Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

The State of Soccer in Montreal

March 17th, 2012 is arguably the biggest day in the history of the Montreal Impact franchise to date. The third Canadian soccer club to join Major League Soccer, the Impact were playing their first ever home game against the Chicago Fire. The Impact were looking to recover in their return home after losing their first ever MLS game 2-0 to Canadian, and former USL-1 rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps. However,in some ways the Impact were not truly returning “home”.

Saputo Stadium, the home of the Impact, was being updated to host the new MLS squad and wouldn’t be ready in time for the first few games. Therefore, the Impact had to turn to the next available option, which in this case was located directly next door.

The Olympic Stadium hasn’t had a full time tenant since the Montreal Expos of Major League Baseball left for Washington in 2004. March 17th wasn’t the first time that the Impact had played at the Stadium though.

In 2008 the Impact won the first ever Canadian Championship and were rewarded with a berth in the 2008-09 CONCACAF Champions League, originally the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Being from USL-1, the now defunct second division of North American soccer, Les Impact were not given much of a chance by most who thought they would be content just taking part. However, by the 25th of February, Montreal was playing the first of a two-legged quarter-final against regional giants, Santos Leguna, at the Olympic Stadium.

The match was not only memorable for the result, a 2-0 victory, but for the fact that 55,000-plus packed the Stadium to watch a second division Canadian soccer club.

On March 17th, 2012, three years later, the Impact had taken things a step further playing in front of 58,912 at that very same venue. The result was rather forgettable, a 1-1 draw, although it did see club captain Davy Arnaud score the first goal in the club’s MLS history. But it was the fact that the Impact were able to draw record crowds, the third biggest for a soccer event worldwide that weekend, which made it seem that Montreal may be the most rapidly successful Major League Soccer club in terms of fanbase of all time.

While the numbers dropped after the first game (which is very common) they remained respectable. A 2-1 victory over Toronto FC in their second MLS home game saw 23,192 supporters come out to support the team – an admirable turnout. From then on the normal attendance at an Olympic Stadium Impact game averaged around 20,000, which is very good for an MLS team. Off course when David Beckham and the LA Galaxy came to town fans returned in massive numbers and set a record in the process – 60,860.

Shifting to Saputo Stadium the attendance looked like it would be near perfect.  The average Montreal crowd was about 20,000, which would be a near sellout at the field located in the shadow of Olympic Stadium.

The first MLS game at the official stadium of the Montreal Impact took place on June 16th against the Seattle Sounders. The match was fantastic for the Impact, a 4-1 win that remains to this day the best they have ever achieved in their short history in the league. However, looking up into the stands the Impact players had to feel a bit discouraged. Up until that point attendance for the Impact had always been over 19,000. But against Seattle, in the debut of the newly renovated Saputo Stadium, the lowest crowd in Montreal’s short MLS history, a crowd of 17,112, turned up.

It would only get worse from there. Montreal would continue their run of good form on the pitch in their next home game, beating Houston Dynamo 4-2, but their run of excellent form wasn’t enough to fill the seats as a piddly 12,375 fans showed up to take in the action.

Four days later against a team supposedly considered the Impact’s rivals, Toronto FC, they drew only 14,412 to watch their team lose 3-0 to the team at the bottom of the table. Some rivalry.

Attendance fell to an all time low during the next match, a 3-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City in which only 12,085 supporters turned up. This was a 500% decrease from the crowd that witnessed the Impact take on he Galaxy and was a very disheartening sign for the future of the club, however short lived the clubs time in MLS has already been.

It is difficult to tell where the club and its attendance will go from here. The fact that it is so early in the club’s MLS history and they are already experiencing rapidly decreasing fan support. It could also get a whole lot worse if the team can’t start winning and the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL begin to play more meaningful games taking more of the media spotlight. Not to mention the Montreal Canadiens, by far the biggest ticket event in the city, who will resume their season in October if the current CBA negotiations don’t translate into a lockout.

However, not only has the attendance dwindled as they have gone deeper into their first Major League Soccer campaign, but a large part of the rapid decrease in live support can be attributed to the change of venue. At the Olympic Stadium the lowest turnout for an MLS game was over 19,000. At Saputo the record turnout is 2,000 less then that.

As for why this is happening it certainly isn’t entirely location. Saputo is directly next to the Olympic stadium. Both are located fairly far from where the majority of the Montreal population live and therefore some people are less likely to make the trip out to the stadium. But this problem is somewhat common for MLS teams. It may be because the team has not been winning.  Even the crowds rapidly decreased near the end of the Montreal Canadiens’ season when it became clear they would not make the playoffs, and that could be what is happening with the Montreal soccer club. Though it is still relatively early in the season, so the likelihood of fans giving up this early is rather unlikely. It may be that it doesn’t make a big difference to the general public in Montreal whether the team is in the first division (MLS) or the second division (NASL).

Another explanation, and one that seems most likely, is ticket pricing. The ticket pricing at Saputo Stadium versus the Olympic Stadium increased greatly, which only makes sense because there are less seats to fill in Saputo Stadium and it seemed to be plenty of demand. But this increase in price has discouraged fans from making the trip to see a team who win less then half of the time even if this is their first season in the league. It does depend on the opponent and the day of the week as well, as it does with every other team in the league. Wednesdays will never bring the same type of crowds to the Stadium that show up when the club is playing a weekend game. The same can be said for opposition. Every time Beckham and the LA Galaxy come to town stadiums fill up to watch the most famous footballer in North American history. When the Portland Timbers come to town fans become far less likely to buy tickets and watch a game with relatively no internationally acclaimed soccer stars.

So the question becomes, “How can Montreal fix the attendance issues at Saputo Stadium?” Joey Saputo, the stadium’s namesake, and the rest of the Montreal Impact management team have been hard at work trying to answer this very question. One of the categories that has been already highlighted is ticket pricing. Reports are that prices are starting to decrease and it is very possible that this will see an increase in attendance. Star power has also become a big factor in Montreal’s plan to draw crowds to watch their games live. They made their first big move by acquiring world famous Italian defender Alessandro Nesta, a player who will not only anchor their backline but draw possibly thousands of Italian and AC Milan supporters to the Stadium. Furthermore, it doesn’t appear that the Impact are done either. Reports that they are close to acquiring the services of equally famous Juventus and Italian national striker Alessandro Del Piero have been re-occurring.

If attendance issues persist even with decreased ticket prices and the acquisition of Alessandro Nesta, at what point does this become a major issue? It appears certain that Montreal can draw at least 12,000, but that was very similar to the crowds they had in the NASL. Also 12,000 is a pretty poor consistent crowd considering the advances that Major League Soccer has made in recent years in terms of attendance. It is also very poor attendance for an expansion team as all of the teams so far have come into the league to decent crowds, as Montreal did early on in the campaign. The current average attendance still sits at 25,357, widely inflated by the two games with crowds over 50,000. The average will drop to at least 21,000 later in the season, as that is the capacity of Saputo Stadium . A second question to consider is, “How much further will the Montreal Impact’s attendance slide?”.

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