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While MLS attendance must improve, it is reasonable by international standards.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, November 8, 2000) -- Since the end of the Major League Soccer season, a lot has been written about attendance, or the lack of it, at MLS matches.
This past season, overall, average attendance at MLS matches dropped slightly to an official 13,756 per match, down from an average of 14,282 in 1999. Both figures are, of course, somewhat misleading in that many of the largest crowds at all MLS stadiums -- crowds much above the average -- were there primarily to see another match as part of a doubleheader -- World Cup qualifiers, menís or womenís national teams or foreign exhibition -- or some "event" such as July 4 fireworks or a concert.
This year the playoffs were a special problem for MLS. The argument heard from most teams is that the soccer fan base being what it is, selling tickets for a match in a weekís time or less is not possible, unless you are in Washington, Columbus or Los Angeles. Most teams sell early playoff matches as part of their season, or multi-match, ticket packages. Most teams also know they are going to be in the first round of the playoffs at least several weeks in advance of the end of the season. Thus, for first round matches, they can do advance-sales marketing, even if they donít know the exact date of the first playoff match.
Second round matches, however, are more difficult, especially third games in the second round.
This year the Los Angeles Galaxy averaged a decent 17,350 for two home playoff games. The MetroStars averaged just over their seasonís average attendance with 15,172 fans in two games. But then, Kansas City averaged a sickly 8,243 fans at four playoff games at Arrowhead Stadium, while, amazingly, the Chicago Fire averaged only 8,431 in its four playoff matches at Soldier Field.
This led MLS commissioner Don Garber to admit "I am disappointed that our attendance did not increase. This is a major focus for us, and we must show increased numbers in the future."
But I have been thinking, maybe we also need to put these attendance numbers in perspective.
As Iíve pointed out several times in the past in this space, here in the U.S. we tend to think about soccer in Europe as big teams, playing in huge stadiums in front of vast crowds. When we think of European soccer we think Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid or Inter Milan. But, read the box scores from European matches and it can quickly be learned these are the exceptions, and not the rule.
A few examples from matches in which Americans played, or were on the bench for, last week. While Joe-Max Moore played for Everton before 44,718 screaming fans at Anfield at one of the two annual Liverpool Derby matches, Ben Olsen was playing before 6,021 fans as his Nottingham Forest team beat Stockport County. Kasey Keller did not play as his Spanish Rayo Vallencano team defeated Alaves at home, but he joined 5.024 fans in watching the match. Earnie Stewart, meanwhile, in an important Dutch premier division match was watched by 8,410 fans. In Germany, Tony Sanneh was on the bench while 8,429 fans watched his Hertha Berlin team defeat Wolfsburg. My point is, obviously, that maybe MLS crowd sizes are paltry compared to NFL crowds. Maybe they donít compare to the throngs that fill Nou Camp, Old Trafford or G. Meazza. But maybe, they are not so far removed from the size of the crowds that watch many European soccer matches between teams with 50 or 100 years of history playing in storied leagues.
So how do European teams prosper and afford the sky high salaries they pay players. The dirty little secret of European soccer is, by and large they donít.
The biggest clubs in Europe, the Manchester Uniteds, the Lazios, the Real Madrids have income levels approaching or even exceeding $100 million annually. Much of this money comes from television and especially pay-per-view revenue, but while these clubs have eight-figure income, they are actually losing money.
Many of the top clubs in Europe are tens of millions of dollars in debt. They are essentially owned by their creditors. It is not unusual these days to see a club announce it is selling one of its top players because it has been ordered to do so by its bankers.
Other teams exist because they are essentially the hobbies of the very rich, much as any number of pro sports franchises are here in the United States. Others exist because they are owned by giant corporations who use them for marketing purposes. Essentially every time someone buys an aspirin, he is helping to pay Landon Donovan and Frankie Hedjuk salaries at Bayer Leverkusen because the parent is Bayer aspirin.
In most countries in Europe these days, the professional leagues are divided between the haves and the have-nots. Much as the division in Major League Baseball between the small-market teams and the big guys such as the Yankees, in many countries, a handful of wealthy teams dominate soccer and the smaller teams are left to try to avoid relegation each year.
So my point is not to dismiss so casually MLS crowds of 17,000-20,000. These would be very acceptable in many countries in Europe and South America, and the average ticket price around MLS is substantially higher than in many parts of the world.
As Don Garber notes, attendance needs to be a lot better, especially in places like South Florida, Kansas City and San Jose. But in a number of other cities, MLS is drawing crowds that would be considered respectable in many parts of the soccer-playing world.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..