In their fourth season, the NWSL has managed to do something that the MLS was not able to do in their first four years: find growth in attendance. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at attendance between NWSL teams that share cities with MLS teams and see if those numbers might mean anything for the future of the league.
Breaking Down Attendance
Overall, the NWSL is struggling to match the numbers of MLS teams in the same cities. They’re only averaging 1/4th of what the MLS is averaging. Plus, the MLS teams reached 50% stadium capacity by their 4th year and 64% by 2016, while the women’s league is only at 27%. However, the NWSL is experiencing a greater amount of growth than the MLS experienced in their first 4 years. As you can see in Figure 2, the MLS teams who are either partnered with an NWSL team or in the same city as an NWSL team have only had, on average, a 6.4% increase in attendance from their inaugural season into their 4th year (the MLS as a whole saw a 20% decrease in attendance overall). While, the NWSL has seen a 30% overall increase in attendance. Even though the literal number of people attending the games isn’t as high as the men’s league, the fact that the attendance increase has been so high over the past four years should say a great deal about the overall future of the league.
*For Figures 3 and 4, the “MLS Same Year” category corresponds to what year 2016 was for that specific NWSL team. Ex: 2016 was the Houston Dash’s 3rd season, so the “MLS Same Year” percentage is based on the Houston Dynamo’s 3rd season.
The three teams who lead the league in overall attendance in 2016 (Portland, Orlando, and Houston) are the same three teams who are partnered with an MLS team, suggesting that partnering with an MLS team provides the resources and brand recognition that leads to more ticket sales. You can even see in Figure 4, that the percentage of attendance compared to the MLS is significantly higher in partnered cities than in non-partnered cities. This is further evidence that a direct partnership is beneficial to an NWSL team. Though, it will be interesting to see if these numbers will hold for Orlando given they are only one season old.
Another interesting result to point out is stadium capacity. As of right now, 6 of the 10 teams are averaging above 70% capacity per game, although the average capacity of the NWSL is at 34%. This is obviously due to some teams playing in much larger stadiums than others. We do need to keep in mind that the smallest MLS stadium holds 18,000, while most NWSL stadiums hold between 3,500-6,000 people. In terms of potential for growth, I would hope that in the future a few of those six teams would look for larger stadiums to call home since they are doing a decent job of filling the space they have currently.
Breaking Down Each Team
1. Portland Thorns
Stadium Capacity: 22,000
MLS Team: Portland Timbers (Partnered)
Portland is the gold standard for an NWSL team, but they should essentially be ruled as an outlier for all statistics surrounding the league. They are tripling the average attendance for the league at every home game. They are also the only team in the NWSL that can come close to rivaling their MLS team in attendance. Portland is an all-around amazing soccer city. This could be due to the success of University of Portland soccer program and a lack of NFL and MLB teams. Whatever the case may be, just keep up the good work, Portland.
2. Orlando Pride
Stadium Capacity: 61,348*
MLS Team: Orlando City (Partnered)
The Orlando Pride currently has the 2nd highest attendance in the league. Although the home opener (which was 23,403) is definitely an outlier, their last three home games have been 7052, 7247, and 5842, which is still higher than the NWSL average. Both the Pride and City are doing a fantastic job at keeping their attendance high, but it is difficult to gauge whether or not they will sustain these averages since they are both less than two years old. Due to the size of their current stadium, their stadium capacity percentage is pretty low. Of course, this will change as of next year when their new 25,500 capacity stadium is built. Hopefully, this will make the atmosphere of the women’s games more exciting to attend and will drive the men’s team to sell out every home game.
*the team’s Wikipedia page says the capacity for Camping World Stadium is both 60,219 and 61,348, but upon Googling the capacity it says 70,000, so I stuck with the middle number.
3. Houston Dash
Stadium Capacity: 7,000 (Expandable)
MLS Team: Houston Dynamo (Partnered)
Another example of the benefits of partnering with an MLS team is the Houston Dash. Since their inception, the Dash have never made the playoffs and have only been ranked in the top 3 twice out of 56 weeks. In short, their team is not the best, and yet people are still showing up to games. Their total growth since their expansion has been positive. They have experienced a small decline in attendance from 2015-2016, but the Houston Dynamo have actually been experiencing a decline in attendance for the last four years. This suggests that there is a larger problem happening in Houston and that the Dash are actually doing pretty well.
4. Seattle Reign
Stadium Capacity: 6,000 (Expandable)
MLS Team: Seattle Sounders (Not Partnered)
Seattle has the highest attendance among teams that are not partnered with an MLS team. They have experienced excellent growth since their first year (92%), but their year-to-year growth is decreasing in rate. When you look at the attendance of the Reign compared to the Sounders, you see a huge a problem. The Reign’s average attendance in 2016 is 4,427, while the Sounders are at a staggering 42,203. This is the largest gap of any NWSL team. This could be due to any number of issues, such as the quality of their stadium or lack of support and resources for the marketing and sales team to find the untapped market of soccer fans. Overall, it is clear that Seattle has a city full of people who love soccer; yet it is not being translated over to the Reign.
5. Boston Breakers
Stadium Capacity: 4,500
MLS Team: New England Revolution (Not Partnered)
Boston has had an overall above average growth, and more importantly, a growth that has been increasing in average every year. The Breakers also have one of the highest stadium capacity percentages in the NWSL. This is promising, especially because in the New England Revolution’s fourth year, they experienced a 13.5% loss in attendance. Can you imagine how great Boston would be doing in attendance if they had a winning season? One can dream.
6. Washington Spirit
Stadium Capacity: 4,000
MLS Team: DC United (Not Partnered)
The Washington Spirit have had virtually no growth (4%) since their first season, yet they have the highest stadium capacity percentage at 95%. The clear issue here is that Washington is definitely one of the teams that needs to look at a larger stadium. With that being said, when comparing attendance trends of DC United and the Spirit, these were the only two teams that became a bit of a stretch to compare. Their stadiums are so far apart, you could almost argue that the Spirit are not even in a city with an MLS team. Regardless, it is still clear that the Spirit’s potential for growth is primarily dependent upon moving to a higher-capacity stadium.
*reflects the population of Germantown, Maryland: the home of their stadium.
7. Western New York Flash
Stadium Capacity: 13,768
MLS Team: None
The Flash are one of only two teams to experience an overall drop in attendance since their first year. This suggests a large problem. In 2013, their average attendance was 4,485. In the World Cup year of 2015, that number had dropped to 2,860. The drop could be correlated to losing players like Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach, but big-name players have left other NWSL teams before, and the attendance for those teams has not fallen by almost 37%. With that being said, the Flash have grown from 2015 to 2016 by 25%, meaning they could be back on the right track for future growth.
8. FC Kansas City
Stadium Capacity: 4,626
MLS Team: Sporting Kansas City (Not Partnered)
While FC Kansas City is the only other team besides the Flash to show a decline in attendance overtime, it’s tough to actually read into year over year fluctuations because they have changed stadiums multiple times. A positive for FCKC is that if you take out their first year, their attendance is showing an overall growth. They are the highest team overall for stadium capacity (99%), which suggests they are another team who would benefit from playing at a larger field. FCKC is also the closest NWSL team to “Same City MLS” attendance in Year 4 (besides Portland) at 43%. These are all positive signs that Kansas City could climb the attendance charts in the future.
9. Chicago Red Stars
Stadium Capacity: 30,000
MLS Team: Chicago Fire (Not Partnered)
Chicago has had the second largest year-to-year growth at 74% but has the second-lowest attendance in the entire league. The Red Stars are currently in the largest city of any NWSL team. There are nearly 3 million people in the city of Chicago. They play in the same stadium as the Chicago Fire, who are averaging 15,000 per game. This is an issue. It’s an even larger issue because the NWSL headquarters are also located in the windy city. What is happening in Chicago? It’s possible that they’re in a city oversaturated by other huge sports markets (the Bulls, the Bears, the Cubs, the Blackhawks, etc.). This would suggest that population theory alone is not enough to sustain a pro women’s soccer team. But, it also makes you question the team of individuals working to promote the Red Stars. Chicago, you’ve got some work to do.
10. Sky Blue FC
Stadium Capacity: 5,000
MLS Team: None
Last but not least, Sky Blue comes in at the bottom of the list with an average attendance of 1,811 in 2016. One clear issue: they are located in the smallest town of all the NWSL teams, which suggests the obvious, they have less people in their market. Another issue: they are currently sharing a field with Rutgers, so why aren’t they drawing more of a college crowd? Many people have criticized Sky Blue in the past of only focusing their marketing on youth, rather than a more diverse fanbase. These could be factors in determining why their attendance is so low. In my opinion (and it’s not an original one), Sky Blue should consider relocating to a reasonable sized market where they can access the resources to bring in a larger fanbase.
All this to say, there is a great deal of work that still needs to be done within certain teams. However, the NWSL has had growth that suggests a sustainable future.