Guest Post: I Have Attended Every MLS Cup, But That May End Soon

celebrationFootiebusiness regulars know Jamie Clary as the author of the First American Soccer Trivia Book and the provider of the weekly business trivia question.  Tonight, Mr. Clary discusses another great accomplishment; he has attended every single MLS Cup Final.  Thanks to Mr. Clary.

After three friends and I left MLS Cup ’96, we were so enthusiastic about having a legitimate top-tier league that we promised “every year”. The four of us committed to attending every future MLS championship game to support the league.

Within three years two friends failed on that commitment, but Jamey Yawn and I have made 17 of 17 finals.

That first game in Boston on October 20, 1996, was nearly canceled due to the four inches of rain that fell during the 24 hours prior to the game. Local organizers called off an annual boat race because of the rain. But needing to show stability and to fit a television schedule, the league went ahead, giving us a final that is still the most exciting one ever played.

Alexi Lalas sang the national anthem to thousands of empty seats. SportsCenter showed the game’s highlights 30 minutes into its late telecast.

Played in October, the game competed for media attention with NFL, college football and Major League Baseball playoffs. That field of competitors dwindled when MLS Cup got pushed into November and now December. Also, ESPN’s stake in the league has grown, generating more publicity for MLS Cup.

The problem with that publicity was that television viewers often saw seas of empty seats during the league’s championship game. Along with that was concern that MLS was renting entire venues but utilizing only a portion of them for the finals. The league needed to take action to cut costs and to provide a better appearance to TV viewers.

Looking at the early years, neutral venues made a poor showing when hosting MLS Cup. Foxborough Stadium hosted the final in 1996 and 1999 with more than 25,000 and 15,000 empty seats, respectively. In 1997 RFK sold out to fans watching the home team defend its title. When RFK hosted again in 2000, without the home team there were 17,000 empty seats.

In 1998 the Rose Bowl could have hosted fans of two games at once. MLS Cup was played in front of 51,000 people and 40,000 empty seats.

It did not take a team doctor to figure out that MLS Cup needed smaller venues when hosted by neutral sites. Columbus Crew Stadium was the first soccer specific stadium to host the final, presenting TV audiences with a full house in 2001 for two non-Columbus teams. It is still the smallest venue ever pressed into service for MLS Cup, offering just 20,145 seats.

Nearly three times that number attended the next year’s MLS Cup. More than 61,000 people watched the Revolution fall to LA in overtime, leaving only 7,400 empty seats in Gillette Stadium. As much as they would have liked, MLS governors could not replicate that recipe of a home team and mild October weather. The league went back to smaller venues and left MLS Cup 2002 with the record for highest attendance.

With two exceptions, smaller venues have been used since 2002. Excluding those two, the most empty seats for a final was 1,200 in 2004 at the Home Depot Center. The worst of the two outliers came in 2009 at Seattle’s Qwest Field. The stadium had 21,000 empty seats but brought in 46,000 fans to watch two out-of-town teams. We had to laugh, though, when Sounders fans sang boastfully during a game that did not involve the Sounders.

Seeing the value in using smaller stadiums, MLS governors went a step further, looking for rabid home fans and potential for higher revenues. When they chose to award the higher seed the home field for MLS Cup, they created scenes with more energy than the Super Bowl.

This year those scenes will come from Kansas City, Portland or Salt Lake—three venues with singing, flag-waving, stand-the-whole-game fans. But those fans are my competition. Jayme and I used to compete for tickets against soccer dads and a handful of traveling supporters. By contrast, we barely found tickets for last year’s final in L.A. between L.A. and Houston.

We kept our commitment last year, 17 for 17. This year could be different. We love what MLS has done for soccer. We just wish they would throw a couple tickets our way and keep the string alive, help us reach 18 for 18.