By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 13, 2016) US Soccer Players - Simply stated, there are two easy ways to judge the interest in soccer in the United States of America, a country that spent more than a few decades sticking its fingers in its ears and pretending like the sport didn’t exist at all: attendance and TV ratings.
Both are fraught with problems as decent measures of soccer’s engagement of a fickle sports-watching public. TV ratings have been notoriously unreliable for years, even before things like streaming and DVRs completely complicated viewing habits. When it comes to soccer, certain games prompt communal viewing, parties that help fans share in the experience of watching games on television from long distances away. Whether or not the TV ratings company can accurately gauge the audience for any given game is at the very least suspect.
Attendance might be even stickier. At least with TV ratings, all of the interested parties (programming producers, networks, and advertisers) have agreed to accept the ratings despite their imperfections. There is one standard, no matter how poor that standard might possibly be. A shared acceptance of the numbers allows for something approaching a fair market for TV rights and ad time, pushing along an industry that is simultaneously wrestling with paradigm-shifting technology.
That's not the case for counting the people that show up to watch pro soccer. If we see people filling all the available seats, it’s easy. In others cases, reported attendance numbers are a complete a fabrication, as make-believe as King Friday and his subjects. Teams don’t typically report the number of human bodies through the turnstiles, but rather the number of tickets distributed. While that practice isn’t unique to soccer, it’s impact on how we view the popularity of the sport in America is immense.
The key word when it comes to attendance numbers reported is “distributed”, which includes, but is not exclusive to, the number of tickets sold. Sports attendances defy the word “attendance” more often than not because they aren't attendances at all. Instead, they represent the number of tickets sold, comped, or flat out given away. When perception of your club operations (and further, your league) can turn on attendance numbers reported the next day, there’s pressure to put people in the stands by whatever means necessary. In perfect world, every ticket sells at face value and every fan shows up to use his or her purchased tickets. In the real world, even “sell outs” come with caveats and all games feature no-shows.
With that situation firmly in mind, the numbers already look promising for the lower divisions in North American soccer. Just this past weekend, Miami FC got over 10,000 for their home opener. San Antonio FC set a Toyota Field record by drawing 8400 in the team’s USL debut. FC Cincinnati, a first-year USL club in a town with no recent professional soccer history, attracted over 14k. Sacramento Republic has continued to be a lower division juggernaut, bringing in the usual (for them) crowd of over 11k.
On the surface, those attendance numbers seem to indicate a robust American soccer scene, even at the third division level. They’re not MLS-caliber numbers, but neither are they the attendance numbers of old, when hitting mid-five figures was something of a coup for anyone outside of the top league. Attendance numbers that flirt with or fly past five figures make clubs look good, they make markets look good, and they signal to the mainstream soccer public that professional soccer’s future goes well beyond the biggest cities in the country.
Attendance numbers like that are the surest sign of a market’s potential. Big crowds make the push for MLS easier. Big crowds help sell any league to new investors.
Still, knowing what we do about reporting standards, how much stock to put in attendance numbers is it's own question. The eyeball test says Miami FC and FC Cincinnati had large crowds, but without an excruciating and frankly impossible headcount, there’s no way to know if the crowds they disclosed were the crowds they got, or how many of the people who showed up actually paid something for their ticket. At some point the numbers don’t matter as much, but when the question is just how popular soccer is across the country, and whether the cities in question can support teams who don’t get on TV or attract big name stars, these sort of details matter.
American soccer clubs, from USL all the way up to MLS, are fighting a war for respect. All is fair in love and war, so the need to be spot-on with reported attendance is secondary to putting forward a vision of strength.
The odd thing is that there’s plenty of gray area between “soccer teams are exaggerating their attendances” and “wow, look at those huge crowds” as signals of what’s happening at various levels of American soccer. The game is growing in America, and more fans are (probably) attending games than ever before. But it’s also probably not as good as the numbers might indicate. When it comes to filling seats, the truth is in the eye of the beholder.
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