MLS’ Future Is Not In The Suburbs

This past weekend a winless and pathetic DC United attracted more than 18,000 fans to a collapsing and cavernous relic of a stadium on a chili evening in Washington. Yet in Denver, the Colorado Rapids, possessing a respectable record and playing in a shiny and recently built stadium attracted less than 10,000 fans. There is something very wrong with this picture.

The hard fact that MLS must come to realize is that even if you build it (a new soccer-specific stadium) they still may not come. Now there are many contributing factors for these differences in popularity – from cultural elements in these cities, to successful management and marketing, to on the field success, but the fact is that the location of new stadiums really matter. Colorado plays in the middle of nowhere, while DC plays in the city center located on two metro lines. The fundamental lesson that MLS must learn is that its future is not in the burbs but in the cities.

If you look around the league where the crowds are strong they are all teams with stadiums in urban locations – Seattle, New York, Toronto, DC, and Los Angeles. The teams with disappointingly low attendance are almost all due to teams with stadiums in the suburbs.

Not only do suburban based teams do more poorly at the gates than urban ones, but by strategically catering to a suburban clientèle they also fail to develop an intense and passionate fan base that is vital to penetrating local sports culture and ancillary revenues – like jersey sales. By building stadiums in the middle of nowhere, these franchises may have doomed themselves to cultural irrelevance within their respective cities for the next quarter century. A stadium should not be pursued for simply the sake of a new stadium, such short term cost calculus, will hurt long term profitability and viability of franchises – and will as a result hurt the growth of the game.

The Example of Dicks Sporting Goods Park

Before Dicks Sporting Goods Park opened, the Rapids averaged throughout their tenure 14,299 playing at Mile High Stadium(s). At the new soccer specific Dicks Sporting Goods Park, the average has been just 13,593. That means the Rapids averaged more at the more centrally located, yet cavernous football stadium than at a stadium designed for soccer. One can also not attribute this drop in attendance to performance. While Colorado was not very good in 07 and 08, they were quite credible last year, yet regardless, they saw their lowest level of attendance yet.

Why is attendance so poor, despite a brand new stadium? I am not from Denver, but Dicks is very far from much of the population centers – including other suburbs south of the city. The stadium is so far on the outskirts that it actually borders a wildlife preserve! Dicks is not all that far from downtown, about 20 minute drive with no traffic. But there seem to be absolutely no public transit options. The website for Dicks Sporting Goods Park for instance only offers driving directions, because frankly there are no transit options. And while this maybe typical for the U.S., Denver actually has a decent light rail system and has vibrant centrally located neighborhoods. Urban 20 somethings looking for nightlife and entertainment, unlike in Seattle, DC and Toronto, are less likely to make the trek out for a game.

The same problems affecting Colorado, also affect other suburban locations such as Dallas, New England and to a lesser extent Chicago.

Why Suburbs Fail

For most of the last decade the major emphasis of the league has been to push franchises to get there own stadiums. The reasons behind this make a lot of sense. Soccer-specific stadiums demonstrate the league’s permanence and owning a stadium gives each franchise a significant monetary boost, since stadium ownership yields significant revenue in advertising, naming rights, and other royalties. As a result it is likely that Dallas made more money in their home opener that attracted 10,000 less fans than DC, which has to pay rent. Despite the attendance woes of certain clubs, owning your own stadium remains crucial to an MLS franchise’s long term viability.

However, in the aggressive pursuit of new stadiums the league and many of its franchises went for the cheapest and easiest way to build a stadium, choosing to go where the people ain’t – to the outer suburbs, where land is clear and cheap. This decision also was in sync with the outreach strategy of the league in its earlier years, which sought to market itself to the prototypical suburban “soccer-mom” family. Yet this strategy has not panned out for a few reasons:

1. Suburban families are less reliable fans. A family of four is going to struggle to make it consistently to every game. They are unlikely to purchase season tickets, choosing instead to attend games on a more flexible basis – ie nice weather, right time of year, etc. Families aren’t showing up rain, sleet, or snow.

2. Suburban stadiums are often further away from other populous suburbs. If you are in a suburb you are by definition not centrally located. The problem with this is that if you are in one suburb you are often further away from the other suburbs. For instance, the Rapids stadium is in northwesteast of Denver – making it much further away from the populous suburbs south of Denver. Similarly if DC United were to build a stadium in Northern Virginia in Loudon, they would likely be prohibitively far for many fans from Maryland and DC. In other words, a stadium might only be 30 minutes from downtown, but for suburban residents on the other side of the city who are 30 min from downtown – that becomes and hour long trip. By placing teams in the suburbs travel times for many fans will be significantly lengthened.

3. You lose the urban crowd. I would posit a family that lives outside a city, as well as suburban commuters are fairly willing to make the trip downtown for a game – as long as it is easily accessible through major roads and transit. Commuters often commute into cities after all. But urban fans are much less likely to leave the city for the suburbs, since they may lack cars or are disinterested in making a long journey – after all they chose to live in city centers for a reason. Yet this is the very demographic MLS is now targeting. The success of many centrally located stadiums is often due to the fact that attending the game becomes part of the urban social scene. But in the suburbs, if you drink at the game, someone has to drive back, which means that going to a game is not something that 20 somethings looking to party on a Saturday are going to do regularly.


15 Responses

  1. Yes, you’re obviously not from Denver, nor have you been there.

    The Rapids’ stadium is actually northEAST of Denver, genius. And, oh, by the way, right off the interstate.

    If someone’s not going to go 20 miles to go to a game, counting on them for the long-term health of the league might not be the way to go.

    Americans will go to things that are slightly less convenient than they could be if they matter to them. The problem is making soccer (and, actually, MLS) MATTER to more people.

    For every one of your “urban 20 somethings looking to party” for whom Commerce City is just too damn far, there are a bunch of folks for whom another location would be just as inconvenient.

    And, oh, by the way, f**k urban 20 somethings looking to party. Go party somewhere else.

    • You are right I am not from Denver and I meant NE not NW – it is now fixed above. But look the Rapids have a problem they have a shiny new stadium out by a nature preserve that no one goes to. 20 somethings have gone to party somewhere else, as you suggest and as a result Rapids games totally suck.

  2. How do you know that Rapids games “totally suck” if you’ve not been there? Because anything that doesn’t have 20somethings looking to party has to suck by its very nature?

    I was there for opening day. Had a nice time. They don’t draw because they have a front office that doesn’t care. They don’t have a clue.

    The stadium’s location has little to do with it. Salt Lake’s stadium is in a suburb. The Home Depot Center isn’t in downtown LA. Toyota Park isn’t in downtown Chicago. PPL Park isn’t being built in downtown Philadelphia.

    Your premise is just faulty and shows a shocking lack of understanding about what sells tickets.

    • This article is dead on! DSG Park is truly one of the jewels of the league in terms of great stadiums. The amenities of this soccer specific stadium are second to none (although I have yet to travel to RedBull arena).

      The location is awful. That being said it is not the suburb period that is the problem, it is that is in a outer fringe suburb, just like Frisco! The FIRE and RSL have been more successful in their suburban stadiums because they reside in inner fringe stadium close to expressway access and reasonably close to public transit (FIRE less reasonably than RSL).

      I’ve been a FIRE fan since franchise inception and witnessed the crowds that have followed or more importantly not followed the FIRE from Soldier Field, to Naperville, back to Soldier Field then out to Toyota Park. The urban element (And attendance dropped off severely when out in Naperville, returned briefly when the team returned to Soldier Field and followed to a limited extent when moving to TP. The wild card in this was the Blanco signing. What would attendances have been at Soldier Field, with Blanco who certainly has a huge urban fan base. What if there was a soccer specific stadium in the heart of the Pilsen latin community?

      The point being that the further out the stadium, the harder to move the attendance needle regardless of designate players, record, etc. Hopefully, the Wizards will be able to buck this trend next season.

  3. OK, besides the NE/NW issue this article has a serious problem with its conclusion. Namely that Invesco holds 70K and the Dick holds 18K. 99% of the time that doesn’t matter, but one game a year, 4th of July, it does. For the last 3 years at Invesco (also the 3 years that KSE owned the team before moving them to the Dick) the attendance for 4th of July was 41,979, 41987, and 39,205. Those dramatically change the average attendance. If you recalculate the averages for those 3 seasons using 18K (the size of the Dick) as the attendance number on the 4th of July you get the following:

    2004 12596
    2005 12039
    2006 10642

    And for comparison, the last 3 years at DSG Park:

    2007 14749
    2008 13659
    2009 12331

    So more people are driving out to the middle of nowhere in Commerce City to see a game than were going downtown to see the Rapids. The only reason it looks otherwise is that the Rapids were able to pack them in on the 4th of July.

    Besides that, you make a number of other flawed assumptions about Denver. The southern edge of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park complex sits on the city line between Commerce City and the city of Denver. Its as close to the city as it can be without actually being in the city limits.

    The great rail line you speak of is only great if you live south of downtown. There is no rail line yet to anywhere north of the downtown area. I live in a suburb northwest of downtown and I have to take 2 buses or drive to a Park and Ride to get downtown by mass transit. I’d have to do the same to get to Commerce City.

    Total driving distance between Invesco and DSG Park is less than 10 miles. That’s actually shorter than between the Rose Bowl and the Home Depot Center and between Soldier Field and Toyota Park. The Dick is also closer to “downtown” than the HDC, Red Bull Arena, Toyota Park, or Philly’s new stadium.

    So, care to try again on this post?

  4. Okay the “totally suck” comment was over the top, but the premise is not faulty. I acknowledge other factors contribute to the lack of attendance. But the Rapids drew more at Mile High than at their SSS facility. Toyota Park in Chicago has done well, but it still struggles to sell out and I think it would certainly have done better with a more centralized location. I also worry about PPL park – Chester is a decent trek from Philly. I don’t think it is a controversial notion to say that if you put a stadium where not many people live or that is further from where most people are that that will have a fairly significant impact on both attendance and the make up of your audience.

  5. I should point out that’s a different Jason, who actually DOES live in Denver. I just visit from time to time.

  6. Right, two different Jason’s commenting. 😉

    The Rapids drew more at Mile High under a different ownership (and with a huge 4th of July bump). That’s what Rapids fans have been trying to tell the rest of the MLS fans. Its not the location, its the ownership. Again, the numbers show that without the 4th of July bump under KSE people are indifferent to Invesco vs. Commerce City. We had a stadium downtown and we didn’t draw any more people there than we’re drawing now.

  7. You’ve just been shown that the Rapids do not, in fact, regularly draw fewer people to Commerce City than they did to Invesco or Mile High Stadium.

    And you also do not know (apparently) that the City of Chicago wanted nothing whatsoever to do with ponying up for a stadium within its limits. It was Bridgeview or…nothing, really. The other options were not options.

    Plus, Bridgeview (eventually) paid for the whole nut. Now, Mr. Hindsight, you tell me you wouldn’t have made that deal?

    “Chester is a decent trek from Philly.”

    It’s 15 miles from the statue of Ben Franklin at Liberty Hall downtown. Do you think everybody lives right smack in the center of downtown in every single city in America? Do you think Americans aren’t used to driving 15 miles to get places?

    Holy cow, you really should quit while you’re….well, behind. Before you get further behind.

  8. Woah, multiple Jasons taking on the entirely sensible point that being centrally located is of significant importance.

    Look guys, I am not saying never build outside the city and you bring up reasonable points. But I am arguing that SSS are not a panacea and don’t automatically take a team to new heights. There are lots of reasons for that and one of them, I contend, is location.

    1. You both ignore the amazing successes that have occurred in other downtown locations – namely Toronto and Seattle. The rabid fan bases that have developed in those cities, as well as DC, is what MLS is trying to recreate in other cities. And it is pretty clear to most people (sorry Denver Jason) that despite building an SSS, this atmosphere hasn’t been recreated in cities like Dallas and Denver.

    2. Building a stadium outside of the city – while it may be entirely economically sensible as in the case of Chicago – has a real opportunity cost. This is pretty well understood. DC United may have to leave DC, but that would have a significant impact on its fan base. If it were to move out by 15 miles the impact I assure you would alter the make up of DC’s support.

    3. On attendance in Denver – I don’t think subtracting the outlier really contradicts the point. Attendance is basically the same at a brand new SSS outside the city as it was in a downtown cavernous football stadium. And the attendance trajectory is not a positive one.

    4. Chester is a decent trek. Most Americans are used to driving 15 miles, but 15 miles from a city center to the outskirts is often much more than a 20 minute drive. But, and this is the point, much of the younger urban (20-30 something) demographic that lives downtown will be less willing to trek out of the city. And this is the very demographic the league is now trying to attract.

  9. I’m surprised at the vehemence of the argument from the Jasonborg … we all get lovely high-def feeds of all these games now, and some of the arguments just don’t pass the smell test.

    While I’m certain there’s some folks at the Dick who are having the passionate football experience of a lifetime, what I see on my screen is the standard MLS target crowd circa 2002 – small clusters of families dotting here, kids milling about, everyone having concessions. Those people pay to get in, lovely, but the amount of passion they bring to the event approaches zero.

    Contrast that with the supporters’ sections in DC, Seattle, Toronto, Chicago, Philly – that’s MLS’ 2010 target demo. As much as I’d like to curmudgeon the shit out of the magical 20-somethings and their magical energy, there is a qualitative and quantitative difference between the energy brought by a trainload of half-drunk boosters and the flatline zzzzz of a posse of minivans.

    Sorry, Jasons. I understand you support Colorado, and good luck to you. I’m certain you can cut the numbers this way and that to show that the Rapids are a hot ticket, despite the empty-seat disguise so many are wearing right now. But until something like a supporters’ culture shows up in the Phallus, your arguments come off as defensive. Maybe focus your frustration on building that?

  10. Sean, you completely missed the point. I’m not saying there aren’t problems in Colorado. My point is that the problems aren’t due to the location, its due to the management. Things would be no better if we were still at Invesco (in that prime “downtown” location) as long as KSE is still running the team.

  11. i’ve been to a few mls stadiums (toyota park, redbull arena and rfk) and dc’s , though i strongly dislike dc, is by far the easiest to get to and has the largest variance in demographic. i took the “trek” to bridgeview on the metro, not too far from wrigley, and it took FOREVER. We’re talking in excess of an hour and half. and while it was worth it because i had never been to toyota park, once you get off the metro, they put you on a pretty crummy bus. and it just so happened that our bus THEN got stopped by a train (not a metro) crossing. new york’s was pretty good for the opener minus the traffic, but it was rad because the subway was RIGHT by the stadium, i can see that really paying off in the future and having more success than something toyota park. i enjoyed the article and i agree we need to take these stadiums downtown.

  12. […] has an interview with the Director of Marketing for the Colorado Rapids. I have noted before that soccer specific stadiums were no panacea for MLS teams, especially when placed in far out suburbs. The argument goes that playing so far […]

  13. Colorado Rapids MLS teams that should be good if they win the MLS Cup soon ❤ Go rapids ❤ Liverpool fc transfer news

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