Four Weeks In and WPS Attendance Already Cause for Concern?

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.

11 thoughts on “Four Weeks In and WPS Attendance Already Cause for Concern?

  1. boyski

    In Boston, the Breakers were competing with the Celtics and Revolution on TV, the Walk for Hunger all along the Charles River and Mayfair in Harvard Square affecting traffic and yet another nippy Spring evening. I think the 6 p.m. start time on a school night doesn’t help matters either as younger teams will not attend. Come to think of it, there were very few teams there at all yesterday.

    Reply
    1. Jenna Pel Post author

      Fair enough, but there was a 1,369 person dropoff from Boston’s home opener to yesterday’s match. Do you think the amount youth teams/people turned away by traffic are enough to account for that large of a difference?

      Reply
  2. random

    Don’t underestimate the traffic issues experienced in Boston yesterday. There was a Walk for Hunger that the Red Sox alerted their fans to that closed some streets throughout the day. Unfortunately, Breakers fans weren’t alerted to those issues. Those who were aware probably didn’t show up because they wanted to avoid sitting in traffic for hours. The exit used coming from the West to get to the stadium backs up constantly because it is a bottle neck. I’ve personally sat waiting to use that exit for hours in traffic. Then of course there are those other fans that watched the Celtics instead…

    Reply
  3. Chris

    So exactly how is magicJack planning on making money? No website, no merchandise, extremely low attendance figures.

    Was Dan B. ever really intending on running a successful WPS team or was this just a great promotional opportunity for his magicJack product line?

    Reply
  4. mskenny

    I suspect it was a combination of the Celtics being on and the somewhat unseasonably cool evening (although it was mostly pleasant enough inside the stadium until the end of the game.) The traffic didn’t affect me, but it may have scared others off.

    Reply
  5. cambridge_footie

    Yes traffic around Harvard was dreadful yesterday, and it was cold.

    But the Harvard Mayfair happens every year. The Breakers may have been a missed opportunity use the Mayfair to their advantage? If families had know about they Mayfair they could have made plans and done both. Fun day out. Also there were 1,000s of people minutes walk from the game when the fair was ending. Perhaps the Breakers should have had a presence at the fair or handed out flyers/discounted tickets and get some of these bums on seats. But I guess all this costs $$.

    Reply
  6. KT

    “If WPS attendances continue down the trend they’re on, serious questions will have to be raised about the league’s longevity.”

    Wait, you mean those questions haven’t been raised already? I mean, pretty much any soccer league in this country has to deal with those questions – MLS didn’t really turn the corner until relatively recently. But it’s simply not the case that questions of WPS’ longevity are yet to come. The league’s longevity has been in question since day one, hasn’t it?

    The actual, unavoidable truth is that the clock is ticking. If Borislow actually did save the league, you have to ask if he didn’t just prolong the inevitable – or if a league that doesn’t hold an owner’s feet to the fire and make him act like a grownup and run his team like more than a U14 travel team has any reason sticking around.

    Reply
    1. Jenna Pel Post author

      Yes, those questions have been posed since day one, and WPS has never earned its stamp of credibility. At the beginning of the season, it seemed like the league would be able to tough it for the season before entering the twilight zone that is 2012. We’ll see, although it ain’t looking good.

      Reply
  7. Rick

    This article omits the most glaring reason the league is not making it. Take magicJack for the best example. Does the writer point out that this team’s website is not even up, four weeks into the season? Do you think this might account for the lowest attendance of the league, 1008, last weekend. I’ve never known a business that didn’t advertise their product? They say that women’s professional soccer “doesn’t draw much interest.” We’ll never know.

    Reply
    1. Jenna Pel Post author

      This article was intended to be a broader piece about league-wide attendance instead of a focus piece on one specfic market. magicJack’s non-promotion has been a general theme this season, and the lack of a website is certainly part of the problem. We’ve covered that particular issue in prior articles and will continue to do so if attendances remain the way they are.

      Reply
  8. Rick

    Anybody seen “The Producers?” This may be the answer to the mystery of the magicJack franchise. “Springtime for Hitler” : redux.

    Reply

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