A Midseason Chicago Seat Check: Red Stars Vs. Sky

John HowellAnalyst IJuly 22, 2010

The WNBA and WPS (Women's Professional Soccer) have chosen to compete with each other for bodies in seats, as the seasons of the world's two premier women's sports leagues run more or less concurrently.

In Chicago, the competition, however friendly it may be, is also local and personal.

At the opening of the two seasons, we looked at the success of the two leagues in Chicago as they competed for the women's pro sports dollar in the Windy City.

Throughout their previous four years as an expansion team in the WNBA, the Sky has consistently run in the ballpark of half the average WNBA attendance, league-wide. Last season, the Sky averaged 3,933 in their final season at the 7,000 seat UIC Pavilion.

In their inaugural season, the WPS Red Stars averaged 4,941, beating out their hoop-dreaming counterparts by more than a thousand per game.

This season, however, with the Sky in a new venue and the Red Stars dealing with second-year let down, the two franchises are averaging nearly the same number at the midseason mark. The Sky is up a little over 100 per game to 4,068, while the Red Stars are down by nearly 800 per game to 4,181 thus far. Soccer still wins the attendance cup, but barely.

These numbers are a source of concern for both leagues and both franchises. One would expect the nation's third largest media market to perform at the gate accordingly. But not only does the Sky remain far below the WNBA average, the Red Stars have slipped from their spot in second place for attendance last year, even though the league's second largest market, L.A., is no longer a part of the league.

The slight increase in the Sky's attendance could be attributable to the team's improved play, more than anything. At midseason, they have overcome numerous obstacles to claw their way back to .500 and have the most competitive team in their history.

The Red Stars' drop in attendance could be attributable to the club's disappointing play, falling far short of expectations for a second consecutive year, and being especially unable to produce offense, despite a coaching change and a talented front line.

But an increase from the high threes to the low fours, or a drop from high fours to low fours is still a minor shift in what would be minor league numbers in any men's league. So, what is the future of women's sports in Chicago?

Despite its size, dynamism, and strength as a sports market, Chicago does not seem to be the bastion of women's sports like other towns, such as Seattle. Despite its increase in cosmopolitan cred over the past 30 years, Chicago is still, at its core, the hog butcher to the world—at least where sports are concerned.

It's a town where sports are still primarily a man's game to play, although there are more women in the stands than ever. It is a city of bears and bulls—animal, earthy, bloody, sweaty, and brutish. And in the stands, both the men and the women seem to like it better that way.

The more ethereal nicknames of Sky and (Red) Stars may capture Chicago's place in architectural prowess (as "Sky" reflects the skyline and Chicago's place in the history of building the skyscraper), and the pursuit of greatness (as "stars" connote reaching beyond to a new frontier). They may alo be useful to the city's public relations or its latest tourism campaign. but they don't seem to appeal to the city's sense of swagger and struggle that is imbued in its men's teams (the lovable loser Cubs notwithstanding).

It's not so much anti-female as it is pro- guts 'n' glory. One gets the impression that if there were a woman good enough to star on the Bears or the Bulls or the Fire, Chicago would welcome them with open arms. But unless the girls can play with the boys, Chicago doesn't have adequate respect for women's athletic achievements.

So there are two problems to solve if the WNBA and WPS are to succeed in Chicago. First, they need to figure out how to optimize the natural market for women's sports in Chicago, and what venue is best as an instrument of optimization.

Second, they need to compete head on with the men's leagues as a worthy investment of part of the fan's sports dollar. It doesn't appear they have done either very well.  

For the former, venue is key.

The WNBA Sky have staked out the northwest suburbs as their new center of gravity, having moved from downtown to the Allstate Arena (formerly Rosemont Horizon) a larger (18,000 seats) and better appointed venue in Rosemont, near O'Hare. 

It is unclear at this point whether the Sky's change of venue has anything to do with their slight uptick in attendance, and whether it may in fact, limit their ability to grow in the long term.  

It does appear clear that the Red Stars are hampered by their venue more than they benefit from it.  

Based in Toyota Park, a nearly new soccer-specific stadium built originally for Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire (men's) club, the Chicago Red Stars are operating out of the near southwest suburbs.

The Sky cites the added capacity, but more importantly, the major league quality amenities in Allstate Arena, especially in terms of locker rooms and player facilities as well as sky boxes, etc., available to them at Allstate. They also cite the greater ease of travel to and parking at the venue.

The Red Stars can boast the word-class soccer facilities at Toyota Park (capacity 21,000) as well as the benefits of playing in a venue where the new car smell, literally (new Toyotas are on display on the roof of the clubhouse) and metaphorically, is still profound.

Both clubs, however, suffer from the curse of overcapacity. The overabundance of empty seats can be a drain on crowd spirit as well as the sense of success and permanence that everyone involved with the franchise may sense, from players to fans to advertisers and sponsors.

As we observed in the preseason article, MLS attributes much of its success to its ability to quickly build soccer-specific stadia of one-third to one-quarter the size of the cavernous NFL stadia in which most clubs started out.

As counterintuitive as it may be, MLS proved that smaller, more intimate venues that are filled or nearly filled are better for business, including the enthusiasm and loyalty of fans, than much larger venues that appear empty even when hosting "record" soccer crowds.

This is an issue for both teams. The Sky played to a record house in their home opener this past May. It would have been a virtual sellout at UIC. But in Allstate, it still looked like a small crowd.

And in Toyota Park, even if the Red Stars sell 10,000 tickets, the larger section on the west (opposite) side of the stadium would still be empty. The fans would sit looking at a three-story wall of empty seats. It is an energy drain.

Ironically, in addition to having too many seats for their own good in their respective home venues, both teams may be geographically and demographically out of sync with their target markets.

The primary target market for basketball is a more urban demographic, and one of color. The primary target for women's soccer is decidedly white and suburban.

Given those realities, the Red Stars might be better off playing in the northwest burbs or the North Shore, than in Bridgeview, which is ethnically diverse and semi-urban. The Sky would be better off going back to the city.

Both clubs need to be housed in venues that are roomy enough for their maximum crowd, with major league amenities, but small enough that even a crowd at the low end of the range will look and feel substantial, not swallowed up in empty seats.     

It may be too late, but the Sky should have never left UIC. They should have spent some money upgrading the facilities, and stayed put.

The Red Stars have a more difficult problem. There is no existing venue in the north or northwest suburbs where they need to be, in order to draw optimum crowds.

Their solution is to look for a partner to build a 8-10,000 seat soccer specific stadium to be located in Schaumburg or Arlington Heights near I-90 and the blue line, or the North Shore within a short walk of the Metra Line.

An ideal location might be on the grounds at the Arlington Race Course. It has a Metra stop, and with racing fortunes in the crapper lately, the management would welcome a new source of income. There is adequate parking for a stadium already, and there is adequate land to construct a stadium of that size.

The competition with men's leagues is more difficult. The solution there is for the Sky and Red Stars, along with the pro-softball "Bandits" perhaps, to join forces and market themselves as a group. Make it a boys versus girls argument.

Sure the NBA has more dunks, but the WNBA plays team ball. WPS has the world's best women's soccer while the Fire and MLS is still second tier in the men's world. The Cubs lose, but the Bandits kick butt.

This is not to be so naive as to believe that women's sports will suddenly equal men's in Chicago, or anywhere else, in the near future, but it is to say that there are victories to be won with direct confrontational marketing. Enough to at least fill the smaller venues we recommend both teams use. And maybe, someday, enough to fill the big ones. Well, for my grandchildren's generation anyway.  


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