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D.C. United Attendance: A Postscript on 2013

All the conditions were in place for D.C. United to have better home attendance in 2013. Then the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season started.

We few, we happy few.
We few, we happy few.
Ned Dishman

[Standing up at a support group session for D.C. United fans, it's my turn to confess.] "I'm a big D.C. United fan, and I was an optimist heading into 2013. I expected the team would contend for the Supporters' Shield, make a deep run at the MLS Cup, and significantly improve attendance at RFK Stadium. I was wrong, and I apologize." [Sitting down, I accept the heartfelt support of my fellow Black-and-Red fans put on my imaginary armor to absorb the well-deserved barbs heading my way.]

We've discussed what went wrong on the field this season extensively here on Black and Red United (and we must acknowledge the team's improbable yet extraordinarily entertaining US Open Cup championship), so let's now break down what happened at the turnstile in 2013. It should go without saying that this isn't an indictment of the fans that actually showed up at RFK on a regular basis this year. Like the world's greatest bantamweight fighter, D.C. United fans are pound-for-pound the best in MLS. Unfortunately, too many fans stayed away in 2013--but why?

As a quick reminder, I set an over/under on average attendance in 2013 of 16,000 (and I took the over). This looks laughable now that we know D.C. United's average attendance came in at 13,646 for the season. But, back in the preseason, things looked so promising with a winning team that made a deep run in the playoffs during 2012, attendance momentum at the end of 2012, a more favorable schedule in 2013 for attendance, and a stated team goal of having four sellouts in 2013. In the end, however, none of those factors mattered based on how the season unfolded.

1. So, how did D.C. United attendance in 2013 compare to attendance in 2012? And how did it compare to the overall league average for those two years? Well, basically it was a wash. On average, exactly 200 less fans showed up each game at RFK this season than last season. That very slight reduction was almost identical to MLS's overall attendance reduction of 213 fans per game during 2012 (see table below).

2012 2013 % Change
D.C. United Average Attendance 13,846 13,646 -1.44%
MLS Average Attendance 18,807 18,594 -1.13%

2. For the 2013 season, D.C. United finished 17th in average attendance among the 19 MLS teams, exactly the same place they came in last year. Like last year as well, average attendance at RFK was only worsted by the San Jose Earthquakes (who play in a 10,525-seat stadium) and Chivas USA. As you can see below, Chivas averaged 8,366 in 2013. In one of the more shocking stats I've seen in a while, the Goats actually averaged 13,056 fans in 2012, and 14,830 in 2011. Are you surprised like I am that Chivas in 2011 outdrew D.C. United in 2013 by almost 1,200 fans?

Team 2013 Average
Seattle Sounders 44,038
LA Galaxy 21,770
Portland Timbers 20,674
Montreal Impact 20,603
Vancouver Whitecaps 20,097
Houston Dynamo 19,923
Sporting Kansas City 19,709
New York Red Bulls 19,461
Real Salt Lake 19,218
Toronto FC 18,131
Philadelphia Union 17,867
Columbus Crew 16,080
Colorado Rapids 15,499
FC Dallas 15,373
Chicago Fire 15,228
New England Revolution 14,844
D.C. United 13,646
San Jose Earthquakes 12,765
Chivas USA 8,366

3. While D.C. United's average attendance in 2013 was down slightly compared to 2012, a more serious attendance concern is being masked by the more favorable schedule the team had in 2013. As shown in the table below, the team had more Saturday home games and fewer Wednesday games in 2013 than in 2012. This season, using the more favorable "day of the week" profile their 2013 season afforded, the Black-and-Red would have increased attendance by more than 5% (for a total of 14,574) if they had just equaled the averages for each day of the week from 2012. This would have occurred because of the increased number of Saturday games (the day on which historically the best crowds turn out) and the decreased number of Wednesday games (when historically the lowest crowds turn out).

2012: Number of Games 2012: Average Attendance 2013: Number of Games 2013: Average Attendance % Change in Attendance
Saturday 9 15,839 11 13,817 -12.77%
Sunday 3 12,448 4 13,981 12.32%
Wednesday 4 10,581 1 10,116 -4.39%
Friday 1 13,169 1 13,946 5.90%

If, however, D.C. United had turned out the average day of the week crowd in 2013 using the same "day of the week" profile as in 2012, then average attendance would have only been 12,983 in 2013.

For me, the truly troublesome attendance trend in 2013 is the reduction in Saturday crowds from 15,839 in 2012 to 13,817 in 2013 (a 12.7% decline) since by far the largest percentage of home games are likely to continue to be played on Saturdays.

4. So, why was attendance so poor in 2013? I don't think it was weather (which was mostly very good throughout the season, with rain only being a factor on a few occasions), and the impact of the Washington Nationals was likely less than last year due to their middling performance in 2013. Anecdotally, there may have been fewer discounts on tickets this year with LivingSocial no longer being a team sponsor, but in general ticket prices in 2013 were about what they were in 2012. For me, then, that leaves the most likely explanation as the team's alarmingly bad record that developed early in the season (I appeal to Occam and his razor).

Without polling data of why fans stayed away as the season progressed, we have to make educated guesses based on the crowds that did show up. In line with the theory that the team's record kept fans away, two of top three home crowds of the season were in the first three home games (against Real Salt Lake and against the New York Red Bulls). The third best attended game of 2013 was the match against the LA Galaxy on Sep. 15th. As we've discussed before, the Galaxy have their own unique attendance dynamics given their league-leading star power, but even the reasonably good crowd of 16,233 this season was almost 10,000 less than showed up to see D.C. United play the David Beckham-led Galaxy in 2011 when they last played at RFK (if 26,622 had showed up this season to watch D.C. play LA, United's season attendance average would have increased by 611 per game).

With the exception of those three games, attendance was flatlined all year long with seemingly no factor (e.g. rivalry games, interesting opponents, time of year, special deals, etc...) able to move the attendance needle.

Home Game Date Opponent Record Heading into Match Attendance Day of the Week
1 9-Mar Real Salt Lake 0-1-0 17,072 Sat
2 23-Mar Columbus Crew 1-1-1 11,034 Sat
3 13-Apr New York Red Bulls 1-3-1 18,019 Sat
4 21-Apr Philadelphia Union 1-4-1 12,349 Sun
5 8-May Houston Dynamo 1-6-1 10,116 Wed
6 19-May Sporting Kansas City 1-8-1 13,612 Sun
7 25-May Portland Timbers 1-8-2 14,131 Sat
8 15-Jun Toronto FC 1-10-3 13,846 Sat
9 22-Jun San Jose Earthquakes 1-11-3 13,149 Sat
10 29-Jun Vancouver Whitecaps 2-11-3 13,122 Sat
11 27-Jul New England Revolution 2-14-4 14,122 Sat
12 3-Aug Montreal Impact 2-15-4 12,354 Sat
13 24-Aug Toronto FC 3-17-4 13,927 Sat
14 15-Sep Los Angeles Galaxy 3-19-5 16,233 Sun
15 4-Oct Chicago Fire 3-21-6 13,949 Fri
16 12-Oct Philadelphia Union 3-22-6 11,213 Sat
17 27-Oct Houston Dynamo 3-23-7 13,731 Sun

5. After their fifth home game of 2013, D.C. United had essentially reached their season attendance average, and it didn't waiver the rest of the year. The table below charts the average home attendance following each home game of the season. From the fifth through the final game of 2013, the average attendance floated in a very tight window between 13,577 and 13,802, finally settling on the overall season average of 13,646.


6. D.C. United is in uncharted waters for attendance heading into 2014. It's not a revelation since it's been widely reported, but 2013 was the worst season for attendance in D.C. United's history (and the second "worst season" in a row).

Year Attendance
1996 15,262
1997 16,698
1998 16,007
1999 17,419
2000 18,580
2001 21,518
2002 16,519
2003 15,565
2004 17,232
2005 16,664
2006 18,251
2007 20,967
2008 19,835
2009 15,585
2010 14,532
2011 15,181
2012 13,846
2013 13,646

What will happen in 2014? I once heard someone say that the statistically most accurate way to forecast the weather is just to predict that tomorrow's weather will be exactly like today's. I don't know if that's true, but I'll follow that line of thinking by saying attendance at RFK next year will probably be somewhere in the 13,000s. I can't imagine next season will be as bad on the field as this year's (but who could have predicted how bad the record was this year?), but I also don't know what dynamics could significantly improve attendance at this point short of moving into the new stadium on Buzzard Point.

Which also has me thinking: With attendance so bad right now for D.C. United, why do we all seem so optimistic about attendance in a new stadium? I truly am confident about the impact the Buzzard Point stadium will have on attendance, and I expect it to be sold out after it opens. Maybe my optimism is based on the big crowds that still show up for meaningful games at RFK Stadium (witness the end of 2012), maybe it's based on D.C. United's history as the most decorated team in MLS history and the team that had reliably big crowds when MLS was struggling for its very survival in the early-to-mid 2000s, or maybe it's the way that crumbling hulk of a 1960s-era multi-purpose stadium can still be transformed into the heart and soul of American soccer when the US National Team shows up to play.

Whatever it is, I still believe the latent potential for regular big soccer crowds exists in Washington, DC. But, will that confidence still be there if Buzzard Point doesn't open on time, or, banish the thought, if it falls through altogether? The next few months will be telling for D.C. United's future on Buzzard Point.

Why do you think D.C. United attendance was historically bad in 2013? What will attendance be like in 2014? Will Buzzard Point solve D.C. United's attendance woes?

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