This season, I’ve watched MLS games in Atlanta, Portland, and Los Angeles. In the latter two cases, I wrote columns in which I outlined some ways Nashville SC (fans, organization) might take away lessons from these successful experiences. Last weekend, I took a trip to New York to watch NYCFC go up against New England.
What I got was a set of inverted lessons. There are a number of things I hope we learn not to do.
I realized I’ve stacked the deck. Not only did I go to three of the most successful current franchises prior to going to New York, but I also went to two of those games during special events (i.e., Portland was having Timbers, Thorns, and T2 games all in 24 hours, LAFC was playing a derby against the Galaxy), and I realize that games can feel different for different reasons. All that accounted for, however, given NYCFC’s current standing and a game against their “Boston” rival on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I expected a loud, wild crowd. What a got was far, far from that.
So, a few problems. First, as you all know, despite near constant chatter about the team finding a space for a stadium, they remain for now in Yankee stadium. While I like Yankee stadium as a ballpark, and while I have enjoyed the intimacy of NFC playing at First Tennessee during our USL days, there is a huge gap between First Tennessee and Yankee stadium, and it’s a gap that does not work in the favor of NYCFC. Baseball parks are never going to be perfect for soccer. You are going to end up with odd angles with some of the seating, and you are always going to have some sections that are right up on the pitch and others that are far away (I mean, people still charge NYCFC with not having a regulation sized pitch). For our USL crowds, a small ball park works. For MLS, NFL and MLB stadiums simply are a problem. While we know they can work—Atlanta and Seattle are the two easiest examples to draw up (but both were designed for dual purposes)—we also know that a huge number of empty seats creates an experience that doesn’t quite feel like a “must see” game. Rather than the energy I hoped to feel—and have been experiencing at other MLS games—this felt like a casual afternoon of minor league baseball where people wanted to get out to enjoy the weather and an expensive cold beer more than they wanted to watch a game. An announced crowd of over 21,000 seemed to be more hope than reality (my friend and I estimated 15K at most).
Either because of the odd location of the supporter’s section (again, baseball park dimensions place this a bit off) or because of numerous overdetermined reasons, I hardly even noticed the supporters. They were a little noisier than the rest of the stadium to be sure, but it didn’t feel as if the crowd was picking up on it or that it carried over to the pitch. Honestly, the experience felt flat, and it was not helped by the small size of the supporters section.
Once again, I want to be clear that I realize that there is nothing scientific about my experience or my claims. With that in mind, I talk to a number of the people sitting in my section. While they were all wearing NYCFC gear, my “sample” of ten fans revealed not a single one with season tickets. While each claimed to support the team (although I did talk to one fan who said he attended an equal number of Red Bull games each season), they generally bought tickets on the secondary market or on game day, if the weather looked good.
Here’s the thing: you and I are going to go to the games. We love soccer; we love Nashville SC; we’ll be there. Early in the season next year, a lot of people will be there, some of whom love soccer but haven’t gotten into NSC or MLS yet, some of whom like soccer but never really watched a professional team, some of whom are Euro snobs who are skeptical of the domestic game; some of whom are there because a friend or family member dragged them to a game (that's how I got started). These are the people who need to be thought about when we think about our first season. They are going to come back only if they have a good time. They might have a good time because they love the play on the pitch; they might love the game because they love the “festival” atmosphere that Ian Ayre describes, they might simply like you enough personally to come back (although I doubt it), but here is one thing for sure: more people are going to return for a second time, more people are going to become lifelong fans, if they have a great time. And that’s only going to happen if it's a full out party.
To point, this is the second time I’ve dragged this particular friend to an MLS game. One was during a low point in Toronto FC’s history and this was the other. He’s not a soccer fan. Neither game had the energy to make him want to return on his own. Indeed, my guess is he’s not going to be interested in going with me again, unless I can promise the energy of an LAFC or Portland or Atlanta home game.
In my mind, we in Nashville have already shown hints that this can work, even for the two years we will be housed in Titans Stadium (although I would bet more fully on the experience once we are in the soccer specific stadium). Regardless, our one game there this year felt like some of the magic was already there. A loud supporter group, great product on the pitch, the beginnings of a festival.
And, honestly, most of this is the club’s business and not mine or yours.
I do realizing that I'm hitting on the same themes repeatedly, and I guess that has a lot to do with my fantasies for the future of soccer here in Nashville. We have the tools and the potential to hit this out of the park. We’ve shown the path.
I hope we do it.