The Dangerous Path of l’Impact

Freebie tickets might put people in the stands now, but may undermine club long-term
by Henrik Lonne   |   Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Made in Canada - coverage of the Canadian MLS, NASL & USL Clubs, CSL, PCSL, Canadian Championship & Canada National Teams

The Montreal Impact have had a tumultuous season attendance-wise. The team went from a record setting attendance of 58,912 at the Olympic Stadium against Chicago in the first game to a more modest attendance of 23,120 against rival Toronto FC in the second game. The Galaxy helped break the record again with 60,860 people, but even Frenchman Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls couldn’t help the Impact put more than 20,373 butts in the seats.

Moving into the more familiar Stade Saputo didn’t help. Of the 10 games so far, only the latest against D.C. United has had an announced crowd over 20,000 and 5 games have had fewer than 16,000 people in attendance.

Attendance has been poor until the last 4 home games, which made me ask Montreal journalist Philippe Germain what could improve matters:

This answer shows the difficulty of the Montreal sports market and how, unlike Portland, Montreal hasn’t been able to capitalize on their D2 presence in the city.

Let’s look at those factors:

Better Marketing: The team had some of the best attendance at D2 level over the years and should be a team that most people know in the city, so if it is really necessary to have an aggressive marketing campaign to attract fans I feel bad for the Impact.

Free Tickets: This is the methadone of sports business. It seems a quick easy fix that can boost attendance, but can have a very strong negative effect on the brand of the club long-term, as it is very hard to convince consumers, who have been getting your product for free to start paying for it. I reached out to beloved former Chicago Fire GM Peter Wilt, and he confirmed that tickets should not simply be given away, but should be something that fans do something to get:

Better Prices: While the loyal fans will applaud that the Impact lowered ticket prices and used Groupon and other “deals” so potential and existing fans could save money in a dire economy - it remains a risky strategy. Just as with free tickets, discounted tickets also have bad ramifications as the perceived value of the ticket has been lowered. To make reference to the Peter Wilt tweet, cheaper tickets should go to the loyal fans as they have earned through their loyalty and their contribution of passion which enhances the gameday experience for all. Perhaps nothing showed that pricing might have been too high from the start and needed to be lowered as pre-kickoff only 7,500 season tickets were sold.

Winning Team: A winning team is more attractive, obviously. But when the reopening game at Stade Saputo against former D2 rival Seattle only attracts 17,112 and when the Sporting KC game only brings 12,085, there is reason for concern. This is the Montreal Impact’s inaugural MLS season and most people expected near sell-outs for most games in the smaller soccer specific stadium. For Toronto FC it took several seasons of defeats to wear down the patience of their fans, so it would be bad news if the Impact are facing these issues in season one.

Where does this put the Impact? It’s unfamiliar territory for MLS 2.0 teams, where tickets sales haven’t been an issue and while handing out free tickets, lowering tickets prices and signing big-name Italian players might work in the short run in order to attract people to the stadium, Joey Saputo and the management must look carefully at how this strategy affects their ability to be a relevant major league team in the city and how to increase the size of the core fanbase.

Henrik LONNE

Copenhagen Business School
Club Domestic:
AGF Aarhus
Club Foreign:
Toronto FC
Born and raised in Denmark, the US performance in the 2002 World Cup dragged Henrik into the world of North American soccer. Subsequent trips to Canada made him a Toronto FC fan from abroad. The passion he now has for MLS outshines most European leagues.