[MLS SPOTLIGHT] An early start to the 2012 season may have caught fans in certain markets unaware, as the sellouts for home openers in Toronto, Philadelphia, Seattle, Montreal, and a few other cities weren’t replicated around the league.
As far as MLS has come in the past five or six years, packing the house for games early in the season isn't yet a slam-dunk.
Rainy, cold, windy weather impairs MLS crowds significantly in a few markets, though the stalwarts in the Northwest, Northeast, and Wasatch Mountains are not easily deterred. One driving force behind the league’s stadium-building craze of the past decade is to limit capacities sufficiently to fuel increased sales of season tickets and tickets bought in advance.
Though the in-stadium attendance can be affected by weather and other factors, a ticket bought is still paid for whether the buyer shows or not. The likelihood a ticket buyer will attend is much greater than is the possibility a prospective customer will elect to buy a ticket near kickoff time.
Chivas USA plays in one of the league’s biggest stadiums, and for much of its seven-year existence it has struggled to draw respectable attendances. Its troubles continue: for its home opener two weeks ago, a 1-0 loss to Houston, the Los Angeles Times referred to an attendance “generously announced at 14,464.”
Chivas USA has missed the playoffs the past two seasons and before had failed in four straight playoff series. The team recently admitted what many people have known for years: it is shopping around for a new home to replace Home Depot Center when its lease expires in 2014. A week later, a meager crowd of 7,723 showed up for the second home game of the season on a rainy night. Game reports listed the weather as "cold"; in Southern California, 56 degrees could be thus classified.
On that same (second) weekend of league play, dynamic FC Dallas drew 12,203 for its 1-1 tie with Portland, the glamour-laden Galaxy attracted 18,466 to witness a 3-1 thumping of D.C. United, and Real Salt Lake came close to a full house but fell short when 16,738 made it to Rio Tinto Stadium for a 2-0 defeat of the Red Bulls.
FC Dallas had opened at home a week earlier with a sellout of 20,906, so the dropoff for game two isn’t a huge concern. Perhaps the Galaxy fans were simply saturated, as a full house – at least per its quirky calculations – of 27,000 came out for the March 10 opener, a 3-1 loss to RSL. There’s new management in place in the Galaxy offices, so a few transitional snarls could be involved, yet filling that place on back-to-back weekends is a lot to ask, even for the defending champions.
The Galaxy had all its stars on the field to face D.C. United, so perhaps a shocking 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal second leg four days earlier killed the walk-up fans that might have bumped the figure over 20,000. Only 7,500 fans were able to see that game against TFC because of severe crowd restrictions during the school year for weeknight events. Or, maybe that loss to RSL convinced a few thousand to stay home.
In his state-of-the-league conference call with reporters prior to First Kick weekend, Commissioner Don Garber cited a record 87 sellouts in 2011. He acknowledged that along with a rising wave of success in most of its expansion markets, efforts are underway to improve those teams lagging behind: Dallas, Colorado, Chivas USA, New England, Chicago and Columbus.
Until the league decides to release the season-ticket numbers for every team, and not just for those teams selling like gangbusters, it will be difficult to ascertain how well those efforts are progressing.
This past weekend, only 12,925 fans showed up to see the Revs – winners of five straight home openers – beat the Timbers, 1-0. Apparently, fans were more cognizant of the meager five victories New England accumulated last year than its exemplary record in Gillette Stadium curtain-raisers, and not even the chance to see former defender Jay Heaps on the sideline as head coach provided much motivation.
It’s true that MLS started this season at the earliest point in its history, March 10, but that also means that fans whose home schedules started on the second or third weekend had ample notice to awake from their league-starved winter slumber. The fact that several established teams lurched out of the gate slowly confirms that generating league-wide enthusiasm for the start of a new season remains a significant problem.