The Columbus Crew’s 2014 home opener ended hours ago, and much of the post-game discussion has centered around the team’s 2-0 start – their first such mark in their 19-year history. That this has never happened before is surprising given some of the strong teams that Columbus has fielded in the past, but my focus tonight is on something else.
I wrote a piece earlier this year focusing on the team’s efforts to increase their attendance – which is a topic I’ve been following for some time. Tonight’s crowd – announced as being 17,517 – is encouraging in some ways, but also a reminder that more work needs to be done. Let’s put that figure in context.
Past Crew Home Openers
The chart at the top of this piece graphs home opening crowds since 2000 – i.e. “every year in which Crew Stadium wasn’t new”. The last three years, colored yellow, indicate the years since the nadir year of 2011 – after which the team’s sales organizations were restructured. The home openers the last three years have drawn an average crowd of 17,414, compared with an average of 13,230 the previous five seasons.
That’s an increase of more than 4,000 fans for one of the highest profile Crew games of the year – and one which needs to stand on its own, without relying on a glamour opponent and nice weather (more on weather later). It is also a game that benefits from a relatively long pre-sale period, and is a natural for big-event focus. Longtime Crew fans will remember 2003, when the Crew hosted a halftime concert by Everclear as part of their opening day.
Unfortunately, while factors like a long pregame sales period are definitely helpful, others – like the weather – are more challenging.
In Cold Weather
According to records kept by Weather Underground, today was the 30th game in which the Crew have kicked off in temperatures below 50 degrees. Under those conditions the average attendance is notably lower than for warm weather games – the team has averaged 13,537 fans in these games, compared with 15,412 for games that kicked off at 50 degrees or higher.
It is interesting to note the outliers in this context. Saturday’s crowd was the fifth-largest in team history in cold weather. Three of those four larger crowds were also home openers, spanning the years from 2002 through 2004. The 2003 kickoff that leads this group was the same midafternoon kickoff against the Galaxy that featured the Everclear concert.
The one cold-weather game that drew more than today’s gate that wasn’t also a home opener was the third home game in 1997, which 18,358 people attended.
It would seem that, while cold weather certainly depresses the size of a crowd, the Crew’s home opener has the ability to overcome this particular drawback.
Compared to other MLS teams
When compared to other teams’ home openers, the Columbus gate starts to look less impressive – and reflects the challenges that the team is facing. Through Saturday 17 of the league’s 19 teams have played their home openers (Montreal and Chicago play their first home game tomorrow, March 23). Only five of those 17 teams have drawn smaller crowds than has Columbus: Chivas, Colorado, DC, New England and San Jose.
Of this five, San Jose has a capacity of just 10,525 – so their position isn’t a surprise. Chivas USA have been atrociously mismanaged over the years, so beating their attendance figure isn’t impressive. Colorado’s opener took place in worse conditions than did the Crew’s – check out the video highlights of a pink ball and snow flurries – although as noted above there is an argument to be made that cold weather can be overcome. DC and New England are somewhat better points of comparison, although the recent history of their attendance is also not stellar.
Against those low figures, the top eight crowds are beyond the capacity of Crew Stadium, and illustrate the changing context within Major League Soccer. With the exception of Chivas USA, every team that has joined the league since 2005 outdrew Columbus. Six of the eight crowds above 20,000 came from teams that have been in the league less than a decade. The expansion of the league has changed the criteria for judging success at the gate.
There are many ways to look at the Crew’s attendance for today’s home opener. Some of them reinforce the narrative of a team benefiting from improved operations, while others paint a picture of an old guard franchise struggling against newer standards. Each of them offers a certain bit of truth.
The best closing note I can offer is that it will be interesting to watch how this season plays itself out. The excitement of a new owner, new coach, and a strong start should – in a perfect world – reinforce the front office’s efforts.
Unfortunately for Crew fans, we don’t live in a perfect world.