Image: Steve Aibel, LittleOrcaSports.com / Pitch Black News
In its inaugural season, San Antonio FC has drawn respectable crowds to Toyota Field and finds itself near the top of the United Soccer League attendance table, but there’s still room for improvement.
If you’ve been listening to our podcast here at Pitch Black, you’ll know that Kyle and Aaron talk fairly often about SAFC’s attendance numbers. They’ve been quite positive regarding the numbers, while occasionally conceding that they could be better. For the most part, I agree; the numbers are good, but they’re certainly not perfect.
Through 10 home games in league play, SAFC has a total attendance of 63,218, averaging just under 6,322 per game. Their attendance peaked in the home opener, which drew 8,466 people, and has dipped as low as 4,593 (though that was on a Thursday night; 5,855 is the lowest attendance for a weekend game). SAFC ranks 4th best in the USL so far this year in terms of highest, lowest and average attendances.
The average attendance of 6,322 fills the stadium to just over three-quarters capacity. As good as that proportion is, it still leaves about 2,000 seats empty on average. Especially given the limited time the front office had to put together this team, those are good numbers. However, I highly doubt the club is just relaxing and patting each other’s backs; they’ll be looking into how each of those remaining 2,000 seats can be filled, as they were for the home opener.
Of course, it’s impossible to match the likes of FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic when it comes to numbers. You can’t hope to compete with averages of 16,750 and 11,569, respectively, when your stadium only holds 8,296 people.
There is a way SAFC could prove their city’s desire though. Sacramento Republic has been known for selling out or nearly selling out many games in recent years. While they’ve recently owned up to fudging the numbers and not actually selling out, the point still stands: sellouts are the best you can do, so aim for that.
Even if a stadium’s current capacity isn’t even half of MLS’s minimum requirement, like Toyota Field, a club shows evidence of the community’s interest and promise by selling out what they’ve got, which SAFC isn’t doing yet.
One phrase that comes up fairly often, at least on our podcast, is “That’s good/great for USL.” Like I said, SAFC’s attendance numbers are good, but there’s a problem with statements like that one. It’s the qualifier, “for USL,” that bugs me. Where’s the ambition in that?
Take the Seattle Sounders for example. Do you think people look at their record MLS attendance numbers and just say “That’s great for MLS”? It is, but they can drop the qualifying statement, because an attendance of 40,000+ every game for soccer is great, period. Or go back to the metric of sellouts. If you sell a sizable portion of your tickets, game after game like Sacramento, “that’s great,” period, because it’s the best you can possibly do.
The multiple allusions I’ve made to MLS may seem unfair for a first-year USL team, but I’d argue they aren’t for a club with blatant ambitions of making it into the top flight of American soccer in a few years. Large crowds are perhaps the best way for a community with minor-league soccer to express their interest and desire for MLS.
I’ve been a bit critical – openly, on one or two occasions – of the MLS-to-SA petition started by the Crocketteers, a local supporters group which has driven soccer in San Antonio forward since 2009, before we even had a professional team. True, it’s another way of showing interest for bringing an MLS team to San Antonio, but it’s not the best way. The best petition you can sign is in the seats of Toyota Field, and you sign on the dotted line with your rear end.
I’ve heard casual San Antonio soccer fans, who admitted they didn’t go to Scorpions games and still might not have been to a single SAFC game, who said they and their friends would definitely show up if and when the city got an MLS franchise. Until then though, they’re content with perhaps signing an online petition and talking up their hypothetical future support for an MLS team on the radio and online.
The rest of the MLS equation – expansion fee, stadium, club infrastructure, etc. – is beyond the fans’ control. The one thing they can do is show their support and interest via attendance numbers, which some just aren’t willing to do, unfortunately.
What I’ve said here isn’t taking a jab at anybody in particular – SAFC, the Crocketteers, the sizable soccer fanbase in San Antonio. There are good things everybody involved is doing, but there’s room for improvement as well.
Maybe I’m just too ambitious. In a perfect world, we sell out every game, expand the stadium a couple of times yet continue to draw full or nearly full crowds and MLS has no choice but to recognize the hunger and passion for soccer that exists in San Antonio. At the moment, we’re obviously not at that level, but we should shoot for the stars.
To be fair, the attendance numbers will likely grow year after year. After this season, SAFC won’t have to build an entire club from the ground up again and can devote more attention to marketing and selling tickets. New people also seem to be discovering the SAFC brand and experiencing SAFC games all the time.
That said though, I do get tired of seeing people go to their first games and say they’ll come back, yet attendance numbers stagnate and sometimes even decline. I’ve seen that for years with the Scorpions, and I’m hoping it doesn’t happen too much with SAFC now. Hopefully they’re savvy enough to keep those fans hooked.
Again, what we’re doing is good, but there’s no reason we can’t and shouldn’t want to do great. If San Antonio’s collective soccer community wants MLS, then we shouldn’t settle for “good” and have to add qualifiers like “for USL.” As far as getting to MLS, Spurs Sports and Entertainment can take care of the administrative stuff, but they can’t force people to come to games and fill every seat.
SAFC’s head coach Darren Powell has said he strives for perfection with his team, so perhaps everyone else should do the same when it comes to attendance. It’s not easy to achieve – though Sacramento seems to have it down, given their sellout streak – but even if San Antonio doesn’t quite get there, the pursuit of perfection will take us pretty darn close, closer than if we settle for “good.”
Edits: I previously stated the lowest weekend attendance was 4,650, not realizing that game took place on a Wednesday, and adjusted the lowest-for-a-weekend figure to 5,855. I also had to reword some of the stuff about Sacramento Republic as they’ve apparently been fudging the attendance numbers in “sellouts.”