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Five weeks in, gap widening in table, at gate

Abby Wambach
Abby Wambach

Empty seats, like those pictured here in Rochester, N.Y., in Abby Wambach's home debut on May 1, are becoming a concern. (Photo courtesy Mark Novak/WNY Flash)

Five weeks into the season, the league that trumpets parity looks a lot like a divided table — in the standings and at the gate.

Portland Thorns FC leads the league with 13 points from five games and after a congested scrum of teams behind them, the Washington Spirit (3 pts.), Chicago Red Stars (2) and Seattle Reign FC (1) sit at the bottom of the table.

Washington looks the most capable of digging out of that hole, while Seattle already has the mark of a team in disarray (more on this later).

But even clearer in the early days of this league are the markets that will struggle to draw fans, at least a pair of which are expected.

[MORE: NWSL Attendance Watch, with team-by-team averages]

Sky Blue FC’s home game vs. the Chicago Red Stars last Wednesday drew a whopping 688 fans, the first sub-1,000 attendance figure in NWSL history. Yes, it was a Wednesday and there were thunderstorms in the area. And yes, a near-full slate of MLS games that night also drew awful numbers.

But this 688 number — about half that according to some of the few on hand to see it — isn’t all that surprising out of central New Jersey. On Saturday — another Sky Blue home game, this time vs. Seattle Reign FC — 1,439 fans showed up for the match (yeah, yeah, more rainy days … get over this excuse).

Sky Blue held the distinction of the first (and I believe only) WPS team other than magicJack to announce an attendance of below 1,000 fans. Central New Jersey just doesn’t work. Yurcak Field is a nice grass pitch, but its location and the lack of marketing make it a black hole for attendance. The team’s average attendance hit the skid in 2011, the last season of WPS, before getting slight relief from the World Cup boom. Even that only brought the number to 2,138.

If Sky Blue is to continue, it needs to be somewhere closer to New York City. The cries of Philadelphia-based fans who find Piscataway, N.J. accessible aren’t enough; a team in Philadelphia and a team closer to New York City proper take care of that. There were whispers in months past of interest,to some unknown extend, from the New York Red Bulls. Where that stands now remains unclear.

Sky Blue likes the location because it’s centered around an area heavily populated with youth soccer clubs. Well, where are they? And if we’re talking about Wednesdays, Mothers Day and rain again, the fair-weathered nature of said fan base has been made clear (in other markets, too, to be fair).

The same can be said in Chicago, where 1,329 fans showed up on Sunday for Portland, the league’s biggest road draw. Sure, it was Mother’s Day. And yes it was the second time in three weeks that Portland was in town, making the Alex Morgan card harder to sell. But 2,855 fans showed up the first time.

Lisle, Ill. is a far cry from Chicago city center — about 25 miles. The Red Stars’ struggles to find a suitable, well-located and affordable venue (Toyota Park rent made it a money pit) have been well documented. Just like in New Jersey, something’s got to give.

Western New York isn’t exempt from criticism. Their attendance numbers (2,977 through three games), given that hometown hero Abby Wambach is on the team, are inexcusable. When Wambach was allocated to the Flash, the question was, ‘Sure, Rochester, N.Y., loves her once a year, but will there be support all season?’ I’m not sure anyone expected the numbers wouldn’t even be there from the start.

Seattle has only played one home game thus far and while Reign management seems happy with 2,618, they had an extra month to sell that game. This week, with home games on Thursday and Sunday, could be telling. In Seattle’s case, though, the soccer market is there; it’s the brand that will need development.

Portland is only one home game in, but it’s season ticket base alone (7,000-plus) will out-draw every other team’s average. Kansas City’s numbers have been good thus far and though Boston is only averaging 2,874, one of those is due to a seating capacity of 2,600 for the opener. Boston is of little worry having shown sustainability over three different leagues now.

The most pleasant surprise thus far has been in Washington, where Spirit fans have turned out each week at the Maryland SoccerPlex — the best surface and most intimate atmosphere in the league. An average of 4,177 is well above the 3,000 mark the club targeted and Saturday’s crowd of 4,027 is particularly impressive one week after the big Portland game (a sellout of 5,011).

It’s too early to jump to extreme conclusions, but history tells that low numbers will likely stay low (and we’ll continue to use weather excuses and say ‘wait for the summer’…until summer comes). The reality is that about half the league has had encouraging support in their respective markets. The others, whether for lack of marketing, poor location or the like, aren’t showing early promise.

With U.S. Soccer’s backing, the NWSL will operate until at least 2015. The Federation won’t allow the embarrassment of one and done league. But that longevity will also require teams to make adjustments, whether moving venues within market, upping their front office efforts or, most ominously, realizing that some markets just don’t work.

Average Home Attendance by Team
Team Games Average
Portland Thorns FC 1 16,479
FC Kansas City 2 5,424
Washington Spirit 4 4,177
Western New York Flash 3 2,977
Boston Breakers 2 2,874
Seattle Reign FC 1 2,618
Chicago Red Stars 3 1,813
Sky Blue FC 3 1,586
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