When BMO Field was first expanded to hold 23,000 spectators for soccer matches it was routinely drawing close to capacity. Toronto FC were able to bring in over 20,000 fans for most home matches despite the team constantly struggling to find results on the field through their early seasons. In 2011, the Reds managed to have an average attendance reported at 20,267 despite finishing near the bottom of the league. There was the real lack of attendance at the CONCACAF Champions League matches but that is the norm around MLS.
In 2012 though the number finally took a serious hit. The season ticket renewals were well down, the number of new fans purchasing season seats was also down and the team was left trying to repeatedly push tickets on the few people remaining on that once vaunted waiting list. That was put on the back burner when Toronto opened their competitive season at the Rogers Centre in front of 47,000 fans for a CCL game against the LA Galaxy. The good feeling continued on a very cold Wednesday night at BMO Field when a solid crowd showed up to watch Toronto battle Santos Laguna.
Then MLS play got under way and things started to go badly for the club. Attendance is always down early in the season when the weather at BMO is ofter frigid and makes a day out to take a match a lot less tempting to the casual spectator. Then, by the time things started to warm up in the spring the team found itself in the middle of a lengthy losing streak and quickly sinking from playoff contention.
The attendance numbers did not get to their very worst until the end of the summer when unrest and apathy were at all time highs. The club had never seen so many empty seats or attendance numbers in the 16 thousand range no matter how bad the on field product had been in the past.
So how bad did the numbers end up for 2012? Well, many people take issue with the announced attendances at each home game and think they are being artificially inflated but if you believe that the number is based on the number of tickets scanned at the gates which is club policy than the number should be accurate despite the fact that it looked like there were far more empty seats. The end of season numbers that were released by ESPN had Toronto coming in with an average attendance of 18,154. That number is down over 10% from last year and was only good enough to see Toronto ranked 10th in the league.
The good news is that most of the league saw stable or growing attendance numbers when compared to 2011. The only team to have a bigger drop off than Toronto in attendance percentage wise was Chivas USA who were down over 11% on the year and slipped down to the lowest attendance in the league. Their were five clubs that saw a double digit percentage increase in their attendances in Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, San Jose Earthquakes, and Seattle Sounders. There were also five teams that managed to draw an average crowd of over 20,000 on the season. The group was led by the Sounders who managed to bring in an average of over 43,000 fans. After them were the Montreal Impact, LA Galaxy, Dynamo, and Portland Timbers.
Attendance continues to grow across the league year after year and that is something to celebrate as fans. Problem is that things are far less rosy for Toronto. The club had never seen an average attendance below 20,000 in its existence and has been forced to roll season tickets back to 2007 prices. The real question now is if that move will be enough to keep renewals at a decent level and to convince the few people that remain on the waiting list that now is the right time to buy in.
It is almost a certainty that the club will see another drop in the number of season tickets that they sell and unless they get off to a good start in 2013 they will see this drop in attendance carry on. This is the first real storm that the club has faced off the field and it will be crucial that they prove they can deal with dropping attendance and fan unrest better than they can with building a winning team. The roll back was step one but bringing the prices back the to 2007 level is a whole lot easier than bringing fan support back to the level it was back then.
Toronto FC is clearly not the hottest ticket in town or in the MLS these days and the all time low in average attendance could just be the start of a downward spiral if the club can not turn things around on the field.