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RSL attendance: Will it boom or bust?

Published December 15, 2006 12:36 am

Skeptics say the team's goal to boost attendance may be too ambitious, but stadium and Adu should help
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Real Salt Lake may have logged a losing record and missed the playoffs in 2006, but the two-year-old soccer team was an attendance all-star, finishing fifth overall with an average of 16,366 fans per game.

At least, that's what Major League Soccer reports on its Web site. But RSL's own numbers - released this week in a quest to score public cash to help build a Sandy stadium - show the team drew fewer than 10,000 paying customers per game, and that number is down slightly from the club's first-year gate.

Why the gap between the league's figures and the team's? RSL officials say the higher attendance tally includes promotions and giveaways. A "confidential" MLS document shows nearly one in five of the team's 2005 tickets were freebies. In fact, a Labor Day weekend match drew more comp customers (9,391) than paying ones, according to the document.

But the team's own business model for a successful 20,000-capacity stadium banks on converting comps into seat-buying fans. Next year, the franchise predicts nearly 12,000 paying fans per game and more than 15,400 when the new suburban venue opens in 2008.

The question is how. The team's answer: momentum from last summer's playoff push and the addition of phenom Freddy Adu.

Team spokesman Eric Gelfand notes RSL drew 17,950 in paid attendance for its final 2006 game and posted the best Western Conference record during the second half of the season. Gelfand also points to a 10,935 average in paid attendance in the final five matches, a 38 percent spike from the same stretch during RSL's inaugural year.

"We certainly expect that to continue and snowball from there," he says. "And that's why our projections are what they are."

But those numbers - RSL predicts near sellouts in just five years with more than 19,000 fans - have not been duplicated this year by the Utah Jazz, who boast the NBA's best record. In 12 home games, the Jazz have averaged 18,762 fans with three sellouts, says Jonathan Rinehart, communications manager.

RSL's projections "seem a little ambitious or aggressive," says Shawn Bradley, chief operating officer of the Denver-based sports-marketing firm The Bonham Group.

But Bradley, whose clients have included MLS teams, also says any franchise about to open a new stadium "would naturally expect" an uptick in paid tickets. And Adu, he adds, will be a "huge help."

During its 2005 campaign, the MLS document shows, RSL handed out an average of 3,000 free tickets a game - a common practice for new sports teams laboring to build a fan base.

Even so, the document suggests the team also has a track record of bloating attendance numbers. The confidential figures reveal the announced attendance was 15 percent higher that season, on average, than the number of tickets distributed. When compared to paid attendance, the gap leaps to 42 percent.

MLS President Mark Abbott says league policy is to base announced attendance on the number of tickets distributed.

"It's possible there are numbers that aren't picked up in the comp column," he says, suggesting passes and credentials account for the variance. "I believe the numbers to be an accurate reflection."

The number of RSL handouts, Abbott adds, seems "fairly average" for the league.

Kim Free, who served as vice president of marketing and operations for the WNBA's now-departed Utah Starzz, says her staff never ballooned numbers despite pressure to boost support.

"You had to keep to reality," she says. "You're going to tell people and people are going to see. Attendance is what it is."

Zack Lassiter, assistant athletic director for the University of Utah, says RSL handles attendance for the games played at Rice-Eccles Stadium. "That's at their discretion," he says.

But Lassiter insists the U. does not fudge football or men's basketball attendance figures - that they simply announce the number of tickets distributed (which often is more than the number who passed through the turnstiles).

The discrepancy between paid, actual and announced attendance, Bradley says, is "pretty common" in the sports industry, which operates on an "antiquated" system.

"To maintain some consistency, they continue to do it."

After a protracted and sometimes-personal clash with RSL, Salt Lake County leaders tentatively have agreed to fund 41 percent of the stadium project with tax money. The deal - it is awaiting final county approval pending a financial review - calls for $45 million in public funds for land and infrastructure for the $110 million stadium near 9400 S. State.

Gelfand, the RSL spokesman, predicts a bright future, both on the field and at the box office.

The team touts the third-highest ticket revenue in the MLS and second-largest season-ticket base, with an 85 percent renewal rate - second only to Toronto's expansion team - for 2007. Gelfand notes RSL already has netted 100 new season-ticket packages since announcing Adu's arrival.

This past season's dip, he says, can be attributed to a "horrible" 0-5 start, bad weather and competition from holiday weekends.

As for the 9,000-plus comps on the Labor Day 2005 weekend, Gelfand says those tickets were requested by Salt Lake City School District as part of an anti-truancy campaign.

Gelfand says RSL's "strategic" purchase of KALL 700 AM, a sports radio station, also will help sell seats. The team hopes to "position RSL as one of the world's most recognizable and revered sports brands," according to the business plan.

But County Auditor Sean Thomas says that goal must sustain some shots, the kind accountants like to kick.

A member of the county's Debt Review Committee, Thomas says the group will focus on how much RSL commits to marketing, population and average income - and whether the Salt Lake Valley can support two major-league teams.

"The primary question is: 'Will that happen?' " Thomas says. "Will the new stadium be the draw they expect it to be? Will it dramatically ramp up their ticket sales and revenue?"

Abbott says yes. Due to the intimacy of 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadiums, the MLS president calls it "reasonable" to expect sellouts.

Scott Stucki, vice president of the RSL fan club The Loyalists, just wants to see some heavy machinery digging dirt for a new stadium. He says he is "tired of the mudslinging" and hopes the team mends the marketing mistakes from its sophomore season.

Still, Stucki says, success breaks down to performance on the pitch.

"Utahns like winners," he says. "If the team is winning, Utahns will come out. If they're not winning, Utahns will stay home."

djensen@sltrib.com