D.C. United Attendance is Awful--Why? (Part 2)

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, attendance at D.C. United home matches this year has been really bad--both in comparison to the rest of Major League Soccer and in comparison to previous United seasons. One of the primary reasons many have pointed to for the poor attendance this year is the schedule. Several things about D.C. United's schedule are strange this year: the unbalanced schedule means some Western Conference teams aren't playing at RFK Stadium this year, while some Eastern Conference teams are visiting twice; there aren't a lot of Saturday night games; there are few "Marquee" or "Must See" games on the home schedule; obvious holiday weekends do not have home games; and the home schedule is not evenly spaced throughout the season resulting in "schedule fatigue".

Before we dig into this year's schedule, a quick review of what we covered in Part 1. Using a Mythbusters rating scale (Confirmed, Plausible, Busted), we looked at the following reasons some believe attendance is down for D.C. United this year:

1. Attendance is a trailing indicator and D.C. United is still feeling the effects of the past several seasons. Confirmed.

2. Fans are tired of RFK and want a new stadium. Confirmed.

3. Talk of moving the team out of D.C., perhaps all the way to Baltimore, has alienated fans. Confirmed.

4. Ticket prices are too high in this economy. Busted.

5. Founding team fatigue. Plausible.

So, let's now do some back-of- the-envelope analysis on what appears to be a very strange schedule this year.

6. The unbalanced scheduled is suppressing attendance this season. As discussed in a previous post, this year's unbalanced schedule means the following Western teams are not playing at RFK this season: San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver Whitecaps, Los Angeles Galaxy, and Portland Timbers.

Additionally, the following Eastern teams play twice at RFK this season: New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, Montreal Impact, and New England Revolution.

At first look, I would say that this season's D.C. United home schedule would have been much better with the addition of San Jose, RSL, Vancouver and Los Angeles. And while I won't complain about getting the Red Bulls at home twice this year, does anyone get particularly excited about playing the Crew, Impact, or Revs at home an extra time? But rather than just relying on guesses about the schedule, let's look at whether this season's attendance actually indicates that this year's unbalanced schedule is resulting in lower attendance.

To start, let's look at the league stats for away game attendance (that is, what's the average attendance for each team when they play on the road). While this is not a perfect stat for a number of reasons, it does give a very rough indication of how a team draws on the road relative to the rest of the league (the stats include games played through Sunday, July 29th):

Team 2012 Away Average Not Playing at RFK Playing Twice at RFK
Los Angeles Galaxy* 27,960 X
Philadelphia Union 21,243
Toronto FC 20,267
Chicago Fire 20,237
Colorado Rapids* 20,065
San Jose Earthquakes* 19,316 X
Sporting Kansas City* 19,046
Columbus Crew* 18,464 X
Real Salt Lake 18,422 X
New York Red Bulls* 18,372 X
D.C. United* 17,747
Houston Dynamo 17,282
Montreal Impact 17,083 X
Chivas USA 17,033
NE Revolution* 16,894 X
Portland Timbers 16,633 X
Seattle Sounders 16,327
FC Dallas* 15,682
Vancouver Whitecaps 15,604 X
MLS Away Average 18,615

From this table, we can see that two of the teams that aren't playing at RFK this year, Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes, draw above the MLS average for away games (18,615). Los Angeles actually draws 50% above the average! Additionally, two of the teams that D.C. United won't play at home, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, draw significantly below the MLS average for away teams. Finally, the fifth team not coming to D.C. this year is Real Salt Lake, and they draw almost exactly at the MLS average when on the road.

For the teams visiting RFK twice this year, Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls draw right at the MLS average for away teams, while Montreal Impact and New England Revolution are significantly below the MLS average.

Finally, if we average the "away attendance" shown above for the five Western teams not visiting RFK, we find it is 19,873. For the four Eastern teams that are playing twice at RFK, it is 17,703. On the surface, it looks pretty definitive that the Western teams not playing at RFK could have outdrawn the Eastern teams playing twice at RFK this year. But I remain unconvinced because of how playing at the Seattle Sounders skews the away team average (since anyone who visits Seattle gets to play in front of 39,000+).

What does convince me about this theory, however, is not getting to play Los Angeles at home, which is likely a huge loss for United at the gate. In 2011, the home game against Los Angeles had the highest attendance of any game (26,622). Had D.C. United played the Galaxy at RFK this season and drawn the same number of fans as 2011, it would have increased the season's average attendance by 700+ per game over where the home average may end up without Los Angeles on the schedule. Here's the math:

If D.C. United drew 26,622 fans for a home game against Los Angeles, that would be 12,490 more than their current season's average of 14,132. If you average those 12,490 extra fans across the 17 home games, you get an increase to the season's average of 735 fans per game. One game against the Los Angeles Galaxy could potentially increase the season's attendance average by over 5%!

For this reason, I find that theory that the unbalanced schedule is suppressing attendance this year is Confirmed.

7. Mid-week games are suppressing attendance. It's no surprise that MLS games draw fans best on Saturday night. I've heard MLS talk about their plans to play more games on Saturdays since the league's second year. But, let's look at the numbers. Here is D.C. United's home schedule this season:

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

Now let's compare some averages so far this season:

14,132 - Overall D.C. United home attendance average to date in 2012

15,526 - Average attendance on Saturday to date in 2012 (9.8% higher than the season average)

12,040 - Average attendance when not playing on Saturday to date in 2012 (details below)

10,864 - Average attendance on Wednesday to date in 2012

13,169 - Average attendance on Friday to date in 2012

13,262 - Average attendance on Sunday to date in 2012

We can also see from the table above that D.C. United has to play four games on Wednesday nights this year, one on a Friday night, and three on Sundays. But how does that compare to the rest of the league?

Team 2012 Average Sat Sun Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri
Chicago Fire 15,543 10 4 3
Chivas USA 13,191 10 4 2 1
Colorado Rapids* 15,060 12 2 3
Columbus Crew* 14,858 13 2 2
D.C. United* 14,132 9 3 4 1
FC Dallas* 14,221 9 4 3 1
Houston Dynamo 21,045 9 2 2 2 1 1
Los Angeles Galaxy* 22,729 10 4 2 1
Montreal Impact 24,052 13 1 3
NE Revolution* 12,455 12 2 3
New York Red Bulls* 17,720 8 4 4 1
Philadelphia Union 18,418 8 6 1 1 1
Portland Timbers 20,438 11 3 1 1 1
Real Salt Lake 18,680 13 3 1
San Jose Earthquakes* 14,802 11 3 3
Seattle Sounders 39,537 9 3 4 1
Sporting Kansas City* 19,286 10 3 1 3
Toronto FC 19,089 13 4
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,384 8 4 5

As you can see, only the Vancouver Whitecaps have to play more Wednesday night games (the worst night for attendance) than D.C. United (while New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC play the same number). Additionally, D.C. United only plays nine games at home on Saturdays, among the lowest in the league (only New York, Philadelphia Union, and Vancouver Whitecaps play fewer games at home on Saturdays). Conversely, Columbus Crew, Montreal Impact, Real Salt Lake, and Toronto get to play 13 home games on Saturdays--44% more than D.C. United.

Taken together, this data show that D.C. United's best night to play games (by a significant amount) is unsurprisingly Saturday night. Unfortunately, the league is scheduling them for relatively few Saturday night games. Perhaps this has something to do with the national TV schedule. Undoubtedly, if D.C. United played 12 or 13 home games on Saturday nights this season rather than 9, it would create an improvement in their home attendance average. In fact, if you take D.C. United's average attendance for each night of the week described above and project these across the Columbus Crew's home schedule profile from the table above (13 Saturday games, 2 Sunday games, and 2 Wednesday games), you find that D.C. United's average home attendance at the end of the season would be 14,711, a 4% increase. That's not an incredible increase, but it is a measurable improvement. For this reason, I find this theory to be Confirmed.

8. This season's home schedule has few marquee games which is resulting in lower attendance. How do you rate a marquee game? That's up to a lot of personal interpretation. But taking into account rivalries, star players, last year's performance, and important conference games at critical times in the year, I rated each game of this season's D.C. United home schedule using a 4-star system in which 4 stars is a "Marquee Game", 3 stars is a "Must See Game", 2 stars is a "So-so Game", and 1 star is a "Meh Game". (Just for comparison, I've also rated the five home games that are not being played this year against the five Western Conference teams discussed above.)

D.C. United Home Games Rating Date Day of the Week Attendance
Sporting Kansas City **** 10-Mar-12 Sat 16,314
FC Dallas ** 30-Mar-12 Fri 13,169
Seattle Sounders *** 7-Apr-12 Sat 15,651
Montreal Impact ** 18-Apr-12 Wed 10,135
New York Red Bulls **** 22-Apr-12 Sun 13,262
Houston Dynamo **** 28-Apr-12 Sat 13,975
Colorado Rapids ** 16-May-12 Wed 11,593
Toronto FC * 19-May-12 Sat 14,287
NE Revolution ** 26-May-12 Sat 14,627
Montreal Impact * 30-Jun-12 Sat 18,302
Columbus Crew ** 4-Aug-12 Sat
Philadelphia Union ** 19-Aug-12 Sun
Chicago Fire *** 22-Aug-12 Wed
New York Red Bulls **** 29-Aug-12 Wed
NE Revolution ** 15-Sep-12 Sat
Chivas USA * 23-Sep-12 Sun
Columbus Crew *** 20-Oct-12 Sat
(San Jose Quakes) ****
(Real Salt Lake) ****
(LA Galaxy) ****
(Vancouver Whitecaps) ***
(Portland Timbers) **

From this table, I rate four home games as 4-star matches this season, three as 3-star matches, seven as 2-star matches, and three as 1-star matches. Based on the home games played to date, the attendance averages for each rating tier are:

14,517 - 4-star, Marquee Games
15,651 - 3-star, Must See Games
12,381 - 2-star, So-so Games
16,295 - 1-star, Meh Games

From these numbers, it is hard to see how the attractiveness of various matchups drives the attendance numbers at RFK. With the exception of LA Galaxy, it appears that the other factors that affect attendance (such as day of the week the game is played) are much more important than who the opponent is. For this reason, I will call this theory Busted.

9. The lack of home games on holiday weekends hurts attendance. In a previous post, I looked at MLS's bizarre scheduling over the Fourth of July weekend. During the entire MLS season, there are four holidays that could provide good scheduling opportunities to bring out large crowds: Memorial Day (26-28 May), Fourth of July (3-4 July), Labor Day (1-3 Sep), and Columbus Day (6-8 Oct). (For this analysis, I factored out the Canadian teams since they do not have all the same holidays as the US.) Here is the table of MLS holiday home games for the US teams. If the game has already been played, the attendance is listed. If the game hasn't been played yet, you will see the visiting team listed.

Team 2012 Average Memorial Day July Fourth Labor Day Columbus Day # of Holiday Matches
Seattle Sounders 39,537 Portland 1
Los Angeles Galaxy* 22,729 27,000 Vancouver RSL 3
Houston Dynamo 21,045 22,039 22,039 Montreal 3
Portland Timbers 20,438 20,438 20,438 2
Sporting Kansas City* 19,286 19,974 Toronto 2
Real Salt Lake 18,680 19,341 20,363 D.C. United 3
Philadelphia Union 18,418 New England 1
New York Red Bulls* 17,720 Chicago 1
Chicago Fire 15,543 Houston 1
Colorado Rapids* 15,060 17,877 San Jose 2
Columbus Crew* 14,858 16,024 Montreal Sporting KC 3
San Jose Earthquakes* 14,802 Chivas 1
FC Dallas* 14,221 21,508 Seattle 2
D.C. United* 14,132 14,627 1
Chivas USA 13,191 12,285 FC Dallas 2
NE Revolution* 12,455 Philadelphia 1

Two facts jump off this table that are relevant to this theory. First, with the exception of Chivas USA's game on Memorial Day against the Seattle Sounders, every other holiday match exceeded that team's average attendance for 2012, and sometimes by wide margins. Overall, holiday games so far in 2012 have averaged 7% more fans than the home team's 2012 "home average" when you factor out the Portland Timbers who already average a sellout for every game. Second, unlike Los Angeles, Houston, Real Salt Lake, and Columbus who all have three home games on holiday weekends, D.C. United only has one (against New England on Memorial Day weekend). Overall, I find the theory that only one home game on a holiday weekend hurts D.C. United's attendance to be Confirmed.

10. The concentration of home games early in the season (and upcoming in the month of August) resulted in schedule fatigue. The final aspect of this year's strange schedule I will look at was discussed in several comments to Part 1 of this series. This theory says that too many home games scheduled too close to each other have driven down attendance. But what's too many home games in too little time?

Well, from this season's first D.C. United game on March 10th to their last game on October 27th, 231 days will pass (or 33 weeks). For the 17 home games that United will play at RFK this season, that means an evenly spaced schedule would have a home game every 13.5 days. If you look at the average attendance for the home games that were played in 13 or less days from the previous home game and compare that attendance against home games that were played more than 14 days after the previous home game, you get the following attendance averages:

13,656 - Games with 13 or less days from previous home game (7, 18, 22, and 28 Apr; 19 and 26 May)

14,845 - Games with 14 or more days from previous home game (10 and 30 Mar; 16 May; 30 Jun)

So far this season, attedance is 8.7% higher when there is a greater than average break between home games. We will see in August how attendance holds up with two games with more than 14 days of break between home matches (4 and 19 Aug) and two matches with less than a 13-day break (22 and 29 Aug). For now, however, I will call this theory Plausible until we see the attendance for D.C. United's busy August schedule.

Note: if you use 10 days as the cutoff to define games that are too bunched together, the attendance is actually higher for games that are within 10 days of the previous home game (14,360) than those games that are more than 10 days after the last home game (13,903). This is a another reason I'm not yet convinced by this theory.

And with that, we'll move on from this year's less-than-optimum schedule. In the final post in this series, we'll wrap up with a look at whether the Washington Nationals attendance is hurting United's attendance, and a discussion of why attendance matters.

What do you think? Why doesn't D.C. United draw better? What do you think about the reasons discussed above?