With the opening of PAETEC Park, the Rochester Rhinos control their venue for the first time in their history. And the hope was that with a seating capacity of 13,768 and beautiful views of the large playing surface, that the Rhinos attendance numbers would improve over recent years, especially last season where the average home crowd dipped below the 10,000 per game threshold. But, after only the second home match of the season, some people are wondering if those grand dreams will come to fruition.
With a sell out crowd in attendance on opening night, the Rhinos had a larger crowd than 33 of the 70 MLS matches played so far this season. However, the crowd of 9,174 fans that showed up to the Rhinos second home match of the season was only better than 11 of the 70 crowds in MLS this year. And that drop off of 4594 fans from opening night to the second home match of the season has to be of some concern to the Rhinos front office.
The good news is that the Rhinos were able to outdraw the one MLS franchise that is on very shaky ground right now in the Kansas City Wizards. The Wizards, who are in the midst of a long struggle to get a soccer stadium built and the team sold to local owners, were only able to draw 9,014 fans this past weekend to Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs.
MLS teams playing in oversized NFL stadiums is one major issue affecting MLS today. The Rhinos are averaging 11,471 fans per match through two matches this season. And the three teams in MLS that have lower average attendance all have one thing in common: they all play in NFL stadiums. The New England Revolution are averaging 11,431 fans per match at Gillette Stadium, the home of the Patriots. The Colorado Rapids are averaging 10,912 fans per match at Invesco Field, the home of the Broncos. And the aforementioned Kansas City Wizards are averaging 10,949 fans per match.
Also in some trouble are the New York Red Bulls who play their home matches at Giants Stadium. While their average attendance is the second in the league at 19,257 per match, that number is very misleading. The Red Bulls drew 35,793 fans to their home opener. They also drew 52,425 fans as part of a double header that also featured World Cup-bound Ecuador playing South American rival Colombia. Take those two crowds out of the equation and the Red Bulls are only averaging 9,317 fans per match in a huge stadium that likely charges the team a premium for rent.
The five MLS teams currently playing in soccer specific stadiums are currently sitting in 1st (LA Galaxy), 5th (Chivas USA), 7th (FC Dallas), 8th (Columbus Crew), and 9th (Chicago Fire) in league attendance. Although, there should be a qualifier in the case of the Chicago Fire. They have only hosted one match at the brand new Toyota Park. And that match was held with a crowd size well below capacity to act as a test run for the full opener this upcoming weekend versus New York.
The biggest success story at the gate this season has to be the Houston Dynamo. The former San Jose Earthquakes have enjoyed strong crowds and are third in the league averaging 18,699 fans per match. Three of the first four matches in Houston topped the 20,000 fan barrier. The Dynamo has averaged around 14,000 per match over the last two matches. So it will be interesting to see if that is a trend or just a couple of off nights for the team.
What do the numbers tell us?
For starters, any thoughts that Chivas USA playing in the Home Depot Center would mean trouble at the gate for the Galaxy were unfounded. Despite the fact that the Galaxy are struggling on the field, they are number one at the gate averaging just over 20,000 fans per match. Chivas USA is also pretty solid with an average attendance of over 16,000 fans per game.
The Hunt Sports Group is having troubles with all three of their clubs. Kansas City is barely ahead of Colorado in the race to not have the worst average attendance in the league. And if you take Chicago's controlled opener out of the equation, HSG owns the two worst drawing teams that are in soccer specific stadiums in the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas.
Salt Lake City is looking like a decent MLS town as they are averaging almost 15,400 fans per match despite the second year franchise not getting great results on the field.
Another thing in MLS has to look forward to is the return of a lot of marquee talent once the US National Team is done with the World Cup. Getting the likes of Landon Donovan, Brian Ching, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, and all the other name players back from Germany can only help MLS at the gate.
But, it will be interesting to see if the Rhinos are able to stay ahead of any of the three MLS clubs that they are currently outdrawing. And if they expand PAETEC Park during the offseason, it will be really interesting to track attendance between Toronto FC and the Rhinos in 2007.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Rochester Rhinos or SoccerSam.com. Feel free to send any comments or complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org. James promises to read (but not to respond) to all of them.