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Oct 20, 2009

MLS remains well-positioned despite recession

The politicians say this is the worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment is affecting nearly one in every 10 Americans. Gas prices continue to go up. But don't worry about Major League Soccer getting Wall Street-type privileges -- the league doesn't need its own bailout quite yet. All told, MLS is averaging 15,894 fans per game, down 3.45 percent from the 2008 season's average of 16,460. It is tough to be a still-fledgling league in a sport that is still gaining mainstream traction. It is even tougher when the economy is going south. To be fair, MLS isn't the only league suffering during an economic downturn that shows few signs of getting better -- and it is nowhere near as bad off as other sports. This past regular season, Major League Baseball's attendance was down more than 2,000 fans a game, representing a 6.5 percent decline. The NFL is experiencing a record number of television blackouts resulting from low ticket sales. Horse racing sees smaller crowds and less action at the window. "The modest decline in MLS ticket sales reflects two things, in my view," said Raymond Sauer, a professor of economics at Clemson and the renowned guru behind the Sports Economist blog. "First, MLS ticket prices are relatively modest in comparison with the more established sports, who became oriented toward the premium end of the market in recent years. "With the sudden emergence of the budget-conscious consumer in the midst of the recession, MLS was well placed relative to the big four professional leagues. "Second, the fact that the decline was so modest is another piece of evidence pointing to the long-term growth potential of soccer in the North American market."

'MLS Primetime'
Thursday
Chivas USA vs. Chicago
Toyota Park Stadium, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

Sauer points to soccer's visibility on television and even the huge sales numbers for EA Sport's FIFA video game franchise as signs the sport is growing in the U.S. Soccer's potential, however, doesn't mean MLS isn't wary of the sliding economy. In last year's state of the league address, commissioner Don Garber targeted these concerns. With a solid group of investors and new sponsorship deals still being inked, the league's commissioner said he was confident MLS would survive. "Our clubs are working hard to make sure we can weather that storm, watching what we spend and how we spend it," Garber said. "Ensuring that we're doing as much as we can to drive as much revenue as we can over the next year or two or three, or however long this economic crisis lasts." The simple fact is that MLS is more affected by the economic downturn than most leagues, even those that have seen a more significant decline in attendance. With fewer games than Major League Baseball and a significantly smaller season-ticket base than either the NFL or baseball, MLS is very dependent on group ticket sales and walk-up fans to buoy its bottom line. Even the NHL, often seen as a rival to MLS for similar fans, is holding relatively steady -- albeit seeing a declining gate during this season -- after four straight years of increased attendance. Casual fans attend MLS games with disposable income, and with necessities increasing in price, the availability of finances to attend a soccer game decreases. Truth be told, it could be much worse for the league. Expansion club Seattle has kept attendance at a respectable level with fans flocking in record numbers to Qwest Field. The Sounders are poised to set the league's all-time attendance record, currently averaging 30,709 fans. That is double (and sometimes triple) the averages of nine teams in the 15-team league and accounts for 12.5 percent of the league's total attendance this season. "The trend we have seen this year is that fans have been more willing to spend on tickets for a couple huge games, as opposed to full season tickets," said Joellen Ferrer, corporate communications manager at StubHub.com. "As a result, the demand for the highly anticipated games creates an active marketplace on StubHub, whereas the lackluster games offer bargains for fans." This means the aptly named Summer of Soccer, which brought numerous foreign teams to the U.S. for highly publicized friendlies, proved to be a big hit. For the FC Barcelona-Chivas friendly Aug. 8 in San Francisco, for example, StubHub estimates that roughly 10 percent of the 61,000-plus fans in attendance purchased tickets on the site. The average ticket sale price was $77 dollars. When Real Madrid took on D.C. United at FedEx Field, the average ticket price on StubHub was $138 dollars. Fans still were willing to pay to see soccer, but they became much more selective in the number of games they attended. "On the flip side of things, there are over 35 games with average prices under $25, and 170 games have average prices under $50," Ferrer said. This lack of spending power by the average fan has hurt overall attendance in the league. Only three MLS clubs have seen attendance improve this year: Real Salt Lake, San Jose and Toronto FC. Every other franchise has seen significant drops in turnstile counts, led by New York. The Red Bulls are down nearly 26 percent in their final season at Giants Stadium. Sauer, for his part, sees the cup as half-full, although he cautions that MLS must continue to progress if it is to remain viable. "They [MLS] do have pretty good cost-control structures, and that should help them in the current economic environment. But the U.S. market clearly has the attention of European teams," Sauer said. "MLS will have to spend more on talent if they are to build a generation of fans for their own home-grown teams. There are plenty of challenges ahead." Quote of the week "For a first-year franchise to make the playoffs in the first year, it hasn't happened in a long time. Like I said, the scenario was different when Chicago did it because the league was a lot younger." -- Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, whose expansion team made the playoffs this past weekend with a win over Kansas City. Stat of the week It has been 11 years since an MLS expansion team made the playoffs, when the Chicago Fire made the postseason and eventually won the MLS Cup. Since then, five teams have entered the league (including San Jose re-entering in 2008). Like Chicago in 1998, the Sounders won the U.S. Open Cup in their inaugural season. Quick kicks • Stepping in for the injured Stefan Frei, Toronto FC goalkeeper Brian Edwards made nine saves in his team's 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. • Chris Leitch had two assists for San Jose in Saturday's 2-2 tie with Chivas USA, giving him seven assists on the season. In his previous six seasons in the league, Leitch had six assists combined. • Saturday's 2-1 win by FC Dallas was the first time in seven games that Jeff Cunningham did not register a goal or an assist. • With a scoreless tie against Houston on Sunday, Los Angeles has 45 points with one game remaining. It is the team's largest point tally since 2005, when it achieved 45 points in 32 regular-season games. The current league schedule now has 30 regular-season games. Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.

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