MLS gate drops for 2nd straight year despite record expansion fees, franchise values

Major League Soccer’s game attendance declined for the second consecutive year this season, even as the league’s expansion fees and franchise values reached record heights.

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An average of 21,330 fans attended MLS games in 2019, down 2.5 percent from an average crowd of 21,873 fans in 2018. Game attendance had hit a record high in 2017 with an average of 22,106 fans.

The decline occurred even as total attendance rose slightly to 8,694,584, due in part to the debut of the expansion FC Cincinnati.

The decline was partially attributable to venue changes, such as Minnesota United’s move to a new stadium with less seating capacity, as well as weather that impacted start times. While average attendance declined, the league posted more games of over 25,000 attendees than it did in 2018, as well as incresed ticket revenue due to slightly higher ticket prices.

Front Office Sports was first to report on 2019 MLS attendance figures.

While MLS does not disclose its annual revenue, the league has pursued rapid expansion in recent years, adding a number of new franchises. The league extracted a record $200 million expansion fee from a St. Louis ownership group to launch its 28th franchise, which is set to begin play in 2022. The eventual owners of the league’s 29th franchise are also expected to pay a $200 million fee.

The average MLS franchise was worth $240 million as of November 2018, according to Forbes, up more than seven percent from the previous year and up 30 percent from 2016. The once-fledging league has a broadcast rights deal valued at $90 million annually and has attracted major corporate sponsors, including a new partnership last month with sports drink firm BodyArmor.

Steve Ryan, former commissioner of the now-defunct Major League Indoor Soccer, told FOX Business in August that the record expansion fee could soon seem like a bargain, given the league’s new revenue streams.

“I think it will continue to go up, and the reason for it is that there’s really a small number of teams around North America,” Ryan said. “In order to get into the ‘club,’ the demand is outstripping the supply now, and that’s going to force the prices to continue to go up, as it has in all of sports. The valuations on teams have, over the last four of five years, incredibly accelerated. One of the beneficiaries has been Major League Soccer.”

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While attendance dropped, MLS posted increases in average game viewership of 2 percent on ESPN platforms and 5 percent on FS1, according to the report, while the league’s impressions on social media platforms rose 38 percent to 2.2 billion.

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