Because I just put down my $50 season ticket deposit, and because I haven’t posted anything for two weeks, my random thoughts on how the Whitecaps Reserve team in USL Pro is shaping up off the field.
Boy, That Name Sure Is Stupid!
Is it ever! I like to think that there was a meeting to determine the name, and all the suits from the Whitecaps, MLS, and USL got together, and some unfortunate member of the Football Death Panel said “why don’t we call them ‘Vancouver Whitecaps FC Reserves’, because that’s what they are.” And everyone turned around and stared at him until his head exploded like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So I’m just going to call them the Whitecaps Reserves. Could be worse. I got a press release which referred to “S2” in the subject line and thought for a second I was on Microsoft Excel’s mailing list.
(That said, be exasperated for the right reason. I’m not one of those “WFC-is-Watford-shurely” types. The Vancouver Whitecaps dropped the “Vancouver” for a time in the A-League days, after the 86ers got the rights to the name. The important part of the team’s identity is the “Whitecaps” part; there are loads of Vancouver soccer clubs.)
And the Ticket Prices? Whoo!
Actually it’s not too bad. In absolute terms, $149 at the top end plus taxes and fees for what figures to be at least 14 professional soccer games isn’t nasty at all; about $11 per game maximum. Supporters and season ticket holders will pay noticeably less. It’s significantly below the cost for a 2010 Whitecaps season ticket, which was a higher level but the nearest local comparison.
Actually, Hang On, Let’s Have the Playing Level Discussion Now
USL Pro is the linear successor of the USL First Division, where the Vancouver Whitecaps played through 2009. It is not, however, in my opinion as high a level.
In 2011, when USL Pro was formed, it combined the few remaining clubs of the USL First Division with the USL Second Division. This immediately weakened the talent and financial wherewithal of the league. Many USL-1 clubs which hadn’t joined the NASL were teams that didn’t have the ability or inclination to meet the USSF’s high requirements for second division soccer. Since then USL Pro has lost its best side off and on the field, Orlando City SC (née the Austin Aztex). Only one club from the 2010 USSF D2 Pro League, the last “unified” second division season, survives in USL Pro: the Rochester Rhinos, once a powerhouse but not what they used to be. The Charleston Battery, who played in the USL-1 until 2009 and USL-2 in 2010, nearly count. The rest are long-termers from USL-2 (Wilmington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg), old USL PDL sides (Dayton), or post-2010 expansion teams (everyone else).
The attrition for USL Pro, as in the A-League, has been bad: in four seasons eight teams have folded*, four of which were from the ill-fated Caribbean division. Compare this to one NASL team folding in the same timespan (the Puerto Rico Islanders), with the Atlanta Silverbacks potentially following this year. Attendances are iffy: Sacramento has been brilliant, Orlando City and perennials Rochester have been good enough, and four clubs drew under 1,000 last season.
Rather second-rate players like Matt Delicâte and Chandler Hoffman dominate USL Pro. Dom Dwyer famously decided the 2013 championship almost single-handed while swinging by Orlando City’s training ground on odd weekends. This kind of thing is less common in the North American Soccer League and was less common in the USL First Division. Remember that when MLS entered a Project-40 team to the A-League from 1998 to 2000 featuring what we’d today call Generation Adidas players plus some league-wide reserves, they were generally mediocre.
This isn’t to say that USL Pro is a bad league: it’s good, fully professional soccer, and as I’ve said I’m going to pay money to watch it. If you prefer a fun product to marketing you will be entertained. The games I’ve seen on YouTube have been lively and fun. But it’s diluted a lot since the salad days of the USL First Division.
That Was Fun, Let’s Talk Ticket Prices Again
Consider what reserve teams in competitive leagues charge throughout the world. At the top end of world soccer Barcelona “B” tickets start at €5 (CDN$7.04), with steep increases for better seats or coveted matches, but club members and children get in free. General admission for FC Bayern II starts at €5, with discounts available. Clubs nearer the Whitecaps’ actual level, like those in the 2. Bundesliga or Liga Adelante, typically don’t charge for reserve fixtures at all.
So yes, by world standards the Whitecaps demand top dollar to watch their reserves. However, as we know, ticket prices are not determined by the quality of soccer. There’s a lot less competition for the soccer buck in Vancouver: the Whitecaps, the Whitecaps Reserves, and then down to VMSL or taking a ferry to Victoria. There aren’t even W-League or USL PDL Whitecaps teams anymore. And try as I might, I just can’t get worked up over at most $11 a match. I can’t. Sorry, outrage enthusiasts. I’m paying it and I’m fine with that.
Is Anyone Going to Watch This Other Than Lunatics Like You, Though?
If I’ve learned anything over the past four years it’s never underestimate the marketing power of Major League Soccer. The Whitecaps are portraying these games not so much as a new experience than an old one. They’re soliciting fan input, as their Facebook page cheekily says, on everything “from beer to bouncy castles.” Their website promises that “the fan experience will have a strong family and community feel, and will be similar to the atmosphere we created at Swangard in our pre-MLS days.” Between that and mandatory Canadian content, it’s like they read my website and said “God knows why but we’re trying to make this guy happy.” And there are a few guys like me in Vancouver.
But the amount of money they ask is more than many families can “throw away”, especially during a hot season for soccer in Vancouver: remember that the Women’s World Cup is coming to town. Moreover, around the world, reserve clubs tend to draw far lower attendances than independent clubs at the same level.
This past season in the German 3. Liga, out of twenty teams the two reserve clubs (Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II) were 16th and 20th in attendance respectively. The same trend prevails through the Regionalligas, with a couple reserve clubs among the attendance leaders but the vast majority anchoring the bottom. Of 22 clubs in the 2013-14 Liga Adelante, Barcelona B was 17th and Real Madrid Castilla was 21st. And last year, when the Los Angeles Galaxy ran the first full reserve team in USL Pro, they drew 597 fans per game, second-last in the league.
Hell, look at North American minor sports. The Toronto Marlies are the top farm team of the world’s biggest hockey team in the world’s most important hockey market. Since the most recent NHL lockout their average attendance has significantly improved and the quality of play in the American Hockey League is respected internationally. Their average attendance has never exceeded 7,000 fans per game, which is below several independent youth hockey teams in the Canadian Hockey League. If the Marlies were an NASL team, their numbers would be fairly average. Farm teams, even in the best possible situations, simply tend not to be big draws.
I suspect that the attendance at Whitecaps Reserves games will be fairly modest, particularly given the inconvenient-to-some location. But I wouldn’t bet against the occasional 3,500-strong crowd, because if any organization can pull it off, it’s Major League Soccer.
Probably. I don’t mind the team playing at UBC; I live in Richmond and it’s a nice place to visit (though Thunderbird Stadium is, soccerwise, a shithole). But a lot of people who have to cross bridges do. It’s mildly inconvenient to reach by transit, unless you want to sniff a hippie’s farts on the 99 B-Line. The parking situation is better than it used to be but still not great, and it’s a fair stroll from Surrey or Maple Ridge (at least by Lower Mainland standards; where I come from people call Los Angeles “almost driving distance”). New Westminster would have been much more central.
However, at UBC you’re reasonably convenient to centres of population, plus the Kitsilano hipsters who are just the people who go nuts for this kind of thing. As a taxpayer, I am pleased that (unlike proposals in New Westminster and Surrey) this team won’t require residents to subsidize the Whitecaps’ business model any further than we already do.
That said, USL PDL matches at UBC were very sparsely attended, me and a couple dozen others even on sunny days against Victoria or Seattle. And those were free. Of course the USL Pro team will have a lot more marketing on their side, but we’ll see.
An Irrelevant Digression About the Juan de Fuca Plate
Since the Whitecaps are terminating their USL PDL team, the Juan de Fuca Plate seems to go into abeyance. When we started the Plate in 2012 there were three USL PDL teams in British Columbia; now only the Victoria Highlanders remain. As a donor to, webmaster of, and enthusiast for the Plate, this galls me.
The Whitecaps have actually been really solid promoters of the Juan de Fuca Plate. They’ve mentioned it in their web previews, posted it on their Twitter and Facebook, made announcements over the deafening loudspeakers at Thunderbird Stadium. Last year saw the possibility of the Plate being tied: the Whitecaps and Highlanders agreed to go to a penalty shootout if that happened, which is going above and beyond for a fan trophy they didn’t ask for and had no personal stake in. It would be a pity to lose this.
So why couldn’t the Highlanders and the Whitecaps Reserves play a two game, home-and-home series to decide the winner of the 2015 Juan de Fuca Plate? Oh, I know there are a million reasons: both teams share their stadiums, league matches must take priority, in Victoria’s case their players are only available in the summer meaning fewer opportunities to squeeze in two more games, and bluntly it’s a fair bit of effort to thrill a small number of die-hards.
But from the Whitecaps’ perspective it’s another couple good games for the Reserves against a different sort of opposition than usual. The Highlanders get a marquee home game in a season that’s going to lack exciting opponents. Both teams get something a little special to market; in Vancouver’s case they might like that additional perk for USL Pro fans. The Whitecaps Reserves will certainly be stronger than the Whitecaps U-23s were, but not so much stronger that a fixture would be a waste of time. USL Pro schedules include US Open Cup fixtures but that won’t be a problem for the Whitecaps Reserves, who are expected not to compete in the Voyageurs Cup: that’s a couple open dates right there.
I hope the supporter groups from both cities bring this up to their teams. It’s difficult but not impossible, it has benefits as well as costs, and wouldn’t it be nice?
* — Not counting Orlando City, but counting Phoenix FC and the Charlotte Eagles, who folded but had their franchise rights awarded to new organizations in the same area.
 — Doherty, Brendan. “2014 USL-Pro Season Attendance Log.” Doherty Soccer. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://dohertysoccer.com/2014-lower-division-american-soccer-attendances/2014-usl-pro-season-attendance-log/.
 — “Barça-B Tickets.” FC Barcelona. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://www.fcbarcelona.com/info-tickets/barca-b-ticket.
 — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “To celebrate the arrival of the WFC2 Starting 11…” Via Facebook, November 23, 2014. Accessed November 26, 2014. https://www.facebook.com/whitecapsfc2/photos/a.1724967514395065.1073741828.1723493521209131/1725049464386870/?type=1.
 — “3. Liga 2013/14 >> Attendance >> Home Matches.” WorldFootball.net. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://www.worldfootball.net/attendance/3-liga-2013-2014/1/.
 — “2013–14 Segunda División.” Wikipedia, last edited November 9, 2014. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013–14_Segunda_División.
 — Doherty, ibid.
 — “Toronto Marlies yearly attendance.” HockeyDB.com. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://www.hockeydb.com/nhl-attendance/att_graph.php?tmi=8496.
 — FC Edmonton Supporters Group. “Sources: North American Soccer League poised to announce LA expansion http://www.indyweek.com/sports/archives/2014/11/25/sources-north-american-soccer-league-poised-to-announce-la-expansion THAT’S ALMOST DRIVING DISTANCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.” Via Twitter, November 25, 2014. Accessed November 26, 2014. https://twitter.com/FCESG/status/537363798638592000.