Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions

By Benjamin Massey

December 2nd, 2014 · 1 comment

As you know the third division of American soccer, USL Pro, has become an affiliate league to Major League Soccer. While most teams remain independent, starting in 2014 USL Pro began admitting MLS reserve teams, and this system will massively expand for 2015 with several reserve teams in Canada and the United States.

Nobody runs their reserve team to make money, but many Major League Soccer front offices are marketing hard and hunting paying customers. Some, such as the Vancouver Whitecaps reserves, charge higher prices for tickets than the best reserve teams in the world. They’re making progress: how many times have we heard the reserve sides of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps been called “new professional teams!!!” by the excitable, rather than an expansion of what already existed?

This model isn’t new. Several countries run reserve teams in the same league pyramid as independent clubs: Spain and Germany are the most famous but we see it all over the world, from Norway to Japan. Indeed, even in North America professional youth teams have operated alongside the independent semi-pros and amateurs of USL PDL for several years. So what does this mean for fans? Is a reserve team in a real league worth as much as a real team in the same league?

Inspired by an old Tyler Dellow post on mc79hockey.com, now removed from the Internet[1], I set out to compare the attendances of independent and reserve clubs in the same league.

Unfortunately, reliable attendance information for many such leagues, toiling in the lower divisions of non-English-speaking countries, is not readily available. Trying to compile data, I wound up with a total of ten seasons covering leagues in Spain, Germany, and the United States since 2012[2].

The distinction between “reserve team” and “non-reserve team” in North America can be slightly arbitrary: I did my best, erring towards considering teams independent. For example, Chivas USA and New York City FC did and will not appear on my lists; nor do USL Pro or USL PDL affiliates which are more like parents/feeders than full farm clubs. In the great scheme of thing potentially controversial cases are heavily outnumbered by clearcut Bayern Munich II/Chicago Fire Premier types.

Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012-13 Liga Adelante Spain 2 6724 2 6998 3990 3008 75.39%
2013-14 Liga Adelante Spain 2 7879 2 8328 3395 4932 145.26%
2012-13 3. Liga Germany 3 6162 2 6616 2077 4539 218.52%
2013-14 3. Liga Germany 3 6071 2 6556 1707 4849 284.15%
2012-13 Regionalliga Germany 4 1022 27 1288 390 898 230.62%
2013-14 Regionalliga Germany 4 1139 25 1380 524 856 163.36%
2014 USL Pro USA 3 3114 1 3308 597 2711 454.03%
2012 USL PDL USA 4 488 5 455 1026 -571 -55.63%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 588 7 578 686 -109 -15.81%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 590 9 606 482 124 25.83%
Averages 2563 2981 794 2188 275.59%

It’s not even close. At the same level, independent clubs are massively more popular than reserve teams, even considering cheaper (or free) tickets for reserve football, and this sample including the reserve sides for some of the world’s biggest clubs.

Look at Spain. The two reserve teams in the Liga Adelante in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are as huge as you can get: Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla. This is first-rate soccer. The current Real Madrid Castilla team includes three full internationals and Barcelona B has four. Both also have a handful of players who we’ll see on the senior Spanish side someday. And the attendance? Barça B had a middling year in 2012-13 but, on average, both these world-class development sides drew crowds that would shame an NASL team. (Most La Liga reserve sides, including Real Madrid Castilla this season, play in the Segunda División B, a level down, where attendance numbers are not reliably available.)

The two reserve teams in the German 3. Liga, Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II, boast big senior sides. But attendance-wise they finish behind almost everybody. In 2012-13 Stuttgart and Dortmund were second-last and last, respectively, in attendance. In 2013-14 Borussia Dortmund II improved to fifth from bottom, but still well behind 14th-place SV Wehen Wiesbaden (who they?!) while VfB Stuttgart II brought up the rear.

The largest group of reserve teams for which I had attendance data was in the German Regionalliga, made up of five regions and over 90 teams. In 2012-13 only three reserve teams (FC Bayern München II, 1. FC Köln II, and TSV 1860 München II) finished above the median in Regionalliga attendance. 15 of the 25 worst-supported Regionalliga teams, and all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Not bad when only 27 reserve teams played in the division.

It’s the same story in 2013-14. Three Regionalliga reserve teams (TSV 1860 München II, FC Bayern München II, and Hertha BSC II) again finished above the median attendance. 14 of the 25 worst-supported teams, and again all of the last seven, were reserve teams. Some of these sides drew truly atrocious crowds. 2012-13 SC Freiburg II got 164 fans a night, which would have embarrassed USL PDL.

Over in the United States, one reserve team operated in USL Pro last year: the Los Angeles Galaxy II. They did not draw flies, despite offering season tickets free with the MLS package and independent seats starting at US$72[3].

North American fans will be inspired, however, by USL PDL. In 2012 and 2013 the PDL affiliate teams actually drew better than the independent ones, and in 2014 they were darn close. This bucks the trend in Spain and Germany, and might mean that North America’s different culture and greater familiarity with minor-league teams will bring more success.

But I will respond with three words: the Portland Timbers. When it comes to reserve team popularity Portland is an exception; Portland is always an exception.

In 2012, the Portland Timbers U-23s were the third-best supported team in USL PDL. In 2013 they were third again, and in 2014 they were actually second. Portland’s U-23s regularly beat USL Pro teams in the attendance race. This is a credit to Portland fans, but it also weighs unusually heavily in our table; it takes only a few well-attended games to drag up the average number when such a small proportion of the league is reserve teams.

To demonstrate Portland’s distorting effect, let’s remove the Portland Timbers U-23s and the best-supported independent team all three years, the Des Moines Menace, from the USL PDL list and see what happens.

USL PDL Attendances 2012-14 (without Des Moines and Portland)
Season League Level Avg. Attend/G Reserve Teams Non-Res Attend/G Reserve Attend/G Diff # Diff %
2012 USL PDL USA 4 393 4 400 243 157 64.36%
2013 USL PDL USA 4 505 6 526 262 264 100.67%
2014 USL PDL USA 4 503 8 546 167 380 227.99%

Take away those maniacs in Portland and USL PDL lines up a lot more with Europe. Well-supported Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders had a USL PDL team in 2013 and 2014 and have had below-average attendance. The Vancouver Whitecaps had a PDL team (and quite a successful one) for almost a decade, and their attendance is regularly in the basement.

Note as well that USL PDL attendances are not entirely reliable. Many teams, especially badly supported ones, do not report their attendance for all games. Orlando City U-23, who draw two- or single-digit crowds, reported only one game in 2013 and none at all in 2014. The Chicago Fire Premier/U-23 miss a couple games every year. Games not reported are not included in these tables, but would lower all average numbers and disproportionately hurt affiliated teams.

Obviously nothing in this post is related to player development: the most important job of a reserve team. But those looking to reserve teams to grow soccer in Canada and the United States should look elsewhere. Fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.


[1] — Dellow, Tyler. “The Big Post About Why Europe’s Sport Structure Is Better Than Ours.” mc79Hockey.com, November 15, 2012. Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.mc79hockey.com/2012/11/the-big-post-about-why-europes-sport-structure-is-better-than-ours/ (dead link as of December 2, 2014).

[2] — There are too many links for me to footnote properly. Liga Adelante 2012-13 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012–13_Segunda_División. Liga Adelante 2013-14 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013–14_Segunda_División. 3. Liga 2012-13 from: http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/3-liga-2012-2013/1/. 3. Liga 2013-14 from: http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/3-liga-2013-2014/1/. Regionalliga 2012-13 from: http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-nord-2012-2013_2/1/ (Regionalliga Nord), http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-nordost-2012-2013/1/ (Regionalliga Nordost), http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-west-2012-2013_2/1/ (Regionalliga West), http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-suedwest-2012-2013/1/ (Regionalliga Südwest), and http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-bayern-2012-2013/1/ (Regionalliga Bayern). Regionalliga 2013-14 from: http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-nord-2013-2014/1/ (Regionalliga Nord), http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-nordost-2013-2014/1/ (Regionalliga Nordost), http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-west-2013-2014/1/ (Regionalliga West), http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-suedwest-2013-2014/1/ (Regionalliga Südwest), and http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/regionalliga-bayern-2013-2014/1/ (Regionalliga Bayern). USL Pro 2014 from: http://dohertysoccer.com/2014-lower-division-american-soccer-attendances/2014-usl-pro-season-attendance-log/. USL PDL 2012 from: http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?p=4770 (remove the other leagues). USL PDL 2013 from: http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?p=5555. USL PDL 2014 from: http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?p=6037. Whew.

[3] — LA Galaxy Communications. “LA Galaxy announce USL PRO team LA Galaxy II.” LAGalaxy.com, January 29, 2014. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.lagalaxy.com/news/2014/01/la-galaxy-announce-usl-pro-team-la-galaxy-ii.

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One response to “Comparing Independent and Reserve Attendances in Lower Divisions”

  1. Ken Jamieson says:

    USL-Pro was created from the ashes of the USL First Division which dissolved following the owner rebellion of 2009 and the USSF Div 2 League of 2010. Originally USL hoped that the NASL would be a flash in the pan and die out quickly, thus allowing USL-Pro to replace it as the Div II league. Unfortunately for USL-Pro, the NASL has survived the first few shaky seasons and appears to be establishing itself for the long-term. Because of this, USL-Pro had to change its direction and, instead of establishing itself as a legitimate Div III league, it is morphing into the old MLS Reserve League.

    While USL-Pro is patting itself on the back for getting Orlando City into MLS, and hoping to do the same with Sacramento, the majority of its “independent” clubs are meandering without direction or purpose. Although Orlando made the jump to MLS, it is the only former Div III city to make the two tier jump. Previous “promotions” have been from the Div II level (Toronto, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal), and another Div II city will make the move in two years (Atlanta) with another on MLS’s short list (Minnesota).

    As the USL First Division, average attendance was in the 4,000 to 5,000 range, just below the NASL’s 2014 average. USL-Pro has made few blunders since opening shop in 2011 (remember the Puerto Rico teams?) and now selling out to MLS. The big losers, as the league morphs into the MLS Reserve League, will be long-established clubs like Rochester and Charlotte, as their prestige will be diminished in the new image.

    Perhaps the time is right for USL-Pro to be absorbed by MLS as their Reserve League and let the clubs interested in developing their own identity to play in the NASL. Then again, didn’t MLS have a reserve league of their own that they gave up on?

    Just sayin’!