Stadium crowd relies on optimistic attendance projections

An estimated 100 fans in blue “MLS2LV” T-shirts turned out at a Sept. 3 City Council meeting to support a controversial plan to build a $200 million Major League Soccer stadium downtown.

Let’s hope the stadium’s developers took down the contact information for each of those fans. Because Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. and local partner Findlay Sports &Entertainment will need all the supporters it can get if it’s ever to approach the lofty attendance estimates it’s using to calculate its future success should the stadium be built.

Findlay Sports’ official Justin Findlay informed the city in an Aug. 29 memo he expected the team would average 18,000 fans per game. The project’s evolving feasibility study sets average game attendance at a robust 20,000. At 18,000, a Las Vegas team would cover it expenses and debts. Much less than that, and the taxpayer would be on the hook for the difference — a price that could run into millions should the team’s fortunes fade.

If they build it, will you come?

According to an MLS attendance blog, this year the league is drawing an average of 18,882 fans per game. Seattle averages a whopping 42,489 while Chivas USA (in Southern California) brings in a dismal 7,173. Longtime league member the Chicago Fire averages 15,433.

The Fire’s experience is instructive for the City Council — presuming its elected cheerleaders haven’t already made up their minds. The Fire has won several titles and maintains extensive ties in the community through its player development and charitable involvement. A Las Vegas team that emulated the Fire’s professionalism hardly could do better for itself. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to draw from the nation’s third-largest metropolitan area — 9.52 million people.

Since its 1998 kickoff up to 2013, the Fire never has averaged 18,000 fans per game during the regular season. It came close a couple times — approximately 17,900 that first year with a low of about 13,000 in 2002.

Could a Las Vegas MLS team reasonably be expected to attract more fans than a club able to draw from a base of approximately 10 million people?

Of course not.

And that’s if you can trust the attendance figures kept by the league. Back in 2006, they weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Mark Ziegler found that the league was padding its attendance figures by 29 percent by papering games with free tickets. A confidential league report listed “official” average game attendance at slightly more than 15,000, but a little more than 11,000 in reality.

Perhaps the MLS has improved its attendance accounting in 2014. A check of its website lists many team statistics, but attendance figures are hard to find.

Some will argue that soccer is substantially more popular now than it was a decade ago when the league was inflating its figures. Last summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil boosted soccer’s profile worldwide and especially in the United States, where its games were broadcast. Legal and illegal betting on World Cup games was brisk.

But did that increased profile translate into a surge in attendance at MLS games?

Not really. Attendance is up just 1.47 percent over last season. It’s essentially flat despite all the sport’s television exposure.

And if the Las Vegas franchise were to follow the course of many expansion teams in many different leagues, that new-sport smell only lasts a season or so. After that, you have to win and market creatively, and there’s still no guarantee of meeting those lofty projections.

The council has set aside time Wednesday for a general discussion of the soccer stadium issue. Perhaps by then its members will have received the new, updated feasibility study complete with its freshly inflated attendance projections.

You decide whether those numbers are worth taking seriously.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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