Fans still cheering, but United battling uncertainty

A blackout crowd cheers as New Mexico United comes onto the pitch for its game Saturday against Colorado Switchbacks FC at Isotopes Park. United won, 3-2.
Roberto E. Rosales/Journal

Attendance figures speak for themselves, but they don’t always tell the whole story.

Compared with its inaugural season of 2019, New Mexico United’s home attendance numbers have dropped significantly through 10 dates in 2021. United averaged a USL Championship-best 12,693 fans per home match two seasons ago at Isotopes Park. That number is 8,415 this season, ranking second to Louisville City (9,958) among league teams.

Why the big dip?

Performance has likely played a role. United has posted a middling 7-7-7 record and was mired in a seven-match winless streak until Saturday’s 3-2 home victory over Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.

But COVID-19 rates as the primary culprit, effectively placing an asterisk on 2021 attendance figures. League-wide attendance is down from 2019 as clubs grapple with various pandemic restrictions and hesitancy among some fans to attend large-scale sporting events.

It’s an inconvenient set of circumstances for United, which is trying to win voter approval for a new 10- to 12,000-seat stadium in Albuquerque with a projected price tag of around $50 million. A tax revenue bond measure to fund what would be a publicly owned facility will be on the ballot in November.

Still, not all of the 2021 attendance news is bad for New Mexico’s third-year soccer franchise. Despite having played just three home dates with 100% capacity available, United has fared better at the gate than most of its USL Championship rivals.

Coming off a COVID-impacted 2020 campaign in which NMU was the only league team to play all its matches outside its home state, United owner Peter Trevisani said he’s encouraged by this year’s response.

“In a normal year you can track things like attendance and corporate sponsorships,” Trevisani said, “but this is not a normal year. Early in the season we were very restricted, and now with the Delta variant we need to let people spread out. All things considered, I think we’ve had incredible fan engagement this year. It’s just not the same as 2019.”

SEASON OF UNCERTAINTY

USL Championship attendance figures back Trevisani’s assessment. Overall home attendance is down from 2019 and that season’s three biggest winners at the gate have taken the largest hits.

New Mexico, Indianapolis and Sacramento averaged more than 10,000 fans per home appearance in 2019. The latter two are averaging 5,199 and 5,270, respectively, in 2021.

Among the 29 clubs reporting attendance figures (LA Galaxy II and Sporting KC II have not), 18 have lower attendance averages by 500 fans or more compared with 2019. Four have posted significant increases, led by Louisville and Colorado Springs (6,205 per match), which are breaking in new stadiums and enjoying on-field success in 2021.

Uncertainty about pandemic restrictions has taken a toll on ticket sales for a number of clubs. United, for example, did not make season-ticket packages available this season after selling roughly 6,000 in 2019.

Individual game tickets also were limited to 75% capacity through until mid-July, with tickets being sold in pods to enforce social distancing at Isotopes Park.

United sold out just one match under the restrictions, drawing 9,728 to its July 9 match against Colorado Springs. With restrictions lifted in late July and August, NMU had its two largest home crowds (10,303 and 10,418 for Saturday matches against El Paso) and its smallest crowd (6,047 for a Wednesday against Oakland).

“Because of the pandemic, I don’t think 2021 is a great indicator of anything,” Trevisani said, “but I do feel like it shows that a 10,000-seat stadium will be sold out often. Our weekend crowds were heading back toward 11,000 when we had 100% capacity.”

United has averaged 9,180 fans for seven weekend home matches this season and 6,628 for three weekday contests.

SIX TO GO

How United’s attendance will fare over the season’s final stretch is anyone’s guess. NMU has six home matches remaining (three Saturdays, three Wednesdays) and the team stands two points out of a playoff position in the league’s ultra-competitive Mountain Division.

A playoff run certainly would help, but COVID will also play a part. Though not required by the state’s current public health order, United put attendance restrictions in place for its three September home matches, limiting crowds to 66% capacity (roughly 9,500 seats) and encouraging fans to wear face coverings when not seated at Isotopes Park.

“We just felt it was the right thing to do for our supporters,” Trevisani said. “I’ve had people tell me they’re not comfortable bringing families to games right now, especially with kids who can’t get vaccinated. And I’m not comfortable with having thousands of fans having to sit shoulder to shoulder right now. It’s better to limit things and give people some space.”

United drew 7,077 for Saturday’s win over Colorado Springs with fans spread out in most sections but tightly grouped in others, including behind the south goal where “Curse” club members gather. Social distancing is recommended but not required under current attendance restrictions, which will remain in place for NMU’s next two home matches. No decision has been made regarding the club’s four October home dates.

Trevisani said United has refunded some tickets or exchanged them for credit toward 2022 for fans uncomfortable attending matches this season. NMU also has teamed with Western Skies Healthcare to provide free vaccinations and, more recently, rapid COVID tests before and during home matches.

There are currently no plans to require proof of vaccination or a negative test result for fans entering United home matches, Trevisani said. Numerous rapid-testing stations would be added, “if we did go that direction.”

New Mexico United/USL Championship attendance

Home match averages 2019 2021

NM United 12,693 8,415

League ranking 1st 2nd

USL overall 4476 3615

Clubs averaging 10,000+ 3 0

Clubs averaging 4,000+ 20 12

Numbers reflect 29 of 31 clubs reporting home attendance totals this season. Source USL Championship.

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