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.