So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that the Seattle Sounders have one of the best fan bases in Major League Soccer. That’s a no-brainer, right? They consistently fill an NFL stadium and destroy attendance numbers, even when compared with most Premiere League teams.
But what if we told you that the Seattle Sounders supporters weren’t even in the top three of the most dedicated MLS fans?
Yes, we said it. While still one of the best, the Sounders have a few variables in their favor that help their cause while other clubs fight an uphill battle and yet still garner ultra-level support. In the paragraphs below, we’ll explain a methodology that argues for a lesser-known fan base as being one of the best we have in US soccer. The answer may surprise you.
Let’s take what we’ll call “potential attendance” as the first variable. Some clubs are blessed by being located in major cities and can market to a greater number of soccer/sports fans. Using simple odds, if you have more people in your city, you should be able to have more success selling tickets. Seattle, for example has an estimated urban population of 652,405. That’s actually on the middle-to-lower end of the MLS spectrum.
So now let’s take the average Seattle attendance in 2015 (44,247) and divide by the urban population. That gives us a strong 6.8 percent. Now let’s compare that to some other MLS clubs. Using “potential attendance” as a singular factor, here are the top five fan bases in the MLS:
- Orlando City – 12.9%
- Real Salt Lake – 10.5%
- Seattle Sounders – 6.8%
- Sporting Kansas City – 4.2%
- Portland Timbers – 3.5%
But that alone can’t be an indicator for best support, right? Of course not.
For starters, nearly half the MLS clubs sell out their stadiums so it’s not a stretch to say those teams could potentially have more fans if they weren’t limited by stadium capacity.
Fortunately, we are at a point now in US soccer where most teams are re-investing into stadium infrastructure to add seats and meet rising demand.
The only team that is significantly handicapped using this methodology is Portland. Portland’s fans continue to sell out their stadium, but have little-to-no room to expand which creates a ‘points ceiling’ for their fanbase in this formula.
Next up is what many see as a huge driver for any sports team – “convenience.” Is your stadium centrally located in the middle of the city like Madison Square Garden or does it take your fans forever to travel just to see a home game?
This is where Seattle, along with four other teams, has a significant advantage in selling out games but is disadvantaged when analyzing fan dedication. Using what Google lists as each city center, there are five teams total that have stadiums within walking distance (1.5 miles and under).
Using this data point, we can assume that teams with strong attendance numbers, despite long distances for supporters to travel, have more dedicated fan bases. FC Dallas, for example, is a club that benefits greatly from this factor in the final rankings.
How long of a commute are you willing to deal with to watch your team play? Would you travel this far:
- FC Dallas – 28 miles
- New England Revolution – 22 miles
- Philadelphia Union – 15 miles
- Sporting Kansas City – 14.5 miles
- LA Galaxy – 14 miles
- Chicago Fire – 14 miles
Granted, just like the potential attendance number, this isn’t a perfect data point. Some cities have better public transit systems. Some are more walkable. Others have poor infrastructure surrounding the stadiums.
It is important to note that when digging into the many variables associated with attendance, this “convenience” factor might be the biggest indicator for a club’s success. Don’t believe me? Out of the nine clubs with the highest attendance in 2015, only one team had a travel distance greater than four miles (read: convenience is key).
Strength of the Product
The last factor is quality of play. Let’s be honest, if your team is terrible, you may think twice about purchasing a ticket.
No one wants to be called a fair weather fan, but when your club is toiling in the depths of the standings, it’s harder to rationalize the cost.
So when a team still draws strong crowds despite a below average product on the field, that definitely indicates a dedicated fan base. Let’s look at the “best” in this category for 2015:
- San Jose Earthquakes -#13 in the standings; #1 in sellout %
- Philadelphia Union -#18 in the standings; #8 in sellout %
- Orlando City -#14 in the standings; #3 in sellout %
- Real Salt Lake -#16 in the standings; #6 in sellout %
- Colorado Rapids -#19 in the standings; #14 in sellout %
When calculating all three factors, we are better able to analyze the dedication, and quality, of each MLS fan base. Without further ado, here you go:
- Orlando City
- Real Salt Lake
- Seattle Sounders
- New England Revolution
- Sporting Kansas City
- Philadelphia Union
- FC Dallas
- New York City FC
- Chicago Fire
- LA Galaxy
- San Jose Earthquakes
- Colorado Rapids
- Houston Dynamo
- Portland Timbers
- Toronto FC
- New York Red Bulls
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC
- Montreal Impact
- DC United
- Columbus Crew SC
Do any of the results surprise you?
One notable factor we didn’t include was newness of stadium. DC United certainly struggles because of the decrepit stadium they play in, while San Jose has seen a huge bump since upgrading to their soccer-specific facility.
There are also other notable outliers that we mentioned (FC Dallas – stadium location; Portland Timbers – capacity), which impact the data.
What would you include in this formula to be more exact? Newness of stadium? Ticket prices? Player popularity? Let us know in the comments below.
And stay tuned for more content as we’ll be spending the 2016 season diving deeper into each supporter group.