D.C. United Attendance is Awful--Why? (Part 1)

Bring up the subject of Major League Soccer attendance and you normally get one of two reactions:

1. Great analysis and animated discussion of why one team is drawing better than another (or why one season had better attendance than another), or

2. A lot of eye rolling and bored yawns.

But it's a fact: D.C. United's attendance is really bad this year. Relative to other teams in the league, attendance this season at RFK Stadium is among the worst; and compared to previous United seasons, the club is on pace for its worst average attendance ever.

At the risk of putting to sleep those who say, "Bring on the soccer and quit talking about the gate," let's look at all the theories on why attendance is suffering for MLS's most decorated team.

Including the games played on Sunday, July 22nd, here is the current attendance ranking for the 2012 season:

Team 2012 Average Capacity Percent Full 2011 Average % Change from 2011 Playing at Stadium Since
Seattle Sounders 39,537 38,500 102.69% 38,495 2.71% 2009
Montreal Impact 24,472 20,341 120.31% --- --- 2012
Los Angeles Galaxy* 22,729 27,000 84.18% 23,335 -2.60% 2003
Houston Dynamo 21,045 22,000 95.66% 17,694 18.94% 2012
Portland Timbers 20,438 20,438 100.00% 18,827 8.56% 2011
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,384 21,000 92.30% 20,406 -5.01% 2011
Sporting Kansas City* 19,321 18,467 104.62% 17,810 8.48% 2011
Toronto FC 19,033 21,140 90.03% 20,267 -6.09% 2007
Real Salt Lake 18,678 20,213 92.41% 17,594 6.16% 2008
Philadelphia Union 18,398 18,500 99.45% 18,258 0.77% 2010
New York Red Bulls* 17,720 25,000 70.88% 19,691 -10.01% 2010
Chicago Fire 15,543 20,000 77.72% 14,274 8.89% 2006
San Jose Earthquakes* 15,229 10,525 144.69% 11,858 28.43% 2008
Colorado Rapids* 15,184 18,086 83.95% 14,838 2.33% 2007
Columbus Crew* 14,858 20,145 73.76% 12,185 21.94% 1999
D.C. United* 14,132 19,467 72.59% 15,211 -7.09% 1996
FC Dallas* 13,525 20,500 65.98% 12,861 5.16% 2005
Chivas USA 13,191 18,800 70.16% 14,830 -11.05% 2005
NE Revolution* 12,455 20,000 62.28% 13,222 -5.80% 2002

With so many theories out there on why attendance has been poor this season, I'll try to do a little back-of-the-envelope analysis and see if we can narrow down the list of possible reasons. For simplicity's sake, I'll apply the Mythbusters' rating scale of Busted, Plausible, or Confirmed for each theory. I had hoped to do this all in one post, but there are just too many theories, so I will break it up into a few posts over the next couple weeks.

1. Attendance is a trailing indicator and D.C. United is still feeling the effects of the past several seasons. Clearly, United is having a turnaround campaign so far this year after missing the playoffs each of the past four seasons. While there are still a lot of matches to be played, D.C. United appears to be firmly among the top five teams in the Eastern Conference this season and should make the playoffs if they hold form for the remainder of the year (need to stop this recent bad road play, however!). Counterintuitively, this year's good results haven't helped put fans in the seats. So, is attendance being held down by the memory of the last four seasons? Does it take time to rebuild attendance momentum?

There are probably a lot of ways to test for this, but here's my simplistic approach. Let's look at the two extremes: does winning championships positively affect attendance for the next few seasons and does failing to make the playoffs negatively impact attendance over the next few seasons?

The table below shows D.C. United's historical performance and attendance.

Year Games Played Wins Losses Ties Won a Trophy Missed Playoffs Average Attendance
1996 32 16 16 0 X 15,262
1997 32 21 11 0 X 16,698
1998 32 24 8 0 X 16,007
1999 32 23 9 0 X 17,419
2000 32 8 18 6 X 18,580
2001 32 8 6 18 X 21,518
2002 28 9 14 5 X 16,519
2003 30 10 11 9 15,565
2004 32 11 10 9 X 17,232
2005 32 16 10 6 16,664
2006 32 15 7 10 X 18,251
2007 30 16 7 7 X 20,967
2008 30 11 15 4 X X 19,835
2009 30 9 8 13 X 15,585
2010 30 6 20 4 X 14,532
2011 34 9 13 12 X 15,181
2012 34 10 7 3 14,132

Let's first look at years in which D.C. United did not make the playoffs to see how that affected attendance the next year and the year after that (using the year the team missed the playoffs as the comparison year). For example, the team missed the playoffs in 2009 when attendance averaged 15,585. Attendance 1 year later in 2010 was lower as it averaged 14,532. Additionally, attendance 2 years later in 2011 was also lower than 2009 as it averaged 15,181.

Missed Playoffs Attendance 1 Year Later Attendance 2 Yrs Later
2000 Higher Lower
2001 Lower Lower
2002 Lower Higher
2008* Lower Lower
2009 Lower Lower
2010 Higher Lower
2011 Lower ?

*In 2008, United missed the playoffs but won the U.S. Open Cup.

What does this tell us? In 10 of the 13 seasons that followed a missed playoff appearance by either 1 or 2 years, attendance declined at RFK Stadium when compared to the season in which United missed the playoffs. That's a 76.9% rate.

What about when D.C. United is winning championships (e.g. the MLS Cup, MLS Supporters' Shield, U.S. Open Cup, or an international trophy)? Let's look at those years below, and I will use the same comparison described above.

Won a Trophy Attendance 1 Year Later Attendance 2 Yrs Later
1996 Higher Higher
1997 Lower Higher
1998 Higher Higher
1999 Higher Higher
2004 Lower Higher
2006 Higher Higher
2007 Lower Lower
2008* Lower Lower

*In 2008, United won the U.S. Open Cup but missed the MLS playoffs.

In 10 of the 16 seasons that followed a trophy-winning season by either 1 or 2 years, attendance increased at RFK Stadium when compared to the championship season. That's a 62.5% rate. And if you take out the 2008 missed-playoff season, the rate goes to 10 out of 14 seasons with improved attendance following a year in which United went to the playoffs and won a trophy, a 71.4% rate . We have to be cautious about cherry picking seasons, but it seems reasonable that missing the playoffs in 2008 likely left a much greater negative impression on the average D.C. United soccer fan than winning the U.S. Open Cup left a positive impression. For this reason, I think it is fair to take 2008 out of this analysis for how trophy-winning seasons impacted attendance over the next 2 seasons.

Finally, let's look at the 2003 season. Surprisingly, that is the only season in D.C. United history in which the team made the playoffs after having missed the playoffs the previous season. Presuming the team holds form for the rest of 2012 and makes the playoffs, 2003 may be a predictor of what we can expect the next few seasons regarding attendance. First, as shown in the historical table above, D.C. United's attendance in 2003 was actually lower than 2002 when they did not make the playoffs (exactly like what is happening this year). Second, D.C. United enjoyed a 10% attendance improvement the following season in 2004, and in 2005 attendance was still higher than the 2003 season. Let's hope that at a minimum this is the pattern we will see at RFK next season.

While the lagging indicator theory can't perfectly explain D.C. United's attendance patterns over their history, there does appear to be a strong parallel between how the team performs when very good or very bad in a given season and the resulting attendance over the next 2 seasons. To summarize, in a season in which D.C. United fails to make the playoffs, relative attendance declines 76.9% of the time in the next 2 years. Conversely, in a season in which United makes the playoffs and brings home a trophy, relative attendance increases 71.4% of the time in the next 2 years. Having both of these numbers so high gives me enough evidence on balance to call the lagging indicator theory Confirmed.

2. Fans are tired of RFK and want a new stadium. While D.C. United's mission statement is "Win championships, and serve the community," I think we all agree the primary mission of the club right now is "Build a new stadium!"

Why was there so much excitement about the new D.C. United ownership group announced a few weeks ago? Because fans desperately want a soccer specific stadium worthy of our team and this great city, and because a new stadium sets everything in place to win more championships and serve the community even better in the future.

Can we prove that fans aren't coming to D.C. United games because they are sick of RFK? Perhaps not, but look at the table at the top of the post. Every team in the bottom five of league attendance this year has been in its stadium since at least 2005. Every team higher than those five in attendance (with the exception of LA Galaxy who frankly have their own unique, celebrity-driven dynamics) moved into their home stadium since at least 2006. Each of the bottom five clubs is dealing with its own stadium circumstances, but only FC Dallas is probably not wishing for a new stadium situation. So, although the length of time a team has been in its stadium isn't the only factor in play for each of these five teams, the correlation shown in the table above is strong enough that I will call the theory that fans grow tired of inadequate stadiums Confirmed.

3. Talk of moving the team out of D.C., perhaps all the way to Baltimore, has alienated fans. Many have argued that D.C. United fans have grown disenfranchised with the team since the club started talking about moving out of D.C. In particular, the discussions of moving the team to Baltimore are reported to have severed (or at least weakened) the link between the team and many United supporters. Since we don't have a scientific poll of fans to indicate if this alienation is resulting in reduced attendance, let's look at a timeline of major stadium-related announcements and see how this correlates to average season attendance:

- 2007, avg attendance 20,967: D.C. United Holdings (including Will Chang) purchases control of the team from Anschutz Entertainment Group. Focus is on building a new stadium in D.C.

- 2008, avg attendance 19,835: The Poplar Point Stadium project in D.C. dies on the vine.

- 2009, avg attendance 15,585 (a 21.4% decrease from 2008): The team begins to explore a stadium in Prince George's County, Maryland. Concept quickly dies. In late 2009, the Baltimore mayor opens discussions with the Maryland Stadium Authority on possibly building a soccer stadium for D.C. United. Will Chang buys out remaining partners to obtain full control of D.C. United.

- 2010, avg attendance 14,532: D.C. United openly discusses Baltimore as a possible future home.

- 2011, avg attendance 15,181: Initial reports surface that D.C. United is interested in placing a stadium in Buzzard Point in the District. Team continues to mention Baltimore as a potential future home.

- 2012, avg attendance (so far) 14,132: A new ownership group is announced, with Erick Thohir and Jason Levien joining Chang as co-owners. They state their top priority is to build a stadium. While they don't completely close the door on Baltimore, it appears they are focused on finding a home for the new stadium in D.C.

Analyzing this timeline isn't scientific, but it is obvious that something fundamentally changed for the fan base following the 2008 season. Following three seasons of very strong attendance from 2006-2008, attendance plummeted in 2009. While a similar magnitude drop in attendance occurred following the 2001 season (the security implications of the 9/11 attacks can't be understated, and it should be noted it took about 5 years to strongly rebuild attendance), it is hard to ignore that the fans' disappointment with the failure of the Poplar Point Stadium project, coupled with talks of moving to PG County or Baltimore over these years, has suppressed attendance since 2009. While I'd like more data to solidify this link conclusively, I find this theory to be Confirmed.

4. Ticket prices are too high in this economy. One theory says that D.C. United's ticket prices are too high in this economy, dissuading fans from attending games. How does D.C. United compare to other MLS teams' ticket prices? Again, lots of ways to look at this (such as season ticket prices, number of seats available at each ticket price, etc...), but time and information only allow a cursory review of ticket prices for upcoming games.

First, a quick search of all the MLS teams' websites found the ticket prices listed in the table below for their next game on a Saturday. These prices do not include taxes or "facility fees" which in some cases add significantly to the cost of the ticket. Second, I also quickly looked at what the best deal was I could find, regardless of date, as advertised on their website (some of these are for specific dates only, or require multiple tickets to be purchased for one game, or require tickets for more than one game to be purchased). For example, LivingSocial currently has a $17 ticket deal for D.C. United's August 4th game against Columbus Crew.

So, you probably can find cheaper tickets on EBay or out front of the stadium on gameday, or perhaps you can find a better deal if you do more research or live in a team's local market, but here is what the average fan is going to pay to get into the next game on a Saturday if they just go to the home team's website to purchase their ticket (as an aside, some of the teams have awful websites to purchase single game tickets making results somewhat suspect):

Team 2012 Average Ticket Prices Next Sat Game Is There a Better Promotion Available?
Seattle Sounders 39,537 $15.00 --
Montreal Impact 24,472 $20 (CAD) $20 (soda/hot dog)
Los Angeles Galaxy* 22,729 $28.85 $24 (soda/hot dog)
Houston Dynamo 21,045 $22.17 $17.5 (meal voucher)
Portland Timbers 20,438 $66.00 --
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,384 $20.00 --
Sporting Kansas City* 19,321 $35.00 --
Toronto FC 19,033 $89 (CAD) --
Real Salt Lake 18,678 $22.00 $15
Philadelphia Union 18,398 $25.00 --
New York Red Bulls* 17,720 $20.00 $18
Chicago Fire 15,543 $15.00 --
San Jose Earthquakes* 15,229 $20.00 --
Colorado Rapids* 15,184 $22.00 $12.25 (soda/meal)
Columbus Crew* 14,858 $22.00 $22 (soda/meal/2-ltr voucher)
D.C. United* 14,132 $22.00 $17
FC Dallas* 13,525 $18.00 --
Chivas USA 13,191 $14.42 $14.75 (hot dog)
NE Revolution* 12,455 $22.00 $22 (soda/meal/popcorn)

From this review, it looks like D.C. United is right in line with other teams. Ideally, United wouldn't have to keep offering repeated discounts to sell tickets, but that is the environment they find themselves in due to some of the reasons already discussed above. Finally, when compared to movie tickets (which run around $15 for a newly released hit movie on a Saturday night), United tickets again compare favorably (and I suspect a review of food and drink prices at RFK would find they are equal to or better than the prices at the top movie theaters). This theory appears to be Busted.

5. Founding team fatigue. Finally, one unexpected theory about this season's poor attendance that appears to jump off the league attendance table is that the founding teams of MLS (indicated in the tables with an asterisk) are overwhelmingly concentrated at the bottom of the attendance table. With the exception of the LA Galaxy (again, unique dynamics) and Sporting Kansas City (gleaming new stadium), seven of the nine teams with the lowest attendance in the league are original teams. And of the two expansion teams that are in the bottom half of the attendance table, the Chicago Fire was one of league's first two expansion teams (giving them some of the "fatigue" dynamics of the founding teams?) while Chivas USA has its own marketing and stadium issues that are as uniquely bad as LA Galaxy's are uniquely good. Are original team cities growing tired of soccer? Or, is the energy of the new expansion cities just naturally better right now resulting in higher attendance? Whatever the explanation, I find the theory Plausible that founding teams face attendance headwinds that newer expansion teams do not.

To keep this post from getting any longer, we'll continue in the next by looking at this season's strange schedule and whether it has impacted attendance. Finally, we'll wrap up this series with a look at whether the hometown baseball team's newly found success is hurting United's attendance, and a discussion of why attendance matters.

What do you think? Let's hear other theories as to why attendance is bad for D.C. United right now, as well as differing interpretations of the theories discussed above. If you are one of those that could care less, let's here about that as well.