In The End It’s About Attendance

26May2010MLMain

By Michael Lewis - NEW YORK, NY (May 25, 2010) US Soccer Players -- Build it and they will come. Man, have we heard that phrase so many times the past two decades? Actually, it's 'build it and he will come,' but we're splitting hairs in this column.

So are people coming to MLS soccer-specific stadiums?

Well, they are and they aren't. Of course, they are coming. People are watching the games. But are they coming in droves? Are they filling up every stadium or at least getting near capacity?

No and that's a big resounding no.

Not of one soccer-specific stadiums is being filled to capacity this season. The best is Toronto FC which is filling BMO Field to 91.7 percent capacity. Next is Real Salt Lake at 77.3. At the bottom of the barrel are FC Dallas at an embarrassing 45.6 percent and Chivas USA (53.7).

Yours truly has covered the Red Bulls from Day One in 1996 and has witnessed all of the ups and downs of the franchise that started out called the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. With a new stadium, you would have thought that soccer fans would be flocking to it to watch an improved team open a fabulous facility that is the envy of the League.

Except it hasn't worked out that way. After five MLS home games, the Red Bulls are averaging 16,740. That certainly is an encouraging and superb increase of 55 percent over the same period last year, the largest jump in the League. But in many ways that is a disappointing number when you consider the mega-population of New York/New Jersey area and the many soccer fans who live there. There has been only one sellout (25,000) - the grand opening match between the Red Bulls and Santos (Brazil) on March 20th. The Red Bulls' season opener vs. Chicago crew 24,572 and it has been a struggle to reach 18,000 since.

Has there been too much soccer?

Red Bull Arena has hosted 10 soccer games - five MLS matches, two US Open Cup play-in games (with a third slated for Wednesday) and three international friendlies. Before the World Cup break in June, a dozen games will have been played in 77 days at RBA.

"I think we're asking a lot from our core season ticket holders with our firendlies and we understand that," Red Bulls managing director Erik Stover said. "Not that we don't want them to come, but we understand if having five friendlies, whatever, we end up with, is asking too much of them. We get that."

The Red Bulls decided to play international clubs with potentially thousands of followers in the adjacent ethnic populations. Italian giants Juventus, which the Red Bulls defeated Sunday, 3-1, and Cruzeiro of Brazil on June 18th.

"What we're trying to do, particularly with Juventus and Cruzeiro is opening this club up to people who we know are passionate about this sport and in this market who don't know a lot about the stadium and don't know a lot about our club in particular," Stover said.

Many Red Bulls fans have been frustrated by the slow game-day traffic around the stadium in Harrison, NJ and the fact adjacent parking is at a premium. Some fans have stayed away or might not have attended as many games as they have planned.

The Red Bulls also might have put many of their resources into building and promoting the stadium's opening. For example, old advertisements touting the opening of the RBA in March were seen as recently as last week in midtown Manhattan and on I-78 in New Jersey. They went over one of their budgets and could not advertise in some places they had done in the past. Whether it will hurt them in the long run, it remains to be seen.

As for the rest of the League along with the Red Bulls, here are some trends for why teams are falling short of the mark in those new stadiums:

Poor marketing

Some teams just don't get it to begin with or fail to put in the work to see it through. You have to research and know your market and learn the proper buttons to push. If a team is not pushing any, they cannot expect a return. That old adage, "You have to spend money to make money," is never more appropriate in sports marketing.

Advertising, or the lack of

Unfortunately, it is somewhat impossible to see how much advertising all 16 teams are doing at a particular moment. But some teams don't do enough, whether it is budgetary reasons or philosophical or some other reason. That much is obvious.

The novelty wears off

This has happened in baseball. The Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles opened state-of-the-art stadiums years ago and fans flocked to games, which were sold out not for weeks, but for years. But after years of having mediocre teams, they don't draw like they once did. Some MLS teams are already working through this. The Columbus Crew, which gave us the very first soccer-specific stadium in 1999, and FC Dallas are perfect examples. Even though the Crew won the 2008 MLS Cup, had the best record last season and is undefeated this year (6-0-2) the team continues to struggle to fill Columbus Crew Soccer Stadium after four games.

The R word

Let's face it, there are some greater forces that are out of our control, such as the economy. And if one or both parents are out of jobs, it is much more important to find way to pay the mortgage and/or rent and to feed their family than to attend sporting events on a regular basis. No easy solution here. Just pray that the economy improves - quickly - for everyone's sake.

The W word

That's weather, another factor that teams cannot change. You certainly can't blame anyone for staying away on a blustery day or during a torrential rain storm. But what is a team's excuse when you see the sun's ray reflect off of empty sections and seats on a beautiful day?

The Y word

For years we have been hearing how millions of children play the sport. And for years we have seen how so few attend games on a regular basis. Plus, too many games are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when many youth clubs play. It's difficult enough for a team when a game is played in the afternoon because of the league's TV contract, but they should not force afternoon games down anyone's throats. It might be conducive for newspaper's deadlines, but there is less atmosphere at day games.

The team's performance

Also known as the P word, this is the most damning reason why fans stay away. You don't win and fans don't come in. All the marketing and special nights in the world cannot make up for a woeful product on the field. Sure, a giveaway or a David Beckham appearance will bring in a big crowd once in a while. But without a winning team, at least one that records W's at home, clubs are in deep trouble.

Teams have to find a way to create a stronger bond between themselves and their supporters so when there is a recession on the field - ie. a poor season or two - fans won't stay away in droves. For the most part, teams go in cycles. There will be ups and there will be downs for every side.

Creating those bonds is not easy, especially with the adult attention deficit syndrome creeping into more and more of our society today. But that's any team's challenge, whether it be MLS, Major League Baseball or NBA. No one cannot afford to leave even one fan, including potential ones, or leave any stone unturned when it comes to attracting larger crowds.

Saying that, give major props to Toronto soccer fans, who keep filling up most of BMO Field, despite having three consecutive playoff-less seasons. How long will they be patient, especially when the novelty wears off?

We'll see.

Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.

13 Responses to In The End It’s About Attendance

  1. Today, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to market.

    It is about using the tools that are available to reach the audience you are trying to attract. Social media tools provide an effective means of getting information out.

    Yet, I find that no one is really using some of the Internet marketing tools available to sell tickets. Why don’t the establish relationships with sites and pay commission on tickets sold from referrals through their site?

  2. Zygi says:

    First of all the MLS attendance is a fiction.MLS real attendance is except for Seattle and Toronto 3K per team!
    To get good attendance MLS need to change the style of play!
    If all MLS teams were playing similar style soccer as DC United 2005 dribbling( not 2006 no dribbling),attacking,ball possession soccer that has to involve a lot of dribbling.People want to see some magic!

  3. East River says:

    The F word for Flaky or failure

    American Soccer fans seem to me to be the most flaky soccer out there. People mention weather its too cold or too hot or its about to rain or whatever so thats why they did go to the game. But at the same time across town baseball fans come out to see the Yankees and Mets or whoever. NFL teams play regular season games in open air cold weather cites and fans relish the experience. American soccer fans? Don’t even think about.

    Its Mother’s day or its too far, yet NFL teams can play 30 or 40 miles away from a city center and still draw big crowds. Hell Redbull played in the same stadium as the Gaints and Jets and their fans would travel to see those teams no matter how much the Jets sucked. Redbull fans not so much b/c of a lack of transportation/location?

    American fans/soccer fans have yet to gain an attachment to their teams. MLS and its teams have done things over the years to sabotage fan interest, losing season after season, losing in front of big crowds (missed opportunities), and not taking Concacaf Champions League serious (missed opportunity to win over Spanish speaking fans and even English speaking Caribbeans). Because of this MLS teams have failed to burn themselves into the mind of the locals. The closest we have seen do that so far has been Seattle. Tapping into the old NASL glory with teams who have been in the local mind off and on for 30 years is a smart move (Sounders, Timbers, and Whitecaps) people know those names in those markets.

    Winning over fans takes time and epic games from an epic season that build legends that live in the hearts of fans of the sport and the local casual sports fan. Until that happens we will continue to see every word imaginable used as excuse for why fans can not or did not come out to a game.

  4. zygi says:

    Cont.Since people want to see on soccer games some magic and magic in soccer means mostly dribbling,MLS must encourage players to dribble.The best tool to achieve this in MLS disposal is refereeing.According to the soccer rules,soccer is a non contact sport.But referees ignore this and allow full body contact,shoulder to shoulder pushing is a norm.Tolerance for this make skills on the ball less important,players have to relies the ball as soon as they get it,because if they keep it they will be immediately fouled (one touch soccer).And coaches do not allow players to dribble any more.But dribbling is the most entertaining thing in soccer!For me game without dribbling is boring,zero zero score is good if in the game there was a lot of dribbling.Goals are interesting only if they are being scored after a dribbling rides.The last time I saw a player dribbling on MLS it was in 2005, since than no more dribbling.MLS has to select and train MLS own referees,that would enforce a non contact game.Because referee can not referee game in USL in different way and next week in MLS in different way. Mr.Machnik that is for last 15 years responsible for refereeing in MLS is not doing this job well.Because now with current refereeing coaches who coach nice to watch artistic soccer are loosing games to teams that play athletic boring game.

  5. thomas says:

    More attendance analysis – yawn, yawn, yawn.

    This kind of post is just so much TV executive rubbish.

    Do something positive like make a guide – like this: link to footballgroundguide.com

    Maybe create a league table of fan experience around the league – now that would be meaningful feedback!

  6. kyle says:

    “Maybe create a league table of fan experience around the league – now that would be meaningful feedback!”….

    what does that even mean?

    constructive criticism always good, but I wish people who are going to trash an article and then try to sound like they have all the right ideas would at least expand on their idea. who would even know what it means to “create a league table of fan experience” or even how to go about doing it.

  7. East River says:

    I agree with you Kyle, I didn’t know what Thomas was was getting at. Thomas, please explain what you mean in further detail.

  8. zygi says:

    Another aspect are stadiums.What do you mean soccer specific stadium? The best designed soccer stadiums are in Great Britain,so please compare how game presentation looks on British stadiums and how it looks on MLS’s the so called “soccer specific” stadiums.Soccer specific does not mean concert specific.Even Red Bull’s stadium is inferior to British stadiums,it has high wall around the field so the lowest seat raw is too high and is most of the time out of TV camera view,as a result on TV we do not see as much interaction between the game and the soccer fans as on TV from British stadiums,which is essential in order for good TV spectacle.And the big building with luxury suites inside the stadium will make it difficult to achieve good atmosphere within the stadium.Other MLS stadiums are even worse.Proper aesthetics are essential.It is better to have 10k seats British style stadium than 20k seats concert specific stadium.And the icy cold metal benches are not good too.

  9. kyle says:

    I dont know how long you have been watching MLS and this could be why you are railing on the author about the term “soccer specific”, but the MLS teams used to use NFL stadiums…”football specific” and even “football specific” stadiums have concerts in them. MLS has finally started to make headway on having each of the teams have a stadium built for themselves “soccer specific”. I think the term “soccer specific” generally means you arent going to turn the TV on and see a pitchers mound in the middle of the field (dc united days of sharing RFK with the Nationals) or football field markings all over the pitch (almost all the original MLS games). You may be totally dissatisfied with how things look in MLS, but in my opinion the league has tremendous progress in this department. Of course perfection is what people are looking for, but we have to keep in mind this is a work in progress and we have to be happy with the gains we make in order to make soccer a success in this country and these “soccer specific” stadiums are one of the current achievements even if they have to rent out the stadium for concert events. Be happy you arent watching a game that has football field markings in white and the soccer markings in yellow like it used to be haha

  10. zygi says:

    Kyle you sound like Garber.I watch MLS for 15 years,I have seen 80 MLS games per year on average.For me the best and the most entertaining soccer team I ever saw was Brazil 1982.I also liked Argentina 94 with Maradona and Nigeria 94 and that kind of soccer I want to see in MLS and only that kind of soccer can succeed in America on club level.But in order to sell the game proper aesthetics are needed.And British soccer stadiums aesthetics are the best so MLS should copy them.People want to come to game and have illusion that thy are in England and they are ready to pay for that.And TV viewer wants to have illusion of being in England.So especially for TV viewer stadium aesthetics are crucial.In sports and entertainment image and aesthetics is everything.So why MLS takes aesthetics so lightly? For the same amount of money MLS can build better stadiums!If MLS build wrong stadiums it will harm MLS for next 30-40 years.If MLS can not afford 20k capacity stadiums have smaller stadiums but with proper aesthetics.Just compare how good on TV looks game on British stadiums and how ugly game looks on Italy’s Serie A stadiums.For the same money MLS can build no good looking stadium like in Mexico or good like in England !The 3k average real attendance (except for Seattle and Toronto) and subzero TV ratings show that MLS minimalistic approach does not work.

  11. zygi says:

    The problems with MLS started right at the beginning in 1995 when US Soccer president mr.Allan Rotenberg set MLS for destruction,by setting unrealistic restriction for only 3 foreign players per team.Rotenberg ignored the fact that in 96 in US we had only dozen players who could play on any professional level.So every MLS team had on roster 20 players: 3 foreigners, 1-2 Americans with any soccer skills and the rest 15-16 players were amateurs with little soccer skills.And they made such teams play on big,expensive stadiums.This is the same as to stage a play on Broadway with amateurish actors and expect profit.Players took fool advantage of this by collecting on purpose yellow and red cards and faking injuries so they would not have to travel to games and during games they were relaxed and were laughing.I remember seeing on TV US Open Cup in 97 when Argentinian Peinado from Dallas was laughing seeing Dallas player Allan Shuter trying seriously execute free kick.To this you add soccer illiterate GM’s being made responsible for hire and evaluation of coaches,plus soccer ignorant commissioners.So such a league could survive only by heavy subsidy from rich owners. MLS was always a charity for unskilled players,incompetent coaches,soccer ignorant GMs and soccer ignorant commissioners.

  12. kyle says:

    Well, I take exception to a few of your points.
    1. “I have seen 80 MLS games per year on average.” that is an incredible amount of time and money viewing a league you hold with such disdain. Maybe its just me but if I was so dissatisfied with a product as you seem to be I wouldnt pay to see 80 games a year.
    2.”But in order to sell the game proper aesthetics are needed.And British soccer stadiums aesthetics are the best … Just compare how good on TV looks game on British stadiums and how ugly game looks on Italy’s Serie A stadiums. MLS can build no good looking stadium like in Mexico” … so according to this logic serie A and the mexican league are either failures or doomed for failure because they dont have stadiums like in England. I dont mean this in an offensive way but they seem to have sold it to you pretty well being as you are paying to see them 80 times a year and even watch it on TV. Now of course I actually think you are highly exaggerating this “80 times a year” but if its true…wow that is dedication and I actually applaud you supporting the league so much. I havent been to a game now in 2 years. I used to go 3-4 times a year but not anymore

    3. The 3k average real attendance (except for Seattle and Toronto) ” so i guess the rest of the league is lying when they report 14,000 average attendance and they just say “oh those 11,000 imaginary people really are there. just ignore the 11,000 empty seats”

    now I totally agree with you that the MLS tv ratings are dismal. no hiding that fact.

  13. K.C. says:

    Seattle Sounders FC play at Qwest Field which is home to both them and the NFL team Seattle Seahawks. The Sounders report a “sell out” game when it hits something like 25k +. The last few games have reached 30k + and the international friendly vs. Argentina’s Boca Juniors was 40k+. So yes, while they don’t sell out the entire NFL sized stadium which can hold 60k+, they do have a heafty fan base. I have also been to the stadium for the 2009 MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake vs. L.A. Galaxy and that was completely sold out (entire stadium).