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Crowds don't bother Chivas USA players

The team is having its best season and is unbeaten at home, but attendance is down 39% from a year ago.

September 11, 2007|J√°ime Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

Chivas USA defender Lawson Vaughn says the guessing game starts during warm-ups about how low that day's attendance will be at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

"Then we come out and listen to the national anthem and we just see the crowd and no one is there," Vaughn said. "We have a chuckle, but we hope that the Legion is loud enough" to make up for the sparse crowd.

The Legion is the team's official fan group, but even its numbers are dwindling.

Chivas USA is enjoying its best season with a record of 12-6-4, third best in Major League Soccer, and is undefeated at home. But the club also has the biggest drop in home ticket sales of any MLS club.

Chivas averages 12,191 fans per home game this season, down 39% from a year ago, filling less than half the seats at the Home Depot Center. Last year's numbers were a bit inflated because Chivas was part of a doubleheader at the Coliseum that attracted more than 92,000 fans. Excluding that one game, Chivas' home ticket sales are still down 19%.

"For a player, it's very motivating to see a sellout crowd and have people act passionate about the game, but when we come out to warm up and we see the empty stadium it's as if people don't want to see us play," said Chivas captain Claudio Suarez.

"It's confusing, in some ways, because our team has been playing so well," midfielder Jesse Marsch said. "But I also know that the team is going through a bit of an identity crisis and [is] trying to figure out how to appeal to the mainstream Chivas fans but, also, to . . . mainstream soccer fans. It's not necessarily an easy equation."

One problem is that when Chivas came into the league in 2005, it seemed ready to copy the tradition of its parent club, Chivas de Guadalajara. One of the most storied soccer teams in Mexico, Guadalajara is equally beloved for playing only Mexican-born players.

In Chivas USA's first season, it fielded a club of mostly Mexican or Mexican American players, hoping to tap into L.A.'s soccer-hungry Latino market. Its players lacked MLS experience and Chivas finished last with a record of 4-22-6.

"More people, I think, came with the illusion of seeing a Mexican team. Things didn't work out for us on the field and I think that affected things a little," said midfielder Francisco Mendoza, who joined Chivas in 2005.

Since then, Chivas' roster has become more diverse and its play on the field has improved. But the team's marketing plan to target mainly Latino fans backfired as Chivas apparently alienated other potential fans.

"That was a mistake and we admit it," Chivas co-owner Antonio Cue said. "We did a thorough analysis of what we had done the last three years [and] we searched for a person that could help."

Today, Chivas USA will introduce former president of AEG Sports Shawn Hunter as its new chief executive officer, president and part owner, and his first order of business is to turn the team's success on the field into a success at the box office. "I do believe that Shawn will be able to turn it around," Cue said.

Chivas' attendance slide comes as MLS is on pace to top the three-million attendance mark for the first time in its 12-year history, largely because of the arrival of David Beckham and the addition of a new team in Toronto. Even though Beckham has been injured and played in only six games for the Galaxy, he has triggered a jump in road game attendance for the team and the Galaxy's ticket sales for its MLS home games is up about 13% to 23,415 this year.

Chivas players are optimistic that Hunter, with more than 20 years' experience in sports business, can help ticket sales. "We always think about the two -- having Mexicans [fans] and also have a core fan base of Americans," Mendoza said. "The fans will come together, little by little."

Hunter has been in this position before. When he worked in the NHL for the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes, Hunter developed marketing plans that helped those teams play in front of near-sellout crowds on an almost regular basis.


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