2015 was a success at the gate for the re-re-re-rebranded United Soccer League. Despite adding ten teams from 2014 while losing Orlando City to MLS, per-game attendance actually rose from 3,114 to 3,339. Sacramento remained incredibly well-supported, Rochester continued to do well, and new boys Louisville approached 7,000 fans per game. In a league that’s struggled with franchise stability, many new clubs posted numbers to be proud of. If the real numbers are as good as the attendances look, there’ll be a party down at the league office.
The pity is that, for the casual soccer fan, the big story was not how well USL’s done in its independent markets, or towns brand new to professional soccer turning out in their thousands. No, the story was how USL has eight MLS reserve teams in it.
Reserve teams are not intended to be financially self-sufficient. They lose money but keep veterans match-fit and develop youngsters. Putting these teams in USL, from MLS’s perspective, increases costs but gives them a product that might make some of it back. This is fine. It also expands USL’s reach and talent base, from the league’s perspective, for free. This is also fine. (It’s certainly better than a system of half-farm half-independent bastard teams, as remains sadly common in USL.) Do not mistake what I’m about to say for an attack on the concept of putting reserve teams into the main league pyramid.
However, there was a perception among some fans that the MLS reserve teams joining USL would be a masterstroke in the North American soccer business. Buoyed by Soccer United Marketing the MLS reserve teams would be well-attended and financially successful. Moreover, they would act as a major boost to the independent USL teams, all helping SUM and USL to crush their rival, the North American Soccer League. That, far from being a pragmatic way for MLS to permanently establish a reserve structure, MLS reserve teams in USL would Change Everything.
On the field, while most of the MLS reserve teams were competitive, none blew the doors off. Half the teams in USL make the playoffs. Only
two three of the eight MLS reserve teams will see the postseason, and none of the other six five were very close. Four of the five bottom-ranked teams in USL this season were MLS reserve teams. It turns out keeping a team of professionals together full-time will result in a stronger eleven than a crew of kids plus marginal pros rotated in and out of the lineup as needed. Who knew? There’s nothing there to change the world, though it might be a bit better for player development. Many a player who could be a key USL reserve, like Akira Fitzgerald, Josh Ford, or Dane Richards, still goes on loan to the NASL. Not much has changed there.
So how did the MLS reserve teams do attendance-wise? Last year I said that “fans can get behind their own club even at the lowest levels but reserve teams? They just don’t care.” The 2015 USL season bears this out.
Here is the table I made comparing the attendance of reserve and non-reserve in the same division last year, updated to include the 2015 USL.
Note: I am missing attendance data for three games (Toronto v. Pittsburgh August 8, Los Angeles v. Arizona August 9, and Harrisburg v. Saint Louis September 6).These games are not included in any averages. I also have one Seattle game (July 24 v. Portland) from a different source. However, if you’re attempting to reproduce these numbers yourself, the missing games break the USL website’s team stats page, and as a result USLSoccer.com shows unreliable figures for the total and average home attendance for Harrisburg, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto. Therefore my data, which are compiled game-by-game, will differ from data compiled team-by-team.
|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%|
|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%|
USL keeps up the trend we see world-wide. Fans care far less about reserve teams than they do about an independent team at the same level. By world standards, MLS reserve teams in USL do by no means badly, but the variances can be wild.
Take Real Salt Lake, the best-attended MLS reserve team. Playing at Rio Tinto Stadium, the RSL reserves managed 4,698 fans per game, sixth in the USL and good by any measurement. But that included two games over 11,000: July 11 versus Austin, and August 28 versus Seattle (13,979; the best-attended game in USL all season). It also included 1,001 to see the Los Angeles Galaxy reserves on April 25, 2,192 to see Colorado Springs on August 26, and 2,230 to see Oklahoma City on September 2. Four of their fourteen home games were above that 4,698 average, but two of them were so far above it shot Salt Lake right up the table. A fan is a fan, they all count, but the Salt Lake reserves were weird and it’s beyond me to guess whether the high numbers or the low ones better reflect their long-term potential.
The only other reserve team in the top half of the USL attendance charts was Portland, in twelfth. Their numbers were consistent: as I’ve always said, Portland is mental. Of the eight worst-supported teams in USL this past season, six were MLS reserve sides. That fits in very well with the international norm.
Of the Canadian teams, Vancouver averaged 1,682 fans per game, playing mostly in the sun at a heavily-marketed, entertainment-filled, dedicated stadium at the University of British Columbia. Toronto started the season at BMO Field but moved to a training centre mid-season while Montreal bounced between Saputo Stadium, the nearby turf field, and (once) Olympic Stadium: both were generally less interested in promoting their teams. Their reported attendance was effectively nobody. Vancouver and Toronto charged for games; Montreal was free.
No doubt fans will be saying “I would have gone to the reserve games but [excuse].” Everyone has an excuse. Some of the games were mid-week or at weird times? Welcome to USL, sunshine; you’re not special. The TFC training centre in Vaughan is hard to get to? Tell that to the good people of St. Louis, whose stadium is two and a half hours by transit from downtown. To put it bluntly, if you cared you’d go. There’s nothing wrong with not caring about your reserve team. Very few fans anywhere in the world do.
Probably more worrying is that attendance declined over the course of the season. Montreal and Toronto are hard to judge. But in Vancouver, after a decent start, attendance fast faded. After their first two games of the season the only Whitecaps Reserve games to break 2,000 were June 14 versus Los Angeles (date of the frankly brilliant “Bark at the Bird” promotion) and July 15 versus Colorado Springs. The marketers will need to work hard to build on these numbers in 2016.
There’s another angle to consider. Do MLS reserve teams bring in more support for the independent USL clubs? Do fans in Charleston or Austin rush to the box office to see the Toronto or Los Angeles reserves? You cannot answer this question definitively, because the sample size is small and the unbalanced USL schedule means some teams see different sets of reserve squads, and get more or fewer games. But here are the figures from 2015.
|Attendance for Independent USL Clubs Hosting MLS Reserves|
|Team||Games v. MLS||Reserve Attendance||Reserve Attend/G||Non-Reserve Attend/G||Diff #||Diff %|
Across USL, teams drew 11.92% more fans when an MLS reserve team was in town than when an independent club was. That’s more than a rounding error but isn’t a significant margin, and is hard to separate from the game-to-game inconsistency that’s endemic across the lower divisions. Possibly more fans bought season tickets for the sake of MLS reserve teams, but why woulde that level of interest hardly be reflected in single-game sales? Moreover, the teams best-supported in general seemed least interested in MLS reserve teams, and it doesn’t take much of a change in Orange County or Harrisburg to look significant.
None of this takes away from what’s been a good 2015 for the United Soccer League. In fact, 2015’s been a great year for lower-division professional soccer all over Canada and the United States. But the credit doesn’t go to reserve teams.
EDIT, September 29: this article originally claimed two MLS reserve clubs made the USL post-season rather than three.
 — 2015 USL statistics taken game-by-game from uslsoccer.com. 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.