Memphis 901 FC attendance drops again: how does it get fixed?
Average attendance at Memphis 901 FC’s games has dropped for the third straight season and now sits at the lowest point in team history. Over the course of 18 games at AutoZone Park this year (17 regular season games and one playoff game), 901 FC averaged just 3,455 fans per game. This comes at perhaps the most inopportune time as 901 FC fights to get their share of the money allocated by the state legislature so that they can build a soccer-specific stadium.
Before turning to how to improve the attendance, here is the full list of 901 FC’s home games this year with the attendance for each game.
|3/11/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Loudoun United||4,001|
|3/18/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds||3,587|
|4/15/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Las Vegas Lights||3,734|
|4/29/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Louisville City||3,644|
|5/13/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Colorado Springs Switchbacks||3,450|
|6/3/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Miami FC||3,672|
|6/17/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Detroit City||3,964|
|6/21/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. FC Tulsa||3,008|
|6/24/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Charleston Battery||3,688|
|7/7/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. San Antonio FC||3,623|
|7/22/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Orange County SC||3,971|
|8/23/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Indy Eleven||2,567|
|9/6/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies||2,264|
|9/9/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Monterey Bay FC||3,238|
|9/16/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Hartford Athletic||3,417|
|9/30/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Birmingham Legion||3,237|
|10/7/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. El Paso Locomotive||3,537|
|10/21/23||Memphis 901 FC vs. Louisville City||3,587|
And just how do this year’s numbers stack up against previous years? Unfortunately, not well which is frustrating given that 901 FC has been one of the better teams in the USL over the last few years with three straight playoff appearances and a nice run in the US Open Cup this season (to go along with their nice US Open Cup run in 2019).
|Year||Average Attendance||Number of Home Games||% Change|
So while this may be the worst attended year in 901 FC’s history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise as the numbers have been trending downwards for some time.
The question is now this: how does it get better?
Fortunately there is a solid soccer scene in Memphis and the fans were keen to have their ideas heard. Some of the ideas that were floated were not things that 901 FC has any control over such as crime downtown and the perception of it. Others that were floated, such as simply moving the games to Mike Rose, were self-serving and impractical (the stadium capacity at Mike Rose is 2,500 which is nearly 1,000 seats less than what 901 FC averaged this season).
One idea that many fans had that 901 FC doesn’t really have control over, but is still a good point, is that this team desperately needs more interaction and coverage from the local media.
Trenton Trakul of Bartlett points out that 901 FC used to have games air locally on a main TV channel such as CW30 (whereas this year most games aired on WMC 5.2) and also used to have games air on the Spanish language radio station 99.3 La Jefa.
“Those things should come back,” he said.
Bluff City Media, of course, was at 16 of the 18 home games as well as on the road for the June 10th game at Louisville City. John Varlas of the Daily Memphian was at more games than not. The Sports56 WHBQ morning radio show hosted by Greg Gaston and Eli Savoie has had Bluff City Media’s Lawrence Dockery on multiple times to talk 901 FC, in addition to having head coach Stephen Glass on several times throughout the season (as well as having midfielder Aaron Molloy on the day before 901 FC’s home playoff game against Louisville City).
The flip side to that coin is the Commercial Appeal only sending someone to cover two of 901 FC’s 18 home games this year, a far cry from the 2020 and 2021 seasons when Corinne Kennedy was at nearly every game. Many fans of Memphis 901 FC believe it’s perfectly understandable for 901 FC coverage to be at an ebb from local outlets during football and basketball seasons. But between the Grizzlies playoff elimination at the hands of the LA Lakers on April 28 and the Tigers opening football game against Bethune-Cookman on September 2, there were nine Memphis 901 FC home games at AutoZone Park. That’s half their entire home schedule and in that time there was very little discussion or coverage of 901 FC despite no Tiger football or Tiger basketball and no Grizzlies. And as Trenton Trakul points out, “They need to market based off the fact that the soccer season is the perfect thing to do during the football and basketball off-season.”
Another suggestion came from Dolly Staten who is an admin for the All Things MidSouth Soccer Facebook group. Her concern is the lack of consistency with benefits for season ticket holders, opining, “The privileges seem to come and go. Last year, there was a lot, and this year, not as much. Maybe just a reasonable consistency. We really liked the meet and greets with the team after the games. Maybe not after every game, because we realize some nights they just want to see family and leave, but we enjoyed the opportunities to hear the coach speak after the games and get a chance to speak to the players.”
She and others would also like to see more giveaway games where fans can get some sort of door prize for being one of the first thousand people to walk in the door, be it a t-shirt or a magnet schedule or some other kind of 901 FC swag.
Another idea was brought up by a prominent member of the Memphis referee community. This individual (who wished to remain anonymous) suggested a referee night where local referees could receive discounted tickets and perhaps some sort of acknowledgement at halftime of the game. This person further pointed out that Nashville SC of MLS (who, this year, averaged 25,174 over the course of 25 games across all competitions playing in the largest soccer-specific stadium in the country) has had a referee night in the past.
But among all these fans ideas sourced from in-person conversations as well as Twitter and Facebook there was one thing that every person kept coming back to: marketing.
Jim Cross is the producer of the In Off the Bench Podcast, as well as the CEO of the business side of it. The In Off the Bench Podcast is focused primarily on having college athletes of all sports on and helping them build their brand by stewarding NIL deals, supporting their non-profits, and sharing their social media promotions. As part of his role with the In Off the Bench Podcast, Cross has been to a number of soccer games for the women’s team at the University of Memphis. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been to a 901 FC game since the inaugural season in 2019, though he points out it’s not a location issue or anything specifically wrong with the in-game experience.
“It’s just a lack of awareness. A lot of times I don’t even know when the games are or what promotions they are running. We had a great time at both games and it’s not a hard drive from Southaven to it’s current location.”
Rebecca Fava of downtown Memphis is likewise unaware of when 901 FC games are because of the lack of marketing.
“I just don’t ever see anything about them outside of friends on Twitter occasionally posting they’re at the game. I love Memphis and I love supporting all things Memphis. But I never see any billboards around town or commercials on TV or hear ads on the radio so it’s difficult for me to get out and support Memphis 901 FC because I just don’t know when the games are.”
The lack of billboards or ads on TV and radio is something Ian Johnson of the Bluff City Mafia has certainly noticed.
“Hire experienced marketing professionals that aren’t pulling double duty for two pro sports teams and give them the budget to promote the team via TV, web, billboard, and boots-on-the-ground advertising.”
Joe Ferguson of Bartlett said that he would like to see more community engagement from 901 FC higher-ups.
“Craig Unger is out meeting fans nearly every game as they walk into the stadium. It’s nice to see from a fan perspective that the owner cares that much he’s at the games next to everyone else. It would be nice to have forums and events where fans hear from the owners and the front office.”
Ferguson also says that he would like to see more events and watch parties for when 901 FC is playing on the road.
“Team presence at a pub partner during away matches would be incredible. Some kind of official watch party for all the away games, outside of what the Bluff City Mafia does.” (It’s worth noting here that 901 FC did actually try this during the 2022 season for a 901 FC game @ Loudoun United and had the misfortune of picking a Sunday afternoon game that got delayed for hours and hours due to severe weather in Virginia).
Rob Krauss lives in Atoka and has been a season ticket holder since 2020 (and had half season package back in 2019). So he’s been around supporting 901 FC since almost the beginning. The way he sees it, improving attendance for the Beale Street Boys boils down to two things.
“You have to get new butts in the seats and then you have to retain those folks AND your loyal fans.”
Krauss has a litany of ideas that he believes will work for both getting those new butts in seats and for keeping them there. First, he would like to see 901 FC reach out to every local school, club, and rec soccer program in the area and offer comped tickets for players.
“If your track-record is to have 4,500 unsold tickets, you have nothing to lose by giving them away. If you give out 2,000 and 200 come, 20 may come again. That’s 20 more than you had the previous week.”
He also thinks that partnering with the Grizzlies, the Tigers, and even the Showboats for ticket giveaways should be explored, as well as offering simple clinics at various rec programs around town, at which they can give away tickets and get people to the games. (It’s worth noting here that 901 FC held an open practice at the new Snowden Grove Soccer Park in Southaven this past August and had over 700 people turn up).
Among Krauss’s other ideas for bringing in new people would be to add a cheap seat standing area with a pricing tier of $5 and do a “college night and offer discounts (and cheap beer) with a student ID.”
For retaining current fans and any new fans, the first thing Krauss brings up is the return of all the fun pregame activities on the plaza in front of AutoZone Park.
“My kids loved coming to the games before COVID. They danced waiting to get in, they loved the stickers and tattoos, and the games they had. I don’t know how many times they’ve said, ‘I wish they had the games to play.’ You have to make it more than just a soccer game; it has to be a soccer experience.”
Other ideas echo what Dolly Staten had to say including more perks for season ticket holders, door giveaways and more interactions with some of the players.
“One of the things that makes the USL different from other professional sports leagues is the accessibility to the players. When fans can actually build a little rapport with the players they cheer for, they’re going to come back. Especially the kids. Bruno is beloved by kids in two cities because of that accessibility.”
One thing Krauss touches on that many fans have wanted over the years is more transparency from the organization.
“It would go a long way for Peter, Tim and Craig to let everyone know we’ll have a team; to commit, on the record, to the team’s longevity. And to explain the rationale behind roster building, etc. We deserve that. As my wife Jennifer said, ‘It doesn’t feel good when you’ve been loyal to something for five years and you feel like that loyalty isn’t repaid.'”
Whatever 901 FC does, they must do it quickly. It’s going to be very hard to justify building a 7,500 seat soccer stadium when the soccer team only draws 3,400 people per game. Hopefully they are willing and able to try some of what these fans have asked. Is any one of these by itself a magic bullet that will cause 901 FC attendance to jump back up to over 6,000 people a game? Probably not. Can a number of these together help 901 FC attendance to get back to where it was in 2021? Absolutely. And perhaps Rob Krauss’s closing words can be used to sum up the feeling of all the 901 FC fans:
“I would also say this: we love this club. We want it to succeed. We just feel hopeless to improve things when there seems like such a disconnect between the ownership and the fans.”
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