Selling enough tickets for a nationally televised playoff game on short notice is beyond the capabilities of most MLS teams, whose gates are heavily predicated on season tickets and group sales, which require significant lead time and flat-out persistence to get done. Yet should Toronto FC or Seattle be allotted that match, the resources and manpower in those offices will put to shame the majority of MLS front offices.
The playoffs are their own animal, but for the purposes of publicizing and marketing and selling tickets, what a team has done during the regular season indicates what it can do for the playoffs. A much-ballyhooed drop in attendance in most league cities from regular-season average to early playoff figures is blamed on the relatively brief period in which to promote the games and sell tickets, but just as culpable are the relatively meager resources MLS teams allot to single-game and walk-up ticket sales.
Certainly the prestige and marketing might of the NFL Seahawks and the NHL Maple Leafs, respectively, give the Sounders and TFC a huge advantage, but it's precisely that buzz and reach that has turned Seattle into an MLS mecca, and driven three straight seasons of sellouts - not to mention a switch from turf to natural grass - at BMO Field.
The critical mass of fans who follow those teams intently is much greater than what Colorado and FC Dallas, to cite just two examples, have created in more than a decade of existence. TFC and Sounders fans, as well as those in D.C. and a few other places, go to games in droves regardless of day of the week or kickoff time.
Though five teams clinched more than a week ago, only Columbus knew it would host the second leg at home. Now Chicago has been assured of homefield advantage, but with four Western Conference teams, incredibly, bunched within one point, nothing may be known until Houston and Chivas finish their game Sunday afternoon. If the Galaxy beats San Jose Saturday night, it will win the conference title on tiebreakers regardless of the Chivas USA-Houston result, yet either of those teams, or Seattle, could still finish second.
ESPN2 is leaning toward a West Coast host for that first Thursday playoff slot, which would mean either of the Home Depot Center tenants or Seattle will get the nod. Yet it's possible all three of those teams could receive homefield advantage and play the first game on the road. What would happen then regarding that TV slot isn't clear.
The ESPN networks will televise five playoff games in addition to MLS Cup 2009: games on Thursday and Sunday through both legs of the conference semifinals, and a conference final Thursday, Nov. 12. The same format is in play this week, and on Thursday night's Chicago-Chivas USA game the network ran numerous promotions for its Sunday telecast of Columbus-New England. On Sunday's telecast, the network can promote its Thursday playoff game, and so the cycle will continue through the playoffs. Hopefully, the home fans in those markets will take the opportunity to set their home video systems to record a game they plan to attend in person.
ESPN2 also prompted a switch in the kickoff time of the Crew-Revs game, pushing it back an hour to 6 p.m. ET, so preceding programming wouldn't run into the MLS broadcast. That is a live Spanish League broadcast of Barcelona-Zaragoza, which makes for a nice cross-Atlantic doubleheader.
Four other playoff games will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel on weekends, so teams trying to sell playoff tickets will face unprecedented competition from national television in addition to the short lead times. Television also gets some of the blame for smaller playoff crowds, but that's another crutch some teams lean on to cover up their deficiencies. Seattle and TFC televise every game, home and away, and are one-two in average attendance.
TFC still has to qualify for the playoffs and may not get a chance to show how quickly it can sell playoff tickets. The Sounders are run by a football team in the midst of its season, so the postseason numbers at Qwest probably won't match those of the regular season. But these teams are debunking many of the myths and excuses behind which some teams have hidden for more than a decade.
The reputation of teams doing things right is spreading amongst the players and coaches, many of whom who will sooner or later gravitate to the superior organizations. If a player can at some point in his career choose between playing, even on turf, to packed houses at Qwest Field every week, or about 5,000 fans at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, the choice won't be very hard to make.