Toronto FC will play their final home game of the 2012 season on Saturday and once again a large number of red seats will remain empty. With Toronto FC having attracted near-capacity crowds for the better part of five years, some are struggling to come to terms the recent decline in attendances at BMO Field. However, rather than looking at the seats that are empty and asking, ‘Where is everyone?’, we would be better off to ask, ‘Why are so many people still coming and will it continue?’ Kristian Jack digs deeper to find the answers on the day Toronto FC announce a rollback to 2007 prices for current season ticket holders.
The Birth of a Dream
Their official date of birth may have been earlier, but for me personally, Toronto Football Club were born on a brisk, bright November day in 2006. Without a cloud in the sky, the sun blazed down on the city on a day so bitterly cold, it could have been January.
The team, about to be known simply as ‘TFC,’ welcomed members of the media to the dizzying heights of the CN Tower for a meet-and-greet press conference, where they would go on to introduce four new signings and talk about their involvement in the Expansion Draft, which had taken place just days earlier. Major League Soccer’s newest club would be the league’s 13th franchise, eligible to compete for the MLS Cup in the 2007 season, and, as the day proved, it would promote the league North of the border in a way league brass could have only dreamed of.
The man MLS trusted to field media questions was Mo Johnston, the team’s new head coach, who was comfortable in front of an audience and had close to a decade of league experience as a player and coach in Kansas City and New York prior to coming to Toronto. At the time, there was nobody at the top of the tower that knew more about the league than Johnston. A lot was said about the players he’d signed and the excitement of the franchise going forward. Then I asked a question about the quality of play the people of Toronto can expect to witness going forward.
“Is there a league around the world that you would compare to the standard seen in Major League Soccer?”
I remember Johnston’s answer like it was yesterday. It was clear, concise, and delivered with supreme confidence. “The Championship in England,” he said. He would later go on to explain that some teams would compete at the top and others at the bottom, but the message was clear. MLS was on part wit the English second tier, one of the most competitive leagues in Europe.
Six seasons have come and gone since that day, and by now most are aware that events on the field in that time have been nothing short of a disaster for the club. Today, MLS has nineteen franchises, having welcomed five more since the birth of ‘TFC’, and every single one has performed better than the the team that calls BMO Field home. Six seasons, seven head coaches, zero playoff games, and only now are we starting to see fans stay home.
Average Home Attendance
Back in the Fall of 2006, a soon-to-be diehard TFC fan attended a function put on by the club at a downtown pub where he met Mo Johnston and the team’s first ever player, Jim Brennan. ‘Mike’ left that night having placed a deposit of $50 down for a brand new season ticket in the South End that would cost him $200. He felt on top of the world and he wasn’t the only one. Soon, hundreds and then thousands would go on to do the same. To become a season ticket holder of a club is a dream for sports fans and on a continent where the majority of pro sports teams play 81 or 41 games, it is often a luxury many cannot afford. Mike couldn’t wait for the schedule to come out, to mark his calendar and watch his new team. Each Fall season since he has renewed his season ticket but he told me the decision is getting harder and harder.
“I paid $361 for my 2012 season ticket in the same seat that I paid $200 five years earlier. I got 17 league home matches and two Canadian Championship games thrown in because I was a previous season ticket holder. I never thought I’d ever question spending money on this team when it comes to renewing but I am. The only thing that keeps me is how low the price works out for me because I’ve been there since day one. You just cannot buy tickets for as low as I pay.”
Mike’s nineteen tickets to BMO Field this season have cost him just $19 each. After Thursday’s announcement he will now pay $10 and has told me he will after all be renewing.
Dave placed two $50 deposits around the same time as Mike did in 2006 and spent $400 on two season tickets. He enjoys the sport but isn’t as dedicated as Mike. He would go to a few games per season and sold the pairs quite often in the first few years and made a good amount of money on them to ensure his visits cost him nothing.
“The single season prices were a lot higher than what season ticket holders were paying so it made total business sense for me, I could sell them for a profit, the buyers were happy because they were still paying less and I was happy because it covered the price of the season ticket.”
It took four seasons, but by the start of the 2011 season Dave noticed a change. “No one wanted my seats anymore. I would go to more games and understand why. I couldn’t give them away so by the end of that season I didn’t renew.”
Toronto FC’s first five seasons were a box office hit. It was the place to be in Toronto, and the attendance figures had no direct influence from what was happening on the pitch in terms of results for the home side.
Before we dig deeper into these numbers, it’s worth noting that MLS teams base their attendances on tickets sold/distributed, not scanned at the ground on game day. Therefore, it is not an accurate reflection on how many people were at the game. This isn’t really relevant when the team was clearly getting close to capacity crowds for five seasons, but is important as we look towards the future.
In TFC’s debut season, 14 of 15 home league games had announced attendances over 20,000 people. The lowest crowd was 19,123 against Houston and the highest 20,522 against LA. The average crowd of 20,130 put them second behind LA.
In 2008 11 of 15 games brought in over 20,000 and the lowest attendance for a match was an impressive 19,657. The average crowd of 20,120 again placed them second across the league behind LA in average attendance.
In 2009 the club found ways to get more fans in to witness the ‘must-see’ attraction as 305,167 tickets were sold/distributed for league matches, leaving them with a club record average attendance of 20,344, third behind LA and Seattle in MLS. Every game had an attendance between 19,843 and 20,902.
Expansion to the North Stand followed in the winter of 2009 and on the opening day of the 2010 season against Philadelphia a record 21,978 watched TFC open the season with a 2-1 win. Despite three games failing to top 19,000 for the first time, 22,108 against New York helped boost the average attendance to 20,453.
In 2011 the schedule gave TFC 17 home league matches instead of 15 and the amount of games didn’t really impact the crowd figures, with an announced number of 344,535 coming through the gates at an average of 20,267.
From season one to season five there were no signs from those average attendance figures of any significant drop offs despite their lack of success. No wonder the club increased season ticket prices three times significantly during that time.
Five successive seasons averaging over 20,000 for 77 home league games. The club’s record in those games was 30 wins, 28 draws, 19 losses – a win percentage of 39%. They scored 91 goals in those 77 games – an average of 1.18 goals per game.
Despite their lack of home success on the pitch the first five seasons for the club’s owners, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, had produced a smash hit with an impressive 1,560,237 combined total attendance for those 77 league matches up to the end of 2011. Those people had watched a below-average team, in terms of their overall record, struggle at the bottom of the Major League Soccer standings for five straight seasons watching football similar to that played in the Championship in England. Except, in this league, there was no chance of being relegated to a lower tier despite such consistent mediocrity. So who could sympathize with this fan base?
A look at the Championship standings from their last five completed seasons shows only five football clubs who played at the same level as Toronto FC over five seasons, with the rest either being promoted or relegated during that time.
The above result graphs immediately rule out Crystal Palace, Cardiff and Ipswich, which were simply too good at one point or another, leaving Barnsley and Coventry. Two sides who were below average for five successive seasons in terms of total points home and away. But just how good were they in front of their home fans in the 23 leagues games a year played on their own ground? Remember that TFC’s had a 39% winning percentage at home, scoring 1.18 goals per game:
Barnsley at home from 2007/08-2011/12: 47 home wins, 31 draws, 37 losses for a home winning percentage of 41%. 151 home goals in 115 matches for an average of 1.31 goals per game.
Coventry at home from 2007/08-2011/12: 41 home wins, 37 draws, 37 losses for a home winning percentage of 36%. 133 goals in 115 games for an average of 1.16 goals per game.
We have a winner…..
The Case of Coventry City
Coventry City may have won the FA Cup in 1987 and have a very different history than Toronto FC, but for the purpose of this investigation they are an ideal case study. Coventry played five successive seasons in a league similar to MLS, achieving little success, giving their home fans a similar standard than those watching over 5500 kilometres away in Ontario’s capital, in a stadium that opened in 2005. Coventry is the ninth largest city in England and although they don’t have Toronto’s population, they likely do have as many people in their city interested in the sport as in Toronto, a city with far more ways for people to spend their after-tax income. Coventry fans suffered through five tough seasons just like TFC fans, and, without the benefit of fan patience for a new club, Coventry saw noticeable drops in attendance figures because of it, compared with Toronto.
An average of 15,118 watched Coventry City finally end their own misery in the Championship last season as they were relegated. The highest crowd they attracted was 22,240 and the lowest was 12,054, sizes that no one would be surprised to see in the near future at BMO Field depending on the opponent. For the record, the most expensive seat at Coventry games was 25 pounds (close to $40).
If you are not convinced Coventry provides a great comparison (it is brought to your attention merely to show how many knowledgeable football fans will actually go and watch games), then consider the case of DC United, a side who have failed to make the MLS playoffs since 2007, prior to 2012. As was proven in the first five seasons of attendance figures at TFC (above), results on the field do not always have a direct impact on crowd figures. DC are enjoying their best season in five years on the pitch, but are on pace to post their lowest average home attendance number since the league launched in 1996, suffering from four straight poor seasons on the pitch before this one.
Fans Have Long Memories
The 2012 Toronto FC season will go down as one of the worst in the league’s history and for the very first time, numbers at the box office are being affected by the performances on the field. Of the first 77 home league games (2007-2011) only six fell below 19,000, and none of those came in the first three seasons.
This season, in their first 16 home matches, only five were above 19,000, yet the numbers are still very impressive when you consider the standard of football, and results viewed by those paying high ticket prices.
Toronto FC’s 2012 home season so far on the field- 3 wins, 4 draws, 9 losses. 15 goals in 15 games.
Toronto FC’s 2012 home season so far off the field – 292,479 combined announced crowd for an average of 18,279.
Remember: these numbers do not reflect the amount of people actually at the games. The other thing average attendance figures hide is a considerable drop off in announced attendance figures for the final matches of the season. Only one of the first 90 games (up to the Kansas City game in August of 2012) had an announced attendance less than 19,000, yet each of the last three games this season did, coming in between a low number of 14,623-15,669.
Coventry City and DC United aren’t getting these kinds of attendances. What Coventry and DC proved was football fans, no matter what city, are less keen to support persistent mediocrity that shows little signs of improvement, no matter what the price on the ticket says. And in the case of DC, it also shows fans simply don’t come running back the moment the clubs achieves success. That’s something TFC management, based in a city where there is a lot of competition for entertainment dollars, should be very concerned about, and that is why they announced a significant statement on Thursday by rolling season ticket prices back to 2007.
“Fans have built this franchise and we have let them down. We are thanking them for their loyalty and this is about getting the atmosphere back and filling the stadium,” President of MLSE, Tom Anselmi, told a gathering of media on Thursday.
But will the stadium be back to being full once again even with the reduction of ticket prices for current season ticket holders?
Senior Director of Business Operations Paul Beirne told me that the club had 15,800 season ticket holders for 2012, which included 85% renewals from the year previous. He added the club’s percentage of renewals were in the 90s for the four previous off-seasons. It is clear Thursday’s announcement is an attempt to keep the renewals at that level although Beirne admitted he is focused on a different number.
He said: “We have to give back to the supporters and give them something while the football side has time to get this right. I’d be happy with us reaching 15,800 again with renewals and new customers signing up.”
Should Toronto reach that number then that would be a significant achievement. What they will be boosted by is season ticket holders now having the opportunity once again to sell single game tickets at a low cost to other fans, but that will have a knock-on affect on the box office elsewhere. As this investigation has shown, this club is now at a point where what is happening on the field is now having a direct impact on what is happening in the stands. Nobody put it better than Anselmi on Thursday: “The fans have done their job, we haven’t done ours.”
The fact that TFC averaged over 20,000 for five years was simply down to circumstance and very little to do with results on the field. What they had was a golden opportunity to find partners for life, fans who could enjoy their ride with the club through thick and thin. One of the hardest things in life is to stop loving something you once loved unconditionally, but in 2012 Toronto FC has tested fan patience more than ever, and after five years of poor performances and pathetic upper management decisions, should anyone really be surprised that more and more red seats will appear next season even with such low ticket prices listed? After all, the low attendance figures shown at the past three matches of the season would be a triumph in Coventry and DC this season, cities where fans once tasted success.
The focus should not be on getting back those who have now bolted but concentrating on keeping the ones who still go before they lose some of them as well and their latest pricing rollback is the first attempt at that. Right now Toronto Football Club has created a culture of losing, and even when that finally changes, don’t expect the seats to be filled. The club have cheated too many people, fans now unable to erase the memory of too many terrible performances.
All before their sixth birthday.