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D.C. United attendance: A postscript on 2014

Because your year just wouldn't be complete without 2,222 words on D.C. United and MLS attendance in 2014.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With MLS Cup now complete, it's almost time to close the book on the 2014 Major League Soccer season.  Before we officially do that, however, we should take a moment to discuss one of the most important and perplexing issues for MLS in general, and D.C. United specifically...attendance.  This is our third annual review of D.C. United attendance (click for 2012 and 2013), so join us as we look for patterns, make predictions, and become more and more convinced we are less and less certain of what we really understand about D.C. United attendance dynamics.

Let's frame this discussion by acknowledging overall attendance dynamics remain strong.  In 2014, the league set it's all-time annual attendance record, with 19,147 in attendance for the average MLS match.  Yes, the beastly attendance numbers in Seattle skew the league average higher, but then again the ghastly attendance at Chivas USA pulled the average down.  So all in all, 2014 was the best year in MLS history regarding attendance (this being a World Cup year was probably a help).  Here are the MLS attendance averages for each season since the 1996 inaugural year, along with D.C. United's average home attendance.

Year MLS Average Attendance D.C. United Average Attendance
1996 17,406 15,262
1997 14,619 16,698
1998 14,312 16,007
1999 14,282 17,419
2000 13,756 18,580
2001 14,961 21,518
2002 15,822 16,519
2003 14,898 15,565
2004 15,559 17,232
2005 15,108 16,664
2006 15,504 18,251
2007 16,770 20,967
2008 16,460 19,835
2009 16,120 15,585
2010 16,675 14,532
2011 17,872 15,181
2012 18,807 13,846
2013 18,594 13,646
2014 19,147 17,030

Looking ahead, I think the attendance dynamics continue to look strong for the league, and I predict a new record will be set in 2015--perhaps by a non-trivial amount.  First, MLS has culled out its worst performing team (Chivas USA, 7,063 average attendance in 2014).  Second, they are placing their next worst performing team in a new 18,000-seat stadium (San Jose Earthquakes, 14,947 in 2014).  And third, they are adding two teams (Orlando City SC and New York City FC) which will likely have strong attendance in general, but certainly will draw well in their first seasons.  Overall, as far as attendance goes, 2015 looks to be an even better year than 2014.

So, with this backdrop of MLS record attendance in 2014, how did D.C. United do?  As a reminder, my prediction for 2014's D.C. United average home attendance (at RFK) was "somewhere in the 13,000s".  I was wrong (again), but this time I was wrong on the low side, which is a good place to be.

1.  How did the change in D.C. United attendance this year compare to the change in overall MLS attendance? Overall, 2014 was a strong year for D.C. United attendance.  The official home average, 17,030, is an especially good number, and it includes the match at FedEx Field on Jun. 7th against the Columbus Crew in which D.C. United posted an official attendance of 53,267 by being part of a doubleheader which included the Spanish National Team as it prepared for the World Cup.  For the sake of this article, we will also look at the average without this match (said differently, D.C. United's average home attendance for matches just at RFK Stadium), which came out to be 14,765.  And the good news is (whichever D.C. United average you prefer to use) both best the growth rate in the overall MLS average attendance in 2014.

2013 2014 % Change
D.C. United Average Attendance 13,646 17,030 24.8%
D.C. United Average Attendance (at RFK) 13,646 14,765 8.2%
MLS Average Attendance 18,594 19,147 3.0%

2.  Final MLS attendance table by team. In the table below, we show the official average attendance of each MLS team during the 2014 regular season.  Using this metric, D.C. United came in 12th out of the league's 19 teams, their best finish in many years.  We also show D.C. United's average just at RFK Stadium (which would have been 18th in team attendance averages).

Team Home Games Played 2014 Average
Seattle Sounders 17 43,734
Toronto FC 17 22,086
LA Galaxy 17 21,258
Portland Timbers 17 20,777
Vancouver Whitecaps 17 20,408
Real Salt Lake 17 20,351
Houston Dynamo 17 20,117
Sporting Kansas City 17 20,003
New York Red Bulls 17 19,421
Philadelphia Union 17 17,631
Montreal Impact 17 17,421
D.C. United 17 17,030
Columbus Crew 17 16,881
FC Dallas 17 16,816
New England Revolution 17 16,681
Chicago Fire 17 16,076
Colorado Rapids 17 15,082
San Jose Earthquakes 17 14,947
D.C. United (at RFK) 16 14,765
Chivas USA 17 7,063

But, let's also look at the "total average attendance" stat which includes playoff games (see table below).  Interestingly, while D.C. United raised its total average attendance to 17,205 due to the 20,187 who showed up for the Nov. 8th playoff match against the New York Red Bulls, it still fell to 13th in the total average attendance table due to the New England Revolution improving their attendance average even more in the playoffs.

Team Games Played 2014 Average Playoff Games Played 2014 Playoff Average Total Average with Playoffs
Seattle Sounders 17 43,734 2 42,835 43,639
LA Galaxy 17 21,258 3 27,000 22,119
Toronto FC 17 22,086 22,086
Portland Timbers 17 20,777 20,777
Vancouver Whitecaps 17 20,408 20,408
Real Salt Lake 17 20,351 1 20,713 20,371
Houston Dynamo 17 20,117 20,117
Sporting Kansas City 17 20,003 20,003
New York Red Bulls 17 19,421 3 19,524 19,436
New England Revolution 17 16,681 2 26,441 17,708
Philadelphia Union 17 17,631 17,631
Montreal Impact 17 17,421 17,421
D.C. United 17 17,030 1 20,187 17,205
Columbus Crew 17 16,881 1 9,040 16,445
FC Dallas 17 16,816 2 13,196 16,435
Chicago Fire 17 16,076 16,076
D.C. United (at RFK) 16 14,765 1 20,187 15,084
Colorado Rapids 17 15,082 15,082
San Jose Earthquakes 17 14,947 14,947
Chivas USA 17 7,063 7,063

3.  D.C. United home attendance during 2014. D.C. United's attendance started slowly in 2014, but it gained momentum throughout the season as the team continued to play consistent, winning soccer.  In fact, other than the monster attendance game at FedEx Field, their next five highest attended home games occurred during the final five games at RFK Stadium (including the playoff game).  In contrast, all five worst attended games occurred during the first three months of the season.

Home Game Date Opponent Record Heading into Match Attendance Day of the Week
1 8-Mar Columbus Crew 0-0 13,840 Sat
2 29-Mar Chicago Fire 0-2 9,445 Sat
3 5-Apr New England Revolution 0-2-1 10,526 Sat
4 12-Apr New York Red Bulls 1-2-1 12,364 Sat
5 26-Apr FC Dallas 2-2-2 11,172 Sat
6 17-May Montreal Impact 4-3-2 14,106 Sat
7 21-May Houston Dynamo 4-3-3 8,224 Wed
8 31-May Sporting Kansas City 5-4-3 18,522 Sat
9 7-Jun Columbus Crew 6-4-3 53,267 Sat
10 28-Jun Seattle Sounders 7-4-4 16,922 Sat
11 20-Jul Chivas USA 9-5-4 13,732 Sun
12 30-Jul Toronto FC 10-5-4 16,171 Wed
13 17-Aug Colorado Rapids 11-7-4 12,814 Sun
14 31-Aug New York Red Bulls 13-8-4 19,453 Sun
15 27-Sep Philadelphia Union 14-9-6 19,478 Sat
16 3-Oct Sporting Kansas City 15-9-6 19,308 Fri
17 18-Oct Chicago Fire 16-9-7 20,162 Sat
Playoffs 8-Nov New York Red Bulls 17-9-8 20,187 Sat

4.  Wednesdays remain the worst day for D.C. United attendance. If we break down D.C. United's average home attendance by the day of the week each game fell on, unsurprisingly Wednesday remains the most difficult day to draw a crowd.  And Wednesday gave D.C. United its worst attended game of 2014 (the May 21st match against the Houston Dynamo which drew 8,224, the worst attended game since September of 2009).  So, let's continue to applaud the league for minimizing Wednesday games at RFK (let's keep it up in 2015!).

Number of Games Average Home Attendance
Saturday 11 18,164
Saturday (at RFK only) 10 14,654
Sunday 3 15,333
Wednesday 2 12,198
Friday 1 19,308

5.  How did D.C. United average home attendance at RFK vary during the season (excluding the FedEx Field match)? Unlike 2013, the average home attendance at RFK did not quickly settle on the final number as the season progressed.  Instead, it stayed consistently low through the first 7 games at RFK, then took off in a positive direction.  The chart below shows the average home attendance after each game of the season, and seems to show a successful combination of the team winning and the team offering superb ticket discounts resulted in a significant improvement in the attendance average as the season wore on.

2014 average attendance graph

6.  What to make of D.C. United attendance dynamics? Attendance is a funny thing.  After writing about it for three seasons, I'm less convinced what really matters than ever before.  Sure, the day of the week a home game is played on is very important across the league, but what really drives macro attendance for D.C. United?  At this point, I would say the following are the most important factors:

- Winning. It's somewhat of a lagging indicator, but sustained winning positively affects attendance.  In this regard, D.C. United must not squander its positive attendance momentum heading into 2015 (like it did in 2013).  Let's see a strong start in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals before the 2015 MLS regular season even starts, then let's get the regular season off to a good start.  Fans of the Black-and-Red will reward the team for its success by purchasing tickets in large numbers.

- Affordable ticket prices. Until the day D.C. United is in a situation in which it sells out every game, offering deep discounts is positive for attendance.  It's anecdotal, but it seems the club offered much better deals in the second half of 2014 than in 2013 or 2012, and this was positive for the gate.  The problem is the team risks alienating its best customers, its season ticket holders, who are paying top dollar for their tickets at the beginning of the season.  For 2015, I hope the team sells the most season tickets it can (and continues to offer even better STH exclusive perks), but I also hope it offers the kind of ticket prices and discounts which fill the stadium with walk up ticket buyers.

- Big event games. D.C. United's doubleheader game with the Spanish National Team before the World Cup singlehandedly improved the team's average home attendance for 2014 by 15.3%.  The team should look to do more of these type events to keep this positive impact in place year after year.  There is nothing wrong with pumping the attendance numbers by orchestrating "event matches" which can far outdraw a normal MLS home match.  The San Jose Earthquakes have used this strategy to great effect for years, despite playing in a 10,525-seat stadium (their season average was 14,947), by playing a few big matches a year at Stanford Stadium and/or the new Levi's Stadium.  In 2015, let's look for a doubleheader with the US Women's National Team as they head to the World Cup, or the US Gold Cup squad, or something equivalent which will draw an outsized crowd.

- The stadium situation. While RFK Stadium has its charms, and it can still summon the ghosts of Christmas past (ghosts of soccer fans past?) unlike any other stadium, overall it is a disaster, and it puts downward pressure on D.C. United attendance.  There is no definitive proof of this, but when the Buzzard Point stadium gets built, attendance will explode for D.C. United.  My gut knows this is true, just as yours does.  I also think a positive vote next week, a vote which should mean Buzzard Point will definitively be the future home of D.C. United, will also have an immediate positive impact on attendance.  The fans are ready, they just need to know the new stadium is coming.  2015 is the year the new stadium should start helping D.C. United.

7. What will D.C. United's average home attendance be in 2015? I'm an optimist, so I think the team's average will be north of 16,000 next season without a big event match to pump up the average.  And if the team and District break ground on the new stadium before the 2015 regular season opener, and if the team continues to be a winning team, the average home attendance could go even higher--maybe significantly higher.

What's your take on D.C. United's 2014 attendance?  What are the key factors for 2015?

And with that, I set aside the keyboard and end my time as a regular blogger here on B&RU and return to being a B&RU community member.  My sincere thanks to Martin, Adam, Ben, and Jason for giving me the opportunity to contribute, and for their enlightened leadership in building this great site.  My thanks as well to all the other B&RU writers who displayed so much teamwork as we interacted in the virtual backshop.  Perhaps most importantly, thanks to our awesome readers who are remarkably smart, funny, and welcoming.  Thanks to you, this little corner of the internet is one of the rare places where the comments section is really the main event for all the right reasons--including the deep analysis you've done on the stadium deal.  Finally, a shout out to the soccer team which draws us all together, D.C. United.  No team in Major League Soccer better lives up to its mission to "Win Championships, Serve the Community".  Vamos!