There I was, Saturday night, watching New York City FC play the Vancouver Whitecaps. I was sitting in section 110 with my daughter and some friends. It was 8 o’clock. The weather was beautiful, the sun was down, and a Goose Island IPA was in my hand. Glancing around the stands I couldn’t help but notice large sections of empty seats around the entire stadium. Now this is nothing new for NYCFC’s faithful supporters who sit through 20 degree temperatures and sleet in March, Wednesday evening games during the school year, and trips out of state for home games. But facts are facts and the steady drop in yearly attendance figures doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the NYCFC organization. Nation contributor, Chris P, posted on Twitter earlier this year that season ticket holder membership was down to 16,000 entering 2018, from a high of 20,000 in our inaugural season. On a recent Dudes in Blue podcast there was a mention of sub 13,000 season ticket holders for the 2019 season. Here’s the problem though, there’s almost nothing NYCFC can do to reverse the exodus of fans from Yankee Stadium.
Let’s begin with the 5 year old elephant in the room, Yankee Stadium. It’s like curse words to NYCFC fans. Yankee Stadium creates a unique set of problems for soccer fans. The sight lines are terrible. Some of the best seats are extremely far from the field. Prices for concessions, owned by the Yankees’ Legends food services, are expensive. The schedule forced on us by the Yankees forces us to play too many games in March, before the baseball season begins, and too few games in September and October, when the Yankees are in the midst of a playoff race. That doesn’t even take into account having two games moved during the 2017 season because of baseball rain outs and MLB playoffs. Additionally, a baseball stadium, like Yankee Stadium, doesn’t have the intimacy MLS fans desire in a home field.
And while Yankee Stadium is a problem for NYCFC, there are other contributing factors that have lead to the downward trend in attendance. The time and day of the week games have been played has changed since our inaugural season. Back in 2015, and even 2016, NYCFC only played one Wednesday game during each season. Instead, the team played several matches on Thursday and Friday nights. In 2015 only two of the weekday games were during the school year. Sharing the stadium with the Yankees also means we have long stretches where we can’t play at home. Later this year NYCFC will play a home game versus Chicago on September 26 and won’t return home again until October 28 versus Philadelphia. That’s 32 days between home matches at a crucial stretch at the end of the MLS season.
New York City has always been a city of big names: Derek Jeter, Eli Manning, Patrick Ewing, Mark Messier. At the onset, NYCFC tried to bring in their own trio of big names in David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard. While their results were mixed, the three designated players brought name recognition, star quality, and fans who wanted to see European legends they could only dream about watching in their own city. When Lampard, and later Pirlo, retired NYCFC chose to replace their aging DPs with relatively unknown players in Maxi Morales and Jesus Medina. While these new players had found success on the field they don’t move the needle in New York. Additionally, NYCFC and City Football Group seem unwilling to shell out large amounts of transfer money to bring in a star from Europe or a possible star-in-the-making from Central or South America. At the same time NYCFC was dropping $4 million transfer fee on Medina and an unknown amount on Moralez, teams like Atlanta were doling out close to $25 million on the likes of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, and Ezequiel Barco.
The biggest contributing factor to a decline in attendance is the failure of the organization to find a location for a future soccer specific stadium. When the team was announced back in May of 2013, Manchester City F.C. CEO, Ferran Soriano told us that the team would play in a temporary stadium for 2 to 3 years. Fast forward to 2018 and NYCFC is still in the same place it was 5 years ago. The lack of transparency on the stadium search from people like Soriano and NYCFC president, Jon Patricof, are also contributing factors to downward trend in attendance. It’s been almost 4 months, April of this year, since Patricof gave any news on the stadium search and even then, he toed the company line telling media that the club was continuing to make progress in securing a location. This was also true back in September of 2017, October of 2016, and July of 2016. Meanwhile teams that entered MLS as expansion teams at the same time (Orlando City SC) or even more recently (Los Angeles FC and Minnesota United FC) are in the process of constructing soccer specific stadiums or have already built them.
Can the Tide Turn?
First and foremost, fans crave greater transparency from NYCFC regarding stadium news. We know that the organization isn’t going to give us an inside look into what’s going on behind the scenes. They’re not going to announce information out before a deal is finalized for fear that something can fall through. However, fans want to hear something, anything that clues us in that we’re any closer than we were 3 years ago. We don’t want to hear that the team continues to look at several locations and that they’re making progress. We heard that in 2017, 2016, and 2015. A stadium announcement could be the most significant way to increase attendance as fans will want to secure a place in line for the eventual opening of our own soccer specific stadium. In the 5 years preceding the announced construction of the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankees averaged roughly 3 – 3.4 million fans a year. Following the announcement of the new stadium in 2004, attendance jumped to a high of 4.2 million in 2008, the final year in the old stadium.
As I mentioned earlier, New York is a city that clamors for big names. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, and Bastian Schweinsteiger are known around the soccer world and even known by many casual sports fans in the United States. Yes, NYCFC went that route when they brought in Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom were shadows of their former selves. But I’m not talking about scooping up an aging European star on the wrong side of 35. NYCFC needs to target a goal scoring European player still in their prime that is willing to come to MLS. If that means a $10-15 million transfer fee, so be it. If Villa leaves at the conclusion of this current season there won’t be a single “must see” player left on the roster. NYCFC can play the most attractive soccer in the league but without a star player, fans will continue to drop ticket plans.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
New York City continues to rank in the top 6 in the league for attendance, but the drop in attendance and season ticket holders is concerning. While we don’t have a stadium of our own and lack star power that fans demand, there are things the organization do well. Tickets are relatively affordable compared to other sports entertainment in the city. NYCFC continues to massage the price and number of tickets available in Yankee Stadium each season in hopes of attracting new fans and retaining loyal ticket holders.
This past week the team announced 2019 renewal information for current Cityzens. Several important changes have been made in an effort to retain the dwindling number of season ticket holders. First, and foremost, prices across the board for most seats in the stadium were reduced. Most fans will see reductions of $1-5 per match while those sitting in the Etihand First Class Club, Legends, Delta Sky360 & Champions Suites will see greater reductions of roughly $10-50 per match. NYCFC has also divided the current 6 categories of standard seating into 10 sections, divided Legends seating into two sections, and closed sections 122, 231, and 232A, reducing seating in the stadium by roughly another 1,000 seats. The club also revamped their ticket trade-in program allowing for unlimited trade-ins for next season letting fans attend as many or as few games as they want.
Besides ticket prices, the team does an amazing job of connecting fans to team through social media and fan/player experiences. The organization creates unique events to generate interest in soccer and specifically NYCFC like The City That Never Sleeps 24 Hour Event, the NYCFC Cup, and a street fair outside of Yankee Stadium back in June before a match against Toronto FC.
Through the transition from Patrick Vieira to Dome Torrent, NYCFC have played winning and attractive soccer. Despite their recent struggles on the road this team dominates at home and fans coming to Yankee Stadium are almost guaranteed a win this season. And yet despite relatively inexpensive tickets, outstanding community outreach, and playing winning soccer, NYCFC continue to struggle putting butts in seats at Yankee Stadium. And this comes down to two simple things: Without a stadium announcement or a big name European star the organization should be prepared for fewer fans in the stands in 2019 and beyond.
My Personal Sophie’s Choice
With all that in mind, that renewal letter arrived in my mailbox last week. I opened it up and it’s been sitting on my kitchen table since. I’m probably in the same boat as hundreds of other season ticket holders, agonizing over the decision or renew or cancel. On the positive side, the price of my two seats in category 6, now known as endline mezzanine are staying the same. The new unlimited trade-ins will work for me and my busy family, and I still think there’s some real value in Cityzen Points. But does the added ticket flexibility and Cityzen points outweigh the ability to pick up tickets on StubHub for a fraction of the cost that season ticket holders pay? And if I drop my plan, and pick up tickets on the secondary market, will I feel as connected to the team as I currently do?
While I haven’t reached a decision on whether to renew or not, I’d love to hear from other NYCFC season ticket holders. Have you reached your decision? Are you renewing or canceling? What went into your decision? Please reach out to me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts.