The journey toward Nashville SC’s first USL season began Saturday with a festive friendly against Atlanta United. Now, the “Drive to Nissan” begins.
In case you’ve been in a soccer slumber, the team announced Monday that it would play its March 24 home debut at Nissan Stadium. It’ll also host FC Cincinnati there on July 7. [We were the first to report the news about the debut match.]
The team has created a marketing campaign [the aforementioned “Drive to Nissan”] around the venue decision, and it’s citing high demand as justification for the move from the cozy 10,000-capacity First Tennessee Park to a 69,000-seat NFL venue.
When we broke the news, it was met with a blend of intrigue and skepticism.
A strong crowd at Nissan Stadium would create an electric environment and send a message about Middle Tennessee as a soccer region. A weak — or even decent — turnout would make the stadium feel cavernous and raise questions about the wisdom of the decision, in addition to wasting a chance for a raucous home opener.
Can Nashville SC pull off the former? Recent history provides a note of reassurance. The five largest soccer crowds in Tennessee history all gathered at Nissan Stadium, and the top four occurred within the last two and a half years.
Largest Crowds in Tennessee Soccer History [per The Tennessean]
- Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur [July 29, 2017] — 56,232 fans
- U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Panama [July 7, 2017] — 47,622
- U.S. vs. Guatemala [July 3, 2015] — 44,835
- Mexico vs. New Zealand [Oct. 8, 2016] — 40,287
- U.S. vs. Paraguay [March 29, 2011] — 29,059
No one — not even the team — likely expects to see the same turnout for the USL squad that we saw for the national team and a pair of Premier League teams this summer. Even scratching the top five matches in Tennessee history would be a severe stretch.
In addition to the widespread appeal of those matches, tickets went on sale much earlier: three and a half months ahead of the International Champions Cup friendly [April 4 for a July 29 match] and four and a half months before the Gold Cup match against Panama [Feb. 22 for a July 7 match].
By comparison, tickets will go on sale for the USL debut 32 days in advance. It raises the question of why the team waited so long to announce Nissan Stadium as the location for this match. We theorize the team wanted to drop the announcement while riding the momentum of a sold-out Atlanta United friendly, but one wonders if the detriment of a short lead time outweighs the benefits of such a move.
USL attendance benchmarks serve as a better standard of comparison as we seek to figure out how many fans will attend this match. FC Cincinnati set the USL record in 2017 when 30,417 showed up for a match against New York Red Bulls II. We fully expect that record to fall on July 7 when Nashville and Cincy meet at Nissan Stadium, by the way.
Outside the outlier that is the Queen City, where games take place at a college football stadium, average 2017 USL match attendance ranged from 11,569 [Sacramento] to a paltry 632 [New York Red Bulls, whose total attendance last year was lower than Sacramento’s single-game average].
Excluding Cincinnati, non-reserve USL teams averaged just over 5,000 fans per match last year. Nashville expects to blow that number out of the water or it wouldn’t have moved the match to Nissan.
So, how many fans will show up on March 24? Let’s assume for a moment that the team hits its goal of 6,200 season ticket holders, which would break the record for a first-year USL team. Let’s further assume that 6,000 of those fans make it to the home opener — the team would surely be elated if 96.7% of season-ticket holders attended, but it’s an easy round number for our purposes.
That’s a pretty solid base. Also, let’s take into account that tickets for the inaugural league match cost $15, lower than all but two sections at First Tennessee Park. The team is pricing this match aggressively to attract large numbers of single-game purchasers.
Further, let’s mention Nashville in the same conversation as a fellow MLS expansion contender such as Sacramento instead of a smaller, less ambitious market like Ottawa, which plays in a 24,000-seater but only averages 5400 fans per contest.
To sum it up:
- Solid season ticket base
- Strong recent history of Nissan Stadium soccer attendance
- Positive momentum in the Nashville community in the wake of the MLS announcement
- Aggressive pricing model
- Short lead time before the match
- Lower level of public interest than national team and EPL matches
- Negative sentiment toward this decision in some circles, especially season ticket holders who expected the match to be at First Tennessee Park [although we expect demand to be less elastic among this group, since it consists of fans who are already emotionally and financially invested in the team]
- Few to zero traveling fans from Pittsburgh [as opposed to the July 7 Cincy match]
Nashville won’t break Cincy’s USL match attendance record of 30K. It also won’t enter the top five in Tennessee soccer history [29,000]. Ticket sales lead time and fan awareness just aren’t large enough to support attendance at that level.
But we expect the team to leverage a strong season ticket base, growing soccer interest, major marketing dollars and low ticket prices to draw in casual fans and exceed attendance of the Atlanta United friendly [9,059 in rainy conditions after selling out the match].
By how much will it exceed that number, which included hundreds of Atlanta supporters? Based on USL benchmarks and past ticket sales for matches at Nissan Stadium, we think an attendance of 15,000 would be a good effort and 20,000 a great one. If there are fewer than 15K at the match, Nissan Stadium will feel like Mammoth Cave. Anything above 20K and Gary Smith may do cartwheels along the touchline.
We think Nashville will generate enough intrigue to split that difference. Our official attendance prediction for the USL debut is 17,500 — enough to fill one half of the lower bowl or to make the entire lower section feel decently full.
What’s your attendance prediction? Will it be enough to create a decent atmosphere? How do you feel about the move? Leave your thoughts in the comments or let us know on Twitter — @GoldenGoalNash.