2012 Attendance: It's getting higher but so far still middle of the MLS pack

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

2012 Attendance: It's getting higher but so far still middle of the MLS pack

The 2012 season has the Chicago Fire at a points per game average that is unseen since the Golden Era of 1998-2003. Forty-four points in 26 games is identical to the 2003 season pace when Chicago won its only Supporters' Shield. This will almost certainly be the first Fire team to hit 50 points since that 2003 season and it may happen before the team even plays 30 games.

It's hard to miss the team's positive turnaround after 2 seasons with no playoffs and it looks like Chicagoans are getting the message. As the season goes on, attendance has trended in an upward spike.


Game Attendance Day of the Week
3/26 vs. PHI 18,075 Saturday
4/15 vs. HOU 10,489 Sunday
4/28 vs. SEA 14,166 Saturday
5/09 vs. RSL 13.544 Wednesday
5/12 vs. SKC 14,159 Saturday
5/23 vs. FCD 11,947 Wednesday
6/17 vs. NYC 18,526 Sunday
6/23 vs. CLB 17,144 Saturday
7/08 vs. LAG 20,533 Saturday
7/14 vs. VAN 16,820 Saturday
8/04 vs. TOR 15,757
Saturday
8/18 vs. NEG 17,495 Saturday
9/02 vs. HOU 17,007 Sunday
Average: 15,820

... or has it? More people are coming to games but where does this line up with other seasons? How do the Fire compare to other MLS markets? What's the state of attendance at Toyota Park for Chicago Fire games?

Year by Year Attendance at Toyota Park

Year Attendance Rank
2006 14,111 7
2007 16,490 2
2008 17,301 1
2009 14,689 6
2010 15,816 4
2011 14,724 5
2012 15,820* 3

*to date, September 6, 2012, through 13 home games.

Sunday night's attendance of 17,007 moved 2012's average up to 15,820. That's just 4 people higher on average than 2010's mark of 15,816. In order for 2012 to move up to Toyota Park's 2nd highest season, the Fire need to average right around 18,750 over their last 4 games. The 2008 season will remain top dog regardless of what happens in 2012. Even if every game sells out at 20,500, 2012's average would be 16,921.

Can the 2012 average get to 16,490? I'm not so sure. There have been 106 regular season games played at Toyota Park. Only 22 of those games have had more than 18,500 people and 9 of those 22 games have been against the star studded New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy. Both teams have already visited Toyota Park this year and neither team is slated to return. For a reference point, here are the top 10 regular season home games since Toyota Park opened in 2006.

Date Attendance Day of the Week
08/08/10 vs. NYC 21,868 Sunday
10/21/07 vs. LAG 21,374 Saturday
09/04/10 vs. LAG 21,068 Saturday
08/25/07 vs. NYC 20,586 Saturday
07/08/12 vs. LAG 20,533 Sunday
08/02/08 vs. CHV 20,492 Saturday
06/09/07 vs. CHV 20,407 Saturday
08/04/07 vs. CLB 20,358 Saturday
04/10/10 vs. SJ 20,276 Saturday
10/22/11 vs. CLB 20,237 Saturday

It's correct that just above 20,500 is a sell out at Toyota Park. It's also correct that the stadium has not had any alterations to capacity since 2006. It's correct yet again that significantly over 20,500 has been reported as an attendance figure for 3 Chicago Fire games. I'm approaching these numbers without any adjustment but keep this in mind. There's also the little tid bit that season ticket numbers improved from 2010 to 2011 yet attendance went down. How many grains of salt do you have after this last 'graph?

Day by Day

To see things more clearly and follow the numbers more nearly, it's best to look at how the Fire do on different days. You'll notice that the top ten games were on Saturdays or Sundays.

Day # of Games Average
Tuesday-Friday 25 14,181
Saturday 57 16,022
Sunday 24 15,449

That mirrors the trend here. Saturdays are more popular than Sundays and both days are much more popular than weekday games. You almost certainly didn't need a chart to figure that out but it's interesting to note just how much more popular Saturdays and Sundays are. The 2012 campaign was at an advantage coming in to the year because it's close to a record high in percentage of home games that are played on Saturday or Sunday.

Year % of Sat/Sun Rank
2006 75% 6
2007 86% 1
2008 80% 3
2009 80% 3
2010 53% 7
2011 76% 5
2012 84% 2

I'd give the 2010 figures more weight based on the amazingly low number of Saturday and Sunday games but then again I've already highlighted some of 2010's peculiarities. Perhaps we've stumbled upon why 2010 had some peculiar numbers to begin with...

Chicago will finish the 2012 season with 3 Saturday games and 1 Wednesday game. This bodes well for a strong finish because it's not just that Saturday days do well. Later games have historically sold more tickets than earlier games. The table below displays the average attendance by game number at Toyota Park.

Game # Average
Game 1 15,140
Game 2 14,027
Game 3 12,497
Game 4 12,804
Game 5 13,515
Game 6 14,490
Game 7 15,758
Game 8 16,355
Game 9 17,591
Game 10 17,515
Game 11 15,841
Game 12 15,526
Game 13 16,374
Game 14 16,336
Game 15 17,973
Game 16 15,208*
Game 17 20,237^

* and ^ - there have only been two Game 16s and one Game 17 at Toyota Park before.

Like weekend games getting more fans, this should also not come at a surprise. Ticket reps have more time to sell tickets for games that are later in the season. Fans have more time to come across games later in the season. All of the signs for me point to the 2012 season just eclipsing that 2007 16,490 total.

Leaguewide Comparison

Club Avg Attendance
Seattle 42,578
Montreal 23,107
Los Angeles 22,470
Houston 20,579
Portland 20,438
Vancouver 19,350
Kansas City 19,254
Toronto 18,903
Salt Lake City 18,897
Philadelphia 18,342
New York City 18,026
Chicago 15,820
Colorado 15,119
Columbus 14,382
San Jose 13,901
Dallas 13,860
D.C. 13,445
Chivas USA 13,436
New England 12,699

The possibility of having an average of 16,500 is quite positive for the Fire but even the potential is not good enough when compared to the rest of the league. Chicago ranks 12th in the league in attendance. If the Fire finished very strong, they would still be around 1,500 people per game away from the next team (New York Red Bulls). There's a large gap between primarily the older teams and the newer teams in the league.

The Gap

Many of the new MLS fans are quick to blame teams like New England, Dallas, and Chicago for not putting in their fair share of MLS attendance. The big gap between teams shows that the age of a club doesn't have anything to do with higher attendance. It's all about scarcity and popularity. Almost all of the top teams that are averaging over 18,000 people a game have opened a new stadium since David Beckham joined Major League Soccer in 2007. All of the teams that are averaging less than 16,000 (and six are averaging less than 14,500) play in stadiums that opened before David Beckham joined Major League Soccer. The only exception to this 'Beckham Attendance Rule' is the team that David Beckham himself plays for, the LA Galaxy, and Toronto FC.

The expansion teams and the teams with new stadiums have been able to market Beckham and the star players that have followed as well as the idea that if you don't buy season tickets, you might get left out in the cold. The scarcity model works well for all ticket established businesses. Next restaurant in Chicago sells out a month's evening of reservations in a matter of 30 minutes in large part because if people don't buy tickets right away, they will likely not be able to buy tickets later on. The Chicago Cubs thrived on this model in much of the last decade. If you bought Cubs tickets in 2007, you knew you could at least flip them over at cost. You might even be able to make some money on your investment.

Chicago Fire games at Toyota Park have never been like that. The Fire's previous owners, AEG, attempted to create scarcity in 2006 by making the stadium opener an exclusive event. It didn't work and 2006 remains the worst attended year in Toyota Park's history. While other teams have used new stadiums to launch a string of sell-outs, the opening of Toyota Park gave people the impression that you could just buy tickets whenever you wanted. It makes perfect sense for casual fans to wait to see if it's going to rain, if family and friends have a big party planned, or if there is a street festival that might be a better option than the Fire game if they can get good seats the day of. It's now how I buy my seats but every fan base has more casual fans. Every sports team has to figure out how to grab those casual fans instead of losing them to other events.

Competing in the Business of Fun and Entertainment

Chicago continues to languish below 16,000 and that means the team is grouped with the 'have-nots' of MLS attendance. Every now and then other fan bases will lob an insult at the Fire over smaller crowds. People point to the nearly 10 million people that live in the Chicagoland area and ask how could so few people show up to the games? It's ironic to then read comments from other MLS front offices talking about how they are in the business of fun/entertainment while also reading explanations from fans/journalists like outdoor festivals are providing competition for attendance in their home market.

The reality is the Fire are competing with a variety of entertainment options that just don't exist in MLS cities outside of Los Angeles and New York. There's a MLB game in Chicago almost 162 nights out of the year. The Bears, Blackhawks, and Bulls all sell out on a regular basis. Hundreds of local theatre companies exist where other towns are fortunate to have dozen. Major concerts, touring shows, comedians, and all other kind of live acts have Chicago as a must visit location. The aforementioned Next restaurant highlights a concept unfathomable in most cities in the world. Next's owners also operate Alinea, one of 10 three Michelin starred restaurants in the entire country. If you have money to spend in Chicago, it's easy to walk outside your door and find a quality way to spend it in a matter of minutes.

Time for a High Profile Player?

My last thought on all of this is Chicago might need a high profile player in the same category of David Beckham or Thierry Henry if they want to enter the range of 18,000 or so a game. I don't endorse the Fire getting that kind of player just for the sake of attendance. The front office is very reluctant to make such a move. However, another leap of 1,500 per game might be hard to come by for the 2013 season. At the same time Chicago drew its highest numbers when Cuauhtemoc Blanco played here. This is a city that certainly appreciates high quality as demonstrated by all the entertainment options that succeed (and the poor ones that quickly fail). A high profile player could help the Fire rise above the competition for some more buzz.

For now I'm happy to see things growing organically. Hopefully we'll start seeing matches were Games 2, 3, and 4 have crowds of over 15,000 regardless of who the opponent is.

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