Some of the few that did show up
Major League Soccer has a problem, and it's the stickiest possible kind. One of the league's original franchises, owned by the family of perhaps the game's most important American benefactor, has become an embarrassment.
The saying goes "Everything's bigger in Texas". Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to apply to the crowds at FC Dallas games in Frisco.
An announced crowd of 8,016, of which perhaps 7,000 were actually in attendance (though these things are admittedly difficult to assess), showed up at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday to watch the Hoops draw 1-1 with the in-state rival Dynamo. That number represents an almost 50% dip from last year's home opener, and only 35% of the capacity of the stadium. Any way you cut it, those numbers are disgusting, disappointing, and ultimately, troubling.
Of the eight clubs that opened at home this weekend, only two saw a drop from their 2009 home opener attendance (Columbus and FC Dallas). Both happen to be owned by the Hunts Sports Group, currently controlled by Clark Hunt, son of the late American soccer pioneer Lamar. What conclusion can be drawn other than that HSG itself is the problem?
Major League Soccer has a lot going for it. New stadiums, new teams, labor peace, and a World Cup year to leverage for more attention. Perhaps the league's leadership is content to allow HSG to fail miserably at the gate in Dallas because of those positives; or perhaps it's a simple matter of deferring to the legacy of the Hunts in the sport, no matter how poorly they're performing. The club does do okay on the bottom line, after all, but only because soccer is just one of their revenue streams. For HSG, Pizza Hut Park is as much a concert venue as it is a soccer stadium. With so many teams in the red, are the league's hands tied when it comes to forcing things to change in Frisco?
The excuse in Dallas is location. The club took the only deal offered and put their stadium too far removed from the region's population center and its Hispanic communities; after falling flat and alienating their fan base in previous years, the club was forced to find a way to attract people to a stadium in the middle of no where (figuratively speaking, of course). Pizza Hut Park opened in August of 2005; in the four full seasons since, the club has averaged 15k, 15k, 13k, and less than 10k last year (excuse the rounding). With more time to market the club, educate the fans about where they play, and make inroads in the community they now inhabit, how is it possible for the club to be going backwards?
Last year FC Dallas started terribly and used a late-season push to get themselves in playoff contention. Winning is always a draw, and it's possible that the fans stayed away because the team was poor to start the year. That conclusion might be reasonable if the ownership of the club didn't have such a poor track record, both in Dallas and Columbus; the Crew are in the midst of a trophy winning streak yet have failed to crack the top half of league attendance the last two seasons. Dallas' problems on the field combined with Pizza Hut Park's location is a double whammy; but even bad teams and those playing in massive American football stadiums far from their natural base can draw more than 10k.
Regardless of why it's happening, it seems obvious that something needs to be done. Lamar Hunt has passed, and his legacy as an architect of professional soccer in America will no doubt live forever. There is no more debt owed. HSG and Clark Hunt cannot be afforded a free pass simply because Lamar's contributions loom so large.
MLS makes so many of its decisions based on the business of running the league that one wonders if they're simply willing to eat failure in Dallas because the club doesn't lose money. That may be fine for the bottom line, but it does a disservice to the rest of the league, the image of game as a major sport, and the future of professional soccer in north Texas. The worse it gets for FC Dallas in the stands, the more we must wonder why Major League Soccer stands idly by and lets it happen.