Article By: Pedro Gomes
Last weekend five USL Pro teams hosted MLS Reserve squads; The Dayton Dutch Lions, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Charleston Battery, Harrisburg City Islanders, and the Rochester Rhinos. Only two of these teams saw upticks in attendance from their season average before the MLS Reserve squad game (Dayton and Harrisburg). While three saw decreased numbers from their attendance average (Pittsburgh, Rochester, and Charleston).
A quick glance would show that overall MLS Reserve squads did not have the increased demand in ticket sales that USL Pro may have initially hoped for, but a closer look at the numbers suggests that overall the impact was still positive.
For the most part, the clubs who experienced smaller crowds during the MLS Reserve game only saw a dip of a couple of hundred spectators. The largest difference in attendance came in Charleston where they saw 312 fewer tickets sales for the MLS game than their season average prior to the match. Whereas on the opposite side of the spectrum places like Dayton and Harrisburg saw increases of 1,022 and 623 spectators from their season sales average.
Although more places saw a dip in ticket sales, the places that did see an increase were more significant in number than the places that saw a decrease. And more importantly, the overall net tickets sales finished with a positive of 896 tickets sold across the league.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the USL Pro club that saw the most dramatic increase in tickets sales also happened to be the one that was geographically closest to the visiting MLS team. Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, are just 71 miles away from each other. They had a crowd of 1,621 almost 700 more spectators than their next highest attendance number of 954 for their Home Opener.
Another interesting note when looking at Harrisburg is that they have had a majority of their home games fall on Wednesday and Friday night while school was still in session. They also had a Friday match against cellar-dweller Antigua which had terrible rain and a 1 hour delay. So, Colorado coming to town on a Saturday and Harrisburg currently in 2nd place in the league probably had a big part in drawing a larger crowd. However, their Friday night home match against top team Orlando also saw a big crowd of 1,896 so you could say that the fan base does respond to good teams visiting the stadium.
Listen: Harrisburg City Islanders Head Coach, Bill Becher, talk USL and MLS partnership
If you choose to look at the numbers from the pessimistic point-of-view you could say that the incorporation of MLS Reserve sides didn’t have the increased ticket sales league executives had hoped for. But an optimist could turn around and say that ticket sales generally are unaffected by the lure of seeing their home teams play a Reserve MLS team. This could argue that USL Pro teams have strong foundations of local fan support for their teams.
The visiting MLS Reserve team experiment continues this weekend as four more USL Pro teams host MLS Reserve squads. The LA Blues will host the LA Galaxy, the Phoenix Wolves host Real Salt Lake, the Wilmington Hammerheads host the New York Red Bulls, and the Charlotte Eagles host the Chicago Fire.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on these matches to see if these matches will buck the established trend or reinforce it. My guess is that the Los Angeles Blues will see a very large increase in attendance whereas the other markets will see negligible differences.
Overall I think this is a positive move for USL Pro because not only are they exposing their fan base to different teams and levels of talent, but USL Pro teams get first hand opportunities to scout potential players for next year from the MLS Reserve squads. And so far the level of competition has been fairly even. All in all, it’s a win-win situation.
Here are the attendance numbers:
Dayton Dutch Lions (6 home)
vs Pittsburg (Sat – Home Opener) – 954
vs Charleston (Fri) - 400
vs Phoenix (Sat) - 400
vs Antigua (Sun) - 764
vs LA (Sun) – 480
vs Columbus Reserves (Sat) – 1621
Avg w\o MLS = 599
Avg w\MLS = 769
Difference b/w non MLS avg and MLS match = +1022
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (6 Home)
vs Harrisburg (Sat – Opening of Highmark) – 4000 Sellout
vs Phoenix (Thur) 1,664
vs Dayton (Sat) – 3344
vs Antigua (Fri) – 3728
vs Rochester (Sat) – 3474
vs TFC Reserves (Fri) - 3104
Avg w\o MLS = 3242
Avg w\MLS = 3219
Difference b/w non MLS avg and MLS match = (-)138
Rochester Rhinos (4 Home)
vs Harrisburg (Sat- Home Opener) – 5963
vs Orlando (Sat) -5279
vs LA (Fri) – 5874
vs Montreal Reserves (Fri) -5406
Avg w\o MLS = 5705
Avg w\MLS = 5630
Difference b/w non MLS avg and MLS match = (-)299
Harrisburg City Islanders (6 Home)
vs Rochester (Sat – Home Opener) – 1817
vs Charleston (Wed) – 952
vs Antigua (Fri) – 730
vs Orlando City (Fri) – 1896
vs Wilmington (Wed) – 987
vs Colorado (Sat) - 1899
Avg w\o MLS = 1276
Avg w\MLS = 1380
Difference b/w non MLS avg and MLS match = +623
Charleston Battery (7 Home)
vs Antigua (Sat Home Opener) – 4546
vs Pittsburg (Sat) – 3262
vs Wilmington (Sat) - 3699
vs Rochester (Sat) – 3325
vs Harisburg (Fri) – 2913
vs Charlotte (Wed) - 2057
vs Houston (Sat) – 2988
Avg. w\o MLS = 3300
Avg. w\MLS = 3255
Difference b/w non MLS avg. and MLS match = (-)312
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article mentioned an official affiliation between Dayton Dutch Lions and the Columbus Crew. However, no such official agreement currently exists, but wouldn't that be great if it did!