Soccer in the United States is an exotic beast. In a nation where everyone craves the diversion and entertainment of sports in general, how is it possible to compete in a market saturated by American Football, Baseball, Basketball, and Hockey? In the years since the founding of the MLS teams have sank or swam based on a number of factors, but there are a few key points to take from what the franchises have done so far.
The best way to start is to look at the golden standard of MLS in terms of a culmination of player talent, fan support, financial stability, and overall presence in their respective region. The Seattle Sounders have technically been around since 1974, but this latest iteration is listed as founded in 2009. They were around before this time as a professional soccer team, but 2009 was the year in which the franchise became officially adopted as the 15th team in the MLS. In the short two years that they have been in the MLS, they have already blown attendance figures out of the water, with an average in 2009 of 30,897 and in 2010 an average of 36,173. The next closest team is the L.A. Galaxy with 20,416 and 21,437 respectively.
Basically, Seattle has done everything right. Their stadium is accessible by monorail train or bus, but that isn’t the most popular way to get there. Seattle Sounders boast a stadium located in the beating heart of the city, only a few short blocks from the Pier and City Hall. The fans meet in the pubs before the games, and then march with the marching band to the stadium. It is a celebration of pride and loyalty. There was no bigger example of this than when the Sounders recently played Manchester United. One would expect the stadium to be filled with the red jerseys of what could be argued as the most popular team in the world. Instead what we saw was a sea of green that stayed resilient throughout their demolition all the way to the final whistle. How many fans showed up to the demolition of their own team? 67,502.
Every game is an event for the fans and the franchise. The franchise has tied itself with the community, supported its supporters in turn, and because of its attendance can now be argued as one of the most financially stable teams in the League. Despite being one of the newest teams to the league, they finished a respectable 4th in their conference and made it to the Quarter Finals of the MLS Playoffs. The fans love their team, and they show it with the attendance ratios. When recently visiting Seattle, I attempted to count as many shirts as I could while walking around the city with my family on a Tuesday afternoon. I lost count at fifty six. It makes sense though that people would support such a personable club. They started a tradition in their inaugural season of awarding a golden scarf to an individual at every home game who has contributed to soccer in Seattle or to soccer in general. The first recipient was the MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Since then winners have included various coaches, players, and fans of the game and even some fans of other games for their extraordinary support.
Why then, with such a fine and stable example set to the league, do other teams manage to struggle and even under perform despite massive injections of funding and marketing? This is the million dollar question so to speak, but for starters it would be best to look at what other teams are not doing compared to Seattle and how it reflects their fans/supporters. Keep in mind we are not talking about the overall success of clubs, but how they have been incorporated into a sports saturated market and how well they are achieving their current goals.
New York Red Bulls recently made the financial gesture that they want to win. Now. With big names like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, and some young wonders such as Juan Agudelo, some fans believe that they are under performing in their conference. Philadelphia Union (another recently added team) are currently one point ahead of New York with four games in hand, while Columbus sit one point ahead as well with two games in hand. Results aside, the question remains of how New York will continue to strive to win titles while paying off the debt of a brand new soccer specific stadium that they are currently struggling to sell out. Fan attendance for New York Red Bulls for the past two years has been 12,490 and 18,441 on average respectively, which is a shadow of the attendance figures that Seattle achieves. With a city as large and diverse as New York, how is it possible to have such a small attendance rate? The Red Bulls Arena is not actually located in New York city, or the state of New York for that matter. It is located across the river in New Jersey. Not only is this degrading to the the pride and name of the team, but how hard is it to incorporate a city into a sports team when the team isn’t even located in that city in the first place?
This can be pointed out to a lesser extent with the Columbus Crew. Another team has again placed a stadium outside of the city and therefore lost a good chunk of fans due to proximity. When these events become traditions, customs, and are placed in unavoidable locations the fan base will grow. The importance of stadium placement is so immediately obvious that it can no longer be ignored. The frightening statistic with the Crew is that their stadium attendance has leveled off almost completely around 14,446. There has been little change up or down on this attendance ratio. While consistency is nice, there are just too few people going to the games to ever hope to achieve some of the salaries necessary to attract higher quality players. While the “Designated Player” rule has helped a little in the sense that the elite gifted players are allowed to receive elite six figure salaries, it has impoverished the rest of the league. If you have not looked yet, now would be a great time to see how paltry some of the salaries of these athletes are. Crew stadium, which is located five miles outside the city, is a bastion of soccer in a state dominated by American Football, but with few ties to the community outside of the suburb of Columbus in which they reside. The question from here on is how will the Columbus Crew fare with such rigid and limited finances? Can they continue to compete with teams like New York who are willing to splash the cash for big talent?
Seattle and some of the other West Coast teams like Seattle and Portland have proved that it is possible to build a club in the United States. It requires good management and a big financial injection among many other things. Teams have to struggle to do what other sports teams in the USA do not do, and that is become a big and active player in their respective communities. If teams keep getting the communities excited and entwined in the sporting events the money and fans will continue to come. Seattle could lose every game of their season and still hope to pull in around 30,000 fans on average. There is a dedication and admiration for their team that is created not through big name signings or massive sponsorship deals, but through getting people excited about soccer in the USA and giving the people something they can call their own. Marching to the stadium, grabbing drinks with your friends and family, and sharing experiences with the community all within walking distance of the stadium is the way to go. All we can hope for now is that more people like the true soccer lovers that own the Seattle Sounders can continue to exist in the States, and that more teams take a look at the West Coast on how to run a self sustaining healthy soccer club.