D.C. United Attendance is Awful--Why? (Part 3 and Final)

For the last two weeks, we've looked at ten theories for why attendance at D.C. United home games is so bad this season (Part 1 and Part 2). Using the rating scale from the Mythbusters' TV show, we've performed a first order analysis of each theory to determine if it is Confirmed, Plausible, or Busted. The results of the two previous posts (which may horrify a professional statistician) are summarized below the jump.

In this final post, we will look at the last theory to be analyzed: the effect the Washington Nationals are having on D.C. United attendance. We'll then look at why attendance is important for United, and what the club can do to boost its average attendance next season. Finally, we'll close with a bold prediction (OK, maybe just a suggestion) that D.C. United can get a 19% attendance boost next year just based on historical and league trends.

As a reminder, following a weekend in which the Seattle Sounders had a home attendance that essentially equals the attendance of the last four D.C. United home games combined (hat tip to Steven Goff), here is where United currently sits in the Major League Soccer home attendance table:

Team 2012 Home Average Capacity Percent Full
Seattle Sounders 41,480 38,500 107.74%
Montreal Impact 23,628 20,341 116.16%
Los Angeles Galaxy* 22,729 27,000 84.18%
Houston Dynamo 21,136 22,000 96.07%
Portland Timbers 20,438 20,438 100.00%
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,384 21,000 92.30%
Sporting Kansas City* 19,286 18,467 104.43%
Toronto FC 19,089 21,140 90.30%
Real Salt Lake 18,680 20,213 92.42%
Philadelphia Union 18,418 18,500 99.56%
New York Red Bulls* 17,720 25,000 70.88%
Chicago Fire 15,563 20,000 77.82%
Colorado Rapids* 15,073 18,086 83.34%
Columbus Crew* 14,858 20,145 73.76%
San Jose Earthquakes* 14,802 10,525 140.64%
FC Dallas* 14,221 20,500 69.37%
D.C. United* 14,178 19,467 72.83%
Chivas USA 13,191 18,800 70.16%
NE Revolution* 12,922 20,000 64.61%

So, let's review all the theories we have looked at in the previous two posts:

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.

6. The unbalanced scheduled is suppressing attendance this season. Confirmed.

7. Mid-week games are suppressing attendance. Confirmed.

8. This season's home schedule has few marquee games which is resulting in lower attendance. Busted.

9. The lack of home games on holidays hurts attendance. Confirmed.

10. The concentration of home games at times this year has resulted in schedule fatigue. Plausible.

With that review complete, let's look at the final theory.

11. The Washington Nationals' good season is diverting casual sports fans away from D.C. United home games. As everyone knows, the hometown baseball team is enjoying its best season (by far) since arriving in D.C. in 2005. In fact, as of today, the Nats are tied for the best record in all of Major League Baseball. Unlike the other major sports with a presence in D.C. (NFL, college football, NBA, college basketball, and NHL), the MLB season almost perfectly overlaps the MLS season so it seems reasonable that the two teams (United and the Nats) might be competing for the same fans at their respective home games.

Here is a table comparing D.C. United's performance and average home attendance since 2005 with the Nationals' performance and average home attendance. I've also listed what stadium the Nationals played in each season:

Year United Wins United Losses United Ties D.C. United Attendance Washington Nationals Attendance Nats Wins Nats Losses Washington Nationals Stadium
2005 16 10 6 16,664 33,728 81 81 RFK
2006 15 7 10 18,251 26,581 71 91 RFK
2007 16 7 7 20,967 23,998 73 89 RFK
2008 11 15 4 19,835 29,005 59 102 Nationals Park
2009 9 8 13 15,585 22,435 59 103 Nationals Park
2010 6 20 4 14,532 22,569 69 93
Nationals Park
2011 9 13 12 15,181 24,256 80 81 Nationals Park
2012 11 7 3 14,178 29,601 66 43 Nationals Park

Several points are highlighted by this comparison:

- For the most part, the Nationals' attendance seems to be easily explainable in a way that United's attendance is not. For example, the Nats' highest home attendance occurred in their inaugural season (2005), while their next two highest seasons are this year (in which they are very good for the first time) and the year they moved into Nationals Park (2008). Additionally, their worst attended season was 2009 when they recorded their lowest win total (2008 also had the same win total, but they opened their new ball park that year).

- Even in the three years that the two teams shared RFK, D.C. United attendance was much better than it is today. And one of those years, 2007, had the second highest average attendance ever for D.C. United (their best year was 2001 when the home average was 21,518).

- The Nationals' experience with their new stadium offers a cautionary tale for D.C. United fans. In 2008 when they opened Nationals Park, home average increased by over 20% per game despite the Nationals being a horrible team. In 2009, however, when they were equally bad, attendance plummeted by more than 22% to a level that was less than their final season in RFK (and which remains their worst season for attendance ever)!

Overall, I see no correlation or pattern between the Nationals' average home attendance and D.C. United's. Even running a quick statistical analysis in Excel reveals a correlation coefficient of 0.08, which means the two sets of attendance figures are not strongly correlated and appear to have little or no relationship between them. For this reason, I call this theory Busted.

Why is attendance important?

Good attendance creates good buzz and good energy around a team. More importantly (and measurably), however, good attendance produces revenue. Unlike leagues such as the NFL, TV revenue is not the primary source of income for individual teams. In fact, MLS Commissioner Don Garber says ticketing is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the primary source of league revenue. Although the league has done a good job of setting itself up for an increase in TV revenues when all its national TV deals come due simultaneously at the end of 2014, Commissioner Garber says even this won't change the dynamics of ticket sales being the leading source of revenue for the league and its teams.

Based on this year's average attendance to date, we can get a very rough estimate of how much ticket revenue each team is earning this season. For simplicity's sake, I used an average ticket price of $22 for this comparison, even though for many teams this number is much higher due to the price of premium seating. Also, each team plays 17 home matches per year:

Team 2012 Average Ticket Price Ticket Revenue
Seattle Sounders 41,480 $22.00 $15,513,520
Montreal Impact 23,628 $22.00 $8,836,872
Los Angeles Galaxy* 22,729 $22.00 $8,500,646
Houston Dynamo 21,136 $22.00 $7,904,864
Portland Timbers 20,438 $22.00 $7,643,812
Vancouver Whitecaps 19,384 $22.00 $7,249,616
Sporting Kansas City* 19,286 $22.00 $7,212,964
Toronto FC 19,089 $22.00 $7,139,286
Real Salt Lake 18,680 $22.00 $6,986,320
Philadelphia Union 18,418 $22.00 $6,888,332
New York Red Bulls* 17,720 $22.00 $6,627,280
Chicago Fire 15,563 $22.00 $5,820,562
Colorado Rapids* 15,073 $22.00 $5,637,302
Columbus Crew* 14,858 $22.00 $5,556,892
San Jose Earthquakes* 14,802 $22.00 $5,535,948
FC Dallas* 14,221 $22.00 $5,318,654
D.C. United* 14,178 $22.00 $5,302,572
Chivas USA 13,191 $22.00 $4,933,434
NE Revolution* 12,922 $22.00 $4,832,828

What if D.C. United were able to raise attendance to the MLS average this season of 18,779, or even to United's historical home attendance average of 17,058? Without even looking at the increase in merchandise sales, food and beverage sales, and parking fees that would certainly follow a significant increase in attendance, the table below shows the increase in ticketing revenue D.C. United would enjoy:

Ticket Price

2012 D.C. United Average (14,178) 2012 MLS Average (18,779) Historical D.C. United Average (17,058)
$22.00 $5,302,572 $7,023,346 $6,379,692

Increased Revenue $0 $1,720,774 $1,077,120

Percent Increase 0.00% 32.45% 20.31%

So, if D.C. United was able to increase attendance to either the 2012 MLS average or its own historical average, it would have $1M - $1.7M more in revenue to spend on the franchise, to include Designated Players (and the actual amount would likely be higher since many tickets would be sold for more than $22).

Before leaving the topic of ticket revenue, look at the Seattle Sounders numbers above. Those are staggering totals, and they say to me that the Sounders should become an absolute monster on the field in the years ahead as they continue to invest that revenue into the team. They will be playing for their fourth straight U.S. Open Cup this week, and they should be contending every year for both the MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield. Having just watched their August 5th home match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, it is obvious Seattle is a very special place for American soccer because of their fan support and attendance.

What should D.C. United do to improve attendance?

First, I would be shocked if D.C. United doesn't already have a document entitled "Strategy to Increase Attendance at D.C. United Home Matches" on their General Manager's desk. By performing an analysis of why attendance is currently at historically low levels, and looking at their current strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities regarding attendance, they should have an action plan with steps they can take in the near-, mid-, and long-term to improve attendance.

Second, there is no doubt that building a new stadium is the primary step that will provide an instant big increase in attendance. But, as the Nationals example above shows, there's more to sustaining good attendance than just having a new stadium. And, that new stadium will have to be paid for, which will increase ticket prices to generate enough excess revenue to fund both a highly competitive team and pay for the new stadium.

Third, having looked at the theories that appear to actually be driving this season's low attendance, D.C. United should take advantage of some natural improvements that are likely to come next season. It's hard in fact to imagine attendance going lower from this year's levels since so many factors were bad for the club this year. Based on this idea that attendance dynamics should get better next year, I'll show below how D.C. United could reasonably see a 19% increase in attendance next season based on a few assumptions. Those assumptions are:

- D.C. United continues to play well and makes the playoffs this year.

- The new ownership group announces a new stadium deal is in place, or at least makes a firm commitment to keeping the team in D.C., and stops talking about Baltimore as a possible destination (but I do understand why they are using Baltimore as a bargaining chip).

- The team vigorously works with the MLS league offices, Events DC, and anyone else who has a role in scheduling to secure a better home schedule next season. This should include more games on Saturdays (up from nine this season), well-marketed games on three holiday weekends (up from one this season), and a home match against the Los Angeles Galaxy that doesn't get buried on a weeknight.

If all of that comes to pass, here's how D.C. United gets almost a 20% attendance increase next year:

14,178: Start with D.C. United's average home attendance in 2012 (to date).

+1,418: As discussed in Part 1 of this series, 2003 is the only season in D.C. United history in which the team made the playoffs after having missed it the previous season. Following that turnaround season, in 2004 D.C. United enjoyed a 10% attendance increase. If United makes the playoffs this year, they could get the same 10% attendance bump next year. Again, attendance for D.C. United has normally been a lagging indicator of performance on the field.

+480: As discussed in Part 2, more Saturday night games and fewer Wednesday games would result in a modest attendance boost just because more people historically turn out on Saturdays. I've assumed here a 3% attendance boost.

+199: Also as discussed in Part 2, several MLS teams take full advantage of US holidays to bring out big crowds. Across the league, these holiday matches have resulted in a 7% higher attendance than the home team's normal attendance average so far this season. If D.C. United could get three home holiday matches, and market them appropriately, they should get at least a 7% boost for those three games (and intuitively, I think they could do even better than that).

+609: Finally, the Los Angeles Galaxy game next season is a huge opportunity as mentioned in Part 2. Assuming that game draws what the Galaxy game drew in 2010 (26,622), it will by itself add several hundred to the season's home attendance average.

16,884: Add up all the numbers above, and this is the potential attendance in 2013--a 19% increase over the current 2012 home attendance average.

Will attendance in 2013 be exactly 16,884 (which would generate $1M in additional revenue for the club)? Certainly not. There are just too many assumptions baked into that number. But it does show what's possible based on D.C. United's history and league dynamics. And we haven't even discussed improved marketing or the addition of a high-profile Designated Player...

What do you think? What should D.C. United do to increase attendance? What will attendance be in 2013?