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Attendance Talk: What is missing for FC Dallas

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Attendance lags as FC Dallas leads the league.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The last couple of months have been heady times for the sport of soccer in the United States. The US Men's National Team defeated their main rival in San Antonio (Mexico). They defeated two of the top 6 teams in the world on their turf (Germany and the Netherlands), and they (mostly) coasted through their Gold Cup group to a quarterfinal date with recently un-shunned Cuba. They did what you might expect against poor Cuba (then crapped out in spectacular fashion).

Things are even more popular on the Women's side. A glorious and triumphant run saw a pro-American crowd of over 50,000 in Vancouver watched the USWMNT put on a master class against Japan and win their 3rd World Cup. Perhaps even a more encouraging sign, TV viewers for the Women's World Cup Final peaked at almost 23 million viewers which  was comparable to Game 6 of the NBA finals this year and Game 7 of the World Series last fall (both deciding games).

Turning to the domestic league, MLS has enjoyed some modest growth in TV ratings, and stadium attendance this year will easily break the attendance record set last season. Eleven clubs are averaging 20,000 fans a game, and Seattle Sounders has a good chance to outdraw Premier League Champions Chelsea on a per game basis. So certainly, our own FC Dallas should be enjoying a boom year at the box office since been in and out of first place all season and recently drew 22,000 for a US Men's National Team match last month.

Unfortunately, it's not actually like that. Despite an impressive season and some impressive young talent, FC Dallas's 'announced' attendance has dropped 9% since last season, and some of the camera shots on television indicate sparser crowds than that. So why is attendance down when the team's in 1st place and in the middle of a good run?

Some pundits have suggest that the team is poorly marketed, and there may be a sliver of truth there. FC Dallas has played a lot of Friday night games that are difficult to get to via Hell's carousel the Dallas North Tollway when you could just easily watch the games on Unimas (in SAP!). As a fan and former traveler on that thoroughfare, I can see that being a deterrent for some. That said, these problems should be trivial for a top team in an increasingly popular professional league. No, the real problem is the stadium's location in Frisco, but I think the problem isn't tied to the location far away from downtown Dallas as many postulate. The lukewarm interest in the team is in large part due to the uniquely conservative leanings of Frisco and Collin County.

Some Background:

I started writing this back in April when noted sportswriter and anthropomorphized dinosaur, Frank DeFord, penned one of his trademark commentaries for NPR titled 'Americans do not care about Major League Soccer'. This caused a minor tizzy and backlash, most likely due to his suggestion that the primary icons of American soccer are 'Soccer Moms', comparing World Cup interest to that of popular curiosity when the Duchess of Cambridge has a baby, and the 'fantasy' that MLS will become  'Major League'.

Now before we indulge in ad hominem screeds about Mr. DeFord easing into retirement not being thorough in his research about MLS fandom, denying the importance of a growing Hispanic market since they're not real Americans changing demographics, or just a man who hasn't had a blue pill-induced erection since the first incarnation of the NASL hater, let's consider the context.

Frank Deford is long past the days where he should be judged in a prosecutorial fashion. The context of his commentaries are based on his experiences and biases dating back to the days when the only coverage of the US Men's National Team's most historic victory was covered by a journalist masquerading as a tourist. We might only need to look locally to see where Deford's bloviations are right on the money.

Dale Hansen chipped in with one of his potent 'Unplugged' segments last week explaining that he didn't like soccer, and I say more power to him. Although I think the red herrings about 'being a clueless American' and that 'that's why people around the world don't like (Americans)' are a little over the top, Dale's got a great point for the Social Security crowd. He's also got a great point about the power of 'wrapping the flag around it'.

Samuel Johnson family stated, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." If that's the case, then the United States stack them by the pallet for consumption at Costco. But if you expand it across the ideological spectrum, it is the more conservative-minded amongst us that race to claim patriotism as their exclusive turf (that's worth another tome for another day).  Bearing that in mind, it isn't a surprise that the Women's World Cup was so popular in DFW, and the Gold Cup match in Frisco was packed. So how conservative is Frisco (and more aptly, Collin County) compared to other MLS markets? Let's take a look:

Team Stadium County Average Attendance (2014) Percentage of Capacity County Population 2012 Presidential Election Results
San Jose Earthquakes Buck Shaw Stadium Santa Clara (CA) 14947 146% 1,890,000 (D ) 77.4%, (R ) 21.6%
Seattle Sounders CenturyLink Field King (WA) 39500 113.60% 1,930,000 (D) 69.1%, ( R) 28.5%
Sporting Kansas City Sporting Park Wyandotte (KS) 19709 109% 160,000 (D ) 67.4%, (R ) 30.45%
Real Salt Lake Rio Tinto Salt Lake (UT) 19218 102% 1,080,000 (R ) 58.3%, (D ) 38.0%
Portland Timbers Providence Park Multnomah (OR) 20806 100.60% 776,000 (D) 75.3%, ( R)20.7%
Columbus Crew Mapfre Stadium Franklin (OH) 16881 95% 1,210,000 (D ) 60.1%, (R ) 38.4%
Philidelphia Union PPL Park Delaware (PA) 17867 95% 562,000 (D ) 60.2%, (R ) 38.8%
Houston Dyamo BBVA Compass Stadium Harris (TX ) 20117 91.30% 4,330,000 (D ) 49.4%, (R ) 49.3%
Colorado Rapids Dick's Sporting Goods Park Adams (CO) 15082 89% 441,000 (D ) 56.2%, (R ) 41.1%
DC United RFK Stadium District of Columbia 17030 87% 659,000 (D ) 91%, (R ) 7%
FC Dallas Toyota Stadium Collin (TX) 16816 84% 855,000 (R ) 66.8%, (D ) 31.9%
New England Revolution Gillette Stadium Norfolk (MA) 16681 83.40% 670,000 (D ) 59.4%, (R ) 41.3%
Chicago Fire Toyota Park Cook (IL) 16076 80.40% 5,190,000 (D ) 74%, (R ) 24.6%
Los Angeles Galaxy Stub Hub Center Los Angeles (CA) 21258 78.70% 10,010,000 (D) 69.7%, ( R) 27.8%
Red Bull New York Red Bull Arena Hudson (NJ) 19421 77.10% 660,000 (D ) 77.4%, (R ) 21.6%
Averages 19427 95% 2,028,200

A quick glance shows that the Hoops are near the bottom of the table at percentage of capacity, and by far the, most conservative locale for an MLS club. Salt Lake County, Utah is the only close comparison, and they broke party lines in 2012 (straight party in Salt Lake County is 50-47 Republican). I'm assuming that Mitt Romney's roots have something to do with this.

Population-wise, Collin County is well below the mean, but is right at the median when it comes to comes to the size of the venue's county. FC Dallas ranked low last year in per game attendance and percentage of capacity, and as of today, they are dead last in terms of percentage of capacity.

On July 4th of 2014, FC Dallas hosted a less than marquee match up with Philadelphia Union, and drew a sellout crowd of 21,182- about 4400 above their average crowd for that season. Toyota Stadium has always hosted a 4th of July match, and is one of four MLS teams (LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and Colorado Rapids) that has hosted a 4th of July home date over that time. One has to assume that the league office is well aware how crucial it is for the health of the club to have this date in Frisco every year.

For this year's match, the opponent was New England, and attendance actually fell to 19,140. That said, the 24.5% increase in attendance for the 4th of July game over total per game attendance this year is virtually identical to last year's 4th of July bump. Without reading too much into a small sample size, one could conclude that patriotic fervor is still alive and well in this country (and more specifically, Collin County). One might also wonder how a team in 1st place could manage to lose actual soccer fans, but it appears to have done so with a 9% drop in attendance.

Circling back to the USA Gold Cup match in Frisco (standing room only on a school night), it's extremely tantalizing to imagine the Hoops regularly drawing a crowd of partisans like that for league matches.While it's true that quite a few of the folks that were in attendance that night originated from outside Collin County, I am certain there were a large group of locals who would never set foot in the stadium for an FC Dallas game.

The reason Toyota Stadium was packed on a week night was because the USA offered a patriotic spectacle for fans who are lukewarm about soccer. The fans deserve a good product on the field, and with the most points per game in MLS so far, it's hard to argue that FC Dallas hasn't delivered. Bringing in a big name star (Hello Chicharito) would certainly go a long way to putting butts in seats, but at a massive price tag, the return on investment just isn't there.

Usually, this is where the writer suggests that the club move closer to downtown Dallas, but I am not going there. The fact is the facility, the surrounding development, and the growth of Frisco around the club constitutes unquestioned privilege for hosting the club's home games for the foreseeable future. That said, for the club to remain healthy and to grow in the short term, they're going to need a bigger fan base. For the club to move to the next level, they'll need to reach out heavily and in creative fashion to their overwhelmingly red neighbors, and I'll share some ideas for that in my next article.

Update: Part 2 is available here.