Shocking on and off the field. The 4-2 scoreline stung, but the announced attendance of 9,047 was a black eye that would attract the attention of media - local and national. What happened to the team that averaged 16,881 through the regular season? Which is the real number? It turns out both are, they just answer different questions.
Just how bad was Saturday's attendance number? It's the worst playoff attendance in team history. There were plenty of contributing factors. A crowded day on the calendar, short notice, and terrible weather all played a role.
Ohio State football is the figurative big man on campus in the Columbus sports scene. The Ohio State game kicked off at 8pm, two hours after the Crew's game against the Revolution ended. Some of those Crew fans that normally attend were some of the 106,961 filled Ohio Stadium. Even more headed to bars or their houses to watch the game. The Buckeyes are the first choice for a lot of sports fans in town. If you have only time to watch one game, many will choose to skip the Crew and watch the Bucks. Never underestimate the power of the Scarlet and Gray to capture Ohioans hearts and minds (and eyeballs).
The Short Lead-in
The more time you have to sell something like event tickets is the better, but the playoffs afford precious little time to plan. The Crew did try to plan ahead. With the team on a hot stretch the odds were pretty good that the team would be securing a playoff spot and the team decided to start selling playoff packages on October 14th. That is about two weeks before a possible playoff game. The only problem was that fans still didn't know when the game was taking place. The league released the playoff schedule moments after the end of the regular season on late Sunday, October 26th. The Crew would have five full days to sell tickets. They haven't excelled in those situations in the past.
Around the league, the midweek playoff games suffered with attendance problems too. 10,279 would show up in Dallas for a Wednesday game and 15,518 were on hand at Red Bull Arena on Thursday evening. Dallas would combat this with discount tickets and bump their attendance to 16,112 on Sunday. Red Bulls had a nice bump to 18,054. Those totals were still under season averages.
Saturday happened to be the first blast of cold air to hit central Ohio. Temperatures dipped into the 30s on Friday evening and hit a high of 42 with 20 mile per hour winds whipping around and a hint of rain or the dreaded frozen precipitation. This was the forecast throughout the Crew's selling window. A fan getting a call or seeing an ad could quickly balance freezing on the bleachers or staying home. Many obviously chose to stay home.
If the Crew struggled to break 10,000 in the first playoff game in three years, then how did they tally the fifth highest average attendance in history?
The Crew sales staff has gotten really good at selling to large groups. This includes company outings, youth soccer teams, and bundled events. Each target a different market that isn't going to be interested in coming to Crew Stadium in November. These outings take a level of coordination that doesn't happen over the course of a week. These tickets are purchased in advance.
The Crew certainly couldn't bundle the playoff ticket with regular season games to make a "four pack" or pair it with an event like the 5k Glow Run they did in 2013. Those events are great for trying to entice people to the stadium, but it won't work for a game that only the most hard core will come to.
Season Ticket Holders
In every conversation I've had with a member of the Crew front office about attendance has stressed the value of season ticket holders. The now defunct Goal 10K was built around building the season ticket base. The goal of the team's group and bundle sales strategy has been to turn these buyers into most valuable asset to the team, season ticket holders and this is where the team has struggled.
The Crew's season ticket base has expanded tremendously in the past five years. The team was in the 4,500 STH range during the 2010 season and that number has exploded to over 7,000 the last time the team announced a number in 2013. That's a positive step and will help fill the stands when the playoffs come - if playoff games are included in the season ticket package. The Crew didn't include a possible playoff game in season ticket packages and hasn't for several years.
The Next Time
It's possible that the Crew could have another home playoff game this year, but the lopsided result makes it long odds. If the team does have another game to market in 2014, I'm sure that they are hoping it doesn't fall on a Buckeye Saturday and there isn't a chance of rain. They can also choose to put out discounted tickets directly to fans. They've resisted this strategy to protect the value of season tickets in lieu of discounting through bundles, but they might be forced to. It worked for FC Dallas this past weekend.
Next year however, the team has more control over how many come out to the stadium. This gets back to the need to continue to build up that season ticket number. A strong season ticket base allowed Real Salt Lake to get over 20,000 into Rio Tinto in a week's notice. It's true there wasn't much competition in Utah that evening, but the Crew can obviously build off of 9,000 and put a more respectable number of fans in seats.
Certainly this is easier said than done. Converting the casual fan has been an ongoing process for the last several years. The rebrand was a step forward to increase the team's profile in Central Ohio while the Time Warner TV deal was a step back. Just as this season's strong attendance signifies how far the team has come in a few short years, Saturday's attendance marks on how far the front office still have to go making a Crew game a hard ticket to get.