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Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks Houston’s low turnout; We talk viability of a mid-week first round

Nov 1, 2013, 5:27 PM EDT

Will Bruin;Boniek Garcia AP

As the playoffs began last season, I had a brief Twitter exchange with Brendan Hannan (then a communication guy with Chicago) about the poor attendance at Toyota Park for the Fire’s first round match. In addition to the normal challenges facing Chicago’s ticket sales, the opening round match had fallen on Halloween. That combined with a weeknight’s trip to Bridgeview (say, 15 miles outside Chicago) and a short window to promote after their regular season finale meant only 10,923 showed up for the match.

Brendan’s explanations came to mind as I watched last night’s game in Houston, where a  crowd of 10,476 watched the Dynamo eliminate the Montréal Impact. Though the result moves Houston a step closer to their third straight MLS Cup final, the night was disappointing on separate level. Every shot of the crowd forced television viewers to wonder why a good team with a history of success can’t draw more people to their two-year-old facility.

[MORE: Houston Dynamo 3-0 Montreal Impact: Quick start lifts Houston to next round (video)]

“There were some real challenges last night,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti told me this afternoon, his sanguine explanation putting the low turnout in a different content. A practical conspiracy of factors — from the holiday, to short turn-around, to weather and a crowded sports week —  helped produce the team’s season-low crowd.

The biggest issue was the holiday. For the second straight year, Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoffs started on Halloween. For a league and sport that tends to draw a younger audience, it’s a killer coincidence.

“For a huge percentage of our fanbase, that was the issue,” according to Canetti. “Halloween is a time you spend with your kids and you do things. I think that was a very difficult obstacle to overcome.”

It could have been overcome, Canetti feels, had other factors not lined up against the team. Houston was hit by another of their characteristic mini-monsoons mid-week, causing flooding throughout southeast Texas. By early afternoon on Thursday, the showers had been turned off, but the storm still kept people away from BBVA Compass.

The University of Houston also had a football game, forcing some fans to make a choice, but the bigger problem may have been an unexpectedly crammed media landscape. At a time of the year when the Dynamo can usually gain some traction, Dwight Howard was making his debut for the Rockets and the Texans were changing quarterbacks. Add in the unfortunate passing of local legend Bum Phillips, and Houston was squeezed out.

source: AP

Houston averaged over 21,000 fans for their two 2012 playoff games. On Thursday, they drew less than 11,000 for their playoff opener. (Photo: AP Photo.)

“The Dynamo have a great track record for attendance, particularly playoff attendance,” Canetti notes, the team averaging over 21,000 for their two 2012 playoff games. “One of the reasons we were able to drive such a great attendance in years’ past is because we were able to elevate our brand and get huge media exposure in the market. The media market was very cluttered this week in Houston.”

Given four days to get the word out, Houston couldn’t penetrate that market. The people who ended up at the stadium were the diehards.

“Those fans were loud, the ones that were there,” Canetti says. “Those are our most ardent supporters. They brought it last night.”

Like Chicago, Houston’s situation is unique, but as places like Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle show, there’s more to a full house than nice numbers and lined pockets. If you can fill out a stadium, the television product is much better, and if there’s one thing the league needs to be concerned about more than anything else, it’s how it comes off on broadcast. It’s part of the reason why the English and German leagues come off a little better than Spain’s (non-Barça, Real Madrid) or Portugal’s. It’s also the reason why a Philadelphia Union match creates a better broadcast experience than a D.C. United game.

Dynamo fans did seem louder than the 10,000-person crowds we see elsewhere, but with seas of orange seats visible around the stadium, MLS didn’t put their best foot forward. Instead of marveling at how far the league has come, people tuning in last night might wonder how far MLS needs to go.

“We’re a growing league, we’ve got an incredibly bring future,” Canetti confessed. “These are bumps in the road along the way.”

“I don’t think anybody wishes that we have to play mid-week playoff games, especially on a Halloween. That would include the folks at the league office. I certainly understand the scheduling challenges that put us in this position, especially this year as we have to battle a FIFA window coming up.”

But at some point, you have to set priorities. In that sense, maybe reducing the regular season schedule does make sense, providing a solution that will give the league more flexibility when scheduling these all-important, marquee matches. Or if a solution can’t be found for the first round game, perhaps eliminating them entirely should be considered. Four playoff teams in each conference seems like enough, even if Houston wouldn’t have made last year’s playoffs with a smaller field.

There’s little point to putting matches on television that aren’t going to show the league in a positive light. Did last night’s game cross that line? Perhaps not, but casual MLS fans tuning in for a playoff atmosphere didn’t get it. And it wasn’t the Dynamo’s fault.

“It’s not that we stink or we don’t know what we’re doing here,” Canetti explains. “We’ve got some real, real challenges that need to be understood.”

For teams like Houston and Chicago, those challenges include fighting for space in crowded sports landscapes. For MLS, the task is putting their franchises in the best position to win those battles.

Does the mid-week, quick turnaround playoff game do that? Not Thursday in Houston. Not last year in Chicago.

  1. mikeevergreen - Nov 1, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    I think it’s time for the league to go back to the 30-game regular season. That allows for end-of September regular-season end, with a 12-team playoff that allows for 3 through 6-seed first round goals-aggregate, followed by goals-aggregate second round conducted on weekends only. They can then do goals-aggregate for the conference finals, again weekends only, followed by the one-off final. Weeknight games are fine for summer, but come crunch time, it’s weekend nights only.

    • adynamofan - Nov 1, 2013 at 7:39 PM

      MLS eventually needs to move to a European schedule. It will benefit because it will follow the same International breaks and transfer windows, and also allow for the playoffs to occur in the summer time when its only real competition will be the NBA playoffs and early season baseball, which isnt anything to write home about. The season doesnt need to be made shorter.

      One reason I love European soccer is because the season is almost year round. MLS doesnt need too many teams in the playoffs. 5 teams is fine, but 4 in both conferences allows for the playoffs to be meaningful and only among the very best teams. Having a successful regular season should mean something, and its one reason I dont like baseball very much. You play 162 games, prove youre the best in your league, and then the wildcard team gets hot pitching and that entire campaign goes for naught.

      Houston’s next game will probably be a sell out.

      • takethelongview - Nov 1, 2013 at 8:19 PM

        “One reason I love European soccer is because the season is almost year round.”

        The European leagues play full months September-April. That’s 8 months, which we could round up 9 by adding the couple of weeks in August and May. Pre-season is 6 more weeks. So your “year-round” amounts to approximately 10 1/2 months.

        MLS plays full months March-October. That is 8 months. The season then continues for some of those teams an additional six weeks, til the first weekend of December, so that’s 9 months+. Pre-season begins in mid-January and is also about six weeks. So that’s essentially the same length of season.

        You’re certainly entitled to prefer European soccer; and you’re entitled to argue that shifting MLS to a single-table, no–playoff format would make a more interesting system. You can even argue that MLS should shift its 10 month footprint to a July-May format also. And you may be right on all three. But to argue that you prefer one league for its “year-round” schedule when the other has league competition in some form for a nearly identical span of the annual calendar seems a dubious claim.

      • adynamofan - Nov 1, 2013 at 10:05 PM

        To be fair, I said “almost year round.” I never said the MLS season wasnt long either. The EPL for instance plays 38 games over that span to the MLS 36. Of course the MLS has playoffs whereas the EPL does not. However, I never suggested a single table system as you imply I do. My point wasnt that the MLS season isnt long enough, or that I prefer the European system because it is longer than the MLS. Having MLS playoffs competing against the NFL and College Football just isnt in the best interest of the game, IMO.

    • petertyler - Nov 2, 2013 at 10:01 AM

      A 30-game season might make more sense, because you can get the playoffs started before American football’s mid-season and before the big NCAA American football games.

      Whenever people talk a reduced season I start to tense up a little, usually because they’re talking silliness– 16 to 24-week season would absolutely kill revenue. MLS is not at that place yet. When MLS is fielding a 32-36 team league, yes, that might make sense. But not now– teams need every ticket purchase they can get.

      As to the European schedule, that idea also verges on silliness at the moment. MLS would end up competing against the NFL and the Premier League for attention. If/when MLS is has 32-36 teams and can get the level of media attention that NFL/EPL get, a 16-week winter season becomes perfect. There is a long (albeit satisfying) road from here to there.

  2. Tyler Haggerty - Nov 1, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    While it is obviously going to be a struggle to pull average attendance numbers for a midweek, short-notice, playoff game on Halloween… I’d just like to point out that Seattle drew over 30,000 in those same conditions in 2010. Better fans = better attendance no matter the circumstances.

    • adynamofan - Nov 1, 2013 at 7:45 PM

      I dont think that the fans are “better” fans, but it is true that the Sounders draw better than any team in the MLS, and they are to be commended for that. It is a model that every other franchise should try to emulate. It is surprising to me, however, that a city of 5 million people, with a stadium downtown, cant sell out every game. In that regard, Houston fans do disappoint me. There is really no excuse for it. If grew up in Houston, and if I still lived there I would have season tickets.

  3. tylerbetts - Nov 1, 2013 at 6:22 PM

    If the league is going to keep the current playoff format, changing to a double header makes the most sense to me. Play this game Wednesday, then the Seattle game directly after it.

  4. term3186 - Nov 1, 2013 at 6:30 PM

    The problems here depend on your perspective. From a television perspective, an easy very helpful fix is to put the cameras on the other side of the field. The western sideline is always better looking than the eastern. As far as match atmosphere goes, the place was rockin pretty hard, especially for only 10k people. I think the media blitz to put word out about the game could’ve been much better. I don’t recall seeing and TV ads or anything for the game. In general, I don’t worry about the Houston market. It’s always been in the top 10, and frequently in the top 5 in the MLS with regards to attendance. As far as the Seattle comparison, that’s a bit silly. Seattle averages DOUBLE the next nearest team in attendance, not to mention Seattle didn’t have much else going on in October 2010 sports-wise and they didn’t have a boatload of flooding/rainfall leading up to the game.

  5. jasonpdx1000 - Nov 1, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    Please don’t include Sporting KC with Seattle and Portland. Kansas City thinks they are Soccer City, but everyone knows Portland is the original Soccer City, U.S.A. Seattle and Portland are the ultimate rivalry that MLS has been waiting for.

  6. joeyt360 - Nov 1, 2013 at 8:58 PM

    “Dynamo fans did seem louder than the 10,000-person crowds we see elsewhere”

    Simple reason for that: these were all fans, no group sales (not enough time to generate them, and as pointed out, Halloween + traffic + weather).

  7. Scott Fenwick - Nov 1, 2013 at 10:07 PM

    While playoffs are bad enough, at the bare minimum, MLS must rid itself of this confounding play-in game. Period.

  8. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Nov 1, 2013 at 10:41 PM

    Blame it on parity. Fans couldn’t make plans when they only found out 4 days before. During the playoffs teams should take full weeks between games to give fans time to plan and build up the drama. Give them time to market the games

  9. geojock - Nov 2, 2013 at 4:48 PM

    Houston does not have a problem. Have at this stat:
    Houston ave. attendance for playoffs:
    2006 20,274
    2007 30,530
    2008 30,053
    2009 27,465
    2010 DNQ
    2011 24,749
    2012 21,395

    It is the 2nd highest attendance ave for playoffs in MLS history.

  10. bellerophon30 - Nov 3, 2013 at 7:45 PM

    Going to the FIFA calendar here is not going to fix this, though it’s going to happen anyway for political reasons. The northern US and southern Canada (though not Vancouver) are simply not the right climate for January soccer. It’s a fact. You can’t have a soccer game in Montreal in late January/February, the fields would be blocks of ice and the players would have to be wrapped up like mummies. There would have to be a huge mid-winter break like the Russian league has…….the same break that kills them in Champions League because of the rust.

    With Houston here, it was the stupidity of holding the game on Halloween, along with the confluence of events with the other teams. The statistics clearly show it’s an anomaly, and that by and large the fans support their team, which is one of the most well-run in MLS year in and year out.

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