Young urbanites are Major League Soccer's most loyal demographic. They want their stadiums in city centers.
Four years after its inaugural season and with the new millennium approaching, Major League Soccer looked deflated. Attendance in major urban markets was plummeting. Los Angeles was averaging 11,000 fewer fans in 1999 compared to its opening season. Attendance dropped similarly in New York by about 10,000 people. Maybe the pessimists were right? Americans enjoyed watching their kids play soccer. They just didn't want to pay to see the pros do it.
The fledgling league would be revolutionized that season, however, by an unlikely source. It wasn't the slick hair and status of David Beckham—it was a new stadium design, built specifically for soccer and mirrored after many of the boxy arenas that litter soccer-crazed Europe. And it happened in Columbus, Ohio.
Crew Stadium (named after the local team, the Columbus Crew) was the first soccer-specific stadium built for Major League Soccer when it opened in 1999. In many ways, this type of stadium is antithetical to American sports culture. The arenas are comparatively small, usually seating around 20,000. They're compact, allowing fans to sit a few feet from the sidelines. While modern football and baseball stadiums compete for garishness, soccer-specific stadiums seek intimacy. More Fenway Park, less Cowboys Stadium.
Columbus' attendance rates jumped by 5,000 fans after unveiling the soccer-centric facility. Others quickly followed: Teams based in Dallas, Kansas City, Colorado, New York, Salt Lake, and Philadelphia all built similar stadiums over the next decade and a half. The difference was that these were often set in suburban enclaves. Real Salt Lake built their new stadium 14 miles outside the downtown area in neighboring Sandy, Utah. Chester, Pennsylvania, (nearly 20 miles from Philly) is home to PPL Park, the Philadelphia Union's glitzy new soccer-specific arena. MLS' popularity skyrocketed during this period of stadium makeovers, and a case can be made that the initiative saved the league. But now Major League Soccer is at a demographic and geographic crossroads—one that can't be solved by innovative infrastructure alone.
Young urbanites appears to be driving Major League Soccer's resurgent growth. As of 2010, the largest proportion of MLS fans were estimated to be between the ages of 18 and 34. No other North American professional sports league is rooted as deeply with young Americans (most fans who watched Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA on TV in 2010 were aged 50 or older). But beyond their love for pro soccer, this demographic also loves the urban core and the lifestyle that comes with it. According to a 2014 report by Nielsen, more Milliennials live in urban areas than any previous generation. As a whole, 40 percent of Millennials want to live in cities, according to Nielsen. It's likely, therefore, that more young, dedicated soccer fans will flood America's urban centers in the years to come—and it's imperative that the MLS follows them there.
"The bigger backbone of their fan base in most cases is going to be that young adult consumer," says Mark S. Nagel, a sport and entertainment management professor at the University of South Carolina. "That 21 to 34 demographic is in the area of success for some of these soccer clubs," he adds.
Nagel has studied the relationship between MLS stadium locations and attendance extensively, co-authoring a report on the topic that was published last year. Fifteen years ago, he says, as the league doubled down on soccer-specific stadiums, the suburbs seemed like a good fit. Parking capacity was robust. Land was affordable. Suburban families with young kids enthusiastic about soccer could easily access the arenas. But a suburban-centric fan base—despite attendance increases—may ultimately have a low ceiling for the league.
In fact, an MLS match loses 260 potential fans for every mile the stadium is located outside its nearest urban core, according to Nagel's study. An MLS stadium's "distance from the city center has a magnified effect," on attendance, he and his co-author concluded. (Their findings were based on a regression, which combined average attendance of MLS games between 1999 and 2011 with the amenities offered in each stadium based on a number of arena quality-rating services.) Recent announcements by the MLS seem to indicate that the league is aware of the limitations of the suburbs and exurbs. The league's next revolution is likely to take place downtown.
Plans for the Los Angeles Football Club, or LAFC (a working name), were announced last month. The team is scheduled to begin play in 2017. And LAFC's cast of star-studded co-owners, which includes Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm, have indicated they want a downtown arena. A parcel of land in Hollywood Park was cited by the AP as a potential landing spot. Sports Illustrated, quoting MLS, reported that the team could end up playing at the L.A. Sports Arena, near the L.A. Coliseum. If carried out, this would mark a major shift for southern California's soccer landscape—a historically suburban affair.
The L.A. Galaxy, one of the league's most successful clubs, has never truly been based in Los Angeles. Their first six seasons were played in Pasadena, followed by a move to equally suburban Carson, California, in 2003. Another L.A. team—Chivas U.S.A.—also played their home games in Carson beginning in 2005. Chivas dissolved earlier this year, however, in part because of low attendance.
On the other side of the country, owners of the New England Revolution are actively planning to build a new stadium near downtown Boston. Initial plans are focused on South Boston, the Boston Globe reported Tuesday, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with reliable public transit that is popular among young professionals. It's a far cry from the Revolution's current housing situation. Games are held 30 miles outside Boston, at Gillette Stadium in exurban Foxborough, Massachusetts (home of the New England Patriots). Attendance has been on the upswing lately, but Revolution matches can still feel desolate. Around 40,000 seats are usually unoccupied in the cavernous football stadium during games. Team owners Bob Kraft and Jonathan Kraft were scorched in an April story in Boston Magazine. The Krafts were labeled "the worst owners" in the MLS by the author, in part because of the team's inability to attract young Bostonians.
"[T]he city’s population of hip young urbanites, immigrants, college students, and soccer-crazed kids would seem ideally suited to ride the MLS wave," author Kevin Alexander wrote. But "the Revolution toil in obscurity," Alexander explains, because Millennials are unable, or unwilling, to trek to the 'burbs.
That's not to say the future of the MLS will hinge entirely on a "go urban or go home" mentality. Moreover, developing a professional sports team in an urban core is expensive, and land won't always be ideal for the project. Some MLS teams have even thrived by doing the exact opposite, going from urban to suburban: Earlier this year, I wrote about the relocation of Sporting KC. The franchise's financial and performance turnaround is owed largely to its decision to ditch Kansas City, Missouri for its more suburban and smaller neighbor, Kansas City, Kansas.
Still, as long as the MLS fanbase is tilted towards a younger demographic, the urban core will be an ideal market. Especially downtowns accessible by public transit and those that encourage foot traffic. Areas with vibrant culinary and music scenes. Essentially, cultural hubs where a pro soccer game becomes part of the experience there for a young fan, not the sole experience. On Thursday, the MLS will meet with city officials from Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and Sacramento to discuss possible expansion opportunities. These cities would be wise to present a plan that envisions a downtown soccer culture, a soccer culture that a Millennial fanbase can get behind. They should emulate Seattle.
Watch Seattle's soccer-crazed fans march to their downtown stadium.
43,000 Seattle Sounders fans packed CenturyLink Field for every regular season game this year. Sounders games in 2014 had roughly twice as many fans as any other team. It's not a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific stadium. It's not even a brand-new stadium. But it's downtown. And before every game, thousands of Seattle residents march for an hour through the city center en route to the match.
Hard to imagine that happening in Sandy, Utah.