Watching another league: Did a misguided tweet betray the NASL fall season's most pressing problem?

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Ralph's Mob has a message for NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson during the Tampa Bay Rowdies match at Fort Lauderdale last Saturday. - PHOTO BY CHRIS ARNOLD
  • Photo by Chris Arnold
  • Ralph's Mob has a message for NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson during the Tampa Bay Rowdies match at Fort Lauderdale last Saturday.

"The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."
—Princess Leia, Star Wars

A couple of weeks ago, Bill Peterson, commissioner of the North American Soccer League (NASL), told Pieter Brown of the South Florida-based weekly podcast Ultras Alive that Peterson resisted publicizing pronouncements about the league’s disciplinary process because he found the reality of punishing players and coaches “quite embarrassing.”

I wonder how he feels about Twitter faux pas.

Last Thursday, Charlie Cole, president of Ralph’s Mob, the official supporters group of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, issued a stream of tweets regarding the NASL’s purported lack of response to direct inquiries over security concerns during the previous weekend’s match at the New York Cosmos. This followed similar communication complaints after several supporters groups sought redress about the rowdy behavior of the Atlanta Ultras supporters group during the NASL spring season.

Cole’s tweets finally culminated with a retort from Peterson, which the league commissioner has since deleted but not before the tweet was screen-captured for posterity:
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The reaction on social media was swift and remonstrative. Some, including Ralph's Mob, called for Peterson to resign. During Saturday night’s rivalry match between the Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers, dozens of members of Ralph’s Mob and the two Strikers’ supporters groups, the Miami Ultras and Flight 19, walked out en masse at the 15th minute of the match to stage a 15-minute protest over the tweet.

This donnybrook follows another furor three weeks ago resulting from the ejection of Strikers’ manager Günter Kronsteiner, assistant coach Ricardo Lopes and bench player Walter Restrepo during Fort Lauderdale’s Sept. 15 match at Edmonton. That row ended with Kronsteiner and Lopes being escorted from the grandstands by police for continuing to electronically communicate with the bench area.

Instead of publicly addressing an incident where police remove your players and coaches from a stadium, the league allowed the matter to linger for three days before assessing the Strikers’ coaches with only a $250 fine beyond the automatic one-game suspension for being sent off by game officials. Even then, the league never issued a press release—details were made public by journalists in contact with the affected clubs. Later, Peterson ended up imparting a partial mea culpa, promising quasi-transparency in future high-profile disciplinary matters, even the embarrassing ones.

The common denominator between these two situations is that Peterson and the league’s single-minded preoccupation with message control ended up having the opposite intended effect. The Strikers-FC Edmonton affair was a story with a two-day, extremely limited news cycle that morphed into a two-week dialogue about the judgment of the league and its reconfigured front office staff. And now, “the tweet heard round the league” has already prompted a fan walkout and another inevitable round of reluctant damage control by Peterson.

But as impetuous and ill-advised as Peterson’s tweet was, it unwittingly hinted at an unsettling subtext to the NASL’s fall season, which kicked off in early August after a month-long break following the finale of the league’s spring campaign. Because when you delve deeper into the league’s fall attendance figures, you might wonder whether many fans have already heeded Peterson’s admonition.

First, the obvious positive news: overall NASL attendance is up sharply over last year’s official averages. In 2012, the NASL averaged 3,806 per match. Through last weekend’s matches, the league is averaging 4,675 per match, a 23 percent increase over last year’s final tally. Only the San Antonio Scorpions are averaging fewer fans than a year ago. Contrast this to USL Pro, whose attendance numbers remained stagnant from last year (2,676 average attendance in 2013, compared to 2,658 in 2012).

But a striking trend emerges upon parsing out the NASL spring and fall season figures. The seven NASL teams that played the spring season (i.e., everyone except the Cosmos) collectively averaged 4,653 per game. Currently through the fall campaign, those seven teams are averaging 4,301 per match, an eight percent drop. Indeed, all but two teams (FC Edmonton and the Tampa Bay Rowdies) are averaging fewer fans in the fall than the spring.

The figures are more distressing when you excise just two matches: the Cosmos’ visits to Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale, both highly marketed, tentpole events during which the home teams drew season-high attendances of 7,032 and 7,653, respectively. Absent these abnormal gates, the Rowdies are averaging 3,305 over their remaining three fall home games, a 18 percent decrease from the spring, while the Strikers are averaging 3,408 over their other four games, a 21 percent drop.

Fall averages are also markedly lower for Minnesota United FC (down 21 percent), the Atlanta Silverbacks (down 19 percent) and the San Antonio Scorpions (down eight percent). The Carolina RailHawks are down a relatively paltry three percent. The only appreciable jump belongs to FC Edmonton, enjoying a 24 percent increase over their spring totals partly thanks to expanded seating that didn’t open until May 12.

Divining the reasons for these decreases best begins by culling the red herrings. The first is fan fatigue, that supporters energized by a league spring title chase aren’t as hyped for the dog days of summer. But this excuse doesn’t jibe with the 2012 trend lines, when the final league average of 3,806 was essentially the same as the 3,720 average in mid-June with 40 percent of the league’s games complete.

Others may claim the lack of playoffs this season has diminished second-half fan enthusiasm. But, the NASL fall title chase is structurally no different than the spring title chase. Teams are still competing for a seasonal championship and a spot in the league's Soccer Bowl in November.

That leaves the most likely suspect: advertising, or more specifically, a gap therein. In U.S. lower division soccer, marketing is often propelled by momentum, and the month-long July break in the middle of the season brought not just a break in advertising, but also an absence of teams from the consciousness of their respective markets. Yes, the month break avoided some oppressive summer heat at a time when many families traditionally take summer vacations. But, cranking up the fall season is somewhat like starting the year all over again, except with a shorter run-up and an evaporating budget, and no Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup ties off which to springboard.

From the league’s Cosmos-centric mindset, fall season attendance is up over the spring. And that’s true in the most technical sense. But it’s also an apples to oranges comparison, and even in the Big Apple (well, Long Island), the Cosmos’ bullish debut attendance has receded over their ensuing four home matches.

With the Cosmos now opening up a sizable lead atop the league standings, it will be interesting to see how attendances respond with the fall title nearly decided and no second season around the bend. All marketing is local, so it remains to be seen whether teams have the time and resources for one last late-season ad push.

Or—whether it’s EPL, MLS, NFL, MLB, NHL or college football—will people just go watch another league?

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