This past week, the Colorado Rapids had a great game against Toronto FC, in gloriously nice weather. And yet many fans are gnashing their teeth over our disappointing attendance for the match: 10,772.
The Dick holds around 18,700 at capacity. So, 10K's not very good. In fact, it's about 31% off last year's average attendance numbers. If the team continued to draw at that level, it would be the worst average attendance in MLS by far, and the worst in Rapids history since the very first year. These numbers are care of coloradorapids.com:
So what's the deal with that? The boys on the Flakoglost podcast did a fantastic job exploring the topic. You should go listen. Click here. http://www.flakoglost.com/
Among reasons that they, other Rapids fans, and I, have come up with, are the following:
1) It's early in the season. Fans will come in bigger numbers in the summer.
2) Toronto doesn't bring much of an away supporters group.
3) Toronto isn't a Western Conference rival.
4) The NCAA Tourney was on TV at the same time.
5) Youth soccer just got started, so group sales to the South Terrace were probably not yet going.
6) The Rapids deal with 7-11 for ‘The Corner' expired, mean those 1,000 seats aren't being marketed as much.
7) Casual sports fans don't care about USMNT stars like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, except in World Cup years.
8) This is a Broncos town, and all the other teams are perpetually set to live in the shadow of the big orange machine, especially when the Broncos are so successful and the other teams... aren't.
9) Coloradans are all about that ‘outdoor lifestyle' - on a nice spring day, they want to go for a hike or a bike ride, not watch soccer.
10) The Rapids have had a bad, losing soccer team for two years. Fans are waiting to back a winning team.
11) Colorado soccer fans prefer to see top flight soccer in the EPL, not our "mediocre" domestic league.
12) DSGP is too far away, especially for the young hip Millennials in LoDo and the Highlands.
13) DSGP is lame, with lousy food and nothing to do pre-game, especially for a serious target audience for MLS, Millennials.
OK. So there's bunch of things that can't be helped. The LA Galaxy will always draw more than TFC, and a Rocky Mountain Cup will always outsell a late season match in the rain against Vancouver. Other sports, nice weather, and a hike in the Rockies are factors that also cannot be mitigated. That kind of covers problems 1 through 5.
Problem 6- the 7-11 deal- I don't know how successful it was. I always saw that 7-11 corner as the least populated section, week in and week out. But as a low-priced option at a major outlet, it's a good idea. A corporate sponsor for super cheap tickets is a great idea as an entry level ticket for noobies. I really hope that kind of thing keeps going. I'd be very happy if the Rapids were the only team in town that made an aggressive push for family entertainment for the less-affluent for a whole host of reasons.
Problems 7, 8 and 9 are basically bemoaning Denver culture. I don't buy any of those arguments. They may impact some folks, but if any of them are true, they should equally impact the Rockies, Nuggets, and Avalanche. More importantly, they aren't really changable, at least, not by the Rapids. It assumes that the best solution for the Rapids is, for instance, for the Broncos to go on a 10-year losing jag. I don't expect that to happen, nor does that ensure that the Rapids will scoop up their departed fans. In fact, I'm not entirely clear if there is much ‘Bronco/Rapids' overlap at all.
Problem 10 is a real problem that has a simple solution: win. Create a winning team, and a culture of winning. It doesn't matter if you do it with homegrowns or fill all 3 ½ DP slots with Euro stars: winning cures a lot of ills.
The Denver Post has been giving the Rapids pretty good coverage - the Rapids should thank their lucky stars every night that the primary guy who happens to cover the Rapids is also the editor of digital content for the Post, Daniel Boniface. But nobody covers a losing team. Since sports writing began, losing teams in big cities get pushed to the second and third page of the Sports Section. Hell, last year the NY Knicks beat writer actually stopped covering the team altogether for the last 15 games: there was just no point. The Rockies are getting great press right now, locally and nationally. I'm pretty sure when Trevor Story comes back to earth and the pitching staff regresses to giving up north of 10 runs a game, the Post will push those stories farther back and below the fold. If the Rapids win, they get press. If they get press, they get fans. For another example of this phenomenon, see Donald Trump.
Problem 11 - EPL fans that won't convert to MLS- is not so simple, but it is also linked to 10 (winning) and 12 & 13 (making DSGP a place you want to go). I don't presume to understand what drives EPL fans - and I'm one of them. But I think a tandem of a) winning and b) improving the DSGP soccer experience would increase attendance and fandom.
Problem 12 - DSGP is too far and nowhere near anything else cool, is a serious problem. A lot of fans I speak to pine for a hip downtown stadium within walking distance from the type of young 20-something hipster MLS crowds that pack the stadiums at Orlando and Portland and NYCFC and Seattle. The Rapids absolutely need to appeal to those fans: they have disposable cash, their peers in other cities are the building blocks of MLS soccer culture and supporters groups, and they are moving to the Denver metro area in droves, with no current attachments to Denver sports teams (note: that was also me, albeit as a not hip Gen Xer with a wife and family in tow).
But to the folks that say 'We need a downtown stadium!', I say this:
Guys, we're not getting a downtown stadium. The Dick is 9 years old: it's our stadium for the next 25 years, like it or not. It's a beautiful stadium. Yes, it's kind of in a weird place, unless you work for the US Postal Service. Or you're a raccoon. Then, it's a very convenient walk. The distance is also a problem for soccer culture- you want to drink before and during a game, but not catch a DUI on the way home. You don't want to wait an hour after the game for an Uber, which will be premium priced. The light rail is nowhere nearby - when it's completed, there will need to be a DSGP shuttle bus. And getting folks that don't want to drive to the game there conveniently should be a priority for the Rapids.
The supporters groups solve this by running buses from Three Lions and Bulldog Pub. The SGs pay for that. The SGs market it. The Rapids need to throw their considerable weight and cash behind that effort. If the pre-games are well marketed, and the buses are cheap or free, Millennials will come. Shuttle buses from the new A and R train lines that will stop at Peoria, just south of I-70, starting April 22nd, would help too, along with aggressive marketing. Other teams have a ‘March to the Match' - the ‘Pids could have ‘the A Line to the Goal Line'. Or. OR! Market the new transport efforts with the tagline 'Take the R & A to the P I D s.' Or something. Get some marketing people on it.
Problem 13 is related: DSGP has nothing to do pre-game, so unless you drive out and host your own tailgate, or join C38, or want to pay a little too much for the food at 1876, going to DSGP isn't an event. It needs to be. I have two suggestions for this.
First, DSGP should double down on making a cool pre-game zone for fans south of the stadium. And I don't me the bevy of luke-warm sponsor-driven crap that's been there till now- some plastic bauble hand-outs and a few so-so games with long lines. We need a pop-up beer garden. Four to six awesome food trucks. A footie mini-golf course. Make coming early awesome. If there's no restaurants or beer or cool things to do by DSGP, you got to create those things. Paying fans will pay for it.
Second, create a spectacle. MLS and Commerce City ban flares and smoke inside stadiums? Fine. Have a nutty pre-game pyromaniacal orgy of flame in the South parking lot. #NoPyroNoParty. Give C38 and Bulldog SG free rein to light it up. With a DJ spinning techno. Or a punk band covering the Misfits. Create a template for something awesome to happen. And then... when the flares and the music and the beer are at their absolute height, 1 hour before game time, march the Rapids players through the smoke and the noise and the 400 rabid fans. Make it a show. Create FOMO: fear of missing out. In other words, create a tradition that exceeds any other in Colorado sports. Make the Chelsea and Arsenal fans jealous. Serve kinoa tacos and Belgian craft beer to Millenials while letting them wave flares at Kevin Doyle.
It's cliche, and it's overused, but I'm going to say it anyhow. Build it: a winning soccer team, an awesome pre-game experience, better food amenities via food trucks, and they will come.