The MLS season is a few weeks old and writers are looking for headlines. While we can argue all season about the quality of play (how many times will I write that clause this summer?), there is no arguing with numbers, right? Hard numbers, the stand and be counted type, are like bricks in the face, unavoidable yes? It’s no doubt a big HUGE year for MLS. You could argue it’s the first year for MLS. After a decade of growth and the busiest off-season with the biggest influx of talent the league has ever seen, the time, if ever, might be now. There are new looks from strangers and harder stares from hardcore fans. Where will it all come down after November 18? I’d like to wait and see before making judgments, guesses, speculations, but for many writers on deadline (for an article or a bill), there isn’t that sort of patience. We need conclusions now damnit! Bring on the numbers!
X-number of people go to the game. While it’s not perfect, there is probably no simpler way to look at MLS success. You can distort dollar figures, ratios, and averages, but that doesn’t change the fact that 12,481 people went to the last match at Giants Stadium. Chivas pulled in a mere 11,253 at the Home Depot center. Dallas pulled 20,500 against Colorado, with LA and DC pulling in over 20K as well - 23,596 and 22,358, respectively. Salt Lake had 16,157, Chicago: 11,717, Columbus: 13,290. New England had 18,184 for their home opener, and Houston had 16,519 a few weeks ago. Kansas City and Toronto are still awaiting their first home games.
So what does it mean? Nothing without context. Some of these figures come from home openers, which typically are inflated. You could argue the second or third games take a hit – it’s early in the season and not the home opener – but too, shouldn’t people be excited early on, especially when, I don’t know, the defending champs come to town? There is also the weather, which was mighty cold and wet the last few weeks across much of the nation. But add in perfect weather and the fact that the home opener was played in a torrential downpour, and 12,481 starts looking kind of small. Even at the future home of the Bulls, Red Bull Park, while their voices may fill the air, their butts will only fill half of the 25,000 seats. What’s a good American soccer crowd anyhow? Do we even have something to work with, to make educated judgments?
Chivas USA – “the Mexican team that claims to have the largest following of any professional team in Los Angeles (yes, more than the Lakers or Dodgers)”??? - might be the most interesting example – troubling if you’re Luis Bueno, who delves into the lackluster attendance numbers of the other LA team. Giving a lot of space to Chivas’ previously misfired marketing, he makes a lot of intriguing points that get you thinking about the hard numbers, of which the piece is chalk full, but I just don’t think marketing has that much sway.
Sure, they bungled their first campaign, but after you hear rumors of Chivas fans switching to Galaxy fans, whether due to Beckham or not, their seems to be more problems for Chivas than targeting Mexican costumers. Bueno, however, after admitting the poor performance of the 2005 team, still maintains the “real damage” was done off the field by the marketing. Will a stronger team this year, which they do have, bring more fans?
I think this is the unasked question Luis is chasing. Part of me feels Chivas gets a pass this year no matter what, though, because Beckham will be locking that town down in a few months, skewing all the data. At the end of the year, I would love to see a spreadsheet with all of the attendance noted for each team, and for each DP player. So, you’d have for example, the Red Bulls overall average attendance, their attendance for games with Beckham, games with Blanco, etc. Let’s see once and for all if the numbers support the suggestion from just about everybody that these single players can sell tickets.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber responded to Bueno’s obvious leanings toward worry-mode, by saying, “…we’re going to have to find a way to attract a larger fan base to come into the stadium. It’s a beautiful facility. We’re going to have to dig deep and figure out what we need to do to ensure that we get a larger crowd.”
Pretty standard, but you have to acknowledge that he is at least putting the responsibility on the league. I for one, think the fans have more to do with it, but hey, what do I know – I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks those UPS ’whiteboard’ commercials are stupid.
Meanwhile, as noted by Bueno, the Galaxy charge more for the same ticket in the same venue, and more people still show up. You have to wonder if any market can support two teams, even a place where one team is supposed to represent, at least partially, a minority population. For that reason alone, I think Chivas comes off a bit contrived no matter its poor marketing strategies. After reading Luis’ piece and scanning all these numbers, I’m not sure a two-team markets could work anywhere, New York included. While LA and NYC have proven the ability to support multiple franchises in one sport, there is more competition from other entertainment options than ever before, none more than in LA or NYC. There is a reason, please remember, why nearly 100,000 people attended the University of Alabama spring football scrimmage in Tuscaloosa.
The problem remains that even the hard numbers are confusing when placed in the context of the league, opponents, DP contracts, weather, etc, etc, etc. So what’s a critical eye to do? Give it some time, no matter the selfish need for immediacy, is really the only way to go, though it may not be too far down the road where 15,000 fans has to become an acceptable MLS average. At somepoint, the numbers do mean something outside the context of the league. But not yet.
As if I haven’t given enough modifiers and reasons to discredit the numbers, or at least give some pause to quick reactions, TV is just starting to come into play with new deals between networks and MLS, though it seems Canadians, including its players, are not watching (why can’t they get tapes from the league?). As more people watch MLS on TV - 460,000 took in the ABC opener this year - they may be persuaded to come out to a game. In my book, TV distribution and a good product are the best kind of marketing, and this year is MLS’ first chance to utilize, if not capitalize on, those opportunities.
(There is also the problem of the popularity of foreign leagues. It’s no secret some people would rather watch soccer on tape delay from Europe or South America instead of going to or watching a live MLS game. What other sport has so many roadblocks to success?)
American soccer is working on itself, which deserves some credit. Should you be satisfied? No, but we have to be realistic. From youth levels to MLS, from local news to Fox Soccer Channel, growing pains are going to happen; Find me a 11-year-old who isn’t annoying.
The question remains how much patience do you have? Shall we wait for maturity, hoping this is just a phase, or is this the man-boy we’re stuck with forever?
Check out the Kansas City Wizards game tonight – on a weeknight (yet another variable) - and keep in mind their MLB team, the Royals, have averaged 21,812 fans so far this year; 2006’s season average was 24,294 (for more comparison, the Yankees were tops with 44,943). Last Sunday’s Royals game against the Twins drew 14,801. Sure the Royals suck, but besides some good jazz, what else is happening in KC? All of a sudden, 12,481 for soccer in New York ain’t looking that bad.