Designing for the MLS’ Growing Fan Base

June 19, 2014

Major League Soccer is America’s fastest growing sport. It boasts a rapidly growing fan base. It has a following that plays the game. And it has enviable momentum behind it.

The growth the MLS has seen is, quite simply, incredible. According to Forbes, the MLS’ average attendance surged to 18,600 – a more than 35% increase since 2000. Of 18,000 people surveyed in 2012, more than a third identified themselves as fans of Major League Soccer in 2012 – a 24% increase from five years ago and a 33% increase from 10 years ago.

The Forbes article points out this growth has been possible because of a “rapid cultural and generational maturation of a unique fan base.” But what does that mean? It means that the MLS’ fan base is growing with the League. Many of these fans are part of what is largely considered the most important demographic in professional sports – the 35-54 year old age demographic. While most of the remaining fans are Millennials – a generation that has grown up with the MLS and has more buying power than any other age group. But beyond these two age groups, a part of the MLS’ growth story and trajectory can and should be attributed to young, avid fans. ESPN conducted a poll in 2013 that showed the MLS was considered as popular as Major League Baseball among 12-17 year olds in the US – a number that changed drastically since 2010.

The article also hints at the most important differentiator, something that demographics data alone can’t communicate. It’s the actual behavioral patterns and communication patterns of fans. They are loyal, consistent and willing to travel with the team. They are consuming goods, attentive to advertisers and are more interested in the total game day experience – both before and after the match occurs on the pitch. Fan  participation of pre-game and post-game activities is what’s critical to us as architects in how we design buildings to respond to fans.

These unique demographics have allowed soccer to begin to build a fan base that is a unique mix of young professionals and families and that continues to evolve as the League itself does. In turn, the design of stadiums have adapted to accommodate this enviable fan base. This means that in most modern MLS stadiums, you will see separate designed areas to accommodate the growing groups of supporters, referred to as the “supporters section.”  It’s here where the rowdy, singing, die-hards collect to add that 5th dimension to the match.   You will also find  ample space for  group gatherings, large, open plazas for pre and post-game festivities and additional family friendly spaces like branded decks, clubs and potential team stores tailored to kids.

The key takeaway from all this data is that stadium design should serve as an opportunity in this emerging League to elevate a brand, intensify a culture, connect a community, and create an iconic building that serves as an integral part of a team’s story. Ideally, the building will become synonymous with the brand in the way Wrigley Field is with the Cubs or Old Trafford is with Manchester United.  As we build a deeper understanding of who the MLS fan is and what they like, we can tailor experiences to drive revenue for clubs and the fan experience simultaneously. Across the MLS, we’ve seen in recent stadiums – including Sporting Park, BBVA Compass Stadium and the new Orlando City SC downtown stadium – a trend toward  incorporating relatively inexpensive experiences tailored to the  supporter’s stands. At Sporting Park, the Member’s Club has been successful by offering the most avid fans a place to congregate before and after games, with discounted beers from a local brewery and easy access to food and apparel. At BBVA Compass Stadium, there was an emphasis on group experiences, with flexible club and lounge spaces interspersed throughout. It also features an easily identifiable architectural language – a tessellated exterior with pops of orange – that has quickly become an iconic extension of Houston Dynamo’s brand.  In Orlando, an emphasis on the supporters and the community will be emphasized through the connection to Church Street, which is expected to become a sports and entertainment corridor, and through a very large, European-modeled supporters stand.

Looking into the future, I anticipate soccer design trends in the MLS will continue to favor an intimate, authentic experience, with amenities – like pop-up team stores, locally-inspired concessions, the potential inclusion of street style concourses that include food trucks and staging areas, and interactive sporting zones that put fans in direct contact with players both in reality and virtually – continuing to be critical. I also believe we will see the stadiums grow with their fans. As that 12-17 year old age group grows up, they will begin to make use of the spaces tailored to young professionals (Member’s Club areas and club seating experiences) before moving on to enjoy the family friendly plazas, decks and picnic spaces. In the meantime – these stadiums are being developed and designed to accommodate the anticipated growth.

Regardless of the trends that stick, one thing is certain: the MLS is on the rise, and its stadiums should be viewed as critical opportunities to catapult this growth and introduce soccer to fans of all ages.


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