The Loons are looking to capture some positive buzz following a 5-1 defeat at the hand of 2015 MLS Cup Champion Portland Timbers to begin its inaugural campaign. Attendance figures have recently been a source of pride for MLS clubs and a reported 30,000 attendance figure at TCF Bank Stadium in a few days will be touted as another success by the league. However, there will also be those that complain and draw comparisons to the recent launches of Atlanta (55,297) and Orlando (62,358) and argue Minnesota has subsequently fallen short. Overall, I think the team’s early ticket sales reports can accurately be described as good, bad, and great.
Given Minnesota’s just six-month lead up to sell tickets as a MLS franchise, 30,000 seats sold for its home opener in early-March in Minnesota is good. Sure, Atlanta had over 55,000 at their opener at Bobby Dodd Stadium this past weekend, but they had three years to build a sales and marketing team. Atlanta’s lead time to develop a strategic plan to fill its temporary home by driving season ticket sales should not be understated. Further, they have a brand new stadium coming online mid-season, and the club has no doubt captured some of the buzz sport economists call the “honeymoon effect.”
While at face value it makes sense to compare Atlanta and Minnesota (because, you know, United), it ultimately is not a good benchmark. What happens in Atlanta has nothing to do with what is happening in Minnesota. Atlanta is not Minneapolis-St. Paul. Selling 30,000 tickets to a MLS match in Minnesota is a good thing. One that many sports fans in Minnesota couldn’t ever have imagined.
However, since Minnesota is playing in a stadium with a capacity of more than 50,000, an attendance of 30,000 people is going to look bad on TV. Further, local media is familiar with what 30,000 fans in TCF Bank Stadium looks like (see the primary tenant, the University of Minnesota football team), and there have been no shortage of critiques of this problem. The optics will likely get some meaningful and unfortunate coverage. Additionally, MLS matches in football stadiums, on turf, and with visible football markings have an uncomfortably familiar feel. The team already has to deal with the inevitable comparisons to Atlanta, any new comparisons to New England or previous generations of MLS will be unfortunate.
Yet, the future is clearly bright. While TCF Back Stadium may hold over 50,000 people, the team’s new home in Midway will seat roughly 20,000. The ability to sell 30,000 seats to a MLS match prior to moving into a brand-new, soccer-specific stadium is great. Beyond the simple “math” that 30,000 is in fact larger than 20,000, there is the even more important season ticket number. The club appears to be nearing the 11,000 season ticket mark. While this number by itself does not qualify as great, it’s a positive start.
A rough industry standard to ensure sellout crowds for an entire season is that a stadium must be at least 80 percent pre-sold. This means that between season ticket plans and group ticket sales, Minnesota would need to sell 15,000 seats per game, before single game or “walk-up” purchases, to sellout the Midway stadium. If MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s comments are accurate, the club has already sold that many season tickets. However, if the club has only sold the roughly 11,000 seats that were part of the Itasca Society promotion, 15,000 advance sales is still an achievable number for every game in 2019.
The club will need to grow its current season ticket base by a little more than 5 percent each of the next two years and sell a total of approximately 1,000 group seats per game to sell every seat to every game in St. Paul in 2019. With the buzz of a new stadium and the potential for a few high-profile player signings, the team is creating a strong infrastructure for long-term sustainability. There’s certainly still sales and marketing work to be done, but the current sales figures are strong given the team’s shortened lead up to the 2017 campaign. It may not be a splashy approach to sustained MLS success, but 30,000 people at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday is not a reason to #PANIC.