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Red Stars owner: Attendance numbers represent incomplete picture

The Chicago Red Stars enjoyed a record crowd at Saturday's Game of the Week match against the Orlando Pride. (photo by John D Halloran)

The Chicago Red Stars enjoyed its largest crowd of the year at Saturday’s Game of the Week match against the Orlando Pride. (photo by John D Halloran)

The Chicago Red Stars hit a two-year attendance high on Saturday, drawing 4,742 fans for their afternoon contest against the Orlando Pride. The match also represented the sixth consecutive home game that the Red Stars’ attendance numbers have gone up.

Eight home games into the 2017 season, the impressive draw this weekend brings Chicago’s average attendance for the year to 2,939 fans per game, trailing slightly behind last year’s average of 3,005. Compared to the rest of the National Women’s Soccer League, however, Chicago ranks seventh of 10 teams.

With a nice stadium, a winning team, and a squad full of stars from the United States women’s national team—not to mention the second-biggest market in the league—it’s not unreasonable to think the Chicago Red Stars should be drawing better at the gate.

After all, Chicago sits in first place, has qualified for the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, and boasts household names like Christen Press, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, and Casey Short. 

Additionally, the Red Stars’ home ground, Toyota Park, is a relatively new, soccer-specific venue that provides fans with a positive experience.

Chicago owner Arnim Whisler concedes that the Red Stars’ attendance needs to be better, but he also argues the attendance statistics paint an incomplete picture. 

Speaking to The Equalizer, Whisler called Chicago’s schedule this season “very challenging” and pointed to the fact that of the Red Stars’ 12 home games, only one falls on a Saturday evening.

“We haven’t had an evening game yet. Not one,” explained the owner. “Everybody in sports knows that the Saturday night, 6-9 p.m., window is the window you want to play in. Playing 2 and 3 p.m. games—it’s a great gesture to have picked Chicago for so many [afternoon] national TV games—but it’s rough. That’s an immediate 30-percent cut on tickets.”

Outside of Chicago’s five appearances in Lifetime’s Saturday afternoon national broadcast window (either as the Game of the Week or the backup), the schedule presents even more challenges with five of their other home games on Sundays and one on a Wednesday.

Further complicating matters, according to Whisler, are the team’s four back-to-back home weekends, including one stretch in August where the team plays three home games in a nine-day span. He argued that in those situations, most supporters—especially families—will simply pick one game or the other, but not both.

“It’s too much to ask of our average fans,” he said.

Another possible reason for Chicago’s relatively low numbers is the location of Toyota Park, which sits in Bridgeview, just outside of the city’s limits on the southwest side.

Only a stone’s throw from Midway airport, across the street from a large trainyard, and devoid of easy public transit, the stadium’s industrial neighborhood does not naturally draw fans in the same way as another area full of bars and restaurants might.

“Something with a train line and an area that you want to walk around and hang out before and after—that’s the ideal setting,” said Whisler.

Still, when the Red Stars made the move from Benedictine University in the Chicago suburb of Lisle two years ago, and having explored every other potential venue in the city, Toyota Park represented the best option.

While the new setting sometimes provides bad optics regarding crowd size, which often looks small in Toyota Park’s much larger stadium, the team’s 2016 average of 3,005 fans per game represents the equivalent of selling out every single home match at their former grounds.

Toyota Park also brings fans closer to the action—Benedictine’s field was surrounded by a running track—and has also proved to be more attractive to the team’s sponsors.

At Toyota Park, the team no longer receives a cut of concession sales on game day, but this year is charging non-season ticket holders for parking—to the chagrin of some fans. Whisler also believes the new facilities have made Chicago a target destination for players around the league and the world with its natural grass training field and top-class facilities, including the Red Stars’ new, permanent locker rooms.

Chicago has made efforts to make the commute to the stadium more manageable for city dwellers but had mixed results. Fans have not traditionally taken advantage of the team’s “Pub-to-Pitch” effort—which takes fans from the city out to Toyota Park—in large numbers.

This year, the team got a late start on ticket sales after shaking up their front office in the off-season, but Whisler believes they are now starting to find their footing. He also said that next year—with a more experienced sales team and more advantageous schedule—the team can realistically target an average of 4,000 fans per game.

The owner points out that jersey sales, television rights, and sponsorships also tend to be much more important regarding revenue for most soccer clubs than attendance.

“Attendance is critical, but there are some other things that could help finances and, therefore, the sustainability of pro women’s soccer even more than attendance.”

Another factor, according to Whisler, is the natural drop in between World Cup and Olympic cycles, insisting, “You have to look at women’s soccer on a four-year cycle.

“You could say after five consecutive years of pro women’s soccer, we ought to see a steady increase in the numbers, but it’s so hard to approximate the national media attention we get in a World Cup or Olympic year,” he said. “That marketing and awareness and player brand building absolutely affects ticket sales.”

He also points out that the NWSL is doing exceptionally well compared to most European clubs, where attendance is often measured in hundreds, not thousands of fans.

“Our lowest team in the league is higher than every one of these ‘superclubs’ in Europe.

“We hold ourselves to a different level [in NWSL].”

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