With the Revs and the rest of MLS on break for another week before the end of the World Cup group stage, now seems like as good a time as any to discuss an issue not specifically related to the 2010 Revolution season. I’m talking, of course, about the long-term possibility — some might say necessity — of a soccer-specific stadium in New England.
There are two sets of reasons for an MLS team to build the big Triple-S. One is pure aesthetics: soccer is best played in a stadium designed for it, with the appropriate size and shape and fan-experience. The other group of reasons is financial: A team that owns its own stadium controls more of its gameday revenue than a team that rents its space from another entity. This second set is the reason I suspect we won’t see the Revs moving out of Gillette Stadium any time soon.
Like the Sounders in Seattle, the Revolution are owned by the same group that owns the local NFL team, and thus the local stadium. For the Kraft family, there’s no financial incentive to move the Revs into a stadium of their own. Whether it’s football or soccer or music occupying the Gillette Stadium turf, at the end of the day, all the money’s going to the same place.
Without a monetary imperative, the only remaining arguments for a new Revs stadium are aesthetic. And while I do believe the team’s front office takes these arguments seriously enough to desire a soccer-specific stadium, I don’t believe they take them seriously enough to make it a priority. Honestly, I’m not convinced they should. Let’s unpack some common pro-SSS arguments that don’t involve money and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
First, there’s the problem of playing soccer on a field painted for (American) football. Like most Revs fans, I dread the day in mid-July when the team first takes to a field with big Patriots logos in front of each net. I think it’s tacky, amateurish, and a poor reflection on the team and the league as a whole. That said, it’s not a reason to build a new stadium. The much cheaper solution (which is employed by the Sounders for every game at Qwest, and has been done by the Revs in the past) is to take the extra time to repaint the field between football and soccer matches. There’s really no excuse for not doing this before every game.
Second is the argument that a smaller (soccer-specific) stadium translates to a louder, more crowded environment. A 20,000-seat stadium with 17,000 fans inside looks almost full. Gillette stadium swallows up 17,000 fans and still looks sparse. But the fact of the matter is that the Revs don’t draw 17,000 fans most of the time. In fact, their high for the 2010 season so far is 13,611, which would only amount to a little over half of a 20,000-seat stadium. Moreover, attendance has only cracked 13,000 once this season, and it’s more commonly hovered around the 11,000 mark. Sure a soccer-specific stadium would feel less empty than Gillette, but on nights like the 4-0 loss to Chivas USA in April, when attendance was a measly 5,990, even an intimate stadium wouldn’t save the lackluster environment.
Would a new soccer-specific stadium become a draw in and of itself? Possibly. Particularly if it were constructed at or near a T stop. I have to admit, I’m personally conflicted about this one. As a sports fan, I much prefer stadiums that are built into an urban neighborhood setting. But as a Rhode-Island-based Revs fan, I’d much rather drive to Foxborough (and be assured of parking) than Somerville. It’s likely that more people would be attracted to the stadium by the convenience of taking public transit there than would be put off by having to drive an extra hour from Providence. But once the novelty of a new stadium wore off, I’m not confident the improvement in attendance would be dramatic. One need only look at the (mostly empty) stands of Pizza Hut Park for proof that a soccer-specific stadium alone doesn’t equal larger crowds.
On the other side of the filling-up-stadiums coin you have Seattle. I hate to keep bringing them up, but they’re the league’s model franchise, and they happen to be in a very similar situation to the Revs. No one complains about Qwest Field not being a good environment for soccer because 36,000 fans standing and singing would turn any venue into a good environment for soccer. Similarly, when Gillette Stadium fills up it’s a great place to watch a soccer match. The atmosphere for USA-Haiti in last year’s Gold Cup was absolutely electric, to say nothing of the 61,000 who showed up for the 2002 MLS Cup Final. A much more important task for the Revolution than building a shiny new stadium is finding ways to better fill the one they’ve got.
Would it be nice to have a soccer-specific stadium in New England someday? Definitely. Is it necessary right now? Definitely not.