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Take Me Out to the Ballgame… or not

Posted on by Peter C

rfk crowd 300x226 Take Me Out to the Ballgame... or notAfter reading the piece on 2-0 v 0-2 teams at Climbing the Ladder, my own interest in numbers has led me to offer these early season tidbits on MLS attendance.

First off, for all of my observations, I’ve taken the 4 teams playing in football stadiums, DCU in RFK, Houston in Robertson, New England in Foxboro, and RBNY in the Meadowlands and assigned maximum capacities as follows, DCU-22,500, Houston-22,500, New England-22,500 and RBNY-25189(the posted capacity of Red Bull Arena). I took the 22,500 from an approximate average of the soccer specific stadiums in use. Of course, the showing is Seattle is a vision of a possible future for soccer in America, but for now, I”m sticking with the 22,500 number.

Now for some numbers…

In week one, the average attendance for the 7 games was 17,095. This translated into an average of 84.9% of capacity. In ’08 6 games drew 80.1% of capacity.
In week two, the average attendance for the 7 games was 14,168. This translated into an average of 67.8% of capacity. In ’08 7 games drew 81.9% of capacity.

Here are some factors may lead to some analysis of the early MLS season.

Both Saturdays had NCAA basketball tournament games. Saturday 2 had the US-El Salvador match in conflict with most of the matches. I’ll leave the MLS/Nats discussion for others at this time, there are certainly plenty of smart soccer voices speaking to this issue. Saturday 2 wasn’t the season opener for anyone except RSL, who played away in Seattle.

Three teams were at home for weeks 1 and 2; FC Dallas, San Jose and Seattle. Seattle went from 117.4% of capacity to 103.1%. I suspect they’ll settle on a final ‘regular’ capacity after a few more weeks, but for now I’m using their own number of 27,700. San Jose went from 100.34% to 89.1%. Not bad, but with a cap of 10,300 I think most folks would expect 100% for the entire season. I know I do. And then there’s Dallas, which drew 77.6% of capacity for its opener against Chicago, but drew a paltry 6,524, or 31.8% while hosting Chivas USA in week 2. New York was the other team with under 50% attendance in week 2, their home opener. Their showing in Seattle must have turned off some folks, you think?

And while I’m on this attendance kick, here is my calculation for the ‘Beckham effect’ in MLS. For all teams except LA, I took the ’07 and ’08 seasons’ average for all home games and subtracted the LA visit to get a non-Beckham average. I then found the differential from that average and the LA game. For LA I used their 2006 average for a baseline. The result? I get the number of just over 462,000 over the 2 year period, 6.9% of the two year league total. At a later time I’ll extrapolate the increase to approximate a dollar figure that the increase represents. And then there’s the 600,000 jersey sales, but that’s for another post.

If you want to get a head start on the money aspect, this report by HVS prepared for Portland’s push for MLS found at Footiebusiness, can be culled for game day spending in the league. You can also use numbers provided in the Forbes report.

What are we to make of this? I dunno, it’s probably too soon to tell, but future posts will probe more deeply the business of MLS and the relationship of attendance to profitibility. Should prove interesting especially given that FC Dallas was named in the Forbes report as one of 3 MLS teams turning a profit.

14 Responses to Take Me Out to the Ballgame… or not

  1. If you take Seattle out of the equation and yet concede that TFC has not yet had a home match, the attendance league wide is way way down thus far this year. It’s a combination of the economy, the Hexagonal (which has previously affected MLS crowds in 1997, 2001, and 2005) and perceived poor football. MLS has been exposed as a subpar product on the field, largely because of expansion and the salary cap.

    The core MLS fan is not bothered by the leagues failures in CONCACAF but I’ve spoken to a number of football fans in the NY metro area who now think MLS is waste to watch based on 3 of 4 MLS teams bombing out of the competition against sides from perceived weaker leagues.

    I know USL has similar issues. They kick off next month and despite the run of two of its clubs in CONCACAF, the other clubs are expecting to struggle. One club, Atlanta which contrary to published reports is STILL IN BUSINESS, but has suspended operations for one year

    BTW, the Silverbacks own their own stadium and plan to return. They just didn’t enter the league for 2009. Keep in mind USL is not a single entity league and teams can come and go as they please. Atlanta is still very much in business but will not field a team in 2009. This is risky, but given the economy their owners made a call they have to live with.

    This is going to be a rough year because of the economy plus the availability of European and Latin football both on TV and in the friendly form this summer. With limited cash on hand, lots of families are making the conscious decision not to go to the stadium to watch MLS or USL this year but may increase the TV/Broadband viewership for both leagues by staying at home.

    Also, MLS has traditionally dipped in attendance in the US’ Hexagonal year. With the US playing five key home games, many like myself travel to the national team matches and skip MLS or US entirely. That factor cannot be under estimated.

    Next year with the US abroad in South Africa, MLS and USL attendance is likely to get a bounce from the World Cup and recover.

  2. Angry USA Fan says:

    Honestly, the MLS product is more and more watered down with expansion. I live near an MLS city (Denver) and stopped going to the Rapids games regularly. Besides, the games from April thru August don’t matter anyhow. I cannot speak for USL, Kartik. Never been near a USL city but they have playoffs also so I assume it’s the same.

  3. Tim Cree says:

    The problem is starting the season the MLS season the same weekend as March Madness. If someone was -trying- to pick the worst weekend to open up with games, this would be it. There is no coverage on television as everything is directed towards the brackets and even the people who have never watched a basketball game in their lives fill out a bracket anyway. Maybe week 1 of the MLS season needs to start midweek, so that it will be the only sporting event occurring.

    Starting the MLS season the same weekend as MM is like opening your romantic comedy the same weekend as Die Hard 5 – sure, some folks will show up but your noise, publicity…everything will be drowned out. And as anyone who follows movies knows, if you don’t do anything the first week, you won’t do anything after that either. MLS needs to hammer home their opening weekend and get people locked into the notion of watching or attending then, not later.

  4. PZ says:

    So, if I’m reading your post properly, Beckham only resulted in an attendance increase of just under 7%? Less than 1/2 a million tickets. Don’t forget, none Beckham games also benefited from him as teams required you buy tix to more than one match to see him…so, perhaps the gap should be a little larger.

    However, at, let’s say, $35/ticket on average (just throwing a number out) and 1/2 million tickets…that’s hardly worth the money spent on him the last two years.

    Of course that doesn’t take sponsorship money, TV rights to places who’d never heard of MLS and other revenue sources.

  5. Peter C says:

    One suggestion I saw(can’t remember where) was for MLS to timeshift it’s schedule when it conflicts with USMNT Hex matches. Either play earlier in the day or move the matches to Sunday.

  6. Peter C says:

    PZ:
    On the surface it would seem like the return on Beckham hasn’t been that great, but a little extended number crunching tells a different story.

    additional ticket sales(I’m using $25) which is a bit above the average used in the HVS report, comes to around $11.5M
    game day food sales adds another $2.3M
    parking at those stadiums that charge ???
    jersey sales 600,000 @ $70 – $42M

    And then the other benefits you alluded to, sponsorships, etc and the intangible of the raised MLS profile worldwide.

    Beckham’s guaranteed soccer salary for ’07 and ’08 – $13M. Seems to me that MLS has done OK on the deal.

    I’m sure there will be complete analytical articles written once Becks is gone, but for now, I got curious and ran some numbers.

  7. Jose says:

    I think a healthier metric might be to look at the size of supporters groups or season ticket holders per team. One game might have sparse attendance because of competing events like the NCAA basketball tournament, but season tickets serve as a buffer against low attendance because fans pre-select their entertainment choices. My question is why MLS is a hot ticket in some markets but an afterthought in others? As a single entity structure, doesn’t the league have a vested interest in “fixing” broken markets? Additional marketing dollars? Copying best practices? Should public spaces in Denver and Dallas be draped with supporters scarves?

  8. Lars says:

    This problem really came with the perfect storm I think. The Hexagonal, bad weather in Colorado, March Madness, and the Beckham Sega have really put a hurt on the league attendance.

    However, as we enter April, things should improve attendance wise. Weather is getting better, March Madness draws to a close, and the CONCACAF qualifiers will near their end.

    As for profitability:

    Every team in MLS is making a profit, but the ones posting profits are making way more than those who are posting losses. It’s really about how you account for things, and sports organizations have a number of loopholes that allow them to claim losses when they are, in fact, profitable. There is a famous quote from a former President of a baseball franchise: “I can take a five million dollar profit and turn it into a ten million dollar loss.”

    It’s how you avoid paying taxes on your team. The teams which are claiming losses right now are simply doing their accounting the right way, and the ones that are claiming profits are doing very well…

    Dallas’ attendence was pitiful though, and this was not a good week for the MLS. You can expect it will improve though.

  9. Lars says:

    Jose,

    Part of the reason why NASL failed was small market teams were constantly being moved and the perception was that the league was small potatoes and that it was dying. MLS will do everything they can to avoid moving their teams, San Jose notwithstanding.

    MLS is trying to build a brand, and single entity allows teams like TFC, LA and FC Dallas to subsidize the smaller markets until the game grows.

    As for capping expansion of the league, I disagree entirely with that. I’ve pointed this out repeatedly. The NHL went through one of the most rapid expansions in history in the 90s. The quality of the league increased during this same period of time. Faster, rougher and better coached. Goal scoring dropped because disparities dropped in quality of teams as better quality players entered the league. Analyze the point differences between the top and bottom teams and they were less than what was experienced in the 1980s. Parity increased as higher quality players entered the league. Quality decreased for one or two years as each new team entered the league but grew rapidly in the period afterwards.

    Should MLS be capped soon? Yes, at 20 teams, in 2012. A Moratorium should be put on expansion for at least 3 years, to allow the league to settle and establish itself firmly again.

  10. jose says:

    Lars,

    I agree that the league doesn’t want to go around closing under-performing markets, but if I were an investor/operator of a franchise in MLS, I’d be getting a little tired of cash calls to support Dallas or Colorado. It would seem that the owners would be pressuring the league to step-in and help these franchises with their marketing efforts. I’m not sure if/how the league sanctions franchises that under perform. If they don’t, maybe they should?

  11. Lars says:

    The league definitely needs to market the product better, and try not to conflict with US national schedules (and Canadian where TFC is playing). I’m all for making all the teams profitable. I think one of the best ways to do this is to stop bringing in old latin american players. Bring in young guys like Vitti, or play domestic players. The league needs to fix its development program and make the academy system worth something. I’ve written a lot about how the Residency model that the Whitecaps are using is brilliant.

    Garber needs to act on these issues.

  12. Peter C says:

    Lars: re profitibility
    I agree that good accountants can make numbers say just about anything, but as to ‘every team is profitable’ as an operating entity, I’m not sure. Now if you say that each ownership group is making money, that’s something I could get on board with. Every owner has a piece of SUM and its varied revenue streams(that are mostly secret in terms of finances). But that’s for another post.

    Jose:
    I don’t think you can compare NHL’s expansion with that of MLS. Here’s my top reason for that. When the NHL was expanding rapidly, it was acknowledged as the place to play for top professionals. Fans knew they were seeing most of the best players in the world and there were plenty of good players who could come here and make better money than in their home leagues and not dilute the quality of league play. You cannot say that about MLS.

  13. Lars says:

    The NHL point was mine.

    My counter to that is that there is a lot of undiscovered or undeveloped talent in America and Canada. Imagine what the league could do if it was actually developing that talent. Expansion would be bringing these players to play against each other, instead of bringing in overrated old Latin Americans and Europeans…but I digress..

  14. vic says:

    Lars,
    I think the more cash calls a franchise makes to cover losses should result in MLS headquarters having more say over that team (marketing, player selection, etc). Its true that MLS doesnt want to close a team since that would be a bad sign for ad revenues (shirt, stadium ads, etc), since it would signal that maybe the league isnt so strong. However, relocation of a desparate underperforming team every 2 or 3 years would have little affect. San Jose was moved 3 yrs ago. Another could be moved with little affect on the ad revenue side (say Chivas USA or even KC before they actually break ground). The bad attendance numbers do have a positive: any thought of expansion under these deteriorating circumstances would definately mean moving Montreal towards the top of that potential list. Some new certain big market’s gotta cover the ever decreasing ones.

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