July 4, 2009
Kathryn L. Knapp
WHERE IS EVERYBODY?
Half-Way Into MLS Season, Fire Attendance Not So Hot
I decided to take a break from Chicago for a couple of weeks and head to Seattle. I wanted to go to a city where I know people have passion for soccer. They expect and demand that a good product be put on the field every match. The stands are full of Sounders jerseys. And quite frankly, everywhere you look around Seattle, there are Sounders flags flying or stickers on cars. You gotta love that! Sunday I wandered around a packed stadium of 32,526 fans and wondered what is wrong with the Chicago market.
The Chicago Fire has a great product. There’s no denying that on paper the Fire is one of the top teams in the league. They’ve advanced to the semifinals of SuperLiga play. They’re holding their own in the Eastern Conference, currently sitting in fourth place. So here’s my question… where is everybody?
With six MLS home games the Chicago Fire has had 70,357 fans… that’s an average of 11,726 fans. In the international matches they’ve been lucky to get 8,000-10,000 fans. Except for the Club America match where 17,342 fans poured into the stadium. So what gives?
The Fire is fun to watch. They’re talented. They’re good. They get the results everyone’s looking for. There’s nothing missing from the production side. I’ve heard rumblings around the stadium that fans just can’t afford to come to games due to the economy. Or maybe this is a busy time of year for people. Or my all-time favorite – Bridgeview is just hard to get to.
I’m not buying it. All around the country people are going out to MLS games. They’re just not coming to Chicago or Bridgeview for matches. And you can’t say honestly say soccer fans are not coming to Chicago. 55,647 fans made it to Soldier Field to see the U.S. Men’s National Team play Honduras in a World Cup Qualifier. Sure there may have been more Honduras fans in the stands than U.S. fans… but the fans were there. Soccer fans are out there. They’re in Chicago… so why aren’t they at the Fire games?
Only three teams in MLS have lower home attendance than Chicago – FC Dallas, Kansas City Wizards and the New England Revolution. The Revs have played one less game than Chicago. But even the Colorado Rapids are averaging more fans than the Fire 11,940 and their stadium only seats 18,000. Toyota Park seats at least 20,000 and has the option to expand.
Last season the Fire housed 255,511 fans in 15 matches, an average of 17,034 per match. The MLS average was 16,460. Chicago made a run for MLS Cup 2008 and fell in the Conference Championship to Columbus Crew. They were tough then. And some may say they’re even tougher now. The current league average for fans at home matches is 15,209. Chicago used to beat that number.
The Chicago Red Stars of Women’s Professional Soccer also play at Toyota Park and are neck-in-neck with the league average. Out of 42 WPS matches in 14 weeks, the league has averaged 4,673 fans. The Red Stars have averaged 4,495 fans. That’s in the first year of a new league.
The soccer community in Chicago is strong. I’m not quite sure where all the fans are going. But it’s beyond sad to think that a team that quite regularly could sell out Toyota Park or at least get over 15,000 fans there is now struggling to get the stadium half-way full.
So who’s to blame? With the season halfway over, the questions need to be asked. Someone needs to take responsibility.