We’re roughly 20% of the way through the debut NWSL season. Ready to take stock of attendance?
Jeff Kassouf did, pointing to low numbers in New Jersey and Chicago as possible reasons for concern. That’s a good conversation-starter.
I checked in with Sky Blue’s Thomas Hofstetter and Chicago’s Arnim Whisler, who raised a few points:
1. Teams had no time to sell. Whisler: “Most of the table is set for attendance the last month of the PRIOR season. Season ticket sales are strongest during the prior season, we usually have all winter to resell our groups and season ticket holders and this year we started — beyond the hard core standing in line to place an order fans — in February!”
The Red Stars existed in 2012 but could not say what form they would take in 2013 until the NWSL was official.
Most new teams and leagues I’ve seen have been announced a year or so in advance. MLS expansion teams all had plenty of time to ramp up. MLS itself, along with the WUSA and WPS, was years in the making. The NWSL went from announcement to debut in a few months.
Whisler accepts the pressure to improve. “Next year started yesterday — we have many plans league wide to get to the next level in awareness, sponsorship and marketing.”
2. Seasons in the sun. Whisler says Chicago sports tend to build steadily. Spring weather is a factor, as are conflicts with school-year soccer activities and the busy NBA/NHL/MLB overlap. Some MLS teams do indeed struggle with spring, only to rebound later.
3. Locations. Would Sky Blue draw more fans at, say, Red Bull Arena? Probably. But consider this from Hofstetter: “Sky Blue for example cut its stadium cost by 60% over the past three years, which had a bigger impact on our financials then 500 more in the stadium per game.”
And if anyone wants to build an 8,000-seat grass stadium near mass transit in the Chicago area, please call Whisler. That’s not Toyota Park, which is too big for the Red Stars and not exactly downtown. The Red Stars’ current home of Benedictine University is far cheaper for the team and fans, and Whisler says the walkup sales are better in Benedictine than they were at TP.
4. Bottom line. Hofstetter and Whisler say they’re ahead of projections. Some detail from Hofstetter: “For the first time since the beginning of WPS, we are ahead of projections. After 4 games (including season ticket sales and tickets sold for games throughout the season) we generated already more than 50% of our expected ticket sales.”
And the NWSL is built to absorb lower crowds. Hofstetter: “The NWSL is the first league that is set up correctly (including WUSA) and from a SKy Blue FC perspective we are right where we wanted to be in 2013.”
Last word from that perspective, from Hofstetter: “People have to understand that it doesn’t matter what the (attendance) number is. It matters if the revenue generated with tickets are on target and from what I am hearing across the board they are either on target or above expectations for all of the teams at the moment.”
5. The word from the league. I got this statement from NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey:
“Our goal is to grow the league in many ways as we move forward and attendance will be one area of significance to us. The league is paying close attention to the attendance numbers, but we don’t want to overreact after a small sample of games in the early part of the season. In these early stages we are being patient, along with the clubs.
“As we move along, we’ll continue to have conversations about ways to grow attendance. And at the end of the season we’ll be able to do a much more in-depth evaluation of multiple aspects of the league, including the turnout at stadiums.”
So should we not worry about the crowds?
In the short term, in terms of teams folding, my guess is no. The Red Stars, Sky Blue and Western New York — where WPS attendance was dismal until the World Cup and the Wambach homecoming — have persevered since the WPS days. Sky Blue didn’t draw many fans in WPS, either.
I don’t know enough about anyone’s accounting to know how small is too small when it comes to attendance or how many losses people are willing to incur. Last season, the W-League’s Pali Blues may not have been paying salaries but still managed to bring aboard Sarah Huffman, Whitney Engen, Nikki Washington, Mariah Nogueira, Liz Bogus and company. Attendance for Pali Blues games: 467, 357, 300, 287, 256, 247, 123, 114. They’re still in business. MagicJack was playing for crowds of hundreds with the most expensive women’s soccer team this side of Lyon.
We could just call this season, particularly the early days, as a time to consolidate and build foundations. Teams aren’t spending tons of money just to keep the doors open. And as MLS pioneer Lamar Hunt once said, to build a business, you have to stay in business.
And even in the long term, it’s clear that NWSL teams don’t need giant crowds to survive. Washington’s Bill Lynch said his club, which includes a reserve team in the W-League and youth operations, would break even at 3,000. Boston’s Dilboy Stadium won’t hold much more than that after renovations.
But … what about perception?
Getting mainstream press coverage these days is difficult. Newspapers are getting smaller. SportsCenter and other highlight shows only have so much time, and they’re trying to focus on bigger sports as cable competition ramps up. More leagues are competing for attention. Major League Lacrosse has teams that average more than 9,000 fans, and when was the last time you saw that get a big segment on SportsCenter?
Then there’s sponsorship. Does a crowd of 1,200 scare away folks with money?
They’re legitimate questions. And by the end of the season, they’ll be big questions. We’re likely to see some regression to the mean — Washington will have weeknight games, which will be challenging for people in Northern Virginia and D.C. trying to battle rush-hour traffic on congested I-270. Chicago and Sky Blue will have more opportune dates.
And when all that has passed, we’ll ask these questions again.
Note: The first version of this post referred to Arnim Whisler and Arnim Wheeler. No idea how I came up with the name Wheeler. I blame Chelsea.