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Minnesota Thunder Attendance – by the Numbers

2009 September 28
by Brian Quarstad

Looking at the attendance numbers for the Minnesota Thunder

Minnesota ThunderWith another USL-1 season wrapped up for the Thunder, I looked at the numbers to see where the team ended up this season compared to past seasons and other teams in USL-1.

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.

Thunder-Attendance

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.

2009-USL-Attendance*The Thunder finished 7th in the league for attendance out of 11 teams. Interestingly, 3 teams accounted for over half the overall attendance in USL-1. They were Montreal, Portland and Rochester.

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.

17 Responses
  1. Aaron Frederickson permalink
    September 28, 2009

    I personally think part of the lower attendance numbers has to do with the economy, but I think the MN Thunder Academy program is the main reason for lower attendance. Quite frankly, a dollar spent supporting the professional team, is a dollar spent supporting their youth programs. When every dollar means more and more in a tight economy, I would rather put that money in my clubs program and not someone elses. (For the record, I went to 11 matches this year–I had not been to a match in six years before that.)

  2. Jon M. permalink
    September 28, 2009

    It’s an open secret that the team will (and always has) inflated attendance numbers in any way that suits them. You admit as much, saying, “While all sports teams inflate their attendance figures this years 2009 attendance seemed to be very exaggerated at times.”

    Consequently, how much value can really be divined from comparing this year’s padded stats to any other year’s padded stats?

  3. Justin permalink
    September 28, 2009

    Very interesting article Brian. You have to wonder how they can make the business work with such meager attendance. I think the Thunder is the best deal in town, people just don’t know about it. I can’t afford the Twins or the Vikings, but I can lay out $5 once or twice a week for the Thunder without flinching.

    I agree it would be better if they played in the city, but the NSC has been turned into a great venue. With the World Cup coming up this year, perhaps they’ll have more interest. Since there are so many empty seats, they ought to give away $5 tickets on the college campuses in April.

  4. MIAC Fan permalink
    September 29, 2009

    Aaron…You are mistaken about the financial arrangement between the Minnesota Thunder professional team and the Minnesota Thunder Academy.
    The youth academy is a non-profit corporation with separate accounting from the pro team.
    There is obviously an alliance and the programs work together but they do not co-mingle funds.
    I’ve had this discussion with both MTA youth directors and Thunder management.
    The youth program actually received funds from the pro team this year that were directed into youth scholarships. No funds from the youth program go to the pro team.

  5. September 29, 2009

    Thanks MICA Fan. You are indeed correct and have answered the question as well as I could have. From what I understand, the Thunder pro team provides a set amount of dollars to the team as a grant each year to help them out. There is some obvious sharing in the past where MTA may rent some field time that the pro team would use, but then would be obligated to reimburse the academy for that field rental.

    With that said, the Thunder front office has spent considerable time organizing and helping the MTA to move from Bangu to MTA. They have also worked hard to get the MTA considered for the Development Academy. Those things are all well and fine, but my point is, its time to prioritize and that means the pro teams needs every bit of the front offices energy right now. From scouting players to writing competitive contracts to marketing and wooing potential sponsors. These all have to be #1 first and foremost this year.

    It’s also interesting that the three teams that were heading up the TOA are all amongst the bottom 5 in attendance. Take what you want from that one.

    Jon, I’m not getting your point? Did you not want me to write about this?

    Justin, I think your correct and have written as much previously. It is the best sports deal in town. But some people have asked if the $5.00 ticket cheapens the product. If you don’t invest in the product you may not feel as connected or that you are as invested in the team….. perhaps?

    The college campus idea has been suggested to the Thunder FO numerous times by the supporters. I don’t think anything has ever been followed through on it. The other issue is how do you get that college crowd 15 miles north of the campus to Blaine.

  6. Demko permalink
    September 29, 2009

    Nice work. I was wondering about this.

  7. Jeff Wolter permalink
    September 29, 2009

    “No funds from the youth program go to the pro team.”

    I guess the question is why not? The youth players are benefitting from the areas “top pro coaches and staff”? Academies are their to support and build the pro team. They develop and sell-off players to other pro teams for a profit to enhance the top teams budget and roster.

    The pro team should be the main focus of the companies efforts. It’s what creates the image of top level coaching. If the pro team can’t win i the second league then are the staff and coaches really all that good? Or are they just better salesmen to little kids and their parents.

    Why would anyone want to send their kid to a pro team’s academy that can’t even win games in the second league??
    Why would anyone want to send their kid to a pro team that can’t make correct in game adjustments by their top coach??
    Without a strong pro team to create the image of success, the rest will also eventually tumble.
    ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

    “It’s also interesting that the three teams that were heading up the TOA are all amongst the bottom 5 in attendance.”

    That is by far the scariest thing about what is going on right now…

  8. MIAC Fan permalink
    October 1, 2009

    Jeff…that’s the way it works for all the pro clubs/teams connected to youth programs. Check out how the Chicago Fire work with their youth academy. Check out the KC Wizards and their academy….or ManU for example.
    Get up to speed on how these arrangements work both with pro clubs here and with pro clubs in Europe as well.
    Can you think of soccer professionals in the Twin Cities better to be associated with than Buzz Lagos, Manny Lagos , Don Gramenz etc?
    If by some chance the Thunder were ever to fail and the team folds the youth program will still be successful at they were when they were the Wings and Bangu.

  9. Aaron Frederickson permalink
    October 1, 2009

    MIAC Fan, thanks for providing me with correct infromation. However, even if you are correct, I think the perception of the interconnectedness hurts the MN Thunder a lot. To me, this was a huge mistake by the Thunder and was poorly thought out.

    I think comparing academy programs in England to the US is a bad analogy. Okay, I do not want my kid to play for Thunder, so what are my options. Move to KC? Chicago? The distances are just to great. In England, the locations are much closer.

    I honestly think if MN Thunder wants more people to come, they need to work on the perception of their connection/affiliation with MTA. Just my humble opinion.

  10. Jeff Wolter permalink
    October 1, 2009

    That’s not the way it was explained to me by the coach of the Tottenham Hotspurs academy when they were here for the USA cup this year. They put on a coaching clinic after one of the Elite games his U16 team played in. He said the academy is there to enhance the pro teams success, and they’re judged to be successful only when they are able to sell off players for a profit which then goes back to the club to use as they see fit. I drought the Fire or Wizards have gotten to that point of profitable player development yet. Especially when both teams proved they were not able to support the MLS reserve league that folded last year.

    Man U academy makes a lot of money selling off their players over the long term. Not even in the same development universe as the MN Thunder, so that’s a bad example to use.

    “Can you think of soccer professionals in the Twin Cities better to be associated with than Buzz Lagos, Manny Lagos, Don Gramenz etc?”

    No, but it would be even better to be involved with coaches that have successful records in the near past. I think everybody would agree with that. Currently it’s not the case.

    My point is the image comes from the pro team, and they need to be the focus in the long run. I have begun to think that lately the MN Thunder only exists to promote the youth summer camps and programs where the competition is less demanding than in the pro team success arena.

    The money may not be directly connected, but time and energy developing the youth programs is definitely involved.
    I believe the pro team should come first, not the other way around.

    “If by some chance the Thunder were ever to fail and the team folds the youth program will still be successful at they were when they were the Wings and Bangu.”

    Which kinda says it’s a marketing idea based on a pro team’s image…??

    They would be as successful at the LOCAL LEVEL like they were before. They would be seen as a failure at their attempt to unite the clubs in an attempt to move forward as a bigger national youth club. It would be the same as ending in a draw after having a three goal lead. It would go one the books as a draw, but any real coach would know his team blew it right when it really counted!

    Wings and Bangu would never be approved faster as a US Soccer Development Academy without the Thunder now would they? The overall national image of both clubs would go backwards without the pro team connection.

  11. Chrös permalink
    October 1, 2009

    I might be misunderstanding this, but Aaron’s original post implied that by going to a Thunder game, your money is helping to support the Thunder’s academy teams. But then MIAC Fan and Brian both seemed to refute that by saying that the academy doesn’t support the Thunder financially, but the Thunder supports the academy. Am I missing something, because Aaron’s original complaint seemed to be that the Thunder supported the academy financially.

    This is somewhat unrelated, but I remember a few years ago the Star Tribune did an article on the Thunder’s soccer camps and how they were vital for the team’s financial structure. The article basically implied that much of the players’ salaries came from their participation in these camps, and that other USL1 teams were beginning to follow that model. Are the camps completely separate from the academy?

    Finally, in relation to the actual article, it was another of the many insightful pieces that Brian has done on this site so far. I’m not sure if everybody appreciates the amount of time a lot of these articles must take, so I wanted to say thank you again for doing them.

    But as far as attendance, I attended only two Thunder games this season. One was (I think) the home opener against Vancouver (I was interested in seeing Martin Nash and Jeff Parke), and another was a Sunday game against Puerto Rico (their Champions League success intrigued me). In general, the new-look stadium—and specifically the beer garden—also made me really want to see a couple games.

    I really enjoyed both games, but I can’t have estimated more than 1000 people were at either. I’m not an expert, and I know it is sometimes deceiving when there’s as many total seats as they have there, but there for sure wasn’t close to 3,000. Those were also relatively marquee games I’d think, as compared to seeing Cleveland or something. Were my two games just an anomaly, or were the numbers seriously fudged?

  12. Chrös permalink
    October 1, 2009

    I also wanted to address the marketing issue, but didn’t want to overwhelm with one long topic.

    About 15 of us attended a focus group for the Thunder last winter, but unfortunately I didn’t see much effort to implement the changes we talked about. One thing I talked about there was how the team has no connection with the city. Maybe the Happy Gnome or the Sweetwater wants to be the exclusive Thunder bar, but it’s Brits Pub and the Local that are filled with fans for EPL and Champions League games. Then there’s Dinkytown as well. I think it comes down to grassroots efforts, sending a couple people over there to spread the word of mouth, give them a scarf, let people know there is actually a team in town and that it can be really fun to go watch them.

    The other element that I was hoping to see more of was media coverage to build awareness. I don’t think this is unrealistic. I bet there is at least one Thunder player who is savvy enough to call into KFAN of 1500-AM each week. It doesn’t even have to be about the Thunder, per se. Get a regular guest slot, “translate” that week’s world soccer happenings, and mention there’s a game, a tailgating opportunity, and a pitch-side bar at NSC that weekend.

    Whenever something major happens in soccer, the radio people try to talk about it. Usually it’s them not understanding what the Confederations Cup is or offering some knock on an aspect of the sport. It would be great if one of the producers realized that we have a charismatic “star” in this town in Bruce McGuire, or that the Thunder could push for a player to be the guest. Somebody who can poke fun at the nuances of our game while also providing some real awareness.

    The third issue is always going to be the location. That’s probably entirely the reason I only went to two games this year (I live in St. Paul off University and 280, so I’m not nearly the furthest away). There’s been the odd grumble about a soccer stadium by Midway Stadium, but I don’t think there is anything behind that. (Is there?) Especially after the improvements at NSC.

    So for now, I think it’s all about awareness and connecting with the city. I think it can be done by the Thunder players and staff, but I think the fans can play a role too. I brought first-time fans with me to both games this year, and told a lot of people about the beer garden and the new stadium and how much fun the games can be. People here like soccer, they just need a little motivation to go.

  13. Chrös permalink
    October 1, 2009

    And now I am going to get back to work. :)

  14. October 1, 2009

    Chros,

    Are you sure your done. :) Seriously, I appreciate your comments and reading IMS and for your kind words.

    So many things to comment on and so little time.

    First, I still have to agree with Jeff on this. The Thunders first priority has to be the first team and although I think they have meant it to be, they spread themselves thiner than they thought they had. I have to agree with most of the things Jeff had to say. If a team is winning championships ever year or competing for them with good players and good coaching, then their academy will more than likely be held in higher regard. Unless of course they are not very good.

    Chros, I think a lot of people think that MTA and the Thunder are joined at the hip. They are and they aren’t. They represent the pro club in a sense and it gets the Thunder name out their but they certainly are separate groups on paper and legally.

    The thing that has frustrated so many coaches and officials from other clubs is that they created this mega club right away with about 95 teams at about 1700 kids to start out. This really pulled a lot of talent from other clubs that many were not at all happy about. Some people feel they should have kept the number smaller and more elite. Some didn’t think they should be in the club business at all, which I disagree with, while others felt they should only be looking at the overlooked players in the ethnic communities.

    While it is true that Chicago and others have some of these same issues, I will tell you that Seattle was very sensitive to this issue and started a different model this year where they call in elite players from different clubs to train with Sounders coaches who keep a watchful eye on these young players. In a sense it’s more of an ODP system or an all-star system. But these players don’t play in tourneys or leagues. I’m not sure that’s the best scenario either although they will be politically correct and stay in the favor of all youth clubs this way.

    I’ve written about this before, but the Thunder didn’t have the money to follow through on the marketing plan they had at the beginning of the season.

    Amos was perfect for this sort of thing on KFAN. He was personable, funny at times and could laugh at himself and our game and yet people respected Amo for his accomplishments. By the way, you have to try, but MLS has already found this out and some USL teams as well, but getting a Eurosnob to a MLS or USL game is an extremely difficult thing.

  15. Chrös permalink
    October 2, 2009

    Also, I just wanted to clarify, I didn’t necessarily agree with the sentiment Aaron originally shared, I just thought that the responses were addressing something else. I personally don’t think it matters unless you are really devoted to a youth soccer club.

    Brian, do you know anything about the business model I referred to from the Strib article? The thing about the Thunder players being practically reliant on camps etc., to get paid?

  16. October 2, 2009

    Sorry, never got around to address that. The camps are still part of the MN Thunder pro team. Yes, it used to be their primary source of income, depending on whom you talked to at the Thunder. But I do think the camps helped them to make it through a number of seasons when the 2nd ownership group was involved.

    This year the camps took a huge hit from the whole MTA debate and lack of marketing. There wasn’t even money to mail out flyers this year. A former Thunder player who was in charge of camps resigned at the end of the camp season this year. When Manny Lagos first came to the Thunder as a FO person he spent a lot of time working on the camps but of course things have changed with the new owners.

    I think the deal is there are a number of players who’s contract states they need to help with these camps. But as things are becoming more competitive in signing players in US leagues, you are seeing those things go away more and more. Some of the Thunder players who stuck around last winter worked for MTA last year, but I know a number of them were frustrated with financial issues and getting paid last winter so they will be finding other work this year.

    Most of the contracts are based on a contract that starts when the player reports to training camp in March and ends with the last game of the year. Players generally get paid between 15-30 thousand for that period. Very few are in that upper range. Some players also get housing paid for by the team during the season.

  17. October 2, 2009

    It is truly incredible how much insight you have on all of this. Thank you for the clarification!

Comments are closed.

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