D.C. United Attendance: A Postscript on 2012

Seats weren't always filled at RFK in 2012, but the trends for 2013 look better. - Patrick Smith

Attendance at RFK reached all time lows in 2012, but the trends appear favorable for a significant attendance increase in 2013. Let's break it down.

Now that the 2012 Major League Soccer season is officially over, let's take one final look at D.C. United attendance and what we can expect in 2013. Attendance is a much discussed topic that is indelibly tied to many facets of D.C. United's soccer and business operations. We've been looking at the subject all season, so check out the previous posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3) as we put a wrap on this season's attendance series.

The standard measure of attendance in MLS is to look at average regular season home attendance. In 2012, this statistic was not kind to D.C. United as the club had its lowest average annual home attendance in history. The team also finished 2012 third from the bottom among all MLS franchises for average home attendance, with only the San Jose Earthquakes (who played in a 10,525-seat capacity stadium, with a few home games in bigger venues) and Chivas USA below them. Finally, D.C. United also had the third worst percentage change in attendance from 2011 to 2012, averaging -8.97% fewer fans in 2012 (only Toronto FC and Chivas USA had a worse attendance falloff). Here's the season-ending attendance table:

Team 2012 Regular Season Home Avg 2011 Regular Season Home Avg % Change from 2011
Seattle Sounders 43,144 38,495 12.08%
LA Galaxy 23,136 23,335 -0.85%
Montreal Impact 22,772 --- ---
Houston Dynamo 21,015 17,694 18.77%
Portland Timbers 20,438 18,827 8.56%
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,475 20,406 -4.56%
Sporting Kansas City 19,404 17,810 8.95%
Real Salt Lake 19,087 17,594 8.49%
New York Red Bulls 18,281 19,691 -7.16%
Toronto FC 18,155 20,267 -10.42%
Philadelphia Union 18,053 18,258 -1.12%
Chicago Fire 16,409 14,274 14.96%
Colorado Rapids 15,175 14,838 2.27%
Columbus Crew 14,397 12,185 18.15%
FC Dallas 14,199 12,861 10.40%
New England Revolution 14,001 13,222 5.89%
D.C. United 13,846 15,211 -8.97%
San Jose Earthquakes 13,293 11,858 12.10%
Chivas USA 13,056 14,830 -11.96%

What else did we (re)learn about D.C. United's 2012 home attendance, and what can we expect in 2013?

1. Saturdays are by far the best day for home attendance. Wednesdays are nothing short of toxic for attendance. The table below lists D.C. United's 2012 regular season home matches based on attendance (largest to smallest).

Date Day of the Week Opponent Attendance
20-Oct-12 Sat Columbus Crew 19,647
30-Jun-12 Sat Montreal Impact 18,302
10-Mar-12 Sat Sporting Kansas City 16,314
7-Apr-12 Sat Seattle Sounders 15,651
15-Sep-12 Sat NE Revolution 15,104
4-Aug-12 Sat Columbus Crew 14,640
26-May-12 Sat NE Revolution 14,627
19-May-12 Sat Toronto FC 14,287
28-Apr-12 Sat Houston Dynamo 13,975
22-Apr-12 Sun New York Red Bulls 13,262
30-Mar-12 Fri FC Dallas 13,169
19-Aug-12 Sun Philadelphia Union 12,312
23-Sep-12 Sun Chivas USA 11,770
16-May-12 Wed Colorado Rapids 11,593
29-Aug-12 Wed New York Red Bulls 10,303
22-Aug-12 Wed Chicago Fire 10,291
18-Apr-12 Wed Montreal Impact 10,135

Perhaps not surprisingly, all nine of D.C. United's home games on Saturday nights were at the top of the best attended games this season at RFK. Similarly, all four of the games on Wednesday nights were at the absolute bottom as the worst attended games.

One additional way to look at D.C. United's 2012 home attendance also shows that the average attendance for Saturday games (15,839) significantly exceeded the overall 2012 average attendance (13,846), and totally outperformed the average attendance for Friday games (13,169), Sunday games (12,448), Wednesday games (10,581), and the average of all non-Saturday games (11,604).

2012 Regular Season Attendance
Overall Home Avg 13,846
Saturday Game Avg 15,839
Friday Game Avg 13,169
Sunday Game Avg 12,448
Wednesday Game Avg 10,581
Non-Saturday Game Avg 11,604

2. If we include the playoffs, the last three home matches were among the four best crowds at RFK in 2012. Rather than just focusing on regular season attendance, let's factor in the playoffs. If we add in the home playoff matches against the New York Red Bulls on Nov. 3 and against the Houston Dynamo on Nov. 18, here is what D.C. United's 2012 total home attendance per game (largest to smallest) looks like:

Date Day of the Week Opponent Attendance
18-Nov-12 Sun Houston Dynamo 20,015
20-Oct-12 Sat Columbus Crew 19,647
30-Jun-12 Sat Montreal Impact 18,302
3-Nov-12 Sat New York Red Bulls 17,556
10-Mar-12 Sat Sporting Kansas City 16,314
7-Apr-12 Sat Seattle Sounders 15,651
15-Sep-12 Sat NE Revolution 15,104
4-Aug-12 Sat Columbus Crew 14,640
26-May-12 Sat NE Revolution 14,627
19-May-12 Sat Toronto FC 14,287
28-Apr-12 Sat Houston Dynamo 13,975
22-Apr-12 Sun New York Red Bulls 13,262
30-Mar-12 Fri FC Dallas 13,169
19-Aug-12 Sun Philadelphia Union 12,312
23-Sep-12 Sun Chivas USA 11,770
16-May-12 Wed Colorado Rapids 11,593
29-Aug-12 Wed New York Red Bulls 10,303
22-Aug-12 Wed Chicago Fire 10,291
18-Apr-12 Wed Montreal Impact 10,135

A few observations from this table:

- D.C. United fans turned out on a Sunday afternoon for a huge home match in the final playoff game against Houston. This ended up being the best crowd of the season and was the only non-Saturday game in the top eleven.

- With the playoffs factored in, the overall D.C. United average home attendance for 2012 increased to 14,366 from 13,846 in the regular season.

- Attendance momentum at the end of the year, with a huge game on Oct. 20 against Columbus to clinch a playoff spot, as well as the two home playoff games against New York and Houston, was very positive. The final three home games of the 2012 season had an average attendance of 19,073. As upset as many fans were about the switch of playoff home dates with New York due to Hurricane Sandy, D.C. United almost certainly enjoyed a larger crowd on Saturday, Nov. 3, than they would have on the original date of Wed, Nov. 7.

3. With the playoffs factored in, D.C. United's 2012 average attendance slightly improved relative to the rest of the league. As the first table at the top of the post shows, D.C. United finished 17th of 19 teams for regular season average home attendance in 2012. By factoring in all playoff games (including the LA Galaxy's home match in the 2012 MLS Cup), D.C. United moves up two spots to 15th of 19 for total average home attendance in 2012, surpassing the New England Revolution and FC Dallas:

Team 2012 Regular Season Home Avg 2012 Playoffs Home Avg 2012 Total Home Avg
Seattle Sounders 43,144 39,758 42,788
LA Galaxy 23,136 24,803 23,454
Montreal Impact 22,772 -- 22,772
Houston Dynamo 21,015 21,395 21,055
Portland Timbers 20,438 -- 20,438
Sporting Kansas City 19,404 20,894 19,487
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,475 -- 19,475
Real Salt Lake 19,087 19,657 19,119
Toronto FC 18,155 -- 18,155
Philadelphia Union 18,053 -- 18,053
New York Red Bulls 18,281 14,035 18,045
Chicago Fire 16,409 10,923 16,104
Colorado Rapids 15,175 -- 15,175
Columbus Crew 14,397 -- 14,397
D.C. United 13,846 18,786 14,366
FC Dallas 14,199 -- 14,199
New England Revolution 14,001 -- 14,001
San Jose Earthquakes 13,293 10,744 13,151
Chivas USA 13,056 -- 13,056

4. Attendance trends should improve in 2013. As we discussed in the previous attendance posts back in the summer, attendance trends in 2012 probably were about as bad as they could be for D.C. United. With attendance historically being a trailing indicator for the club, next season should see a boost in attendance based on this year's playoff run. The only other time in D.C. United history that the team made the playoffs after having missed them the previous season was 2003. D.C. United followed 2003 with a 10% attendance boost in 2004. I expect D.C. United to see a minimum 10% improvement in 2013 as well (and potentially much better), assuming they do the following:

a. Work with the league and Events DC to get more Saturday games, but certainly no fewer than the nine Saturday games they had during the 2012 regular season (the MLS average in 2012 was ten Saturday home games for each team). Even if the TV networks want to put D.C. United on more national games on other nights of the week (which is likely based on United's strong 2012 finish), insist on more Saturday games. Break all the china necessary to ensure this happens.

b. Work with the league and Events DC to have three or fewer Wednesday home games (the league average was less than three Wednesday home games for each team in 2012). D.C. United played four Wednesday night games in 2012.

c. Create opportunities on the schedule for big attendance turnouts at RFK (such as holiday matches).

d. Sustain the end-of-season 2012 momentum with the fans and the city.

5. David Beckham's departure from MLS will limit the improvement in D.C. United's home attendance in 2013. One of the results of MLS's unbalanced schedule in 2012 was that the LA Galaxy did not visit RFK. The last time they visited RFK (in 2011), D.C. United drew 26,622 for the match. In fact, since David Beckham arrived in LA, the Galaxy has drawn the biggest crowds on the road of any MLS team. Below is the average attendance each team drew on the road in 2012:

Team 2012 Away Average
LA Galaxy 27,026
San Jose Earthquakes 19,833
Portland Timbers 19,711
Toronto FC 19,681
Chicago Fire 19,626
Real Salt Lake 19,601
Philadelphia Union 18,945
Vancouver Whitecaps 18,928
Sporting Kansas City 18,520
New York Red Bulls 18,482
Colorado Rapids 18,388
D.C. United 18,236
Columbus Crew 17,807
FC Dallas 17,705
Houston Dynamo 17,242
New England Revolution 17,130
Chivas USA 16,977
Montreal Impact 16,821
Seattle Sounders 16,680

Although next season's MLS schedule is not out yet, the LA Galaxy should play at RFK in 2013. If David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane were all part of the Galaxy next year, and D.C. United opened the upper bowl at RFK, there is a good chance D.C. United could draw a huge crowd for that game. With Beckham (still one of the biggest celebrities in global soccer) now leaving MLS, and Donovan (the best known American player of the last 10+ years, and arguably the best American player in history) questioning whether he will return, it's hard to see how that match will draw as big a crowd as the 2011 match against the Galaxy (even if LA has some combination of Donovan, Keane, Kaká, and/or Frank Lampard). In the end, Beckham's departure could lower D.C. United's average home attendance in 2013 from what it otherwise would have been by several hundred per game. Time will tell, but Beckham's departure will be felt across the league (and in DC) because he (and Donovan) could move the attendance needle like no other players (including Thierry Henry).

Note: The Seattle Sounders' home attendance has been incredibly impressive since they've joined MLS. But, there is irony in the fact they had the worst average away attendance in 2012 of any team. A big part of this is explained by the fact that they do not get to play away games in front of the huge crowds in their own stadium (which most other teams get to do); but, the five Eastern Conference teams that also did not play away games in Seattle in 2012 (including D.C. United) outdrew Seattle on the road.

As hopeful as next season is for improved attendance, there is one controversial idea for jump starting attendance, and the team's image in the D.C. area, that we've yet to examine. Next week, we'll take a look at it.

What are your takeways regarding attendance from the 2012 season? What do you expect attendance to be like in 2013?

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