Soccer Beating Baseball to Ticket-Buyers

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Depending on where sports fans live, the Boys of Summer may not be on the diamond but on the pitch.

So far this season, nine of the 18 teams in Major League Soccer are outdrawing Major League Baseball teams in average attendance. The Houston Dynamo's more than 17,000 fans per game, the Philadelphia Union's 18,180 average and the New York Red Bulls' 18,200 regular attendees are all a better draw than the Florida Marlins, who are drawing an average of only 16,975 to their home games. Toronto FC has been in the league for only four years, but its average attendance of 19,900 is 1,000 per game shy of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, while the Los Angeles Galaxy's 22,200 puts it ahead of eight teams in Major League Baseball.

Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil heads down the field as Toronto FC's Ty Harden defends during the first half of an MLS soccer game Saturday in Sandy, Utah. Nine of the 18 teams in Major League Soccer are outdrawing Major League Baseball teams in average attendance.

The MLS attendance figures are even more impressive in places where soccer is outdrawing major league baseball teams in their own city. Since moving to their new home at soccer-specific LiveStrong Sporting Park earlier this year, Sporting Kansas City has drawn nearly 19,200 fans to every home game. The same can't be said for the Royals, who are struggling to bring roughly 18,600 fans out to games.

"Major League Soccer is the new kid on the block. We've only been around 16 years compared to Major League Baseball, which has been around for 142 years, and other leagues that have been around for decades," says Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing. "We don't necessarily have the tradition in all of our markets that some of the major sports leagues in this country do, but we are fortunate that in some of our markets, including Seattle and Portland, there's a tradition dating back to the North American Soccer League that's carrying over into MLS."

One of those former NASL teams getting a big boost is the Portland Timbers, which had its initial run from 1975 through 1982, hung on as F.C. Portland in the Western Soccer League from 1985 through 1990 and re-emerged as the Timbers in the USL from 2000 through last year. The team was bought by Merritt Paulson and his father, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and has been averaging 18,627 fans per game during its first MLS season at refurbished and soccer-specific Jeld-Wen Field. That average attendance figure is already better than the crowds of fewer than 18,600 that attend Marlins, Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays games.

Major League Soccer's other newcomers this year, the Vancouver Whitecaps, also date back to the NASL and took the league's championship back in 1979. The team brought in more than 29,000 per game during its height in 1983 and, like the Timbers, spent much of the past 26 years in the lower-division United Soccer League. This year, however, they already are bringing in more than 20,000 fans per game while playing at their temporary home in a Canadian Football League stadium. The Whitecaps are slated to move to soccer-specific BC Place later this year, but their current attendance is more than either the American League Central-leading Cleveland Indians or the AL East's last-place Baltimore Orioles have been able to manage.

A fan base that has your back even before you hit MLS doesn't hurt. A big, green reason for the Timbers' early success is the team's 3,600-member group of Timbers Army supporters, which have backed the team for nearly a decade and carry on Timbers traditions such as former mascot Timber Jim's chainsawing of a log each time the team scores a goal. The more than 530 members of the Vancouver Southsiders, meanwhile, have not only helped make the Whitecaps' home field sound like a European pitch, but been featured prominently in the team's marketing.

MLS' most popular teams usually come with boisterous booster groups, including the 5,200 members of the Sons of Ben who sit behind the goal in the "river end" of Philadelphia's PPL Park cheering the Union, the La Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles groups that crowd around midfield at RFK Stadium for DC United and the longest-serving group of supporters in MLS, the Empire Supporters Club.

"The supporters groups for Major League Soccer clubs are the lifeblood of the experience in the stadium," Courtemanche says. "The clubs with the larger supporters groups are leading the league in attendance."

That's certainly the case in Seattle, where the Sounders are bringing in a league-leading 37,000 per game while playing in the reduced-capacity CenturyLink ( CTL) Field, which normally hosts the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. They get 2,000 fans a night just from their Emerald City Supporters group, with firms such as Gorilla FC adding to the Sounders' loud and lively base. They're the only team in MLS with a marching band, the Sound Wave, and that group leads a march through the city to the stadium before every home game.

Like their Pacific Northwest rivals, the Sounders' NASL tradition (1974-83) and longstanding lower-level rivalries gave the club a bit of a head start when it joined MLS in 2009. That was no guarantee that they'd be more popular than their next-door neighbor at Safeco Field, but baseball's Mariners are bringing in nearly 15,000 fewer fans per game than the Sounders. Considering neither the Sounders, Whitecaps or Timbers were in the league three years ago, MLS' Northwest-navigated attendance boost seems well overdue.

"The passionate fan base has always been there, but in some cases it was the stadium or an ownership group," Courtemanche says of the teams, which count Microsoft ( MSFT)-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, former Yahoo! ( YHOO) Chief Operating Officer Jeff Mallett, Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash and Price Is Right host Drew Carey among their owners. Qwest Field in Seattle, now CenterLink Field, wasn't built until the late 1990s and Jeld-Wen park, formerly Civic Stadium, was more of a baseball facility and underwent a $35 million renovation to host a Major League Soccer team, he says.

It's only fair to note that the Mariners and other major league baseball teams play 162 games per season compared with 34 for Major League Soccer. That said, the Sounders would have the ninth-highest attendance in baseball if they managed the same average in the majors.

It's no small feat for a league that contracted its counterparts to baseball's Marlins and Rays -- the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny -- in 2001, had no television contract and shrunk to 10 teams playing mostly in outsized football stadiums. Today, the league has 18 teams; television deals with ESPN ( DIS), Fox Soccer ( NWS) and Univision; and a fan base that's growing in all the right demographics.

Roughly a third of MLS fans are Hispanic, Courtemanche says, and are increasingly drawn to the league as it brings in stars from 60 countries -- including New York defender and Mexican national team captain Rafael Marquez, 19-year-old Colombian forward for FC Dallas Fabian Castillo and his countryman and Seattle Sounders striker Fredy Montero, who's given Seattle a lot to cheer about lately. It also benefits from a coveted 18-to-24-year-old fan demographic that's a lot more familiar with Major League Soccer than the generation before.

"We have 20-year-olds who don't know life without Major League Soccer because they were 4 when the league started," Courtemanche says. "It's a generational aspect that's starting to change for us."

The size and scope of MLS is continuing to change as well. When the league adds a franchise in Montreal next year and the Houston Dynamos move off the University of Houston campus, 15 of its 19 teams will be playing in soccer-specific stadiums with a capacity of 27,000 or less. The downsizing keeps fans from being dwarfed by half-empty football facilities, keeps teams from losing control of scheduling or revenue from parking or concessions and moves teams toward profitability. There are notable exceptions to this rule, as the Sounders have a more equitable agreement with the Seahawks than teams including D.C. United and the New England Revolution have with their NFL landlords.

"It's a combination of the appropriate-sized stadium to produce an environment where fans can celebrate soccer vs. being maybe the third tenant in an American football stadium where an MLS team maybe isn't in charge of the revenue streams," Courtemanche says. "CenturyLink field is not soccer-specific, but it's downtown and part of the ownership group is the Seahawks organization, so the Sounders are on even par -- but in a place like RFK Stadium, DC United is just renting, has very little control over dates and revenue and isn't ever going to be successful from an economic standpoint until they have their own facility."

Much like in baseball, however, a new stadium isn't a guarantee people will actually show up. The Columbus Crew built the league's first soccer-specific stadium in 1999, but the 20,455-seat Columbus Crew stadium is drawing slightly fewer than 10,500 per game this year even as the team holds on to third place in the Eastern Conference. By comparison, Vancouver draws nearly twice as many and is dead last in the league.

FC Dallas is in third place in the Western Conference, but regularly plays to a half-full house at Pizza Hut ( YUM) Park. The Chicago Fire moved from Soldier Field in downtown Chicago to 20,000-seat Toyota ( TM) Park in the suburb of Bridgeview five years ago and still draws only 14,000 per game. It takes more than small stadiums to hang with the big leagues.

"With any professional sports league, it's not a case of 'If you build it, they will come,'" Courtemanche says. "You have to build the appropriate stadium in a location that appeals to your fan base and you need to continue to produce a product that's compelling on the field and market it appropriately to increase demand."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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