"We have 20-year-olds who don't know life without Major League Soccer because they were 4 when the league started," Courtemanche says. "It's a generational aspect that's starting to change for us."
The size and scope of MLS is continuing to change as well. When the league adds a franchise in Montreal next year and the Houston Dynamos move off the University of Houston campus, 15 of its 19 teams will be playing in soccer-specific stadiums with a capacity of 27,000 or less. The downsizing keeps fans from being dwarfed by half-empty football facilities, keeps teams from losing control of scheduling or revenue from parking or concessions and moves teams toward profitability. There are notable exceptions to this rule, as the Sounders have a more equitable agreement with the Seahawks than teams including D.C. United and the New England Revolution have with their NFL landlords.
"It's a combination of the appropriate-sized stadium to produce an environment where fans can celebrate soccer vs. being maybe the third tenant in an American football stadium where an MLS team maybe isn't in charge of the revenue streams," Courtemanche says. "CenturyLink field is not soccer-specific, but it's downtown and part of the ownership group is the Seahawks organization, so the Sounders are on even par -- but in a place like RFK Stadium, DC United is just renting, has very little control over dates and revenue and isn't ever going to be successful from an economic standpoint until they have their own facility."
Much like in baseball, however, a new stadium isn't a guarantee people will actually show up. The Columbus Crew built the league's first soccer-specific stadium in 1999, but the 20,455-seat Columbus Crew stadium is drawing slightly fewer than 10,500 per game this year even as the team holds on to third place in the Eastern Conference. By comparison, Vancouver draws nearly twice as many and is dead last in the league.
FC Dallas is in third place in the Western Conference, but regularly plays to a half-full house at
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Park. The Chicago Fire moved from Soldier Field in downtown Chicago to 20,000-seat
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Park in the suburb of Bridgeview five years ago and still draws only 14,000 per game. It takes more than small stadiums to hang with the big leagues.
"With any professional sports league, it's not a case of 'If you build it, they will come,'" Courtemanche says. "You have to build the appropriate stadium in a location that appeals to your fan base and you need to continue to produce a product that's compelling on the field and market it appropriately to increase demand."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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