Let’s talk about MLS attendance

Is anyone else tired of hearing about the attendance numbers in MLS? Perhaps I’m in the minority here…but while ticket sales are important, it shouldn’t be the only thing people look at.

Today’s Kansas City Star has an article about the Wizards declining attendance numbers.

Today’s sports market is more than just ticket sales though. It’s about marketing and sponsorship. In many cases, sponsorship (and TV rights) brings in more money than ticket sales these days. However, I’d live with the argument that in order to bring in more money from sponsorship, you first need people viewing the product to make the investment of sponsors worthwhile.

I’ve been saying since ’96 that MLS (both league and teams) need to spend more time marketing teams and bringing the fact that they represent the location where they play rather than their current MO of selling individuals.

Take my experience in LA. In ’96 we got Jorge Campos, Cobi Jones, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Andrew Shue as the big names we’d see the sales department tout. So, looking back now 10 years later, Cien and Cobi worked out pretty well. Shue was well out of his depth and hardly saw the pitch and Campos was just a bust and ended up getting traded to Chicago for Kevin Hartman. Since then, LA has had Carlos Hermosillo (over the hill and useless), Luis Hernandez (forgot he had to work) and Hong Myung-bo (see Hermosillo) brought in to boost ticket sales. Not one of the big names worked when it came to selling tickets.

LA has won the Champions Cup, the Open Cup and the MLS Cup in the 9 years they’ve existed. Not won of those trophies were won with any of the ‘big name’ signings involved.
But let me get back to the article for a minute.

Obviously, the “Freddy Factor” has worn off. Last season, when teenage phenom Freddy Adu joined D.C. United as the league’s highest-profile, — and highest-paid — rookie ever, attendance for United road games spiked at 23,686. Thus far this season, that average has dropped by nearly 10,000, to 13,954. D.C., which won the MLS Cup championship last November over the Wizards, has also dropped inhome attendance, from 17,232 to 16,400.

I realize MLS had to do everything they could to sign young Freddy…and they sure need some return on their investment. But to expect a 14 (now 16) year old to come in and set the league on fire was a joke. He’s a damn good player for someone of his age…but as we’ve now seen, he’s well out of his depth and needs time to develop. Hype doesn’t product long-term commitment.

MLS was anticipating a much greater boost from the addition of CD Chivas USA as an expansion team, hoping it would draw in the legions of Hispanic soccer fans in this country. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Chivas, which visits Kansas City on Saturday, has struggled on the field, as its 1-11-3 record suggests, and off, drawing just 12,288 at home and 13,670 away.

I’ve posted on here that Jorge Vargara had the right idea in the creation of Chivas. However, he forgot one important factor; they have to have some decent players. Sorry, but the has-beens they brought from Mexico fall into the Campos/Hermosillo/Bo category.

Of course, I’d argue that he’d have better results in the stands at this point if he’d have named the team Los Latino…but I guess that wouldn’t have worked with his desire to market the team in Mexico more north of the border. (BTW, Chivas have been screwed by Sepp Bladder his his instance on Chivas players being in Germany right now rather than fighting for the Copa Libratadoras…but that’s for another day)

Perhaps the greatest budding young star in U.S. soccer today is FC Dallas forward Eddie Johnson. He’s been featured in Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine and has been highlighted nearly every time the U.S. men’s national team plays. Yet, FC Dallas is averaging a league-low 9,093 for its games at The Cotton Bowl.

Of course, leaving their fan base and moving to Southlake didn’t help any. Again, a single player (add Carlos Ruiz and Ronnie O’Brien to the mix as well) won’t make a difference here.

This may also shed some light on the missing fans.

Generally, the league has a spike at the first of the season, then struggles a bit with schools still in and colder weather, said Dan Courtemanche, senior vice president of marketing and communications with MLS. The last four seasons, from this point, attendance has increased anywhere from 3 to 16 percent to the end point of the season. If that trend continues, then we should come back to where it once was.

That’s right! We haven’t had the 4th of July games yet. That always spikes attendance. Add in a couple of World Cup Qualifiers to the mix and the attendance numbers look pretty darn good.
But are they as good as they could be? There shouldn’t be such massive spikes in attendance. Yeah, you’ll get more people at any sporting event with fireworks (MLB has known this for years) but with the smaller stadiums being built, the only way teams in LA, Columbus, Dallas and Chicago will be able to benefit from better attendance with fireworks is if they bump prices for the single game as they won’t have thousands of empty seats to fill.

So I’m back to the argument I’ve been making for almost 10 years. Work on the TEAM. Put the best possible 11 players on the pitch you can with the limited resources available. True fans of the sport will start to show up. Watching one or two quality players–especially if they are interviewing retirement homes–and a bunch of low-cost filler isn’t going to excite loyal patrons. The people who watch the sport in this country aren’t stupid and know an inferior product when they see it. Give us the best you can and people will show up without all the player hype.

After all, if Ipswich can finish 5th in the Premiership (yeah it was a fluke–but I’ll take it) and beat Inter Milan in the home leg of the UEFA Cup only 4 years ago with a stadium that then held less than the HDC…there must be a way for MLS to get it’s act together.


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