teams with capacities even over 30,000.
The success of Atlanta United, and the rave reviews they’ve earned for their own home atmosphere, should be a repudiation of MLS’ stadium-building strategy, one the Sounders’ success should have already discredited. For years MLS’ strategy for growing the league has been to build “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities in the 18-30,000 range, for the sake of providing a more “intimate atmosphere” compared to the football stadiums that typified the first decade or so of the league’s existence. Seattle and Atlanta almost fell backwards into their huge crowds and rich atmospheres, with soccer being an add-on to their pushes to build new football stadiums, and were it not for the involvement of the owners of their markets’ respective NFL teams, they might have gotten soccer-specific stadiums like everyone else.
The theory behind “soccer-specific stadiums” seemed sound: football stadiums were often cavernous and underutilized for MLS matches, and sizing the stadiums for actual demand seemed like the natural thing to do. Until the season before the Sounders came along, no team had averaged 25,000 fans a game since the league’s inaugural season, so capacities in that range seemed reasonable. But it’s turned out that that may have had more to do with the missteps the pre-Sounders league took in its early days, when it tried to appeal to mainstream soccer fans by adopting timing and other rules more akin to those in other American sports, than with the actual ceiling of soccer in America. Of the bottom 11 teams in attendance, the entire back half of the league, 10 predate the Sounders, and 8 are among the ten teams that existed before the current expansion phase that began in 2005; the only “MLS originals” in the top half of league attendance are the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. NYCFC is the only post-Sounders franchise whose attendance is below 90% of capacity, out of nine teams to fall below that mark; by contrast, only three of the pre-2005 “MLS originals” have average attendance over 90% of capacity, two of which, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City, happen to have two of the three smallest stadiums in the league (and San Jose returned to the league in 2008 after the original team moved to Houston, while SKC is the result of what’s considered one of the most successful team rebrands in the league’s history). The uphill struggle facing the “originals” is such that the Columbus Crew, whose market has a soccer fanbase so strong that it is traditionally chosen to host the national team’s home matches against Mexico in World Cup qualifying, is seeing their owner threatening to move the team to Austin if they can’t get a new stadium – to replace the one for which the term “soccer-specific stadium” was coined in the first place.
We have empirical evidence that at least two franchises are playing in stadiums smaller than they could be. Despite multiple expansions, the Portland Timbers’ average attendance has been at or above Providence Park’s capacity every year of their existence (another expansion is set to add about 4,000 seats), but the real wasted opportunity has involved Orlando City SC. That team played two full seasons at Camping World Stadium, with average attendance in the second season being 31,324, but still went ahead with building Orlando City Stadium with a capacity of 25,500, which fans filled at a 98% clip this past season. The same goes for Minnesota United, who in this inaugural season averaged 20,538 fans at TCF Bank Stadium, but is building a stadium seating only 19,400 – after MLS rejected a competing proposal for a Minnesota franchise that would have had the team playing at the Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. I could understand, to some extent, artificially limiting capacities to create a condition of scarcity and sell tickets for more, and the fact that Portland is the only team selling out their stadium quite so consistently could be used to make an argument that their stadium is the only one that really needs to get significantly bigger (along with San Jose and Kansas City). But unlike Seattle, Atlanta isn’t really the sort of market that comes to mind as a truly soccer-crazy market; after all, MLS was understandably hesitant about returning to the Southeast after the two Florida teams it had in its early days became the only two MLS teams ever to be contracted, and given its demographics Florida should in theory have more soccer fans than Atlanta, a city that, fair or not, has a reputation for being a frontrunning melting pot with little in the way of truly passionate fanbases for its teams. What other cities might have developed fanbases and gameday cultures on par with Seattle and Atlanta but never got the chance?
There’s no reason for any post-2009 franchise not to replicate the success seen by Seattle and now Atlanta, no reason why every one of them shouldn’t have the sort of gameday atmosphere seen in those two cities. It doesn’t take playing in an NFL stadium in every city; only building soccer-specific stadiums with larger capacities over 30,000. That may seem like a lofty goal for American soccer; the Premier League’s median stadium capacity is around 32,000. But to accept less is not merely to accept that MLS will never grow bigger than it is today; it is to accept that it would never grow bigger than it was before the recent boom in soccer’s popularity. Yet no stadium being built or proposed has a larger capacity than 25,000, including those proposed by the two most likely expansion franchises in Sacramento and Cincinnati (though Nashville seems to be moving down the fast track to a 27,500-seat stadium). Commissioner Don Garber has signaled his willingness to accept viable proposals for larger stadiums, but for now the thinking seems to be, go soccer-specific with capacities in the 20,000 range, or go bust. But if MLS is truly interested in growing the sport in America and helping it reach its full potential, not just keeping up the appearance of it, it needs to be willing to dream big – and that means letting its teams build the soccer stadiums of the future, not the past.