MLS vs. MLB vs. NHL - What Will The Impact Be on STL Tourism and the Downtown West Neighborhood?

It’s not obvious to me the impact of a potential MLS team in St. Louis from a tourism and game day draw perspective. I know nothing about the MLS. I couldn’t name five players, team names or anything. I have no horse in that race…yet. I predict that will all change if we get a team, my kids will make sure of that.

Sports undoubtedly have an impact on tourism, the hotel and restaurant industries. But how big of a bump will an MLS team bring on game days (and maybe a day or two flanking game days for those who plan a trip out of it)? It likely boils down to the number of games played when comparing it to other sports.

So how many events does each professional sport bring? Here’s a quick comparison:

As you can see, the potential impact of MLS, is not anywhere close to MLB and the NHL. In fact, baseball has ~5X more games and hockey ~2.5X more games than soccer. The opportunity for tourism/suburban visitor money is much, much lower for the MLS.

MLS has an advantage over NHL for tourism as it is played during the warm months. MLS runs from March to October, MLB from March to September and NHL from October to April. More people travel during the summer than any other season. That’s a plus in the soccer column.

How much attendance could we expect in STL once the novelty wears off? I took a look at MLS attendance across all the current cities with a team. Per Soccer Stadium Digest, the 2018 attendance data suggest that Atlanta is the biggest draw in the league with an average attendance of 53,002. The lowest attendance is Columbus where they average 12,447 per game.

There are only two teams in the entire league that drew more than 27,000 on average, Atlanta and Seattle. The stadiums are much smaller in most cities, drawing an overall MLS league average of 21,873 fans per game. MLS4THELOU.com indicates the proposed stadium in Downtown West will seat 22,500; so sell outs are assumed if we are going to be in the top 50% of the league as far as attendance goes.

MLS attendance is down a mere 1% YOY compared to 2017. The league is stable, but not exactly taking off like gangbusters, ~40% of the teams saw decreases in attendance in 2018 compared to 2017.

The NHL drew an average of 17,456 per game; in St. Louis, the Blues averaged 17,361 per game and a total of 711,823 for the regular season. The Cardinals averaged 42,019 per game and totaled 3,403,587 for the season.

Baseball clearly has the biggest impact on tourism and dollars spent in our city. The national reach of the Cards is also much greater than that of the Blues or any MLS team. The Cards are huge in parts of Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Illinois and beyond. The Cards have been around so much longer and have multi-generational appeal dating back to the late 19th Century.

MLS would add far fewer dollars than NHL or MLB. By comparison, an NBA team would have an impact much closer, if not identical to hockey, with 82 regular season games. But, that is likely not in the future cards for St. Louis unless we grow as a regional market (which we are not).

But don’t let the numbers get you down, I know I’m excited, I think MLS soccer would be fun. Now that I’ve got a decent idea of how many people this sport has the potential to bring compared to the other pro sports in town, it’s fair to next consider the site plan of the proposed stadium and how that will impact the adjacent neighborhoods and the city at large.

The proposed site is largely on state-owned land that has been underused in my lifetime as the never completed 22nd Street Interchange land sits idle year after year. Thankfully, this never got built, it would have gouged another hole in the street grid and separated downtown further from Midtown.

So a soccer stadium is indeed a higher use, even if it’s only used 17 days a year. And keep in mind, there will be peripheral events and activity as well. The MLS4THELOU website suggests the 2026 World Cup, FIFA soccer, high school and NCAA sports, concerts, etc.

But, the thing that will make or break this entire development for me as a concerned citizen/tax payer of St. Louis is the parking situation, the long-term, all-year impact on the Downtown West Neighborhood and it’s ability to connect to Downtown and Midtown.

Renderings have come and gone to entice the public and investors, but the massive amount of surface parking lots surrounding the stadium in one of the first sets of renderings was not at all a good sign.

WE DON’T WANT MORE SURFACE PARKING IN ST. LOUIS.

old rendering.jpg

Not to mention, take a look at the Market Street “Expressway” that has zero traffic calming efforts. It looks like an at-grade Interstate. Not good at all. The parking lots and stroads create an urban moat. An absolute dead zone 348 days out of the year.

Hey prospective visitors/fans driving in to these games, you can walk a block further than you already do for Blues games and still park in the exact same spot. There will be NO MORE MLS FANS THAN NHL FANS COMING TO GAMES. There are 2.5 times less soccer games than hockey games in a year. MLS stops in October, NHL starts in October, there is no overlap in parking capacity between the Blues and MLS games. No more surface parking is necessary! Use what we already have.

Now, the MLS group chose not to give too much context or a site plan in the most recent renderings. This is usually not a good thing. See the snippets on the periphery from their website:

There are hints at adjacent surface parking lots. Parking garages are better that surface parking only in that they can hold retail in the first floor. But that doesn’t make a wise use use of space.

What kills a downtown more than anything? Parking lots. They are dead zones. What do the haterz in the County and other surrounding cities say about St. Louis? “It’s dead”. “Why can’t we have a vibrant Downtown?” Well, the number one thing you can do to make a downtown or city more vibrant is to move yourself or your business to St. Louis if you want 24/7 vibrancy. You are either part of the problem or the solution.

Next best thing to rebuild a vibrant city? No more dead zone surface parking lots built for use ~17 days of the year.

Please, please MLS4STL, do the right thing and don’t destroy more of our city for more surface parking.

Density. People. Tight, urban, city spaces, not sprawling asphalt boredom that lasts for generations. Mixed uses!

Please. Let’s use this as an opportunity to appease suburbanite and other visitor’s desire for pro-sports all the while improving the city for the people that choose to live and work in St. Louis.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to connect our city. Connect our neighborhoods. And build something fantastic, sustainable and a clear enhancement for people who LIVE here in the city of St. Louis.

The parking that already exists for Cards and Blues games is enough. This stadium is ~1 block away from the Enterprise Center. People visiting here can walk an extra block. It’s actually good for you too.