Empty feeling Falling attendance raises some concern in MSL


In St. Louis, general manager Dan Counce feels his franchise has turned a corner toward success, but Counce is the only one in the Major Soccer League who can look at attendance figures and feel good.

Despite the claims that attendance would rise once the season moved into the traditional indoor soccer months of January, February and March it hasn't. In fact, except for St. Louis, attendance is down in every city in the league.

Not only that, but the average attendance after 166 league games, dating through last Sunday, is 6,328, the exact same average attendance figure recorded Dec. 30, 1990.

It is a number that brings MSL owners, general managers and marketing executives up short. Then they begin finding reasons for it.

* The economy is bad all across the country.

* The Persian Gulf war has had an impact.

* The instability of the league last summer undermined season ticket sales, cutting base attendance.

The financial impact of the lower figures has not been as great as it might have been. The fact player payrolls have been lowered by about $200,000 per team this season under the collective bargaining agreement has helped some. Increased ticket prices, such as those in Baltimore, also have helped.

"Overall, I look at the league and feel more positive," said Counce, who said the Storm will decrease its losses from nearly $1.8 million to less than $500,000 this season. "We've seen no problems; quite the contrary."

The perspective isn't as rosy elsewhere.

In Kansas City, attendance is down a whopping 3,316 from last season and owner Chris Clouser upset his MSL peers this week by announcing he'll fold the team May 1 if he can't find investors to ante up $200,000 during the next three years.

Sources familiar with the team indicate Clouser will get his investors and only used the announcement to bring pressure.

"We're out here working very hard to get cities into this league and he says stuff like that and it hurts us," said owner Ed Hale, whose Blast is second in the MSL in attendance, but still has seen a 15 percent drop.

"I don't know what is going on in Kansas City," Hale continued. "I'm at a loss to understand why he'd make a statement like that now."

Even Comets controller Steve Lyman said the Kansas City situation isn't as bad as it appears when looking at the attendance figures.

"Part of it, in our case, is that we've cut way back on complimentary tickets," said Lyman. "In the past it had been the practice to give out two to three thousand a game. It got out of hand with too many people looking for free tickets."

The comp ticket situation also irritated other owners who were not "papering" their houses, and Clouser was encouraged to curtail the practice.

"Add to that the fact our season ticket base is down 700 or 800 tickets, because the league's instability last summer made people think twice, and you have the difference," Lyman said.

But Comets attendance is picking up. Pre-game sales for the next three weeks, Lyman said, show the team should average from 8,000 to 10,000 paid fans.

Cleveland owner George Hoffman said the average figures, to some degree, also misrepresent what is happening with the Crunch. But he adds he feels a deep concern about the future.

According to league figures, Cleveland has been averaging 4,252 in 17,213-seat Richfield Coliseum.

It is a far cry from the sellouts that raised the Richfield roof in the mid-1980s -- and made Cleveland the lone moneymaker in league history -- when the now defunct Force beat the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians in the race to be the first pro franchise to bring the city a first-place team.

"The figures are down, because we started the season in last place," Hoffman said. "But winning is turning it around. We had 9,600 for a game last week.

"If we give the people a first-place team and they continue to say they're not going to consider us as viable entertainment, then a decision would have to be made by me."

Baltimore has had its share of first-place teams, including last year's Blast, which lost about $500,000. With advertising revenues down, Hale said his losses again would approach the half-million mark despite a $2 increase in ticket prices and the cut in team salaries.

San Diego president Ron Cady notes Sockers attendance is down 14 percent. He, for one, doesn't find the league figures that surprising given recent world events.

"The war had people pretty glued to their television sets," Cady said. "I think if nothing had been going on, more people would have been coming to games. As it was, a lot of people didn't want to be entertained."

But in St. Louis the perspective is different. And this afternoon, Counce will hold a news conference to officially announce a group of 10 new investors and detail a new television package -- whose advertising is sold out -- that will broadcast the team's remaining five road games.

The rest of the league should be so lucky.

MSL average attendance

.. .. .. .. .. .1990.. .. ..1991.. .. ..Difference

Kansas City.. ..10,207.. .. 6,891.. .. .-3,316

Dallas.. .. .. ..8,883.. .. 6,862.. .. .-2,021

Blast.. .. .. .. 8,740.. .. 7,029.. .. .-1,711

San Diego.. .. ..7,934.. .. 7,002.. .. .-932

Wichita.. .. .. .7,505.. .. 6,402.. .. .-1,103

St. Louis.. .. ..6,805.. .. 7,055.. .. .+250

Tacoma.. .. .. ..6,150.. .. 5,348.. .. .-802

Cleveland.. .. ..5,468.. .. 4,252.. .. .1,216

* 1991 figures are through March 3, after 166 league games had been played. Figures for 1990 are also for 166 league games.

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