By Paul Kennedy
As MLS enters its 20th season,
there are a lot of good stories. New York City FC and Orlando City should both draw big crowds for their first MLS seasons. San Jose is opening its new stadium in March. The season-ticket bases of all
three clubs will be at least 10,000.
Then there is the Montreal Impact, the club that has been left behind. That's not us sounding the alarm bells. That's Impact owner, Joey Saputo
, saying it. In a brutally frank discussion with Montreal media at a roundtable last week, Saputo laid it all out.
His message: Things haven't
gone as planned.
“The disappointment is thinking we’d be more relevant in the city after three years,” he said. “Either we missed the boat [in its promotional
efforts] or we missed the boat totally in thinking this was a soccer market. When you look a it, maybe we’re not the soccer market we thought we were. If it means we have to work harder,
we’ll work harder. But I won’t hide my disappointment with where we are in the overall sports landscape of Montreal.”
the Impact's struggles so surprising is that it came into MLS with a solid base. Of all the teams that joined MLS from the USL or NASL ranks, none matched Montreal for its fan support, not Seattle,
not Portland, not Vancouver.
Stade de Saputo opened in 2008 and was expanded when the Impact joined MLS in 2012. Montreal's average attendance of
21,688 for its three seasons ranks third all-time among MLS clubs, behind only Seattle and the LA Galaxy. But that's boosted by some huge crowds at Olympic Stadium for its first season before
renovations at Stade de Saputo were complete.
Since then, Montreal's average attendance dropped 10 percent in 2013 and another 15 percent in 2014. Only Chivas USA saw steeper drops the
last two season, and it is now out of the league.
Montreal and D.C. United will be the first MLS clubs to begin competitive action when they play
the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals that begin at the end of February. In 2009, the Impact played in the CCL quarterfinals and drew 55,571 fans at Olympic Stadium for its match against Santos
of Mexico. When Montreal faces Pachuca, another Mexican club, on March 3 in the second leg of the quarterfinals, it will be lucky to draw half that crowd.
“The buzz is not there
anymore,” Saputo said. “Not only for the Concacaf game, I can say the buzz for the Impact is not there. That worries me a lot.”
Season tickets are the life blood of any
sports club, and the Impact is lagging behind with only 5,000 season tickets sold for the 2015 MLS season. And that's after the club fell $2 million short of its target for ticket sales in 2014,
according to Saputo.
Saputo tried to sound positive about the 2015 season. The Impact cleaned house after it fell into the Eastern Conference basement in 2014.
“If people are saying ‘Let’s see what kind of team we have before buying season tickets,’ I can say we did our part,” said Saputo. “We
changed the team. We saw what wasn’t working last year. We brought in 11 new players. The 12th player, our fans, is tougher to sign.”
Still, the Impact has yet to make a
big-name signing to replace retired Italian star Marco Di Vaio
. Montreal made a bid to sign Alberto Gilardino
, but the
former Italian World Cup champion ended up moving to Guangzhou Evergrande in China on loan from Fiorentina. Saputo quashed rumors of the Impact trying to sign Antonio
as wishful thinking. He ripped Di Natale for believing "the streets of North America are paved with gold” and accused him of using the Impact and MLS to pump up his value.
Saputo tried not to sound too pessimistic. “It’s disappointing where we are now, but I don’t want people to start thinking we’re going to sell the team or shut it
down,” he said. “We’ll continue to be there, but we hope the trend changes.”
Still, he doesn't like the trend he sees across MLS. “When teams spent a lot of
money to bring in players," he said, "MLS likes that. But it’s not good for us because one of the teams that spends the most is our biggest rival."
Despite not making the playoffs
in any of its eight seasons in MLS -- the Impact made the playoffs in its second season -- Toronto FC is expanding its BMO Field to 30,000 and continues to pump big money into its team, splashing out
$35 million to sign Juventus midfielder Sebastian Giovinco
and bringing in Jozy Altidore
to join buddy Michael Bradley.
“Over time, only certain teams will keep spending, that is Los Angeles, Toronto and New York, and there will be those three teams
and then all the rest,” Saputo said. “On one hand, it’s good because it brings credibility to the league, but long term, I fear it may hurt the league.”
whose family dairy business had revenues of $7.2 billion -- U.S. dollars -- in 2014, sounded like he was pleading poverty when he talked about MLS Commissioner Don
's goal of making MLS a league of choice for international stars.
“For sure, if you spend crazy amounts on players it will be the league of choice," Saputo argued. "But
for me, it’s not the way to do it."