As MLS Expands, Western Conference Is Outpacing the East in More Ways Than One
It’s a league that has continued to grow with each passing season, generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue and new fans across the globe in the process, but there is a clear disparity in Major League Soccer - when it comes to ticket pricing and competition, the West is the best.
And it’s really not close.
In terms of resale ticket demand, online aggregator TiqIQ has analyzed the average price for MLS tickets of each team since the start of the 2011 season. The results are noteworthy. Of the 10 teams in the Western Conference, each has experienced a positive six-year trend on the secondary market, with the average price for tickets increasing at a substantial rate. The Eastern Conference pales in comparison, with just four teams jumping in average ticket price since 2011.
The San Jose Earthquakes and Portland Timbers are the clear standouts when looking at the above graphic. The Earthquakes, who are playing in their second full season in the recently-opened Avaya Stadium, have experienced a 275% increase in average price when comparing 2016’s numbers to the 2011 season. The team’s on-field success isn’t a direct result of such a massive price boost – the Earthquakes have failed to clinch a playoff berth since 2012 –but the move into Avaya Stadium has generated a renewed sense of interest in the franchise. A similar instance occurred for the neighboring San Francisco 49ers in 2014, when ticket prices skyrocketed during their inaugural year at Levi’s Stadium.
Conversely, the Timbers have their dominant play to thank for their recent increase in ticket prices on the secondary market. The team claimed its first MLS Cup in 2015, which has led to an 85% year-over-year boost in average price for Portland Timbers tickets during the 2016 season ($73.06 to $134.91). That is the biggest year-over-year increase in the league. Along with Seattle Sounders tickets, the Timbers were just one of two teams to exceed the $100 average on the secondary market in 2016.
There’s more to the story than just ticket prices, however. The last seven MLS Cups have been won by a team hailing from the West, with the Los Angeles Galaxy claiming a title in three of those seasons. Since the MLS began play in 1996, Western Conference teams have won 14 MLS Cups while the Eastern Conference has won four.
To put it in simpler terms, fans are willing to pay up to support championship-caliber teams. And it just so happens that the majority of those teams have come out of the Western Conference over the league’s first 20 years.
Attendance paints an even greater picture as to how the Western Conference is vastly outpacing the East in popularity. Looking at the chart below shows an interesting discrepancy between the two conferences during the 2015 MLS season. In the East, just one team posted a 100% attendance rate. That was Orlando City SC, one of the two expansion teams that incepted into the league last year. The team with the second highest attendance in the Eastern Conference was the Philadelphia Union, who had a 94% attendance rate in 2015. Though one of the few East teams to experience a positive six-year increase in terms of average price, Red Bulls tickets appeared to be in minimal demand in 2015 – the team tied the Revolution with the lowest attendance rate in Major League Soccer at just 78%.
As for the Western Conference? Well, let’s just say the concession lines were longer in many of those teams’ stadiums. Five of the conference’s 10 teams exceeded the 100% attendance rate, six including the Vancouver Whitecaps and their 98% attendance. The Earthquakes had a league-leading 117% attendance rate in their inaugural year at Avaya Stadium.
Call it a golden era that’s lasted nearly two decades, but for teams in the Western Conference, there clearly exists a bigger appeal to attend games from both a pricing and popularity standpoint. Will there be a time when the Eastern Conference levels the playing field? It’s possible, though if the current state of the MLS has any say in the matter, it’s the West that will continue its reign on the league for the foreseeable future.
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