By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (July 4, 2012) US Soccer Players -- The Fourth of July, right in the middle of the Major League Soccer calendar, with a national celebration as a backdrop, seems tailor-made for MLS. For many years, record attendances around the League were tied to Independence Day celebrations. MLS loaded the schedule to take advantage of a public looking for family-friendly outdoors activities. MLS, like baseball, fit the bill. Come for the fireworks, watch a bit of professional soccer.
The League as consistently loaded up the Fourth with games, the better to take advantage of the holiday. Get the family crowd—Mom, Dad and the 2.5 soccer-playing kids—by packaging a soccer match with the usual Fourth of July festivities. The numbers showed the marketing strategy was fairly successful, with big crowds showing up for the soccer/pyrotechnics doubleheader. Of the top 20 largest attendances in MLS history, seven are from games on July 4th.
These days, those big attendance numbers are mostly derided. They were the product of gimmicky marketing, selling the fireworks, not the soccer, and say little about the about the popularity of MLS or the local team. Before the Beckham Effect, there was the Independence Day Impact, and only a small percentage of fans coming out for the once-a-year event would ever return.
Of course, teams goosed their attendance numbers by leveraging the Fourth. That was especially common for clubs playing in cavernous football stadiums. They would’ve been stupid not to, whether MLS was a League almost wholly dependent on gate receipts (it was) or not.
The impetus to push the holiday as a day of soccer has mostly faded. MLS has moved into smaller stadiums all over the country that are full, or mostly full, regardless of tacked on non-soccer events.
Consistent average is the focus, not massive one-off crowds that can be dismissed out of hand. Now, clubs will put on fireworks displays as a matter of course and tradition rather than as the main draw itself. There are a handful of teams that will draw larger than usual crowds thanks to a post-match fireworks display (and still need the help), but for the most part, the days of bringing in massive crowds thanks to something other than the actual product are over.
At some point over the last five years or so, as fan bases grew and the League’s profile expanded, the dynamic flipped for the Fourth. Come for the soccer, stay for the soccer. Oh, and there will be fireworks, too.
That’s not to say MLS has deserted the Fourth as an opportunity to showcase the League to potential new fans. Last year, the League scheduled three nationally televised games on the holiday. Perhaps the idea was to steal a bit of the Independence Day sports-viewing market, one that has belonged to Major League Baseball by default, via a full complement of televised soccer. It seems logical to take advantage of an open TV window with people home from work and kids out of school.
Just a year later, however, with the holiday falling directly in the middle of the week, MLS has chosen to avoid the Fourth for national TV altogether. Although the League schedule has two games on July 3rd and four on the 4th, none of them will be broadcast via the League’s national TV partners. Speaking to Footiebusiness, MLS’s VP of Club Services, Brad Pursel, explained the reasoning.
“We generally have very strong crowds on or around the 4th of July and the atmosphere was there; however, looking at the ratings from last year, we decided not to do as many games around the 4th this year. Last year the 4th of July was part of a long weekend and this year it’s midweek, so that also factored into the thought process.”
Pursel’s explanation of the League’s decision speaks to the difficulty of making an impact on a day when fans are typically not tied to their couches. An MLS game plus a fireworks display appealed to families specifically it met the holiday requirement, out of doors. Leveraging the holiday at the gate makes sense, because families are looking for somewhere to see a fireworks show, and a stadium is as good a place as any. Television doesn’t carry the same appeal, and for exactly the same reasons. All of the people that might otherwise tune in are out watching fireworks.
Over the course of its existence, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the biggest American holiday on the calendar has shifted, ever so slightly. The main marketing focus has moved away from families, incorporating hardcore and urban types who are likely to attend games no matter the extras on offer.
Many teams no longer have the need to turn Independence Day into a boffo box office event because they’ve moved into smaller, more soccer-centric facilities. The soccer itself is enough of a draw that selling the day a fireworks display with a soccer match isn’t necessary. The gimmicks have been left behind.
Fans will head out to the soccer park on the Fourth because they want to see their soccer team win a game. Maybe that’s a sign that MLS has gained its own independence.
More From Jason Davis: