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It’s time to settle the Soccer Specific Stadium talks in MLS

MLS needs to crack down on soccer specific stadiums

Atlanta United - MLS Cup - Tifo by Eric.Jason.Cross is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s time to settle the Soccer Specific Stadium talks in MLS


Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes

It’s 2020. You’d think Don Garber’s vision for MLS would be clearer by now. Yes, that’s both serious and a vision joke. I recently started working for Warby Parker. I’m full of them now.

But in all seriousness, the fact that soccer specific stadiums are not currently a requirement is bonkers to me. There’s a debate to be had, for sure. But the other side of the argument only stands up for teams like Atlanta and Seattle. They consistently have high volume ticket sales, and their fans make for a raucous environment. We’ll dive more into this later.

Currently, there are seven teams who play in shared stadiums. They are Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Seattle Sounders FC, New England Revolution, Atlanta United FC, FC Cincinnati, Chicago Fire FC, and NYCFC.

When it doesn’t work

It’s no secret to anyone who has read a piece of mine that I love soccer. Nor should it be that it bothers the hell out of me that there are still shared stadiums. Particularly ones that don’t work. The easiest example of a stadium not working is the Revolution playing at Gillette Stadium. The Revs average attendance in 2019 was 16,737. And that’s on the higher end of what they’ve averaged over the years. Now..how many seats exist in Gillette? 65,878.

SIXTY FIVE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED SEVENTY EIGHT.

The Revolution fill 25.4% percent of the stadium on average. This means the 300s section is always closed. The 200s section is rarely completely open. Hell even the the lower bowl doesn’t fill up. There are a number of factors that should go into the Revolution living somewhere else, but I really only want to focus on attendance.

So what does filling 25% of your stadium mean? For players, it means you’re playing in a cavernous hole with minimal atmosphere. Sure, the supporters groups for New England come out in force and bring life to The Fort (the supporters section at Gillette). But aside from that one area behind one of the goals, the stadium feels dead. It sucks the fun out of the sport. And really, soccer is basically a religion. The design of Gillette also does not really adhere to a soccer environment. The open end of the stadium lets sound bleed out and contributes to that “dead” feeling.

When it does work

Let’s move south first.

Atlanta United is a young team. They kicked off their first home game at Mercedez-Benz Stadium in 2017 and they sold the place out.

Back up. They SOLD OUT?

Yeah. The first game ever to be played in a stadium meant for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons was a sell out for a new soccer franchise in the city. That’s unreal. Ok, I’m leaving out the fact that United were in the plans for the stadium, so it was specifically built to be a dual-purpose stadium. Regardless it proves that MLS did something smart and moved into a great market for their sport.

In 2019, Atlanta United had an average attendance of 52,510. Mercendez-Benz Stadium holds 72,035. This means this toddler franchise is selling out just shy of 73% of their stadium. That’s bonkers. The average capacity of a soccer specific stadium in MLS is roughly 21,792. It wouldn’t make sense for Atlanta to have their own stadium unless they were dedicated to building ANOTHER 55,000 seat stadium somewhere accessible. They are the exception to the rule on so many levels.

Now let’s go from the southeast to the northwest

Seattle is another team that wouldn’t make sense (as of now) in a soccer specific stadium. Their average attendance is a hair over 40k at 40,247. That’s nearly twice the average of soccer specific stadiums across the league. They fill 58.3% of CenturyLink Field’s 69,000 seats, and can sell out for big regular season matchups and playoff games.

I’m trying to convince my buddy Scott to come to The Turf and write about the Sounders, but for now you’re stuck with me talking about how incredible their fans are. And I haven’t even experienced it firsthand. This fanbase is RABID, and they bring an atmosphere to CenturyLink that rivals that of Seahawks fans. The club overall is a picture perfect roadmap for what a soccer team in America should be today.

Ripping them from their home seems harsh and unnecessary. With their current attendance, they should continue to cohabitate CenturyLink Field.

My proposal

Now for what I think needs to happen. MLS has relaxed its policy requiring expansion teams to come into the league with soccer specific stadiums. Part of me is fine with it and part of me thinks it’s ludicrous to allow another Revolution situation to happen. Charlotte is coming into the league and are going to be playing at Bank of America Stadium alongside the Panthers. We’ll see how that goes…

I think, instead of focusing on expansion teams specifically, MLS should create a blanket policy across the league. If you already play in a soccer specific stadium, great. You’re ahead of the curve. At this point you’re part of the norm. Keep it that way.

If you’re a team who shares that stadium with someone else, let’s raise the stakes. If you can pull in an average of at least 50% capacity, you can stay. Ultimately, I think that number should live at 66.67% (two-thirds capacity), but baby steps, people.

And let’s give them a window to do this. As much as I’d like to snap my fingers and have this be possible, affected teams would need the chance to roll out marketing plans to raise attendance levels and prove they don’t need to be moved. That is, if they don’t want to be.

Breaking it down

So… if you’re not in a soccer specific stadium scenario, here’s what you need to do. You have 3 years to prove you can hit 50% capacity. Once you’re there you need to keep that up for 1-2 years. This gives you 5 years as an organization to prove that you can stay where you are. However, if you don’t hit that 50% capacity goal, you have 1-2 years to put together an MLS-approved plan to build a soccer specific stadium in an area accessible to fans.

Accessible does not mean a 30-45 minute drive outside the city like in Chicago’s old stadium, and New England’s current one. You need regular and reliable public transportation. A good bad example: The MBTA in Massachusetts only runs their Foxborough line during Patriots home games. There is no public transportation for Revolution games. Give yourselves a reasonable seating allocation based on the average soccer specific stadium attendance (that’s 21,792 based on my super scientific calculations).

Prove you care.

So what happens if an owner pays $350 million and doesn’t hit that threshold? I don’t know. There are kinks to work out.

The non-specific world as things stand now

BC Place in Vancouver more than halves the capacity of their stadium for the Whitecaps. The Revs only make about 20,000 seats available (but of course would sell more if they could). That means they are already under 50% of possible max capacity in those stadiums. What’s the point?

Sure, logistics of building a new stadium can be a nightmare. Just ask NYCFC. Those poor lads are playing in a BASEBALL stadium, so I think they have it worse than just about everyone else. They came into the league with a 3 year agreement to play in the Bronx, and wanted to have something in place going forward after that. Granted, finding permanent space in New York City is not an easy task. But they fill 44.8% of Yankee Stadium on average, and that’s well below that threshold. There’s a lot of issue with a recent decision to play a competative match at Red Bull Arena. Then suddenly all the silence is starting to “be broken” about progress being made on their stadium search.

Chicago is an interesting case. Toyota Field was well outside the city and a giant pain to get to. Attendance dropped. The team got pretty bad. Attendance dropped some more. They lost their Fire. I’m interested to see what a move back to Soldier Field does for the organization. If nothing else, it proves that you can’t just build a soccer specific stadium for the sake of building one. It needs to be accessible. Chicago shot themselves in the foot.

I’ll admit, I have yet to dive into the logistics of how much of this is on the team itself and how much MLS has control. Regardless, the league can draft some proposals to regulate home stadiums and create better atmospheres for the fans and players.

Who wants to play in a stadium that can’t even hit half capacity?

Bueller?

Yeah, I wouldn’t want to either.

Stadium attendance statistics are based on reports from Soccer Stadium Digest, while overall capacity comes from the I-hope-it’s-right-but-anyone-could-have-added-it world of Wikipedia.

Kevin is an actor, director, playwright, and musician who works in tech and lives in Brooklyn. He is die hard New England sports and an avid Tottenham supporter. His qualifications include scoring 1 point in his elementary school basketball career, 4 years of mixed little league results, and breaking his arm with a skip-it days before pre-season workouts started for Freshman football.

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