The Battle for Los Angeles

Like you, I saw the empty seats.  And like you, I was disturbed.  We were told things were going to get better and better.  But still, expectations aren't being met.  This can't happen in one of the league's flagship cities.  We need answers.  We need change.  I can't in good conscience turn a blind eye. No, not Chivas USA - are you kidding?  Like you didn't see this coming up 190th Street.  Chivas USA has been trying to sell bacon-wrapped shrimp at the Wailing Wall for nearly a decade now.  There's a reason they're not in the newspaper.  Chivas USA screwing up isn't news, it's not sports because the outcome is preordained, and it's not weather - climate, unlike Chivas USA, has changed.  The world will little note nor long remember them, and this franchise of the idiots, by the idiots and for the idiots will soon disappear from the earth. 

I'm talking about the Galaxy.  The numbers for Sunday afternoon's opener: 20,124 for a 27,000 seat stadium.  The team wasn't particularly lazy or complacent about marketing, either - there are at least two billboards featuring the mugs of Juninho and Robbie Keane gracing my neighborhood, and covering the Galaxy's catchment area from my house to Carson and beyond ain't cheap.  Rapid transit is also brightened up with the cheerful golden gloating of aligning stars. 

So what, in short, gives?  Let's examine the possibilities.

1.  What problem?  Last year, the Galaxy signed a hilariously lucrative deal with Time Warner Cable.  Today, AEG announced that the Home Depot Center will soon change its name to accommodate StubHub.  The Stadium Club will be changed to the StubHub Club, where they will serve StubHub pub grub.

Jesus, I'm sorry - I lost my mind for a second.  One might assume that with the spin in the media about Home Depot choosing not to re-up, and what with the depressing length of time FC Dallas Stadium has taken to re-whore itself out, and basically with the whole economy starting its fifth year of an extended bellyflop, that the lucrativity of the new naming deal would be something to sneeze at.  One would apparently assume incorrectly, or at least I did.  Unless AEG just flat-out lied to Street & Smith's Don Muret:

Shervin Mirhashemi, president of AEG Global Partnerships, said the value is greater than that of the deal Home Depot signed in 2003 when the facility opened. The old agreement carried a value of $70 million over 10 years.

This deal was made, keep in mind, with Beckham long gone and Chivas USA loudly telling anyone who will listen about how much they hate the place and can't wait to leave.  Also, the tennis stadium makes a fair boxing ring, the track stadium makes a fair reserve game venue, the San Diego Chargers are nowhere in sight, and the velodrome makes about as much profit as you'd expect a velodrome to bring in, and did I mention the economy since 2003 has died and gone to hell?  StubHub paid what it paid largely on the strength of the LA Galaxy.  Just like Time Warner did last year.  If a few empty seats here and there are a problem, all of MLS should have such problems.

But the Home Depot Center - sorry, Parc du StubHub or whatever they end up calling it - is not oversized by any means.  It was built specifically to create scarcity in the Southern California MLS marketplace.  It's tougher to get Galaxy tickets than some other teams I could mention, but it's a rare StubHub radio commercial that bothers to mention the Galaxy...and StubHub commercials are not what you'd call rare.  21st century teams aren't remotely as dependent on box office as their forebears, but you don't see a healthy team that struggles at the gate.  And I think over six thousand seats available is an issue.

2.  Missing stars.  Every team loses players.  But as all the soccer world knows, the Galaxy started the year without two of their most accomplished international stars, who have been identified with the team for years.  Even though there's a significant brand strength that gets a lot of corporate attention, the fact is fans love players.  The Galaxy, even with those trophies, have to reinvent themselves for the public.  And let's be honest.  No matter how successful a club, or how devoted the fans - when a team loses players like Edson Buddle and Christian Wilhelmsson, there's no guarantee the fans will come back. 

Oh, yeah - Beckham, Donovan, something something oranges something.

The Galaxy have been very frank (heh) about how they intend to solve this - either Lampard or Kaka or someone about the hit the downslope of their career like Franz Klammer.  (Balotelli to MLS is when, folks, not if.)  But six years of Beckham built the fan base to where...they don't sell out their season opener as double defending champions.  Lampard or Kaka will bring just a different set of looky-loos.

LA seems, as of this writing, to have done the impossible, and won over Robbie Keane.  Maybe the most mercenary Irishman since Brian Boru has finally found a home, who knows.  Some of this was the original MLS plan in the Doug Logan era, with legitimately big names like Campos and Valderrama.  It worked so well they nearly shut the league down.  Beckham was a poker bluff away from making the team a global laughingstock, too, remember.  It's a thin line between Henry and Marquez, and I don't know if the Galaxy can afford to be caught on the wrong side.

3.  I suck.  In this case, I, the Los Angeles soccer fan.  Full disclosure - I didn't go to the game, either, and not for a reason anyone would care about.  But I thought 27,000 others would, so I thought, what the hell, I'll see them later in the year.  In any case, I do have season tickets, so I was counted anyway. 

But Los Angeles is almost Miami when it comes to fickle support of sports.  It's an article of faith that Los Angeles fans need a shiny object - Campos, Hermosillo, Hernandez, Hong, Beckham, Keane, Stephens - to draw a crowd. 

My counterpoint to that is the LA Kings, an AEG property, and for four decades California's answer to the Maple Leafs.  The LA Palm Leafs.  Anyway, they got good all of a sudden - I mean, seriously, in the space of a month or two - and won something very heavy.  People here love the Kings now. 

Name an LA King. 

Thought as much.  The Kings had a few decades' head start, so maybe the answer is simply time.  But big heavy pieces of metal don't work for the Galaxy as much as for the Kings, and that should be addressed.  We're not even frontrunning as well as we should be.

4. Chivas USA sucks.  When it comes right down to it, Chivas USA and the Galaxy are selling the exact same product at the exact same place.  When Chivas USA sells tainted horsemeat with e.coli and rat paws in their burgers, it's not going to make customers hungry for a Quarter Galaxy with Cheese.  Especially if the Galaxy is priced ten times as high as the Goat on a Shingle.  I've called the Galaxy/Chivas USA dynamic a negative feedback loop before, and in fairness the Galaxy have pulled out of their doldrums of the Yallop era.  But there's good, and there's good in comparison, and Chivas USA is the kind of wingman that gives dives a bad name.

There's also a finite amount of coverage in the media for two soccer teams, especially in Crazytown.  It would be nice if each outlet sent a separate guy to follow each team, and gave them both the same amount of attention.  It would also be nice if dogs crapped rainbows.  When an outlet devotes even the minimal time and space to a partial-birth oil spill like Chivas USA, those inches/minutes aren't coming out of the Lakers' time.

Counterpoint: the Clippers.

Countercounterpoint: the Galaxy want to be the Lakers so badly - and vice versa, seeing as how the Lakers went with big names over common sense this year, but I assume all of you care about the Lakers even less than I do, which is very little indeed - but aren't anywhere near there yet.  The Clippers didn't come into town until after Magic Johnson did, after all.  In comparison, Chivas USA is a snake in the Galaxy's cradle.  A rubber snake, but a snake nonetheless.

5.  Price point.  Or, as a human being would say, price.  Thanks partly to the Home Depot Center Until The Timbers Game, and thanks partly to Designated Player salaries, Galaxy tickets are something less than the biggest bargain in the league.  Because I am lazy and innumerate, this thought exercise will work just as well assuming all 27,000 seats are general admission.  A general admission ticket for a Galaxy game is $35.  Convenience fees are not included.  20,124 times 35 is $704,340.  (I know we're talking about tickets distributed, not paid for, but since not every ticket is general admission I think compensating error kicks in a little.  In any case, it'll do for the purpose of the exercise.)  If prices were lowered to $25, they would sell out the stadium...and make $675,000.

So at $35, it's easy for the Galaxy to go back up to #1 and say "What problem?"  (In case you were wondering, general admission single game tickets for Chivas USA are $17.) 

Counterpoint - so sell one ticket each game for a million dollars each!  I mean, you only have to sell one ticket every two weeks!  Not to belabor the point here, but we're building a sports team.  There are so many intangibles about being a sports fan - loyalty and belonging and things that I absolutely do not want to trivialize, because occasionally something comes along and lets you know that this silly stuff isn't always that silly.  (Clicking through recommended, but the story is very raw and emotional, so, be warned.)  You are trying to build a community.  Overpricing and bare bleachers make that task harder. 

Anyway, those cheapskates who would show up for $25 tickets, but not $35, are still paying for parking, probably buying concessions, usually buying souvenirs, and if the team and supporters groups are doing their jobs, leaving the park fans for life, so they'll come back and spend $25 again and again. 

6.  This is not a rebel song.  This is Sunday Bloody Sunday.  I asked the Galaxy and MLS if they had any comment, and to my amazement, they did not tell me to go **** myself in new and interesting ways.  In fact, they provided me with this:

2012 – 27,000 (Saturday night) 2011 – 27,000 (though the number of fans in the building was far lower due to a deluge that hit that day) (Sunday evening) 2010 – 21,376 (Saturday night) 2009 – 18,013 (Sunday afternoon) 2008 – 27,000 (Saturday night) 2007 – 23,596 (Thursday night)

My counterpoint - well, as much as it's possible to counter actual data would be the Galaxy's average season attendance for those years:

2012 – 23,136 2011 – 23,335 2010 – 21,437 2009 – 20,827 2008 – 26,009 2007 – 24,252

And AEG was so delighted with last year's Galaxy numbers that they fired their President.  No pressure, Chris Klein.

This goes to whether it's fair to say that the Galaxy are underperforming in the first place - I say yes, because I just wrote a lot of crap about it.  The Galaxy and MLS have PLENTY - maybe millions - of reasons to say no, and it's their buttcheeks in the blender when it comes right down to it.  I certainly don't want to be the Galaxy attendance equivalent of the US fan who wants us to win every Central American road game.

But I don't think I'm lying with numbers.  There are eight million stories in the city, and only twenty thousand of them are stories about the Galaxy.

Oh, and by the way - the Galaxy are for sale.  They're still officially the only MLS team in town who are for sale.  Sure, the cost is $7 billion, and there are some ancillary throw-ins to complete the deal, but the Galaxy are the MLS team in Los Angeles on the block, not Chivas.  AEG has put a great deal of time and effort into the club, and succeeded on a number of fronts.  But they haven't finished the job yet, and they will sell the club before they do.  It is vastly more important for MLS to get the Galaxy right than Chivas USA, and I hope and assume Garber and the other MLS owners realize it.