Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

Right at the top of my notes from Sunday’s MNUFC2 game at Allianz Field, I wrote down a number: 461. That’s the official attendance for Sunday’s game. And in staring at it, it occurred to me: I can’t remember the last time I wrote down the attendance at a soccer game.

I honestly don’t know if they’ve been announcing the attendance at Allianz Field for MNUFC games. They used to do it in the second half, but have they done it this year? That’s when deadlines are starting to loom and things are getting tense in the press box, so maybe they still announce it, and I haven’t noticed. Checking the numbers, they’ve averaged nearly 19,000 for the three home games this season – more than the Wild or the Timberwolves, as it happens.

That’s impressive, given the weather has been so unrelentingly poor. But I really haven’t thought about it. And I cannot tell you how good it feels simply not to think about attendance.

The turnstile count used to be one of the most important numbers for a Minnesota soccer game. Sometimes it made it into the first paragraph of the game story, or even the first sentence; it was usually something like “Mike Blumble scored a goal on either side of halftime, and the Minnesota ThunderStars beat the San Antonio Poopemojis 2-1 in front of 3,386 fans at the National Sports Center.” Media members would ask the head coach questions about the attendance, I guess in the hopes that he had some pointed comments to make about the team’s ticket sales department.

Fred Emmings made his home MNUFC2 debut in front of 461 fans, a number I had to write down. Courtesy MNUFC

Back then it was almost an evangelistic thing for everyone involved. On the one hand, you had die-hard fans that insisted that you could have just as good a time waving a flag at the National Sports Center as you could sitting in your living room watching Liverpool or Leverkeusen. On the other, you had the team itself, losing money every year and desperately needing to find new ticket-buyers.

Even later, after the team finally had an owner – and one who paid his bills, which has not been a guaranteed thing in the history of ThunderStarsUnited owners – it was still an obsession. For the team, they needed to prove that they had staying power, to not only sell tickets but to attract the other revenue sources that keep a team running, like sponsors and broadcasters. The easiest way to do that wasn’t winning games, but drawing fans.

For the fans, especially after MLS found its footing and started expanding to anywhere with half-decent ownership and a plan for a soccer-specific stadium, it was more about proving that Minnesota deserved to be major league. There were endless galaxy-brained internet-nonsense discussions about comparisons between potential expansion destinations, about things like TV market rankings and the number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in town.

It was like a crowd-sourced US News and World Report college rankings, but for soccer teams, and attendance always played a role. Never mind that there were already plenty of MLS teams with patchy second-division attendance histories, and that the league was clearly prioritizing other factors alongside attendance. There was genuine trepidation that a city like Sacramento could jump ahead of Minnesota, solely because the Republic was drawing bigger crowds in the USL than Minnesota was in the NASL.

Even after MNUFC joined MLS, it was a little hard not to worry. I’ve seen what it looks like when local sports teams don’t draw fans. I’ve been one of 5,000 Twins fans at a game in the Metrodome. I had season tickets to the Timberwolves one year with a group, upper-deck end seats that cost less than $5 a game, and I was able to sit in the lower deck every single time I went.

I can remember when the fans numbered in the hundreds for the Loons, not the thousands or the tens of thousands, and so I simply didn’t know what the demand for Minnesota soccer really was. Would the novelty wear off? Would fans come once a year instead of every week? Were there really enough people willing to stand for two hours, and fill up that enormous south stand?

I suppose it’s still early, in the sense that we are still yet to reach two full seasons with fans in the stands at Allianz Field, but it doesn’t feel like interest is flagging. The Loons drew more than 19,000 fans for every full-capacity home game last year, according to the numbers listed at FBRef.

It seems like we can finally relax. I don’t put the attendance number in MNUFC game stories any more, or even write it down. The stands are almost always full. And it feels awfully good to just not worry about it.

Now if we can just figure out the media coverage thing


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