Whenever a new major sports league comes to town there is that familiar insecurity that one often feels when beginning a new relationship.
The league and its teams worry that after the honeymoon, fan interest will fall off. Fans are reluctant to give their whole hearts to the home team because they’ve been hurt before (as in WUSA.)
It becomes a chicken and egg situation. Fans are reluctant to commit for fear the team or the league might fold, and if the franchise or the league folds, it is usually due to lack of fan support.
Where women’s sports are concerned, there are additional complications. Again, using the relationship metaphor, there is a sense in which the media plays the role of the fans’ extended family.
Often the extended family’s attitude toward a prospective partner can douse the flame before it ever ignites.
If the local media don’t give the new suitor a stamp of legitimacy, many fans will not consider a first date. Sure there are the rebels and the ones who are in love at first sight, for whom the family’s opinion be damned, but there is a much larger group that just won’t be open to a first date with someone who is not considered “relationship material” by the family or the community.
Soccer has had to fight hard for media attention in most American media markets, although after more than a decade, MLS has earned respect, has established a solid fan base, and looks to be a permanent and still growing fixture in the American sports landscape.
Women’s sports have had to fight twice as hard, however, to earn the same respect. That is true of the WNBA, despite its relationship with the NBA. And women’s soccer has an even greater hurdle to achieve the stamp of legitimacy because of its double curse: being both a women’s league, and a soccer league, further exacerbated by the failure of WUSA and the wounds left by that experiment that in some cases have not yet healed.
In a recent online chat with Chicago sports media personalities, I raised the issue of Chicago’s two major league women’s teams being all but frozen out of mainstream media coverage. And in saying frozen out, I mean not even a mention of a score on the evening news, say nothing of film highlights.
The replies I received were very telling. One person asked, “What’s the Red Stars?” That was followed by some comments about the name Red Stars sounding communist or socialist. Another comment was, “Aren’t they 0-3?”
The only woman in the group said she “tried to watch the Sky,” (Chicago’s WNBA team) when they first came to town four years ago, but the quality of play was so poor “I couldn’t stand to watch.”
There were more comments about women’s basketball just not measuring up to the level of play in the men’s game. Then one of the panel said he thought women’s soccer might actually take hold if they can survive long enough to get some traction.
At that point I chided the media panel again for not giving the Red Stars a mention. The woman in the group said, “The pie is too small. We can’t slice it any smaller.”
My response to that was that in Chicago, they slice the pie for minor league hockey, despite the presence of a major league team, and for arena football, despite having a NFL team, so if the pie is sliced too thin, reduce minor league coverage to make room for major league women’s coverage. Unfortunately I did not receive a response to that comment.
Thus, there is cause to be concerned for the future of a fan’s relationship with the Red Stars and with WPS. Like anyone in the early stages of a relationship, there’s a lot of pulse taking, a lot of hypersensitivity to any sign or signal that one’s new partner may not be around for the long haul.
The most obvious signs and signals of the health of a franchise and its league is attendance.
If one attends a match and sees a crowd that looks a little smaller than the previous season, one begins to feel that queasy feeling, that tightness in the chest, that worry that the new love won’t be there in the morning.
The aggregate average WPS attendance in 2009 was 4,493. The weekend match average was 4,691, with the weekday average at 3,726. The league-wide range went from a high of 14,832 on opening day in Los Angeles to 1,876 at a weeknight game in New Jersey.
Los Angeles was first with 6,218, Chicago second with 4,941, followed by Boston, Washington, St. Louis, Bay Area, and New Jersey in that order. The bottom three averaged less than 4,000. (See table below.)
Across the league, the average weekly attendance ranged from a high of 6,858 in week one to a low of 3,390 in week 13 which included two midweek games.
Another interesting statistic is that in one of the three playoff venues (Washington,) attendance was slightly lower for playoffs than the regular season average (4,217 compared to 4,597,) although this could be a result of the 90+ degree temperatures on that sweltering day in Washington.
In Los Angeles the playoff attendance was slightly above the season average (7,218 compared to 6,298,) and in St. Louis it was significantly higher (5,047 compared to 3,833) — a near sell-out. That would indicate a slight trend of increased loyalty in at least two of the three venues.
So the inaugural season stats become the baseline against which the health of the league, each club, and its prospects of faithfulness to its fans (and vice versa) is measured against it.
In 2010 to date, the indicators in WPS are mixed league-wide, and a little concerning in Chicago.
Across the league, season ticket sales were up 17 percent. That is an excellent sign. Opening day attendance was also up slightly compared to the inaugural season in 2009 (4,428 versus 4,195,) despite the dissolution of the league’s attendance leader, Los Angeles.
But there are also storm clouds. Over the first three weeks of the second season, attendance is down across the league.
Even opening day in Chicago, had less than 2009’s numbers (5,824 compared to 5,134,) despite better weather. The gate at the second home match (3,136) was lower than any match played in Toyota Park the previous year—although rainy conditions could be cited in Chicago.
Another point of concern for the Red Stars is that despite the dissolution of Los Angeles, Chicago has dropped from second to fourth in attendance after two home matches.
League-wide, this year, all but three matches were played before less than 5,000. The aggregate average attendance for the first three weeks is down from 4,493 to 3,908. Expansion Philadelphia had the biggest opening day gate at 6,028, but fell to under 3,000 in game two—also played in very wet, rainy conditions.
According to Robert Penner, spokesperson for WPS, "Boston is expecting a good crowd this weekend, and it will be interesting to see if (New Jersey) Sky Blue FC will sell-out when Marta comes to town with the Bay Area's FC Gold Pride-- a matchup of the league's No. 1 and No. 2 clubs in the current standings."
Expansion Atlanta is yet to play in their new state of the art stadium built for WPS, and we can hope they will run in the neighborhood of 5,000 throughout the season.
Keep in mind, however, as an expansion team, these two clubs’ numbers should be compared to inaugural season numbers for the rest of the league. They’re both on the honeymoon.
While it is way too soon to draw any conclusions, the trend of dropping attendance is a matter of concern.
The increase in season ticket sales points to a meaningful increase in core fan support but the overall smaller attendance may indicate a little less interest in going on that “first date” among the larger community.
I do not have metrics regarding the amount of spending on publicity around the league. It could be that clubs have tightened their belts and spent less on advertising and marketing ( I will report back with this information in a follow up article.)
The WNBA comparison is interesting. As a league, the WNBA’s first season attendance was approximately double WPS attendance in its first campaign.
WNBA average attendance increased in its second season from 9,669 to 10,869. Since year two, however, WNBA attendance dropped steadily to a low of 7,490 in the 10th season (2006) and then began to climb gradually to 8,039 in ’09.
In Chicago, interestingly, the Red Stars have outdrawn their WNBA counterparts.
The Sky, one of the few franchises not owned by the local NBA affiliate, drew less than half of the typical WNBA gate in all four of their previous seasons.
In ’09 the Sky drew 3,932 compared to the Red Stars 4,941, or more than a thousand fewer fans per game.
This is especially significant since the two leagues’ seasons are largely concurrent.
What conclusions can we draw from the data? Obviously three weeks does not a season make but the trends need to be reversed immediately.
The lack of media attention is huge. On the other hand, the media follows the crowd. If there were enough grass roots support, the media would eventually follow the noise.
Without media the only way to attract a crowd is publicity. As expensive as advertising and marketing is in major media markets, WPS has no choice but to dramatically increase their media exposure by any means necessary. If that means buying prime advertising, then that must be done.
Social media is an increasingly effective means of generating buzz, especially for the young adult demographic. WPS and each of its franchises are fairly active on Twitter, Facebook and other social media but the effectiveness of the messages they send out should be evaluated. It is possible they could do a better job of optimizing social media to fill the seats.
WUSA folded after three years. From the beginning WPS has been emphasizing that they’re not another WUSA, that they are using a different business model designed to ride out some initial lean years and eventually turn a profit.
The WNBA is entering their 14th season, but they remain on NBA life-support, despite having twice the attendance of WPS.
MLS has shown that a major soccer league can survive and thrive in the United States. From a soccer standpoint, WPS has more to offer than MLS, since the world’s best players come to WPS whereas MLS is still a backwater in world football.
While not conceding the above referenced point that women’s basketball doesn’t measure up to men’s, in this writer’s opinion, the women’s game in soccer is very exciting and entertaining and as some of the aforementioned media “experts” observed, it could be the women’s pro game with the best long-term chance of success.
Let’s just hope WPS owners can spend the money needed to nurture the new relationship with their fans.
Top 10 WPS Attendances (Regular Season 2009)
3/29 — Los Angeles Sol vs. Washington Freedom Home Depot Center 14,832
5/2 — Boston Breakers vs. Los Angeles Sol Harvard Stadium 8,031
8/2 — Chicago Red Stars vs. Los Angeles Sol Toyota Park 7,959
8/9 — Boston Breakers vs. Los Angeles Sol Harvard Stadium 6,631
4/5 — FC Gold Pride vs. Boston Breakers Buck Shaw Stadium 6,459
5/30 — Los Angeles Sol vs. Saint Louis Athletica Home Depot Center 6,288
5/24 — FC Gold Pride vs. Los Angeles Sol Buck Shaw Stadium 6,280
5/10 — Los Angeles Sol vs. Boston Breakers Home Depot Center 6,210
4/19 — Los Angeles Sol FC vs. Gold Pride Home Depot Center 6,119
5/15 — Los Angeles Sol vs. Sky Blue FC Home Depot Center 6,115
8/15 — Washington Freedom vs. Sky Blue FC Maryland SoccerPlex 4,217
8/19 — Saint Louis Athletica vs. Sky Blue FC Anheuser-Busch Soccer Park
8/22 — Los Angeles Sol vs. Sky Blue FC Home Depot Center 7,218