So while Coach Ben Olsen spent the winter addressing the roster, the front office began new initiatives to reverse the attendance slide. The efforts appear to be working: Full season ticket sales are up 21 percent and season packages (full- and half-year plans) have risen 27 percent, United chief marketing officer Doug Hicks said this week.
As of Friday afternoon, the club had sold 14,200 tickets for Saturday night’s home opener against Real Salt Lake, Hicks said. With late purchases and walk-ups, United expects to surpass the turnout for last year’s first game at RFK (16,314).
It is an encouraging sign for an organization that led MLS in attendance in 2001 (21,518) and, as recently as 2008, was third overall. Last year, saddled by unfavorable home dates, an outdated stadium and a team still finding its way, United drew almost 5,000 less than the league average. (Seattle skewed the numbers by averaging 43,144, but seven other clubs attracted more than 18,000.)
United’s focus was on improving season ticket orders.
“Our base of ticket buyers wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Hicks, who has worked for the club since 2001. “Our starting point was so low, we were racing against time every Saturday night to build a crowd.”
In 2012, the only sellouts in RFK’s downsized capacity of 19,647 were the regular season finale and Eastern Conference finals.
Officials wouldn’t reveal the number of full-season ticket equivalents — a fan who buys the entire home slate counts as one, as does two half-season buyers. However, one person, who did not want to be identified because internal figures are confidential, said the team sold 5,200 packages in 2011 and 4,300 last year.
United confronted multiple ticket-selling challenges last year: a schedule pocked with midweek home games and long gaps between RFK appearances; a middling team lacking an international star and an aging stadium that doesn’t appeal to casual sports fans.
While some areas were beyond its control, the front office targeted the home schedule.
“It didn’t happen by chance,” chief financial officer Michael Williamson said. “We needed to work with the league and stadium.”
The result: All but one of 17 regular season home matches fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
The club also moved the starting time for most games to 7 p.m., 30 minutes earlier than usual, to allow families to return home earlier and young fans to hit the town earlier.