Nashville SC Attendance Will Be Significantly Lower Than Recent MLS Expansion Teams?
Thought I’d help explain this comment from the weekend in a Jeff Rueter tweet , “Within MLS circles, there’s real concern about how much the city of Nashville will rally around their new team. It was a market without a history of soccer success”. There are many reasons for concern. Final USL attendance numbers show Nashville SC averaged 6,999, down 26.8% from the previous year. This is an apples to apples comparison as both years the team played 15 matches at First Tennessee Park and two at Nissan Stadium. It’s a worrisome sign that doesn’t bode well for the clubs first year in MLS. I’m a fan and have gone to almost every match over the past two years and many when the club was NPSL. I’m also already a season ticket holder for the MLS team. That said, it seems clear Nashville SC will have significantly lower attendance compared to any other recent MLS expansion team. So why is the club still planning to build the largest soccer specific stadium in America at 30,000 seats? It’s a curious decision and one that appears to have nothing to do with soccer. First, let’s look at the reasons soccer attendance may struggle in Nashville.
Little History, Too Short a Time Frame
Yes, Nashville does have a soccer history, but I’m not going to go too deep into it. This tweet from July, 2018 shows where soccer was in the Music City back in 2012, 4th division with a hundred fans. Current professional soccer didn’t even exist in Nashville until July 1, 2016 when the city was awarded a USL team led by chief investor David Dill. They essentially took over Nashville FC, an NPSL that had been formed two years prior by Chris Jones, the current Senior Director for Fan Engagement for Nashville SC. The NPSL team averaged around 1000 fans at this time. Just 18 months later the city would be awarded an MLS franchise.
A lot of the marketing to get an MLS side focused on how over 100,000 fans attended 2 matches over the summer of 2017. One was a USMNT Gold Cup match with the other being a ICC game between Manchester City and Tottenham. While it was a successful strategy to land an MLS franchise, one off matches are not an indicator of MLS attendance over a full season. So how did Nashville jump over other cities bidding for an MLS franchise? One, the cities demographics are appealing. Two, a power broker pushing the deal. Bill Hagerty who is very likely the next Senator from Tennessee led the Nashville MLS Steering Committee. Three, John Ingram, a billionaire owner. When he bought a majority stake in the USL side on May 4, 2017, it would prove to be too much for Don Garber and MLS to turn down. December 20, 2017, less than 18 months after being awarded a USL franchise, the jump from an new NPSL team to MLS was complete.
USL attendance is probably a better guide for future MLS numbers than the one off matches the city sold. In multiple meetings and interviews both Ian Ayre and Mike Jacobs mentioned the jump Orlando and Minnesota had in attendance going from USL to MLS. This is true. Orlando City SC averaged 8,053 fans in 2013. That number dropped to 4,743 the year before MLS. However, that was due to refurbishments at the Citrus Bowl. The teams first year in MLS saw an average attendance of 32,847 in 2015. The Kaka effect maybe? Minnesota United averaged 9,036 their final year before MLS. Attendance more than doubled their inaugural season to 20,538. FC Cincinnati averaged 21,696 and then 25,717 their last two seasons in USL. Despite a historically bad season, numbers climbed to 27,507 this year in MLS. Surely a jump is coming for Nashville too. Will it be 4x like Orlando, 2x like Minnesota or just a slight increase like Cincinnati? Only time will tell, but the drop this year should set off alarm bells. The 26% decline happened despite the team finishing 2nd in the East while scoring 17 more goals. One can definitely argue that some of the drop was due to less marketing. For example, the club didn’t promote the games at Nissan as much this season. That said, their final USL match was the USL Eastern Conference semifinal. With tickets ranging from $8 to $20 and one week to sell them, attendance was a disappointing 4,174.
The meteoric rise to USL and MLS has provided challenges for Nashville’s front office since day one. I remember the first USL match. Just days before the game you still couldn’t login to your account and get your tickets. Perhaps the biggest mistake was the rebrand. First, I’m a fan of the new logo. It’s different and looks sharp without the border. However, my opinion is in the vast minority. People hated it almost as much as when Portland Timbers fans chanted “You F-ed up!” in this YouTube video at their logo unveiling (go like 2:45 into video). The reviews in the Tennessean were not positive. The colors described at the release as “Acoustic Blue” and “Electric Gold” are an issue too. There is a lot of discrepancy across products with the colors and many refer to it as purple.
Whether you liked it or not, why put it out before the end of the USL season? Maybe MLS made Nashville do that, but it just added to the confusion. Read about Nashville SC over the past year and it could be about one of two teams, one of three stadiums or one of two logos. You know that first point about the market being too new with little history. People still ask when the MLS team starts playing or where. Many are unaware the USL team played at First Tennessee this season or perhaps just think that was the MLS team. This week Nashville SC has emailed about 75% off sales on USL merchandise. If you go to the Nashville SC website there isn’t a lot of information. I assume the full blown MLS website will go live by December 1 at the latest.
Ticket Prices are Too High
I wrote about this the week after pricing was announced. Having $25 be the cheapest ticket at Nissan Stadium is a massive mistake and missed opportunity. The idea is to have 30,000 fans fill the new stadium at the Fairgrounds in 2022. The best way to grow the fanbase is get people to attend matches. Let them catch the fever as soccer sells itself best when seen live. To their credit Nashville SC has offered tickets under $10 for numerous USL matches this year including the playoffs. There is no way they could ever fill Nissan Stadium so why not continue this strategy in MLS? Why not have one section with $10 tickets? If it fills open another section at that price point. The games will not be as affordable as the club claims. Nashville has no control over parking and concession prices at Nissan. Parking for the final USL match at Nissan was $35. Maybe there are plans to subsidize the cost, but I doubt it. Cheaper tickets was the way to go. To make matters worse, there are no flex or partial purchase plans for those wanting to buy say a half dozen home matches. On the latest Speedway Soccer podcast John Sloop said, “A lot of people I know bought season tickets last year and they discovered that they didn’t go to all the games and they discovered it wasn’t sold out, so why buy season tickets?” I’ve heard the same thing and I can’t argue with that logic.
Chicago Fire Got It Right
Chicago Fire are playing at an NFL stadium in 2020 as well so what did they do? Just last week they announced $25 season tickets anywhere in the lower bowl at Soldier Field. That is half the price of what Nashville is asking for midfield seats and 40% lower than what they are charging for sideline seats. Chicago got it right. Boy that feels weird to say. One might argue it was needed because the team has been so poor for so long that they owed it to their fanbase. Sure, but Nashville needs to grow its fanbase even more. Further, they are offering flex packages for those that can’t make all the matches. Also, it looks like starting December 3, there will be a section of season tickets opened up at $15 per match. Unfortunately, it is too late for Nashville SC to change its pricing. The only way to correct this mistake will be to offer flex plans and single game tickets at lower prices. Of course, this would screw season ticket holders unless they were offered a refund which would be unheard of in modern day sports.
Nashville SC Gets Little Media Coverage
I’m not sure how it was in Atlanta or other markets, but Nashville SC has gotten little media coverage. Perhaps this is changing as the Tennessean (the local newspaper) hired Drake Hills to cover Nashville SC and MLS and he just started in October. The radio hasn’t been great either. 102.5 The Game talks about Nashville SC a bit and are actually doing a one hour MLS special with Mike Jacobs tonight. The first special of its kind I can recall. The larger 104.5 The Zone doesn’t cover the team at all. The few times I’ve heard them mention soccer it turns into a conversation about the racetrack or Nashville getting a baseball team. Even when the club signed their first DP, Hany Mukhtar, they got a 5 minute segment where Paul Kuharsky wondered if the next DP would be someone he’s heard of to get excited about. Disappointing as he is their one host that likes soccer. It’s a bad sign if Nashville SC can’t get him enthusiastic. When the segment with Speedway Soccer’s Davy Shepard was over, they went right back to preseason NFL talk. With football season going (it never really ends), I doubt we’ll hear much of anything on local radio about Nashville SC soon. The club has been holding back advertising and marketing dollars until just this past month or so. I’m hearing more ads and seeing billboards around the city about the team. Will that sell season tickets? Time will tell.
Community Outreach Hasn’t Worked
It’s not like Nashville SC hasn’t tried. I’m sure there are lots of things the club has done to try and bring in more fans of which I am not aware. I do know about once per week during the summer they set up a mini pitch in different parts of the city to play soccer. They were at World Refugee Day and often are doing good deeds around Middle Tennessee. They made a series of videos highlighting some of their most passionate fans. To try and help fans connect with players they had a video series of Daniel Rios taking teammates for tacos. Maybe it just needs more time, but it hasn’t drawn in many new fans. The club has spoken openly about bringing in a more diverse crowd. Since the day the club was awarded an MLS franchise team owner, John Ingram, has talked about how over 100 languages are spoken in the city. They have made efforts, but to date nothing has made a noticeable difference as the 26% drop in attendance implies.
Of course, there is more they could have done. Last year, the club didn’t have a single Hispanic player on the roster? It was just within the past few months that the club hired a dedicated Spanish Language Outreach employee. As for youth soccer there are surely numerous families at most matches, but like the Supporters Section, it needs to be much bigger. One thing that would have helped was getting their residential development academy up and running. Nothing brings people to the matches like having a friend or relative play for the youth team. It doesn’t have to start with every age group, but it should have started sooner. The team finally made the youth Academy announcement in October. Miami and even Austin already had teams playing. Just another sign this all came together too fast in Nashville. The club just didn’t have the infrastructure in place.
MLS Season Ticket Sales
So how are Nashville SC season ticket sales for their inaugural MLS season going? They’ve been on sale since July. The club did a pre sale for a month to current USL season ticket holders so they should have gotten their most loyal passionate fans. Here is an article from August 19, 2016 where Darren Eales announced that Atlanta United had surpassed 22,000 season ticket sales. No one expects Nashville to replicate the unprecedented success of their Southern neighbor, but many seem unaware of the attendance issues the team will face. I suspect Nashville will have by far the lowest attendance of any recent expansion team (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Orlando). Perhaps Miami might have the same issues or even worse? I mean they still don’t have a coach. While the story of expansion for Minnesota and Cincinnati was how bad the teams were on the field, I don’t think that will be the case with Nashville. No, the attendance woes of the expansion team will be a big story in MLS next year.
Don’t be so Negative
I’ve been told and agree that I’m a pessimist. Can’t argue that. Could it all work out and Nashville average 20,000 in attendance next year? It’s possible I guess, but I’m pretty confident Jason Longshore is going to owe me a beer. I will say Mike Jacobs is putting together a really good roster. They won’t set a record for goals allowed like recent expansion teams. Nashville SC is going to be fine on the field.
I think the first match at Nissan will draw well. After that I don’t know. It’s not all doom and gloom however. Nashville shouldn’t have a problem selling as many season tickets as Colorado and Chicago did last year (both around 6500). It’s just hard to see Nashville having similar first year MLS attendance numbers to LAFC or Minnesota United. No way they come close to matching Cincinnati, Orlando or Atlanta. Perhaps they will do so well selling corporate tickets that will hide the problem to an extent. Every market it is different and while Atlanta was popular from day one, Nashville will not be that way. It took the Predators a long time to build up their loyal fanbase. It’s been great recently, but people forget it took time. There used to be heavily discounted tickets and in 2007 the Predators almost moved to Hamilton, Ontario. Two years is not a lot of time to build a fanbase.
So Why 30,000?
This is the oddest part of all. Ian Ayre said they wanted something to they could grow into. OK, but the largest soccer specific stadium in America? Sure they have two years to build the fanbase, but why so big? Allianz Field in Minnesota is just under 20,000. DC United built Audi Field at 20,000 capacity. Even FC Cincinnati who averaged over 27,500 in attendance this year is building a stadium with a capacity about 26,500. The renderings for the MLS stadium in St. Louis has capacity at 22,500. The only reason that makes sense for why Nashville is building a stadium so big is for other reasons. Bridgestone Arena where the Predators play seats 20,000. Only a mile away, having a bigger 30,000 seat venue should help land more concerts and other events. Also, there were discussions that Vanderbilt Football might play some games in the new stadium. Dudley Field where they currently play is a dump. SEC rules require home stadiums to have a minimum of 30,000 seats. While the Vanderbilt Board (of which John Ingram is a member) declined the idea once it could come up again. Ironic that the largest soccer specific stadium in the country seems to be that large solely for reasons other than soccer.
Bring the Love and Hate
I expect this should be fodder for the fire for FC Cincinnati fans, USL fans and promotion and relegation zealots. That’s fine. I’m just happy to have MLS in my city. There is a relatively small but solid and growing core of dedicated Nashville SC fanatics. Many I know while others I’m looking forward to meeting over the next few years. Not sure it is measurable, but I fully expect Nashville SC to be a Top 5 road destination for opposing MLS fans. Geographically a central location helps, but it’s also a really cool city. There were tons of Chiefs fans downtown Saturday night and at the Titans game Sunday. If Nashville gets a home match on a Saturday versus Atlanta United (Sweet Tea Cup?) – look out. I recommend hitting up The Backline when you come to the Music City for an MLS match. Southern Hospitality is a real thing. See ya’ll soon.