Amid rising MLS popularity, should its teams gamble on bigger stadiums?

Major League Soccer was born 28 years ago in cavernous NFL stadiums. Three seasons later, the league was averaging 14,312 fans a game in venues built to house five times that many.

At most games it was so quiet you could hear each team’s profits drop.

So with the league on the verge of bankruptcy in 2002, clubs began building their own soccer-specific stadiums with smaller grandstands, wider fields and a much better atmosphere. Less than a decade later, more than half the teams played in soccer-specific homes, most with fewer than 26,000 seats. And thanks to that change, MLS not only survived, but began to thrive.

Now, however, with soccer exploding in popularity across the U.S., is the league beginning to outgrow those humble surroundings?

“We don’t think so,” said Camilo Durana, the executive vice-president for properties and events at MLS.

The numbers tell a different story. On Thursday, when the Galaxy and LAFC renew their rivalry at the Rose Bowl, the game could draw as many as 75,000 people, the second-largest crowd in league history behind only the 82,110 the two teams drew at the Rose Bowl last July. That’s more than three times the number of fans they can fit into their soccer-specific stadiums, yet it’s just the crest of a very big attendance wave sweeping through MLS.

A little more than halfway through the season, the league is stretching at the seams, having already drawn more than 6.73 million fans, a jump of more than 7% from this time last year. Twenty-five of the 29 teams are drawing larger crowds than they did last season, while nine teams, including LAFC, are playing to 100% of their stadium’s capacity. Five matches have drawn more than 65,000 people.

Yet while the attendance growth has been impressive, Duran said it’s important to look at more than just the numbers.

“The soccer-specific stadiums provide a lot more than just capacity,” he said. “It’s better sight lines. The camera angles provide a much better broadcast experience. Our clubs can actually own the facility and dictate the schedule. All that delivers a much better experience.

“They can also make decisions on the type of seating available to fans. Standing sections have been wildly successful. That has helped us in the last 24 months to drive attendance up.”

The cozy confines also drive up demand for tickets. The listed attendance for BMO Stadium, where LAFC plays, is 22,000 but the team, which has a season-ticket base of 18,000 and a long waiting list, regularly draws more than that, creating an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams.

As a result, no team has a better record at home than LAFC since it entered the league in 2018.

Soccer specific doesn’t have to mean small, however, nor does it mean giving up things like safe-standing sections.

When Nashville SC owner John R. Ingram prepared for his team’s entrance into MLS in 2020, he predicted that soccer attendance would swell and wanted to marry the need for bigger venues with the ambiance of a small building.

“His view was, ‘I want to build this for to where the game’s going, not where it is.’” Ian Ayre, the club’s chief executive officer, related.

The result was Geodis Park, which opened in 2022 with a capacity of 30,000, making it the largest soccer-specific stadium in the league. Two seasons later, Nashville’s average attendance of 28,605 in fifth-best in MLS, trailing four teams that play in NFL stadiums.

“We have 24,000 season-ticket holders and we’ve been sold out of premium [seating] since Day 1,” Ayre said. “So I think we made the right decision. Maybe we need to be bigger.”

Teams with a more modest season-ticket base have chosen to take high-demand games to nearby football stadiums. The San José Earthquakes, who play in PayPal Park, with 18,000 seats, the smallest stadium in the league, have drawn more than double that by playing LAFC at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium and the Galaxy at Stanford Stadium. And Sporting Kansas City attracted 72,610, the third-largest crowd in MLS history, in April when it moved its game with Lionel Messi and Inter Miami — who have combined to drive much of the attendance increase — from tiny Children’s Mercy Park (18,467) to Arrowhead Stadium.

“It does speak to the growth of soccer, the growth of our league and how special it is to be able to do that,” said Galaxy president Tom Braun, who has been instrumental in putting together the two Rose Bowl games.

Still, Durana said MLS isn’t ready to move away from the stadium experience that drove the league to this point.

“The experience for fans is much more than just where they’re seated,” he said. “It’s the food options, what they’re seeing coming into the stadium, rituals that are built into the facility. So a move to a larger venue has a much greater impact on the fan experience.”

It can also be expensive. In most cases, because the MLS teams do not own the larger stadiums, they have to pay rent, give up concession, sponsorship and parking revenue and relocate season-ticket holders. Merchandise stores are different, if they exist at all, as are the food and beverage offerings.

“It’s impossible to co-exist in someone else’s venue,” said Ayre, whose team played its first two seasons in Nissan Stadium, the 69,000-seat home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.

If the soccer-specific stadium feels like an old shoe for loyal supporters, the bigger venue may feel foreign and uncomfortable. The same can be said for the players, who have a strange locker room, a different field and a less-intimate atmosphere to get used to. Rarely does the home-field advantage carry over.

“There’s a bit of a gamble,” Braun admitted.

In the case of LAFC-Galaxy, moving the game from Dignity Health Sports Park to a larger venue is probably a bet worth taking, though. Not only is the crosstown El Tráfico annually the most passionate rivalry in MLS, but this week there is more that just bragging rights on the line.

The Galaxy (11-3-7) and LAFC (12-4-4) come in tied for the top spot in the Western Conference standings. And while the Galaxy have lost just one of their last 11 matches dating to April, LAFC hasn’t lost in its last nine games, the longest unbeaten streak in the league.

Maybe this game will eventually need a stadium even bigger than the Rose Bowl.

“Dignity Health Sports Park is a special stadium and it’s the best experience in MLS,” Braun said, but “taking the game to the Rose Bowl is a special moment for the league. And it’s just representative of where our league started and where our league is going.

“I can’t say that necessarily big stadiums are the answer. At some point, maybe.”

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the “Corner of the Galaxy” podcast.

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