As the playoffs began last season, I had a brief Twitter exchange with Brendan Hannan (then a communication guy with Chicago) about the poor attendance at Toyota Park for the Fire’s first round match. In addition to the normal challenges facing Chicago’s ticket sales, the opening round match had fallen on Halloween. That combined with a weeknight’s trip to Bridgeview (say, 15 miles outside Chicago) and a short window to promote after their regular season finale meant only 10,923 showed up for the match.
Brendan’s explanations came to mind as I watched last night’s game in Houston, where a crowd of 10,476 watched the Dynamo eliminate the Montréal Impact. Though the result moves Houston a step closer to their third straight MLS Cup final, the night was disappointing on separate level. Every shot of the crowd forced television viewers to wonder why a good team with a history of success can’t draw more people to their two-year-old facility.
“There were some real challenges last night,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti told me this afternoon, his sanguine explanation putting the low turnout in a different content. A practical conspiracy of factors — from the holiday, to short turn-around, to weather and a crowded sports week — helped produce the team’s season-low crowd.
The biggest issue was the holiday. For the second straight year, Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoffs started on Halloween. For a league and sport that tends to draw a younger audience, it’s a killer coincidence.
“For a huge percentage of our fanbase, that was the issue,” according to Canetti. “Halloween is a time you spend with your kids and you do things. I think that was a very difficult obstacle to overcome.”
It could have been overcome, Canetti feels, had other factors not lined up against the team. Houston was hit by another of their characteristic mini-monsoons mid-week, causing flooding throughout southeast Texas. By early afternoon on Thursday, the showers had been turned off, but the storm still kept people away from BBVA Compass.
The University of Houston also had a football game, forcing some fans to make a choice, but the bigger problem may have been an unexpectedly crammed media landscape. At a time of the year when the Dynamo can usually gain some traction, Dwight Howard was making his debut for the Rockets and the Texans were changing quarterbacks. Add in the unfortunate passing of local legend Bum Phillips, and Houston was squeezed out.
“The Dynamo have a great track record for attendance, particularly playoff attendance,” Canetti notes, the team averaging over 21,000 for their two 2012 playoff games. “One of the reasons we were able to drive such a great attendance in years’ past is because we were able to elevate our brand and get huge media exposure in the market. The media market was very cluttered this week in Houston.”
Given four days to get the word out, Houston couldn’t penetrate that market. The people who ended up at the stadium were the diehards.
“Those fans were loud, the ones that were there,” Canetti says. “Those are our most ardent supporters. They brought it last night.”
Like Chicago, Houston’s situation is unique, but as places like Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle show, there’s more to a full house than nice numbers and lined pockets. If you can fill out a stadium, the television product is much better, and if there’s one thing the league needs to be concerned about more than anything else, it’s how it comes off on broadcast. It’s part of the reason why the English and German leagues come off a little better than Spain’s (non-Barça, Real Madrid) or Portugal’s. It’s also the reason why a Philadelphia Union match creates a better broadcast experience than a D.C. United game.
Dynamo fans did seem louder than the 10,000-person crowds we see elsewhere, but with seas of orange seats visible around the stadium, MLS didn’t put their best foot forward. Instead of marveling at how far the league has come, people tuning in last night might wonder how far MLS needs to go.
“We’re a growing league, we’ve got an incredibly bring future,” Canetti confessed. “These are bumps in the road along the way.”
“I don’t think anybody wishes that we have to play mid-week playoff games, especially on a Halloween. That would include the folks at the league office. I certainly understand the scheduling challenges that put us in this position, especially this year as we have to battle a FIFA window coming up.”
But at some point, you have to set priorities. In that sense, maybe reducing the regular season schedule does make sense, providing a solution that will give the league more flexibility when scheduling these all-important, marquee matches. Or if a solution can’t be found for the first round game, perhaps eliminating them entirely should be considered. Four playoff teams in each conference seems like enough, even if Houston wouldn’t have made last year’s playoffs with a smaller field.
There’s little point to putting matches on television that aren’t going to show the league in a positive light. Did last night’s game cross that line? Perhaps not, but casual MLS fans tuning in for a playoff atmosphere didn’t get it. And it wasn’t the Dynamo’s fault.
“It’s not that we stink or we don’t know what we’re doing here,” Canetti explains. “We’ve got some real, real challenges that need to be understood.”
For teams like Houston and Chicago, those challenges include fighting for space in crowded sports landscapes. For MLS, the task is putting their franchises in the best position to win those battles.
Does the mid-week, quick turnaround playoff game do that? Not Thursday in Houston. Not last year in Chicago.