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Hammered Rivets: Attendance Special Edition

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It’s a slow Thorns week, so we take a deeper dive into NWSL attendance

Match Gallery: Portland Thorns vs. Western New York Flash

If you’re not a numbers person, you may want to skip this week’s edition of Hammered Rivets. I will be back next week with all the goodies from the home opener.

NWSL attendance, specifically lack thereof, is a perplexing problem. For example, why don’t the Thorns have a waiting list like the Timbers? We took a brief look at a possible reason last week; this time we look closer.

As reader Timbers and Thorns pointed out, there are good reasons to attend NWSL matches:

1. Isn’t soccer the most popular / fastest growing youth sport in the country?

2. Isn’t there a greater appreciation for women’s sports across genders, but especially among women / girls and even more so among the LGBTQ population? Or maybe especially among men such as myself?

3. Isn’t this considered the best women’s soccer league in the world?

4. Isn’t the quality of play as good, or even better, than the men’s? (I, for one, happen to think it is better)

5. Isn’t there still a surge of enthusiasm after the last couple of women’s World Cups?

So why are we seeing such mediocre numbers?

Cost Argument

Last week we looked at costs. The updated table below shows the transportation-only “cost” of going to an NWSL match sorted from least to most expensive. I used Google’s definition of “city center” as the starting location (Raleigh for the Courage, New York City for Sky Blue). A note on “hassle”. This cost accounts for the time, risk and frustrations of getting somewhere. I arbitrarily set it at 15₵ per minute or $9 per hour. Also note that driving cost does not include the cost of the actual car, insurance, etc. – just gas and tolls.

This is updated to estimate Salt Lake City’s attendance based on their announced season ticket holder base of more than 7,000. I also added Boston and Kansas City for reference.

Based on cost alone we can see that Salt Lake’s attendance “should” be lower than it’s likely to be, while Houston and Kansas City “should” be doing much better. Reader stands pointed out that at venues where both NWSL and men’s teams play, the attendance is about the same for some (Portland, Kansas City, Raleigh, and presumably Salt Lake) while at others it’s much less (Houston, Orlando, Chicago). So, cost alone is not the whole story.

Market Saturation Argument

Another contention is that some cities are “over-served” with sports and therefore NWSL is not attractive or cannot get attention. Is there anything to this?

I took the total season attendance for the “Big Four” sports in each market and calculated that number as a percentage of the census metro area (MSA) population figures most recently available (2013 in most cases). The table is sorted from least to most saturated.

Orlando has the least sports competition. Due to its huge population, New York is third-least saturated despite their many teams. Even more surprisingly, Kansas City with only two teams draws more fans than its total population – clearly lots of people like baseball there. It’s notable that the two cities with saturation above 100% are the two cities where an NWSL franchise folded.

Measuring NWSL attendance against the total “Big Four” shows us the ranking below. Again, Salt Lake attendance is an estimate based on season ticket sales. There does not seem to be much correlation. For example, one of the least saturated markets, New York, is dead last in NWSL attendance relative to other sports. Another case: Seattle, Washington and Chicago are about equally saturated but the Reign is outperforming the Red Stars and Spirit by a fair amount.

For the sake of comparison, I ran the numbers for MLS also. Orlando, New York, Kansas City and Boston are doing better in MLS than NWSL. Raleigh and Washington DC are worse. For Raleigh, I used the North Carolina FC attendance from 2017 when they were in NASL:

Mashed Together

In an attempt to blend the two arguments, I combined the rank of each NWSL team in cost and saturation. This table is sorted by combined rank, lower is better:

The top six NWSL teams by attendance are also the six with the lower combined cost and saturation. This combined measurement seems to roughly predict attendance, especially if you disregard FCKC and Boston.

Orlando and Houston continue to disappoint, with their NWSL sides drawing a third or less than their MLS sides in the same stadiums. Especially in Houston’s case, no matter how you peel the onion, you get tears. There is no apparent structural reason for their relatively poor attendance.

At the bottom of the pile, it appears that if Washington, Chicago and Sky Blue could do something about their costs they could prosper. This year will see the Washington Spirit play some of their matches at the new Buzzard Point stadium in downtown DC. This will give us a clue – if we see significantly higher attendance, then you can argue that cost matters more than saturation.

I would posit that Chicago and Sky Blue need to move closer to their potential fan base, perhaps to downtown university facilities. If Seattle is pushed out of downtown in 2019 with the closure of Memorial, they will likely suffer badly. For the other teams, there seem to be no barriers to success in either location or sports competition. They need to work on their marketing, like any other business.