All six WPS teams were in action on Sunday for the first time this season, although it appears each game was rather sparsely populated. This weekend’s slate of matches produced an average attendance of just 1,987; a league worst by quite some measure.
Prior to magicJack’s home opener last weekend, attendance for a single game dipped below the 2,000 mark just once in league history. Back on July 4, 2009, Sky Blue FC defeated the Boston Breakers 1-0 before a mere 1,878 fans. The Philadelphia Independence’s attendances last season narrowly avoided the 1,000 threshold on two occasions when the team drew 2,093 and 2,053 to two respective matches in July. Such figures certainly played a hand in the team’s decision to move from West Chester University to Widener University for the 2011 WPS season.
Fortunately, the league saw those attendance figures in only isolated instances. After four weeks and nine matches into WPS’s third season, attendance figures continue on a disturbingly accelerated downward trend.
Predictably, magicJack’s reported attendance number of 1,008 heavily weighed down this weekend’s average. The Sun-Sentinel’s article about the match disputes the legitimacy of that number, however, halving it to 500. There are many choice adjectives to describe magicJack’s off-the-field operations in the past six months, and “legitimacy” is certainly not one of them. As is always the case with the team, it’s difficult what to truly believe, although the Philadelphia Independence’s tweet corroborates Jeff Rusnak’s estimate. WPS experienced a similarly dubious situation last week when the reported attendance for the Atlanta Beat/Western New York Flash game came in at 3,075. The number seemed generous to both people in attendance at the game and viewers of FSC’s broadcast of the match.
Professional sports franchises are known to fudge their attendance numbers, and total attendance doesn’t necessarily equal the total amount of paying customers. Still though, one has to hope WPS – and by extension, WPS’s clubs – are slightly rounding off their figures and not embellishing them to outlandish proportions. Because that would be outright lying.
It’s unclear if there was any creative accounting in Rochester, as only 2,164 people turned up to Sahlen’s Stadium in person to take in the match. The number is nothing if not disappointing for a team that has been a model of professionalism thus far. Owner Joe Sahlen spent handsomely (and methodically) on players who could conceivably break into a World All-Stars XI. Aside from a star-studded attack and quality at every position, the Flash have several off-the-field aspects working in their advantage. The team doesn’t have to beg for interest from the local press as Jeff DeVeronica writes extensively about the team in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Rochester is the only market in WPS plays that isn’t concentrated with a high number of other professional teams. Even the Flash’s D.I.Y. YouTube videos should theoretically generate some kind of attachment from local fans, as they’re pretty endearing.
Yet, merely 2,164 showed up to watch the Flash’s golden trinity run riot on the Atlanta Beat. The disappointment of the number is only compounded by the fact that expansion teams historically attract inflated attendance numbers to their inaugural games. The numbers eventually decline along with the novelty factor, but it seems the Flash were entirely exempt from that. If there’s event the faintest glint of a silver lining it’s that the Flash still have eight more home games in the season. Hopefully the fans that did indeed come to the match were so taken by the performances of Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, et al that they’ll be compelled to take a friend or two to the Flash’s next home game this Friday.
Attendance is not something that the Boston Breakers have ever had to worry about. Yet, the leaders in league attendance from 2010 attracted a disappointing gate of just 2,789 fans for Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Sky Blue FC. That figure is 300 or so less than the 3,105 number that represented Boston’s previous worst total from Wednesday, June 24, 2009. As for matter at hand, some kind of traffic jam apparently prevented fans from getting to the stadium, but it’s unreasonable to think that was the lone culprit.
The league-wide average attendance currently stands at 2,746, miles off the 5,000 mark Fitz Johnson is quoted as saying WPS needs to hit to eliminate the red ink. It’s even more concerning to project attendance figures out into the summer months. Attendances historically dip around July and August, and this year the league will be faced with the absence of many of its A-list players. These present numbers would be expected around the time of the World Cup, but not so early on in the campaign.
Low attendances were partially culpable for the league’s mid-season downsizing in July of 2010. The front office was slashed and the league was forced to part with its national marketing arm. WPS determined the league didn’t have sufficient funds to support large-scale promotional efforts. Perhaps attendances have suffered as a result, as the marketing onus is now on individual teams themselves. WPS opted for the lesser of two evils and could be witnessing the less than pleasant consequences of a fairly impossible decision.
Still though, WPS remains the land of milk and honey in the larger scheme of things, at least as far as attendance is concerned. This past weekend saw an average of 1,165 people attend Damallsvenskan matches in Sweden. Even that figure is skewed by Pitea’s peculiarly high attendance figure of 2,089. The ninth-ranked team in the league (and home of Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and Irish standout Fiona O’Sullivan) attracted 2,470 fans to the team’s season opener a few weeks back; a rarity in Sweden’s top flight. Jitex and Umea’s home games drew 213 and 812 respectively. Meanwhile, England’s FA WSL earned an average weekend attendance of just 406 people with the Lincoln Ladies/Everton match boasting a weekend-high 424 fans.
The critical difference is that WPS is fully professional while those two leagues are nominally semi-pro. The clubs in the new FA WSL operate with budgets of £200,000-300,000, compared to $2-$3 million in WPS. Only the elite players are expected to earn around £25,000 (or $41,000) a season while the bulk of the squads aren’t composed of full-time professionals.
If WPS attendances continue down the trend they’re on, serious questions will have to be raised about the league’s longevity. The season is still fresh and there’s still plenty of time to see an uptick in gate receipts. It’s important to keep the faith, although one has to wonder how many others feel the same way anymore.