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Op-Ed \ Ron Keller

Has Major League Soccer learned its lesson about playing on weeknights?

(Monday, December 11, 2000) -- If you have been listening to commissioner Don Garber and other Major League Soccer officials, attendance is MLSís biggest problem. But it appears the league has not gone about addressing it in an effective manner. It is said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. MLS seems to have been playing hooky when that lesson was taught, especially where attendance is concerned.

Letís jump back 11 months to January 11. When MLS announced its 2000 season schedule, it said: "Wednesday and Saturday are soccer days in the United States." That statement turns out to be only half right. The schedule had been compressed from what it was in 1999 in order to shorten it by a month. While the league increased the number of Saturday games, it also increased the number of weekday games from 35 to 48. The lost weekend matches ended up having a dramatic effect on attendance. Over the course of the 2000 season, 45 Wednesday games were played and the fans stayed away from those matches in droves.

By the end of the season, the trend was fairly obvious to anyone who looked at the numbers. Weeknight international doubleheaders clouded the picture slightly for three teams. The New England Revolution pulled more than double its weekend attendance for a doubleheader featuring Benefica against Parma, as did the Burn with a Mexico-South Africa match up in the U.S. Cup, and the Earthquakes with a pre-Olympics womenís match between the United States and Brazil. But those experiences were not typical. Their remaining weekday games had attendance significantly lower than weekend games; posting losses of 24 percent, 55 percent and 21 percent, respectively, against their weekend averages.

Columbus Crew fans were surprisingly unfazed by scheduling. The Crew lost less than one fan in 12 when it scheduled a weekday game. Three teams lost about a third of their attendance when they played during the week. D.C. United lost 30 percent and the Rapids lost about 35 percent. The Miami Fusionís lone weekday game cost just over 33.6 percent compared to its average weekend attendance.

The Tampa Bay Mutiny lost 40 percent of its fans for games played during the week. It gets worse from there. The Kansas City Wizards lost nearly half their fans, 47 percent, and the MetroStars did slightly worse, at 48 percent. The Los Angeles Galaxy turned in the largest numerical losses, a whopping 14,141 fans, or a 59 percent average loss. The Chicago Fire weighed in with the largest percentage loss, losing about 62 percent on average for its sixth weekday games. The MetroStars, Galaxy and Fire each lost over 10,000 fans, on average, for every game they played during the week.

Ouch.

My theory is that scheduling an early evening game during the week makes it difficult for remote fans to reach the game on time. By the time they make the commute home from work, load up the family, fight traffic to and around the stadium and find a parking place, they may simply not have time to get to the game before it is well underway. Chicago would seem to be particularly prone to this and indeed shows the highest weeknight losses. Soldier Fieldís downtown location, with Lake Shore Drive providing the only high-speed, high capacity access to the stadium, is particularly sensitive to rush hour traffic jams.

For this reason, I have considered holidays and Sundays to be weekend games, because fans have the flexibility to leave earlier to make the game. Friday night games were included as weeknight games, because the time restriction on reaching the stadium after work is still there.

In light of the regular season numbers, the lower-than-hoped-for playoff attendance should come as no surprise. In the quarterfinals, only two games were scheduled on a weekend, both in Kansas City. Only the Fusion turned in lower numbers in the regular season. In the semifinals, only one game was played on the weekend, with the MetroStars hosting. In retrospect, the higher stakes and increased excitement could not overcome the scheduleís problems.

A recent article cited Chicago as contributing to low playoff attendance, so letís use the Fire as an example. Comparing apples to apples, how did attendance fare in the playoffs? Chicagoís playoff average for weekday games was roughly a 21 percent increase over the regular season weekday games. Applied to their weekend average, you could project crowds of about 21,000 instead of the 8,400 they actually drew.

It should come as no surprise that weekday games draw lower attendance than weekend games. Weeknights that are also school nights are even worse. I hesitate to draw conclusions from single games, but there were two teams with more than one weeknight game in both the summer vacation and during the school year. Chicago had three Wednesday games during the school year and two over the summer. In this case, I dropped its Friday night game from consideration, as it is not a school night. Chicago, already hammered by weeknight losses, still drew about 14 percent fewer fans on school nights than for Wednesday games over the summer. The Revolution, again dropping its Wednesday doubleheader, drew 52 percent fewer fans to its two school night games than to midweek summer night games.

Had the league not compressed the schedule in 2000, as many as 24 weeknight games could have been scheduled on a weekend. In 1999, the decline in attendance was the smallest to date. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the number of weekday games had been sharply reduced that year.

The schedule for 2001 has been announced, and it presents something of a mixed bag. The league did increase the percentage of Saturday games, which was a very good idea. It slightly reduced the number of weekday games. As we have seen, this is another good idea, but so much more could have done. Each team lost two home games to the new, shorter 28-game schedule. This could have provided some flexibility in scheduling. Instead, the schedule was compressed again.

There are 35 weeknight games, and an additional Friday night match, including six games on the Fourth of July. Had the league stayed with a 26-week schedule, as in 2000, it could have dropped as many as 12 of those games onto weekend dates. In fact, with 28 home games, a 28-week schedule (as in 1998 and 1999) gives the potential of playing only on the weekend. Obviously, scheduling conflicts would prevent achieving 100 percent weekend games, and there will be weeknight fixtures that offer desirable doubleheaders. However, eliminating every possible weeknight game should be the goal. If the league wants to increase attendance, it must improve scheduling. Unfortunately, that has not been done nearly as well as it could have.

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