Friday, July 31, 2009

Explaining Phenomena: Toronto FC

Once in a while, something happens that is entirely unexpected and changes the environment completely. Toronto FC in its first three years has surpassed all expectationf of attendance and popularity and is well on its way to becoming one of Toronto's sports darlings.

Toronto FC has sold out all regular season MLS, tournament play, friendly, and exhibition games with vocal support never before seen by a Toronto crowd. That's what's so amazing about it: that in a city where fans are notoriously quiet and self-conscious that there is such atmosphere at these games. This can probably be attributed to fans organizing together for these initiatives. U-Sector, one of the most prominent supporters group dates back to the Toronto Lynx days in the United Soccer Leagues. Comprised of soccer die-hards and proud Torontonians and Canadians, they supported the Lynx just as they supported TFC, though the level of competition is less than MLS and their popularity plateaued.

Once MLS was brought to Toronto, season ticket sales were steady but not overwhelming until David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy in the 2007 offseason. This immediately brought attention to the quality of play in the MLS and season tickets for TFC (as well as other teams) reached capacity. That set the stage for U-Sector, Red Patch Boys, and other support groups to start these TFC fan initiatives and start an atmosphere that would extend from the south end of the stadium to all other areas, making fans out of people who may have just purchased tickets to see Beckham. Today Beckham is no longer the reason that TFC gets the support it does, thanks to the fever that as carried out through Toronto.

The second more scientific reason that TFC is contrary to the idea of fans: that tickets and time require minimal commitment. Season tickets were initially $280 for the cheapest seat at BMO Field, and require time commitment of 19 games. This allows the most dedicated fans to attend their game, but not feel obligated to spend most of their summer evenings at the stadium. To put that in perspective, a similar seat at Rogers Centre for the Blue Jays would cost about $1700 for the season and require commitment of 81 games, which is difficult for many people to committ to. And even if they can, it requires a lot of energy to get *that* excited for every game. The specifications of MLS soccer work in this favour.

The relative lack of supply has worked in excellent favour of Toronto FC. 20,000 seats has kept the stadium packed, and has created fan interest in people who may not consider themselves to be soccer die-hards. People want what they can't have and even if tickets are cheap, most people who want TFC tickets can't get them. The worst thing that they could do is to expand their stadium by more than 5,000 seats. The waitlist for season tickets exceeds 14,000, however if capacity of the field was expanded to 35,000 there is substantial risk that some games would not sellout. The second that a non-sellout is recorded, fan intrigue declines as well. In the meantime, they are encouraged to make select tickets available to people on the waitlist, just to keep their interests in the team.

Toronto FC is not without its challenges as television ratings do not approach baseball and hockey ratings Canada wide, but with success on the field, they have the power to captivate the city and build the sport through Toronto and Canada.