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USL Weekly Attendance Report: 2017 Year-End Recap

League breaks records on the backs of successful independent clubs

USL Attendance Report

Week 30 USL Matches

This was the final week of games in Regular Season USL action. It was a successful one in the stands overall and quite a few teams closed out with strong performances. Here are some of the highlights from Week 30:

  • Louisville led the week with 9,104 in their finale against Richmond Kickers
  • San Antonio hosted two games in the final week – 7,604 in their last match against RGV and 6,096 in a midweek tilt against T2
  • Phoenix Rising (6,711) and Reno 1868 (6,144) both crossed the 6k mark
  • Pittsburgh Riverhounds posted one of their best numbers of the season with 3,540 announced against Ottawa
Week 30 USL Matches

2017 USL Attendance: A Look at the Bigger Picture

The league ended with a total of 2,063,113 coming through the gates – an increase of 25% on the year. All of the growth was driven by independently owned teams which averaged 5,688 over the course of 2017. While FC Cincinnati accounts for a large part of that number, the remaining independently owned teams still performed well with an average of 4,872 amongst them.

2017 USL Attendance: A Look at the Bigger Picture

A handful of key notes:

Biggest Surprise (in a good way): We know that Cincy makes a lot of headlines and a lot of noise about their numbers – but I’ll be honest, I thought increasing over last year was going to be a tough task. Not only did they do it, they blew it away with an increase of 22.6% vs. 2016. The market is going crazy for FC Cincy and the Open Cup run certainly captured the imagination of a lot of locals.

Encouraging Signs: 20 teams experienced growth year-over-year, perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the attendance story. Phoenix’s new stadium, plus Drogba, plus an MLS bid gave them the largest jump with growth exceeding 300%. One of the hardest things to do, however, is to build growth on top of growth and there were two prime examples of that. Richmond Kickers, one of the Old Guard in US Soccer, have experienced 4 years of continued growth without a new stadium or the bells and whistles that are often required. Louisville City FC, in contrast, opened 3 years ago to a strong start and has continued to build each season, cresting to 8,613 fans per game this year and setting a team single-game high of 13,812.

Curious to See: Switching stadiums in the middle of the season is rarely a good thing (unless you’re Atlanta United). The uncertainty hurts the potential for Season Ticket Holders, especially when start dates are unknown or altered. Both Charlotte Independence and Orange County SC moved into (remarkably similar) new digs in the mid-to-late portions of the season. The new facilities are nice, but the true test will be whether they help either to boost their numbers with a full slate of games in 2018.

Most Concerning: It’s got to be Rochester. Yes, we know that they are announcing turnstile numbers, so that impacts where they sit in this table. Bottom line though – you need to sell tickets to be sustainable. It’s the largest driver of revenue for lower division clubs. The Rhinos dipped to 2,031 in 2017 and we’re not sure how much of that number was actually paid. Nobody would like to see the Rhinos go extinct, but something needs to be figured out by the ownership group there to get them back on solid footing.

New Faces, New Places: Reno set a great tone out of the starting blocks with an average of 5,559 in their initial USL campaign. Both Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC switched over from NASL and held strong to numbers that put them towards the top of the pack in previous years. Ottawa experienced close to a breakeven dip after a few years of growth. The Rowdies just narrowly achieved their 6th consecutive season of attendance growth (including 7 of the last 8 seasons).

The Somewhat Elephant in the Room

Announced attendance doesn’t mean “butts in seats”. It hasn’t for decades in any sport – at least here in the US and Canada. When you see numbers reported, overwhelmingly those numbers reflect some variation on “paid attendance” or “tickets distributed” (including free tickets). This type of reporting is the norm in MLS, as well as NFL, MLB, NBA and the NHL. In soccer, we tend to give extra attention and extra passion to our attendance numbers, because it is a visible indicator that we are gaining on the “Big 4” sports.

Some people get heartburn that the numbers in our sport aren’t actual turnstile numbers (with very few exceptions) and poke holes in reporting or in the growth of attendance in the sport. Despite the chatter you see on the internet, USL is no different than any other pro league – no different than NASL, no different than MLS, and no different than leagues in other sports. Sometimes Season Ticket Holders miss a game, sometimes Corporate Ticket Holders don’t show up, and some teams give away free tickets that go un-redeemed. While tickets sold or distributed are imperfect metrics, turnstile counts aren’t absolutely pure indicators of health either, as they can contain any number (and sometimes large numbers) of abandoned freebies. All this said, most USL teams are within a reasonable range of what you might expect for a variance of announced attendance and “butts in seats” – certainly not unlike or “less honest” than peer clubs in other leagues…

…with two exceptions. Throughout the season, Bethlehem Steel and Rio Grande Valley have massively failed the eye test. RGV opened a brand new, beautiful facility and ended the season with an average near 7,000, but actual people in the stands were seemingly in the 2,000-3,000 range (or less). Bethlehem often had hundreds of attendees with numbers announced consistently around 3,000. While we don’t know exactly how the numbers were calculated for these two in particular, it’s hard to wrap what has been an otherwise great season in the stands without mentioning it.

Looking Forward

Next season brings at least three new clubs into the league (Fresno, Las Vegas, Nashville) with rumors of more. Vancouver Whitecaps 2 will be shuttering in the offseason, bringing one less reserve team into the total. If current teams are able to build on the success of this year, with the addition of some key markets it’s conceivable we could be looking at another year of breaking records in 2018.

Reactions, points of clarity, analysis? Add your commentary on your club (or the league) in the comments below!