The way things ended aside, the season as a whole was a successful one in more ways than one for the Philadelphia Union.
Most wins in a season, most points, most road wins, etc.
But one area the improvement on the field was not able to impact was getting more butts into seats at Talen Energy Stadium.
The Union finished 19th in the league in attendance for the second straight season and for the eighth time in nine seasons saw a decrease in attendance from the previous season.
The decline was marginal — from 285,797 total fans in 2017 to 280,805 this season — but it shows that incremental improvement on the field and a third U.S. Open Cup final run hasn’t been enough to fill the stands the way the team did when they were still a new shiny object over the first four seasons.
Since topping out at 306,974 total fans in 2012, the turnstiles have hit the 300,000 mark only once (303,746 in 2013). The one increase in attendance came in 2016 when 1,151 more fans came out than the season before.
Though it’s unlikely that the team would move given the investment from the ownership group into acquiring properties around the stadium to create what is essentially a mile-long waterfront campus, the attendance woes could have an impact on the stadium lease, which includes a “Termination Due to Inadequate Attendance” clause stipulating that:
FCP, PPS and Keystone may terminate this Agreement if (i) the average paid attendance for Team Home Games at the Stadium Premises is in the lowest twenty-five percent (25%) of all MLS teams for two (2) consecutive years, and (ii) FCP pays the Authority the sum of Ten Million Dollars ($10,000,000), payable in equal annual installments over a period of five (5) years.
The clause gives the Union ownership group the option to terminate the lease with a ten-million-dollar payment. It would only kick in if attendance is in the bottom 25 percent once again next season. From the lease agreement:
Once the Team has been a Member of MLS for ten (10) years (using year 9 of Team play as the first year in which the attendance is measured for this purpose).
Atlanta United topped the attendance chart for the league this season with a staggering 901,033 total attendance (an average of 53,000 a game) and Seattle Sounders were second averaging 40,641 (for a total of 690,893).
Given the size of the Talen Energy Stadium in its current form, neither team’s attendance is a realistic goal but seeing what Sporting Kansas City (19,950 a game) or Real Salt Lake (18,605 a game) are doing with stadiums in far less populated areas (the population of Chester, Upper Darby and surrounding towns combined is nearly double that of Sandy and significantly higher than Kansas City, Kansas) means it shouldn’t be impossible.
The excuse that the Union don’t draw well because of where the stadium is located is less convincing when considering the Philadelphia metro area has 4.5 million people living outside the city limits. That’s more than the entire metro population of Seattle (3.7 million), the Twin Cities (3.2 million), Orlando (2.4 million), Vancouver (2.4 million), Portland (2.3 million), Kansas City (2.1 million), San Jose (1.9 million) and Montreal (4 million), all markets that outdrew the Union this season.
To reiterate, there are more people living outside the city limits in the Philadelphia metro area than live in the entire metro area of eight other MLS markets that are outdrawing the Union.
Regaining confidence in the fan base by providing a more consistent winner (as opposed to a statistically better team than the year before) is one way attendance could see improvement next season. The work toward that end begins now for the Union front office.