Major League Soccer had, on paper, another successful year in 2012 when it comes to attendance for league matches. Numerous noteworthy records were set during the past MLS regular season, including total attendance (6,074,729, the first time total league attendance rose above the 6 million mark in history), highest average attendance for one team (more on that later) and the amount of teams that averaged at least 20,000 fans per home league match (five). MLS also outdrew the NBA and NHL for the second straight season. It's only onward and upward for America's top-flight domestic soccer league, right?
Yes and no.
First, the good news. The average attendance for MLS league contests in 2012 was 18,807, a figure that represents an increase of a little over five percent from the previous high of 17,844 that was achieved in 2011. The Seattle Sounders set a team and league record by averaging 43,144 for home league games. Four other MLS clubs averaged over 20,000 fans per league match: The L.A. Galaxy (23,136), Montreal Impact (22,772), Houston Dynamo (20,946) and Portland Timbers (20,438). These figures do not include U.S. Open Cup games or friendlies that were played at any point in 2012.
As mentioned, 2012 was the second straight year where MLS averaged more fans per game than did both the NHL and NBA. It appears, as of the production of this piece, that trend will continue. The NBA is averaging 16,963 fans for games in 2012 heading into the Christmas holiday, and the fact that MLS average attendance has risen for three straight years suggests that the top-flight U.S. soccer league should be able to beat the 18,807 mark next year.
Seattle's average attendance of 43,144 is significantly higher than the highest single team figure for both the NHL (the Chicago Blackhawks averaged 21,533 last season) and the NBA (the Chicago Bulls are drawing an average of 21,617 fans at this stage of the 2012-13 season). Chivas USA, who finished second to last in the overall MLS table and a team that shares an arena with L.A. Galaxy, are at the bottom of the 2012 MLS average attendance list at 13,056. The Phoenix Coyotes averaged a NHL-low 12,240 fans during the 2011-12 season. The Detroit Pistons are currently averaging an NBA-low 12,571 fans per game this season.
The top 10 biggest draws in the NHL attracted an average of about 19,776 fans last season. The top 10 teams in NBA attendance this season are bringing in roughly 19,403 fans per game this fall. The clubs found in the top 10 in MLS attendance this past season drew in an average of 22,479 fans for league matches.
All of that success aside, excited soccer fans living in the United States shouldn't yet claim MLS to be a new "top four" professional sports league in this country. Imagine, "x" amount of years ago, that Seattle had built a traditional soccer specific stadium similar to the homes of the Red Bulls, Sporting KC or Houston Dynamo rather than having the Sounders play at CenturyLink. Such an arena would probably seat somewhere between 25-30k, which would significantly drop the overall league attendance.
It's also worth nothing that NBA/NHL teams don't play in NFL stadiums, and thus there is no way any of those franchises could come close to competing with the Sounders in terms of attendance. Season lengths must also be considered when examining all the facts. The Sounders hosted just 17 regular-season contests from March to late October this year. NBA and NHL teams host 41 games during regular seasons (whenever those leagues aren't dealing with work stoppages, of course).
There is also some bad news found in the 2012 MLS attendance figures. Defending league champs LA Galaxy saw a slight decrease (-0.85 percent) in home attendance from 2011. International superstar David Beckham has played his last game with that team, and it's possible that Landon Donovan could also leave the club. Beckham's absence especially could affect all 19 MLS teams if he does make a permanent exit from the league. He remains one of the most popular draws in the soccer world, and it is a guarantee that the Galaxy will not be such a hot away ticket without having Beckham in the starting eleven.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls went through "maybe the shine is off the apple" declines in 2012. Philadelphia's attendance drop (-1.12 percent from 2011) could be attributed to the team's horrendous start to the campaign that ultimately cost head coach Peter Nowak his job. Both Vancouver (-4.56 percent drop from 2011) and New York (-7.16 percent drop from 2011) were playoff sides in 2011, though, and the Red Bulls failing to average even 18.5k per home game despite having the highest player salary in the league is not good.
Then again, neither is scheduling a midweek game in July.
There are undoubtedly concerns to be had about MLS attendance figures in 2013. Losing Beckham is going to have at least some impact on the amount of fans who go out of their way to watch L.A. live and in-person, and the Red Bulls failing to legitimately capture the hearts of those in the NYC/NJ soccer market -- not to mention those New York Cosmos rumors that aren't going anywhere -- could see RBNY once again fail to routinely attract 20k fans to home contests. With all of that said, the stats tell you that MLS continues to grow in popularity. That's something that nobody, critics and fans alike, should ignore.
Zac is a lifelong soccer fanatic, a diehard Red Bulls fan and one of the only American A-League fans you'll meet. He has been covering Major League Soccer, RBNY and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.