If Minnesota United’s average attendance so far this inaugural Major League Soccer season were cheering in the team’s future soccer-specific stadium in St. Paul, it would be a rousing sellout crowd.
The Loons, however, won’t be competing in their true home until likely the 2019 season. So those 20,781 fans, on average, end up rattling around a not-quite-half-full college football venue, TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus.
This is why perspective is so key.
“They certainly sound louder than the 17-18,000,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “And plus the fact we’re playing in a 55,000-(seat) stadium. If that’s in a 20,000 stadium, it’s a whole different ballgame. With the roof on, you can imagine the noise that would have been generated in that stadium. So we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
As it stands now, though, United’s attendance is solidly typical within MLS in 2017.
The average attendance around the league about a third of the way through the season is 20,809. Fellow expansion side Atlanta United FC leads the pack, averaging 48,031, with the Seattle Sounders FC next at 42,214. Those two are the outliers, though, with the third-highest average being 26,604 for Toronto FC.
United counts its attendance by tickets distributed, which includes complimentary ones. The Loons drew 35,043 to its snowy home opener March 12 before dropping into the mid-17,000s for the next four matches. Last weekend against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the attendance bumped up to 19,107. The appeal of the opponent and its star, Mexican national team player Giovani dos Santos, likely at least partly fueled that hike.
“The Galaxy are similar to the Lakers and Yankees in baseball. I think no matter what city they’re in, whether they’re winning championships or having an underperforming season, their brand carries so much equity that fans have a curiosity to see one of the perceived best teams in league history,” said Bryant Pfeiffer, United’s senior vice president for sales and strategy. “And dos Santos, no question about it, he’s been very popular across the league, and we’ve seen that reflected across the board.”
This phenomenon could come into play 7 p.m. Saturday when Orlando City SC and Kaka, the league’s top-paid player, visit TCF Bank Stadium. But this also makes United’s attendance totals a bit more notable, that the team can attract a decent amount of fans without big-name players on the roster.
“We’ve been impressed,” said Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications. “You’d expect us to say that, but the numbers kind of bear that out. And from what we understand, that second half of the season is scaling up when it comes to ticket sales. And clearly, if the team produces some positive results, that will certainly impact it.”
United (3-7-2) struggled early this season with big losses but has recently found its form. That didn’t keep the die-hard supporters away, but the more casual fan is still someone United is trying to attract.
“Our biggest challenge has always been getting people to come to their first match. Getting people to come to their second match is easy,” United president Nick Rogers said. “They see what it is. They’re like, ‘Oh, now we get it. We’re coming back.’ ”
While the supporters’ group section of TCF Bank Stadium keeps up a constant stream of chants and applause, last weekend’s match against the Galaxy saw the whole stadium starting to join in on certain cheers and traditions, like twirling scarves in the air during corner kicks. To inspire those new fans to check out that atmosphere, United has employed ticket package deals on Groupon as well as other specials, like free tickets for moms to the match ahead of Mother’s Day.
United set a goal of selling 11,842 season tickets within the first two years, and the team says it is fewer than 500 away from that mark. Symbolically equal to the number of lakes in Minnesota, it will amount to about 60 to 65 percent capacity at United’s forthcoming 19,000 to 20,000-seat stadium.
Pfeiffer said that ticketing model has worked well for other teams in the league, and United might eventually push beyond 11,842.
Season tickets range from about $230 to $2,000. Single-match tickets cost from $22 to $184.
Pfeiffer said the focus has been on filling out TCF Bank Stadium’s lower bowl since that is comparable in size to the future stadium.
The team anticipated attendance would drop after a big splash in the home opener before rising again, partly because of United’s relatively late start selling season tickets. The team didn’t formally join MLS until Aug. 19. By that time, Atlanta had already sold 22,000 season tickets.
Minnesota United didn’t start selling single-match tickets until Feb. 9, barely a month before the regular season began.
Of meeting the lower-bowl benchmark, Pfeiffer said, “We knew that that would be difficult to achieve in the first half of the season just because of when we started selling tickets officially. But we’re starting to see trends for the second half of the season that are going to have some very strong crowds that get very close to, if not exceed, that lower bowl sellout scenario.”
Whether the crowds trend upward or not, the Loons haven’t felt the crowds have slighted them in the slightest.
“I know the players really appreciate the support we’ve been getting, and I think if we can put a few more performances on that, let’s see if we can keep nudging that crowd up,” Heath said. “Just keep forcing the envelope, convincing people to come and watch the team.
“Because there’s still a lot of people who’ve never been to a game, and I’m sure they would enjoy it if they did.”