If you follow the debate about the Columbus Crew and its possible relocation to Austin, you’ll soon come across a skeptical viewpoint:
Columbus was a fine market when the league started, but now MLS has grown – and Columbus hasn’t kept pace.
It may be tempting to believe this, especially when the league and team ownership are circulating lists that have Crew SC near the bottom of the attendance rankings. But the data is more nuanced than that – and far more supportive of Columbus.
The superficial data
Let’s get the simplest reading of the data out of the way first. The average MLS game during the 2017 season had an announced attendance of more than 22,000 people. This average has increased significantly over time. The lowest average attendance in league history was under 14,000 during the 2000 season. This is a solid pattern of growth over time, and puts MLS on decent footing in both the American sports and world soccer landscape.
When you break the 2017 attendance data down by team, Columbus ranks 20th out of 22 teams in the league. Their average announced attendance of 15,439 was ahead of only Colorado and Dallas. The two best-drawing teams, by a wide margin, were Atlanta and Seattle – both of whom averaged more than 40,000 people per game.
The second coming of Chivas USA?
I can hear the skeptics howling at this point. “Why are you protesting so hard? Isn’t it clear that Columbus is dragging the league down? Crew SC should go the way of Chivas USA…”
Well, no. For one, the ownership of Chivas USA had given up on MLS – which is not the case for the ownership of the Columbus Crew. The Crew’s ownership group still believes very much in Major League Soccer, but are attempting to build the case for leaving one market in favor of another. For another, the attendance trends around Chivas USA were truly abysmal. Here are the year-by-year average attendances for the Goats, showing just how far off the pace they fell by the end.
The attendance for Chivas USA was so bad that the year after they ceased operations, attendance across MLS jumped by more than 2,000 people per game. That increase was the most significant year-over-year change in league history.
A closer look at recent Columbus attendance
Now let’s look more closely at the attendance data for Columbus.
To drive the point about Chivas USA into oblivion, the worst-attended year in Crew history (2011) was still significantly better than the final years of Chivas USA.
All of this, however, is merely prologue to the story I really want to tell, which is this:
Over the last five seasons, Columbus has not been left behind by Major League Soccer. Columbus has helped drive the recent increase in attendance.
I’ve written summaries of Columbus attendance trends before (most recently in a Twitter rant in mid-October), and don’t wish to rehash the entire history now. But I would like to focus on the post-2011 renaissance and how it fits in the context of MLS as a whole.
The story is summed up in this table, which shows how each team’s attendance has changed, year over year, beginning with the 2012 season.
(I owe a debt of thanks to Mike Pendleton for looking at this same data set and publishing his thoughts earlier on Sunday)
Now, there’s a lot going on in this table – so let’s tease it apart.
The numbers in each row show how much that team’s attendance changed over the previous year. In 2012, for example, Columbus grew its attendance by an average of 2,212 people per game over their 2011 average. In 2013, Crew SC increased their attendance by another 1,683 fans per game over the 2012 average.
You’ll notice that some cells are blank, and shaded green. These data points have been removed from this analysis because the team was either a new expansion team, or they opened a new stadium that year. These special events – the debut of a new team, or the opening of a stadium – can skew the data because they naturally show a large increase in attendance. This is great, but a team can only be an expansion team once, and opening a new stadium will likewise happen only very rarely over a team’s history. As Mike argues in the Twitter thread linked above, a better metric for the health of an organization is to look at organic growth – what happens to a team year after year, without the benefit of those special events?
As it turns out, much of the growth of MLS attendance is attributable to these special events.
The chart above takes the 2011 season as a baseline, and plots the cumulative change in MLS attendance for the next five years. The green line includes all changes, including new stadiums and new expansion teams. the black line includes only year-over-year attendance growth of the sort seen in Columbus.
This organic growth rate is important because MLS will need organic growth from its teams. It cannot rely for long term growth on new stadiums and new expansion teams, or the league risks the perception of having an unsustainable business model.
Thankfully, Columbus’ attendance growth over the last few years is significantly stronger than the league average – for both organic and overall attendance.
Columbus’ growth during this period ranks third in the league for organic growth (and fourth overall). Crew SC crowds grew faster than three of the four benchmark markets mentioned by team ownership (Kansas City, Portland, and Salt Lake City) while the fourth, Orlando, cannot be included in this data because in 2012 they had just relocated while playing in the USL (from Austin).
Far from being left behind by growth around MLS, it becomes clear through a closer examination of the data that Columbus is one of the teams leading the organic attendance growth upon which MLS will rely for long term success.
In the interest of transparency, I’ve shared the data used to generate all plots in this article on a Google Spreadsheet. I invite you to take a look, and let me know of any errors that you discover.
A postscript about the scope of this analysis
I chose the time frame for this analysis very carefully, and intentionally. The 2011 season was the nadir of Columbus crowds, but it was also the last season before a restructuring of the sales office in Columbus took effect. A number of key hires were made in the ticketing and sales organization between 2010 and 2011, the effect of which began to be felt in 2012. This is why I chose to start with the 2012 season, because this was the beginning of a new phase in Crew history.
The choice to stop the analysis after the 2016 season rather than extend it to 2017 also comes down to what was happening in the front office. As Tim Myers found in his recent analysis, Columbus in 2017 seemed to significantly change its sales operations – including fewer promotions, accepting a much more hostile schedule from MLS, etc. From an external perspective, it seems that Crew SC largely sacrificed all the momentum it built over the previous five years as ownership began to lay the groundwork to justify a relocation.