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MLS Monday Review: Attendance Issues Discussed

emilio 241x300 MLS Monday Review: Attendance Issues Discussed

Attendance throughout MLS outside of the success stories of Toronto and Seattle are way down.  For years, MLS has inflated its attendance numbers through various schemes but this season the attendance figures are actually passing the eyeball test for the first time in the league’s fourteen year history.  TV ratings on ESPN2 are slightly up from last year: still well below where they need to be but at least the ten year decline in MLS ratings from 1998 to 2008 (with the exception of a spike in 2002 and in late 2007) appears to have bottomed out and we are now recovering. Still ESPN bears much of the blame for under promoting MLS (including the most recent outrage, scrolling FMF and EPL scores during mainstream sporting events like College Basketball and MLB Baseball while ignoring MLS) and publicaly aiming for completely unrealistic viewership levels.

Also, some chronically under performing markets like New England and New Jersey produced respectable numbers relative to the established low standard of both franchises early this season. Chivas USA actually has drawn better than expected and the actual
(not reported) crowd numbers in Kansas City are probably the highest since MLS began play in 1996.

But it’s MLS’ two most successful historical franchises where the real worrying trend has taken place. DC United and LA Galaxy are victims of two major problems which are now giving both clubs their lowest early season crowds in recent memory.

The first is MLS’ desire to force parity on the league. We discussed this two weeks ago when the two giants of this league faced off at the Home Depot Center. The two clubs which dominated the early days of the league have been forced to essentially give away players and help the rest of the league for years.

In DC’s case it’s been with players: Kevin Payne probably had a better Latin American scouting network in the late 90s and early part of this decade than the rest of the league’s clubs combined. Through this good work though, DC’s efforts to enhance the league helped other teams perhaps more than United itself: either through salary cap related moves, or the extreme fixture congestion DC faced for competing in CONCACAF and COMNEBOL club competitions which made the side whose squad numbers were restricted unable to hold up late in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 MLS seasons.

In the case of the Los Angeles Galaxy they have financially supported the league’s less successful clubs for years. Two things have kept MLS financially viable: Mexican National Team/Club friendlies and the aggressive marketing worldwide of the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy deserve commendation for stepping out and taking the risks involved with signing David Beckham which opened the flood gates for other significant players to sign in MLS. It also gave MLS a credibility the league never previously had earned.

But the Galaxy have been punished by the salary and squad limits of MLS for trying to build a club that would be marketable abroad and with casual sports fans in the United States. The Galaxy’s gamble to elevate MLS’ profile has been rewarded with contempt by fans of other clubs and little room to maneuver under the league’s cumbersome and restrictive rules.

Secondly, bad press unrelated to on the pitch performance has hurt both clubs. The league office was unable to properly contain the damage of the David Beckham transfer/loan saga, and the public mistakes of Don Garber hurt the Galaxy and its ticket sales more than it hurt the league itself. Quite frankly, I find that far from fair when it comes down to it.

Then we have the continued attack on DC United’s stadium efforts by the Washington Post, the national political paper of record. The Post has recently supported heavy taxpayer funding of infrastructure related projects on the national level but seems to be leading a crusade against United’s efforts to be treated with the same fundamental fairness that less successful and less popular local professional sports clubs have been granted. This is all the more baffling because the Post employs the best Soccer writer in the country, Steven Goff, whose blog site is my first daily read on the beautiful game each and every morning.

While the Post raised some objections to the taxpayer funding of the MCI Center in Downtown Washington and the Nationals Baseball Stadium they generally were fairer and more representative of public opinion than they have been on the issue of United’s Stadium. As someone who reads the Post every day for political news, and for Goff’s blog, I have been incensed by the treatment the other Post writers have given the club since the Poplar Point Stadium site was first debated.

The standard the Post has applied to judging the value of building a stadium for United was not the same standard applied to the Capitols, Bullets/Wizards, and Nationals. It’s not the same standard either that the paper has previously applied to local infrastructure projects like the rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the new terminal at National Airport or proposed/recently completed extensions of the Metrorail.

I would hope the Post’s Metro Desk looks back at previous reporting on similar issues in the past and takes a fairer stand towards DC United. The Post’s reporting and editorializing has hurt attendance: in fact I believe it is a bigger factor than the economy in the downturn the Red and Black are facing at the gate.

OTHER WEEK THREE THOUGHTS:

  • Seattle is pretty good. I’m getting closer and closer to saying I was wrong about Freddie Ljunberg. But I want to see if he can hold up on artificial turf.
  • DC United played well in front of sparse crowd the evening before yet another Washington Post Editorial regarding the stadium situation.
  • Houston is still struggling with DeRo. No need to panic just yet though.
  • FC Dallas is really bad. HSG has to bear the responsibility for firing Colin Clarke (whose Puerto Rico Islanders play in a pretty big game tomorrow night) and Steve Morrow when both coaches were getting the most out of the talent brought in for them by the ownership.
  • Steve Ralston, an MLS original can still change a game when he’s healthy. Shalrie Joseph is still playing at a high level.
  • Conor Casey and Omar Cummings developed a connection late last season when Gary Smith replaced Fernando Clavijo. That connection continues to reap dividends for the Rapids this season.
  • Bruce Arena has a lot of work to do with the Galaxy, but the situation isn’t as desperate as it may appear. Bringing in Gregg Berhalter will solidify the central defense and give the Galaxy an aerial option on set pieces. If the Galaxy can bring in an influential midfielder soon, the team could still improve dramatically.
  • Real Salt Lake is still a better bet to win the west than Seattle despite losing to them last week. RSL’s depth and quality at the back will make the difference.
  • Kansas City looked sharp in the victory over San Jose. No surprise there, considering it was at home and the weather was awful.
  • Preki’s magic touch continues to impress with an injury plagued squad. Moreover we’ve learned Zach Thornton can still be a decent keeper in MLS if his backline keeps its shape well.

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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
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