Minnesota Thunder Attendance – by the Numbers
Looking at the attendance numbers for the Minnesota Thunder
First, let’s look at attendance numbers the Thunder have generated historically.
The Thunder started playing as a professional team in 1995. In 1996, playing at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota, the Thunder had an average attendance of 3,300.
That attendance continued to rise, peaking at a little over an average of 4,400 in 2003, their last season at the NSC.
In 2004, the Thunder moved to St. Paul Central High School’s James Griffin Stadium. The team claimed it was to bring soccer back to an urban center and that may have been true. Also true was the fact that the National Sports Center continued to ask more for their lease when the Thunder were going deeper in the hole to stay competitive with other USL-1 teams. The team also had new ownership with pockets that were not as deep as in the past.
In 2004, and after the move to St. Paul, the Thunder’s attendance dropped over 1,000 per game less than in 2003, dwindling to a little under 3,300 per game. Sadly, the attendance for the team has stagnated in the past five years.
In the four seasons at James Griffin Stadium, the Thunder’s attendance grew marginally to around a 3,300 average in 2006, three years after their move to St. Paul. In the fourth season the team’s attendance was at about 3,400 per game, which was close to the same as their 97 and 98 records in Blaine and far from the 2003 high.
In the fall of 2007 and the spring of 2008, the USL league owners, Nike, put pressure on USL-1 teams to be playing in soccer specific stadiums. With that declaration by Nike and the Thunder’s new owner’s frustration with the City of St. Paul and St. Paul Public Schools’ lack of cooperation in allowing the Thunder the ability to temporarily enhance the field at James Griffin, the team made an abrupt decision to move back to the National Sports Center. ** The Thunder worked out a deal where each of the parties, NSC and the Thunder, split the cost of the renovation of the National Sports Center stadium to make it a true soccer specific stadium. The Thunder in turn would again be a primary tenant at the NSC.
The 2008 numbers for the Thunder are true but slightly skewed in that the Thunder played their first two games of the season at James Griffin. The team then played several games at the National Sports Center with the track dug up and the temporary aluminum stands removed from in front of the permanent stands. Next the team played some of its games out in the exhibition field next to the main stadium and finally, the remainder of the games were played at the newly refurbished NSC Stadium.
Although the field renovations made for an excellent venue to watch soccer, the 2008 season was tumultuous and attendance was surely affected. For the first time in the team’s history the Thunder actually had several marketing campaigns. The problem was, they were centered on “soccer in the city.” Blaine, Minnesota was not the heart of the city.
With the team moving to the NSC in Blaine, the front office scrapped the marketing campaign and the Thunder lost some fans who were committed to an urban team, but gained others who didn’t want to drive into the city. Others hated the narrow artificial surface at James Griffin as well as the football lines and loved the move back to Blaine – a real grass stadium with very wide pitch dimensions. Admittedly, the old NSC stadium lacked intimacy and atmosphere. The newly renovated NSC stadium was very close to the playing field and gained that sense of intimacy with great sight lines from anywhere in the stadium.
Surprisingly, the 2008 attendance was a wash, coming in at 3,278, slightly lower than the previous years total 3,400.
In 2009 the team had virtually no visible marketing and it showed. While all sports teams inflate their attendance figures, this year’s attendance seemed to be very exaggerated at times. Nonetheless, the official numbers seem to work out to 3,209 average for 2009, slightly lower than 2008 as well as the 2004 and 2005 attendance numbers when the team first moved team to St. Paul’s James Griffin Stadium. Sadly, the teams attendance of 3,209 for the 2009 season looks to have been the poorest since 1996.
In comparison the Portland Timbers, who have the largest supporters group in the USL and whose organization recommitted to make the team a contender after a poor 2008 performance, broke its attendance records this year with an average of 9,734. That figure was 13% higher than their 2008 attendance of 8,567. The biggest difference was a new commitment from Portland that allowed the team to pick up good players and in doing so the Timbers became the best team in USL-1 for 2009, breaking records for the most consecutive undefeated games in the league’s history.
The Timbers also had 23,435 total visitors for the Timbers’ three international exhibitions against Mexico’s Club America Reserves, Germany’s Bayern Munich II and English Premier League club Burnley FC this summer.
Portland also had their first sellout crowd at PGE Park as a member of the USL First Division, when 16,382 fans attended the third-round matchup against Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders FC on July 1, in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament.
The Thunder played only one exhibition game this season against C.S.D. Comunicaciones (Guatemala) and drew 4,891 for the game. In the Thunder’s significant US Open Cup game against the Kansas City Wizards, they drew 3,878 fans.
In a recent article at Pitch Invasion by Peter Wilt, former GM of the Thunder, he stated that Bill Veck once said, “I’d never suggested that promotion by itself attracts fans. Winning draws fans. Winning plus promotion sets attendance records.”
The Thunder had very little of either this season nor have they for the last several seasons. If this team is to survive they have got to start getting priorities straight and focus on the team on the field first and foremost. That means raising player budgets to allow Minnesota to acquire some of those veteran players with experience that the Thunder have lost out on in the bidding process the last number of years.
The Thunder also need to start passionately marketing the team and using social media platforms to get to their target market. My fear is that the team has been mediocre for so long that apathy has set in and nothing is worse than apathy. As Wilt wrote in that same Pitch Invasion article, “Avoiding apathy is the goal as apathy from fans is worse than anger. Apathetic fans can’t be won back. Angry fans can.”
I read recently that the Rochester Rhinos, a former rival of the Thunder back in the early days of the USISL, finished 6th this year, their lowest finish in team history. The Thunder have only qualified for a playoff spot once in the last 5 years. It’s time to turn the this team in a new direction or apathy may even spread to the team’s most loyal supporters. The time is now or it may be too late.
*Some numbers for 2008 and 2009 were obtained from http://www.kenn.com/ and Gerald Barnhart from USL headquaters in Tampa, Florida.
**A correction was made to this article on 3/29/09 at 3:00 pm regarding a misstatement that the NSC had lost public funding and was in need of a tenant. IMS was politely corrected by the NSC that it does not operate on public funds and never has. It’s financial situation at the time of the Thunders move was stable.