NWSL attendance: Perception, reality and more perception

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.

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15 Responses to NWSL attendance: Perception, reality and more perception

  1. randomhookup says:

    One counterpoint I’ll bring up — CRS could very well have started selling season tickets last year. I checked my Facebook timeline and the Breakers were selling season tix back in October, knowing only that they would be playing in *some* league. Not ideal, I know, but it was a way to get started and to keep revenue coming in before anybody knew what was really going to happen as far as a top professional league.

  2. KT says:

    It is true that it’s revenue numbers that are the actual meaningful ones. But we don’t get those (nor do I expect them), so they have to be extrapolated from attendance figures and guesstimated health has to be done that way.

    If Sky Blue has sold 50% of the tickets they intended to already, they had absurdly low goals. Which is either smart or bad, depending on how you look at it.

  3. Diane says:

    There are many sides to every issue, this one is no exception. I think back to all the wailing about WPS expectations being too high and failing because of it. So now we have NWSL and apparently their expectations are too low. I am absolutely positive that each team knows exactly what benchmarks they need to hit throughout the season and will take whatever action is needed to meet them and stay viable organizations. I’m equally positive that every eyebrow-raiser has a better way to do it. And I welcome them to try when they come up with their own ownership group.

  4. Mark says:

    I get the explanations that Whisler and Hofstetter are giving; but doesn’t that just raise the question of what Boston, DC, and KC are doing differently?

  5. danjacks says:

    Rochester, NY has tons of soccer fans and Wambach fans, but like many other cities people are busy with their lives and need to be reached out to in order to know when the Flash are playing so they can plan accordingly, the Flash have been mainly using twitter and facebook for their marketing which does not reach the mass general public and thus the attendances have been low, the Flash need to spend money on some tv spots and front-page newspaper spots, other local pro teams advertise on the bottom of the front-page of the Rochester D&C newspaper and the Flash are the only ones who do not, the Flash did poorly with no pre-season deals for season tickets, no promotions, and so there is only around 900 season tickets sold, which leaves the rest of the attendance to walk-ups, so please Flash crank up the marketing and promotions to the general public and pray for good weather on game days

  6. For Chicago, It’s a shame that Northwestern’s Lakeside Field (where CRS played a few games during Benedictine’s construction last year) or DePaul’s Wish field aren’t bigger since both are so much easier to get to using public transportation. I’m pretty centrally located in the city and it takes me nearly two-and-a-half hours to get out to Benedictine. I’ll be making the trip for a couple Saturday and Sunday games over the summer, but it’s impossible to do so during the week, let alone all 11 home games (and I had considered buying season tickets before the venue) was announced.

  7. AC says:

    I think the NWSL mostly deserves a pass on attendance this year. As Arnim said, it was a foregone conclusion that some teams would have a lost season because of the crunched time line. The big sucess story isn’t the local phenomenom of Portland (although that is awesome). It’s the groundbreaking partnership with the North American federations. Now teams can have their cake and eat it too. They can – if they choose – run W-League style organizations (which may be all their local market can support) while still attracting the best North American Olympic & World Cup stars.

    I would judge the NWSL this year on the quality of the product. I think a critical eye is better directed at the allocation process that left some teams loaded and other hopeless. Or the bureaucratic and cumbersome process for teams to acquire other players, even for injury replacement.

    That said, SBFC’s comment that they can achieve the same financial outcome by slashing stadium costs as by adding 500 people per game in the stands seems very revealing. Can you imagine Merritt Paulson saying that? Isn’t the idea to grow your franchise? It’s the same race-to-the-bottom mentality that took over in WPS during the final grim death march of the 2011 season. It makes one wonder why a club like SBFC decided to return at all. The best way to break even every year is to never field a team.

  8. Greg says:

    I absolutely agree that it’s way too early to draw any sort of conclusions about attendance and revenue. However, I don’t think it’s too early to start discussing attendance (everyone and their mother drooled all over Portland’s big crowd at their opener but no one wants to address the poor showings at WNY and Sky Blue). The reason it’s not too early to discuss attendance is because we’re not working in a vacuum. We have 3 recent years of a professional women’s league to compare numbers to. And with a handful of new teams, lower budgets, fewer internationals, etc, it is important that we understand how those changes have affected exposure and enthusiasm for this league and how many fans have sought out the new league in the absence of major marketing. Chicago has struggled the past few years, as their stepping away from WPS illustrated. Western New York was expected to ride a wave of Abby-mania to great attendance figures. If we are to understand the reasons for these struggles – and figure out ways to improve fan outreach – we can’t be defensive about this subject. But, again, no one should be talking about franchises folding or relocating at this point.

    Also, while attendance figures may not be everything when it comes to hitting your financial targets, it is an important factor among broadcasters, businesses looking to advertise or sponsor, fans deciding whether it’s worth it to travel (back) to a game, and how much positive word of mouth gets spread about the league. Markgraf and Whistler may not want to admit it, but quality of play (pretty good, and improving) isn’t going to be the sole factor in the eventual success or failure of this league. Good quality of play didn’t save WUSA or WPS.

  9. norcen99 says:

    Thank you for the only well researched and well thought out article on this topic I have seen so far. It is also the only one to talk to the owners of the teams in question. And the only one without a negative accusatory tone. It is very much appreciatted.

  10. necron99 says:

    Greg, the part I take issue with is this “If we are to understand the reasons for these struggles – and figure out ways to improve fan outreach – we can’t be defensive about this subject.”

    Who is this we you are speaking of? You are at most a bystander in this process. Only the owners and staff of these teams can figure out these reasons and make changes.

    The only thing you can do, is pick a team and buy season tickets. If you think they need to sell more tickets, then you can buy more of them.

    So many people talk about worrying about perceptions, but all of this fatalism in the first few weeks of a league gives exactly the perception that people worry about.

  11. Greg says:

    @necron99: to be specific, the “we” is everyone – owners, players, commentators/journalists, and fans. I disagree that I, or any fan of women’s soccer, is just a bystander. Where does revenue come from? Ticket sales, merchandise sales, advertising, sponsorship. Without fans – their dollars and their positive word of mouth – those revenue streams are zero. My interest in this league gives me the right (and I would argue, the obligation) to analyze the financial aspects of it as much as any tactical decisions made on the field. Owners and staff – especially in the world of women’s soccer – have a long history of reaching out to fans for ideas and to help promote the game. Why do you think MLS relies so heavily on supporters groups? Maybe the problem with women’s soccer is this hands off attitude that you seem to be espousing. The last thing we as a soccer community need to be doing is ignoring major aspects of this new league, like how many people are digging into their pockets to support it financially.

    And to repeat what I explained in my previous post, talking about attendance right now is a completely different thing from being fatalistic about it. I’m not telling people to make final judgments after 5 matches – that’s insane. I’m telling people not to look at NWSL in a vacuum – like the failures of the WUSA and WPS don’t matter. It’s why we even have this league to begin with – the various parties involved looked at what didn’t work with the previous two leagues and made adjustments. We shouldn’t wait until this one fails to learn what we could ALL being doing better to make sure it doesn’t. It is imperative that we analyze why Portland, DC, and KC are doing so well at the gate, and why WNY, Sky Blue, and Chicago aren’t. That’s business, and this league is first and foremost a business that should be run as such. Getting defensive about attendance isn’t going to help anyone, it’s just going to make it more difficult to adjust your outreach efforts when the time comes for it.

  12. norcen99 says:

    Greg- who told you to have a hands off attitude. I told you to go buy some tickets. So your whole first paragraph is a repeat of what I said. I bought my tickets.

    You are correct that it is a business. You are incorrect that you have any idea what it will take for any of these teams to succeed. You speak of the MLS but ignore the basic similarity between MLS and any Women’s Soccer league. It will take a set of determined and decently well off owners who are willing to absorb some amount of financial loss for a number of years for any league to succeed. MLS would be dead without a couple. NWSL will survive if they have a few.

    Obligation to analyze something you have absolutely no insight to? Call me when you can post the accounting books for a team on google docs so we can all analyze them. Everything else is BS speculation.

  13. Greg says:

    @necron99: you are the one espousing the hands off attitude. As I clearly explained, you believe that the only impact fans have on a league is by buying tickets. As I also clearly explained, fans can and should do way more than that: buy merchandise, watch broadcasts, spread word of mouth, bring others to matches, etc. If you think you’ve done everything you can by buying a few tickets, then you are contributing to the potential failure of the league. Do more.

    Your argument about owners willing to absorb a loss is in no way contradictory to the points I’ve been making. I’ve been saying on boards for the past few years that any women’s league would not be profitable for years, and that stability will only come about when there are enough owners willing to accept losses for as long as it takes for the league to get a foothold. Until that time, it would be complete folly for owners to sit back and ignore their attendance numbers, broadcast ratings, merchandise sales, etc and not make adjustments to their business plan. WUSA didn’t adjust and went down in flames, WPS adjust too little and too slowly and fell apart.

    For you to assume that I, or any other fan, has no “insight” into this league is not only condescending, but contradicts your own attitude which comes off as know it all. You seem to have this whole thing figured out: “buy tickets and the league will be ok.” How about you find NWSL accounting books and analyze them and tell me how that “buy tickets” strategy works out for you since you seem to be the only one who is allowed to speculate as to the health of the league without access to insider documents? It’s your “plug your ears and hope for the best” attitude that doomed the previous two leagues. You have to be proactive if your business (of any type) is going to be successful. How do you even think NWSL will ever reach the break even point if they don’t address attendance? They won’t.

  14. norcen99 says:

    Greg – I never said anything about hands off. I said specifically that you, I , and anyone not working for the League or a team have no information or insight into what it will take for a team or the league to survive. Call it condescending, but until you tell us which team you work for, I will continue to express this opinion. There are a few well known former GMs that do post in here, and I will always respect their insight. Even they will say that they do not know the specific numbers that current teams need to meet, or steps they need to take. They do often debunk common theories that have failed.

    It isn’t hope for the best with me. I just don’t have the audacity to tell the owners of the teams what they are doing wrong and how their business plans are failing, when I have never seen their business plan. Everyone is anarmchair general who thinks they can run the show.

    BTW – I bought more than a couple of tickets, I go to every home game of the team closest to me. I buy a ton of merchandise and concessions. I drag new people with me every game. I spread word of mouth. And I donated the season tickets I bought for every team except my local team back to the team to use for promotion.

  15. Greg says:

    @necron99: “You are at most a bystander in this process. Only the owners and staff of these teams can figure out these reasons and make changes. The only thing you can do, is pick a team and buy season tickets. If you think they need to sell more tickets, then you can buy more of them.”

    ^This quote of yours is what I was referring to when I said you were espousing a “hands off” attitude for fans. It’s clear that you believe the only recourse for fans to support the league is to buy tickets, which is a very passive/casual way of supporting a struggling league that is scrambling for purchase in the American sports landscape. At least, until you said this:

    “I bought more than a couple of tickets, I go to every home game of the team closest to me. I buy a ton of merchandise and concessions. I drag new people with me every game. I spread word of mouth. And I donated the season tickets I bought for every team except my local team back to the team to use for promotion.”

    Which is in complete contrast to your previous quote and, in fact, very similar to my own argument: “Where does revenue come from? Ticket sales, merchandise sales, advertising, sponsorship. Without fans – their dollars and their positive word of mouth – those revenue streams are zero.” As I said before, fans have an opportunity to contribute to the growth of the league in many ways. But the only way we can even know what to do is to analyze in what ways the league needs help – and in the case of half the league that help needs to come first and foremost in the form of increased attendance. We know because we track attendance (from those previous six years of pro soccer that I mentioned, and from the first few matches of this season) and analyze why the numbers are what they are (price, location, lack of marketing, poor facilities, etc). You obviously know what some of the problems are, and how do you suppose you determined that…from NOT paying attention to attendance?

    So, either you changed your argument or you just failed to lay out your entire argument, which seems to be much more in line with what I was saying.

    I disagree completely with your other argument that: “you, I, and anyone not working for the League or a team have no information or insight into what it will take for a team or the league to survive.”

    First, that very analysis has been happening online for years (this site, Big Soccer, ESPN, and many other sites). Second, we have two previous leagues to compare this league to. Over the years we’ve heard and read tons of info from league administrators, owners, and players about business practices and what didn’t work. We’ve gotten numbers, some by word of mouth and some straight from documents. We know what attendance was, what ticket prices were, what stadium rental costs were in many cases, and what the various expenses for teams were; much of this info came straight from owners, GMs, and players. And we know that in the cases of both WUSA AND WPS that income didn’t equal expenses. It’s why they both went out of business, why several teams folded along the way, and why Chicago had to step back into a lower league. And that instability eventually allowed a Dan Borislow to come in and tear the league apart. So, not only did we have 6 years of pro soccer finances as a reference, but this entire league was formed with those previous finances in mind. US Soccer, WPS, WUSA, and NWSL insiders discussed this in depth.

    All “offseason” was spent discussing team budgets, salaries, cost reductions, etc. We know what the federations are paying for (allocated players and the league “front office”), we know what ticket prices are, we know that Sky Blue, for instance, cut game day costs by 60% over the past three years. We know travel costs partially affected which franchises were selected and which cities weren’t, and that travel costs affected how the schedule was drawn up. We know TV broadcasts will start at midseason. We know what roster sizes are and what rules for replacing injured players are. So, we have tons of information to analyze, and from that analysis we can gauge the relative health – or lack thereof – of each team. Portland’s access to Timbers infrastructure (stadium, employees, etc) helped them sell tons of season tickets which brought in a lot of money. It’s not unreasonable to suggest they are in great standing financially because of that synergy. Sky Blue’s attendance has fallen over the past few years – which happens to mirror a decrease in success on the field (league title to consecutive years out of the playoffs). Many people have complained about not being able to attend their matches because of their location (same for Chicago). So it is not unreasonable to suggest that Sky Blue is not doing well financially and would need to significantly increase revenue in the future. This is all information that will help the league, and we know it because we don’t just sit back as fans and hope everything will be ok; we’re proactively trying to help.

    So, to bring it all back to the original question: it is not inappropriate to be discussing attendance numbers a few games into the season. We can compare them to the last season of WPS, we can see which franchises and regions are selling well, and we can determine the reasons why WNY or Chicago or Sky Blue or Seattle aren’t selling as well as KC or DC or Portland or Boston. That’s not being fatalistic (suggesting after 5 games that certain teams are doomed to fold is – but that’s not what’s happening here), that’s being realistic, proactive, and a supportive fan of the women’s game. And it’s important that you and others be able to tell the difference between those that are naysayers and those that are actively engaged in a constructive way.

    PS: Your description of your means of supporting the league clearly shows that you’re a “super fan.” Most fans aren’t going to be shelling out for the number of tickets and merch that you do. We can’t assume that your method is the only way to success for NWSL. We need to discuss more realistic methods of increasing revenue.

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