By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Nov 2, 2018) US Soccer Players - The 2018 MLS playoffs didn’t exactly begin with a bang. That’s not a comment on the two games that took place on a Wednesday Halloween night roughly 72 hours after the events of Decision Day, but an observation about the excitement around them.
NYCFC knocked off the Union 3-1 at Yankee Stadium. Portland sprung the rare road upset in the knockout round and moved past FC Dallas by a 2-1 scoreline. The games were intense and physical, not always well-played but certainly not lacking in competitive energy.
So why did such small crowds show up to see them? Why was the attendance at Yankee Stadium, reported as 15,153, the lowest ever for an NYCFC game at the venue? Why did FC Dallas draw a paltry 10,297 to Toyota Stadium, a poor number even for a team that has long struggled to fills seats in Frisco?
First, let’s discuss where the blame lies for the empty seats in two cities with good teams like NYCFC and FC Dallas. When the numbers come out for a playoff match like those that took place on Wednesday, it’s easy for critics to point to the fans.
The expectation is for fans to show up and support their club no matter the situation, but especially in the playoffs. The postseason is the culmination of the season and opens the door to a possible championship. Loud, rowdy fans can make a difference with the play on the field, pushing their team on and impacting the opposing team’s effectiveness. The reasons for showing up are as much about the advantage a big crowd provides as they are about the quality of the entertainment on the field.
A small crowd come playoff time represents a readymade cudgel for Major League Soccer’s most committed detractors. The thought goes that if the league actually lived up to its claims of growth and importance, people would happily show up to a playoff game in their own backyard. There are plenty of American sports where the circumstances of Wednesday night wouldn’t prevent a full house, amped up for the experience.
While it can’t be all laid at the feet of the fans, Wednesday’s weak gate does serve as a reminder that the league doesn’t yet engender the kind of besotted devotion in evidence for other sports. Even after 20 years, soccer fans maintain a more casual relationship with the game. The cultural weight of MLS has a long way to go to catch up.
Wednesday’s circumstances do deserve a review, because they explain, within the context of that casual fan relationship, why attendance lagged in both the Bronx and Frisco.
Halloween was a massive drain on ticket sales. Fans who typically take their kids to games opted out. Even fans without kids probably felt the pull of Halloween over soccer.
The weather in Texas drove attendance down for FC Dallas. Rainstorms leading into the evening turn the field sloppy and made for a less hospitable environment in the stadium. Fans chose to stay home and watch on television rather than trek to Frisco, a location that has long caused problems for the club when it comes to selling tickets.
The bloom is coming off the NYCFC rose with their now four-year tenancy at Yankee Stadium, as evidenced by the club’s declining attendance year-over-year. From a high of over 29,000 in the expansion year, NYCFC average 21,403 fans during the 2018 regular season. The newness of the team wearing off explains some of the drop. It’s also likely that what was once a palatable situation, an undersized soccer playing surface jammed in a baseball stadium, is not as palatable now. NYCFC has made no public progress on building a soccer venue in New York, another factor in the drop in enthusiasm for the club’s live product.
There’s nothing MLS can do about FC Dallas’s Frisco-related issues or NYCFC’s lengthening quest for a proper venue. Those are the realities the clubs and the league has to live with them. MLS can make sure that playoffs games don’t take place on Halloween. It can give teams more than three days to market and sell tickets to the biggest game of a team’s season to that point. In the process, MLS can give its playoff season the kind of buildup that would serve the entirety of the tournament, well beyond the knockout round.
The MLS Cup playoffs never really recover from the abrupt start, midweek following Decision Day, though there are other elements that hurt the postseason’s reach. Why MLS insists moving so quickly into the knockout round games is a function of the owners’ emphasis on playing as many weekend games as possible during the regular season. Guaranteed regular season home games remain the most the focus for clubs from a revenue perspective. Loathe to shift more games to midweek than is absolutely necessary, owners hamstring the playoffs by forcing 17 postseason games into a five-week period interrupted by the November FIFA window.
The gap between the conference semifinals and conference finals mandated by the international break could be better used to ramp up excitement for the MLS Cup Final. A simple tweak, either moving to single-elimination throughout the tournament or shifting the whole season back a week, would allow for such a situation. If MLS wants to hold onto the two-legged conference semifinal and conference final format and stick with a one-off championship game because it serves as a point of focus for the season, the latter makes almost too much sense not to get serious consideration moving forward.
No matter which way the league goes in the future, change or no change, it’s prudent to avoid Halloween. The league might not be able to handpick playoff teams so as to maximize the crowds and excitement of the first round, but it can give clubs a better shot at packing the house.
Thursday night delivered better-attended games for the league in Washington and Los Angeles. It wasn’t Halloween, the clubs had an extra day to sell tickets, and the weather cooperated. Both teams play in soccer-specific stadiums that opened this year. That doesn't make up for Wednesday or the bigger issues. MLS is doing the playoffs wrong. For the clubs, for the fans, and for itself.
More From Jason Davis:
- What's next for MLS teams that missed the playoffs?
- MLS Decision Day gets it right
- Atlanta after Tata Martino
- Orlando City's misspent season
Logo courtesy of FC Dallas