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Expansion shrouds teams in trouble
by Ridge Mahoney, March 31st, 2009 6:30PM

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Though Columbus is the team that Hunt Sports Group is reportedly willing to sell, neither the defending champion Crew nor FC Dallas, the other HSG-property, is off to a great start at the gate.

Unfortunately for MLS, which has so far connected with its expansion choices, a few of its long-term members are already looking long in the tooth.

The Crew's home opener didn't knock anybody's socks off, either in the result - a 1-1 tie with Eastern Conference rival Toronto FC, which lost 2-0, in the same situation last year - nor at the turnstiles, through which 14,686 fans -- only about 75 percent of capacity - came to see the defending champion. And more than 1,500 of those fans were red-clad TFC rowdies, most of whom made the trip of eight hours from Toronto by car or bus.

But if that crowd was disappointing, the attendance at Pizza Hut Park Sunday rates as dismal. Playing Sunday afternoon on national TV (TeleFutura) might not be optimal conditions; still, the vitality and vibrancy of a supposedly ambitious team has to be questioned when a paltry crowd of 6,524 shows up for any game not played in a raging hurricane or searing heat wave.

FCD drew 15,905 fans for its opening game March 21, an attractive Brimstone Cup matchup against Chicago, which prevailed, 3-1. FCD hit the woodwork twice with the score, 2-1, and not until the third minute of stoppage time conceded the third goal. Most teams prefer not to play at home on both of the first two weekends of the season, as there's usually a rather steep dropoff from the first week.

That tired old truism, however, is being ridiculed by more recent entrants, notably Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, and this year, Seattle. TFC fills just about every seat for every game and there's no indication 2009 will be any different; the Sounders followed up on the crowd of 32,523 for their opener with 28,548 last Saturday. Chivas USA is hardly a raging success, yet it outdrew (16,453) every team except Seattle and Los Angeles for its home opener.

It's very early days, yet Seattle is on a pace to break the single-season record of attendance set by the Galaxy last year (26,009). Deprived of David Beckham and a noon Sunday kickoff for its opener, LA drew an announced crowd of 18,103.

No matter what RSL draws in its home opener Thursday against the Sounders, I doubt it will suffer a 60 percent dropoff when it hosts D.C. United nine days later. Granted, Rio Tinto Stadium is brand-new, but even while playing in the vast expanse of Rice-Eccles, the team outdrew many of its league rivals despite making the playoffs last year for the first time, in its fourth year of existence.

After opening Rio Tinto last October against the Red Bulls to a sellout crowd (20,008), RSL drew 17,628 fans nine days later. Its first playoff crowd slumped to 14,719, but the conference final against New York again packed the place.

That Juan Pablo Angel must be a heck of a draw, eh? Uh, no, not as such. Some teams do the hard work to sell tickets, some don't.
MLS can't run every franchise, though the original single-entity business plan envisioned, more or less, most team operations channeled through the league office. It has vastly expanded its ownership group since the days when the big three entities - Philip Anschutz/AEG, Kraft Soccer and HSG -- owned the entire league membership.

Unfortunately, the team that perhaps most needs new ownership has already been bought: the Colorado Rapids, which drew a miserable announced crowd of 11,885 for its home opener on the first weekend of the season. Game-time temperature was a crisp 38 degrees, yet the skies were clear. Purchased by entrepreneur Stan Kroenke from AEG in 2003, the Rapids have moved into a new stadium, Dick's Sporting Goods Park, yet consistently rank near the bottom in attendance. Accordingly, Mr. Anschutz, who lives near Denver, isn't pleased.

The team has formed an alliance with English Premier League club Arsenal, and this week Kroenke raised his ownership stake in that club to 20 percent. Commitment to his team closer to home seems much less. Or maybe he's built a fabulous facility in a moribund market.
Colorado narrowly escaped the axe when MLS contracted Miami and Tampa Bay prior to the 2002 season. Maybe somebody at league headquarters knew something.

The economic crisis has surely impacted attendances, and on the second weekend, teams missing players called away for international duty had some effect on crowds. Robust numbers in several cities and exciting prospects in Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland are encouraging. But the issues in Columbus, Dallas and Colorado won't go away.



0 comments
  1. Dave Kantor
    commented on: March 31, 2009 at 7:55 p.m.
    I think attendance has been MLS' "elephant in the room" for a long time, and I totally agree that the recent successes of Seattle, Toronto, and RSL have masked this issue. Garber has done a fine job as Commish, but I'm concerned that too much attention is being paid to expansion, and not enough on growing the fan base for the existing teams. It is so depressing to turn on an MLS game and see acres of empty seats - it makes such a negative statement about the support and relevance of the league. I think alarm bells should be going off at MLS HQ regarding the paltry attendance at some games.

  1. Stan Jumper
    commented on: April 1, 2009 at 12:06 a.m.
    Dallas has always supported winning teams. FC Dallas has yet to win any titles and until they begin winning, they will draw small crowds.

  1. Doug Huston
    commented on: April 1, 2009 at 10:11 a.m.
    Dallas and Kansas City have shown, for years, that they won't support MLS. Even San Jose, I think, may be in trouble. I just don't see the demand for tickets nor the enthusiasm I expected the second time around; just a little over 9K on a beautiful Sat. evening against the former Quakes (Houston). I don't know what happened in Columbus but there is a problem. The Galaxy's announced attendence (they've been inflating their announced attendence for years) was a joke to anyone who saw the game on TV. There were more people at the LA Sol game (WPS) then at the Galaxy game. Chivas drew more than the Galaxy. For them to announce over 18K at that game is a disgrace. The league has done well with expansion but does need to address problems with the "established" teams.

  1. Tom Agnew
    commented on: April 24, 2009 at 11:15 p.m.
    Dallas won't support support MLS because the ownership group does everything within its power to offend and/or inconvenience its fans.


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