The battle to make the playoffs this year was fierce and ended with the Portland Thorns finishing at the top of the table, and the WNY Flash winning the league at the final playoff game in Houston against the Washington Spirit. With the excitement of the post-season over it is time to look at how 2016’s final attendance numbers compare to the previous three years.
In order to get a full picture of where the league is at with the attendance, this article will examine two sets of data. The first set of data is the total average attendance for all matches played in each of the four NWSL seasons. The second set of data will look at the same matches, but exclude those that are outliers.
For the purposes of this article an outlier is defined as those matches with over 10,000 attendees. Looking at all seasons, these are the matches which would be considered outliers:
- The 2016 Orlando Pride home-opener which drew 23,403 attendees.
- A Chicago Red Stars double-header with the Chicago Fire on 4/19/2014 with 15,473 attendees.
- A Chicago Red Stars double-header with the Chicago Fire on 5/9/2015 with 16,017 attendees.
- A Houston Dash game on 7/12/2015 that drew 13,025 attendees.
- All Portland Thorns matches during this time period, except one match on 7/13/14 which drew 9,672 attendees.
In examining at the total average attendance both with and without outliers it is easy to see that 2016 attendance continues to grow year over year for the league as a whole.
Here is what those attendance averages look when broken down by team over the last four years.
As you can see four out of the ten teams averaged lower attendance than 2015, however if you take the outliers out of the Dash and Red Stars’ numbers then that trend reverses.
Total attendance by team also tells the same story.
In looking at the total average attendance by month, you can see how much those matches considered outliers affect the data. For example, the upturn in the 2016 line in September was caused by three Portland Thorns home matches, whereas the last Portland home match in 2015 was at the end of August. The attendance bump in July and August of 2015 can also be attributed in part to the USWNT’s World Cup win.
Take out the outliers listed above and you can see that the over-inflation of attendance numbers caused by the Thorns at the end of 2015 and 2016 level out. The attendance bump that the league experienced in 2015 after the World Cup is also present in the graph below, as well as the fact that even though the USWNT did not medal in the Olympics the 2016 (and cause a bump similar in size to 2015) attendance numbers still finished strong.
In comparison, the USL just completed their 2016 season and averaged between 17,296 and 243 attendees, with a total average attendance of 3,439. Their top two teams in average attendance were FC Cincinnati at 17,296 and Sacramento Republic FC at 11,514, respectively. In addition, with the exception of four teams, the vast majority of the USL teams averaged under 5,000 in attendance in 2016. As of the beginning of October the NASL 2016 average attendance is between 8,607 (Minnesota United FC) and 1,457 (Fort Lauderdale Strikers), with an overall average of 4,746 attendees.
By these numbers the Portland Thorns’ average attendance is higher than all of the NASL teams, all but one USL team (FC Cincinnati), and the Thorns generally have higher average attendance than five MLS teams. Impressively, the 2016 expansion team Orlando Pride also had average attendance higher than all NASL teams, as well as higher attendance than all but two USL teams (FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC), proving that MLS-NWSL expansion teams continue to be a successful venture. Alternatively, though Sky Blue FC draws the lowest attendance in the NWSL, their attendance average is still higher than thirteen USL teams and two NASL teams. These attendance numbers put them on par with these more established men’s leagues, which has not gone unnoticed and has fueled talks about additional NWSL expansion teams in the next few years. No one knows what 2017 has in store for the NWSL, but this year surpassed all other seasons in total average attendance helping to solidify this season as a success and a good investment for the future.
*Prost Publishing has a new book out on the 2016 NWSL Season, forward written by BBC Footballer of the Year Kim Little. Get your copy here.