SBJ/May 26-June 1, 2014/Franchises

All eyes on new Houston team

MLS teams watching progress of NWSL club owned by Dynamo

Chris Canetti knows the rest of MLS is watching.

Canetti is the president of business operations for both the Houston Dynamo and the Houston Dash. The Dash this year joined the Portland Thorns to become the second team owned by an MLS club playing in the National Women’s Soccer League.

The Houston Dash has averaged 5,742 fans for three home dates.
Photo by: Enter Name Here

Viewing the success of the Thorns as a bit of an outlier — what with the MLS Timbers being the financial juggernaut they are — the rest of MLS wants to see how the Dash performs as a business.

“There’s some pressure on us here, to be honest,” Canetti said. “MLS people saw what happened in Portland with the Thorns last year, but they said, ‘Hey, it’s Portland and they do incredibly well in soccer.’ People are looking at us and are curious about how we do. Some MLS team presidents and owners have already checked in with me to see how things are going.”

“I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about the NWSL,” Canetti said.

The Thorns, owned by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, led the NWSL in attendance in the league’s first season last year and are doing so again this season, averaging 14,126 fans across their first two home games. The MLS Timbers sell out every one of their games and have a season-ticket waiting list of more than 10,000 names — so they have a large audience to pitch the Thorns.

The Dash, meanwhile, is bankrolled by Dynamo owners AEG, Golden Boy Promotions and the Brener International Group.

Six weeks into the NWSL’s second season, how’s it going for the Dash? Here’s the story so far:

Attendance: Heading into last Friday’s home game , the Dash was averaging 5,742 fans a game over its first three home dates, including a crowd of 8,097 for its first match April 12 against Portland. A return visit by the Thorns on May 12 brought in a crowd of only 3,911, but that was a weeknight game compared with the opener on a Saturday night.
At its current count, the Dash was third leaguewide in attendance last week, behind the Thorns and Chicago Red Stars (6,201 average). Averages for the rest of the nine-team league ranged from Washington at 3,537 a game to Sky Blue FC (Piscataway, N.J.) at 1,414 a game.

Season tickets: The Dash has 2,500 season-ticket holders, of which half are Dynamo season-ticket holders. For its part, the Dynamo has 11,000 season-ticket holders, but Canetti pointed out that in 2006, the Dynamo’s debut season, the MLS club also had 2,500 season-ticket holders. “That’s perspective,” he said. “There’s room for improvement.”

Sponsorship: Five Dynamo sponsors have taken what Canetti described as “major” sponsorships with the Dash: BBVA Compass (including the front of the jersey), Houston Methodist Hospital, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Michelob Ultra and the Houston Zoo. The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Houston became a Dash-only sponsor at the start of the season.

A scaled-down stadium: BBVA Compass Stadium, the AEG-owned and operated venue that’s been home to the Dynamo since opening in 2012, has a capacity of more than 21,000 for the MLS club but it is scaled down to about 8,000 for Dash games. Only the lower bowl and suites are opened for the NWSL schedule.

The business model: At an average ticket price at $18, Canetti estimates that if the Dash sells an average of 4,500 tickets a home game for the season, the team will make a small profit.

A shared staff: With the exception of coaches and trainers, the Dash does not have its own staff. Dynamo front office employees work for the women’s team. Said Canetti: “Having a shared staff was how I could justify adding the women’s team. Once we prove this is a viable, stand-alone business — hopefully this year — I hope to have a dedicated Dash staff on the business side. I know we won’t be able to truly maximize the Dash as a business until we have a separate staff. One step at a time.”

Before asking AEG and the other Dynamo owners to add a women’s team for Houston, Canetti last fall visited with Paulson and with Mike Golub, president of business operations for the Timbers.

“They opened up their business model to me and showed what could be accomplished with shared budgets,” Canetti said. “Merritt and Mike were very influential in opening my eyes to the potential of the women’s league.”

Canetti persuaded AEG President and CEO Dan Beckerman to buy in when, through a simple social media campaign of tweets and Facebook posts, the Dynamo received more than 1,000 deposits of $25 for season tickets for the proposed NWSL team in mid-November.

The Dynamo announced the launch of the Dash on Dec. 12.

Canetti said the Dash’s arrival in Houston is about more than dollars and cents. “With the MLS club, we are the pinnacle of soccer in a city that loves the game,” Canetti said. “But in order to grow the game to its potential, there has to be a professional women’s team. We want to provide opportunities to these great women players, and we want to see them serve as role models to the young women in our community.”

Similarly, NWSL Commissioner Cheryl Bailey sees greater potential gains.

“Portland and Houston have added a lot to our league,” she said. “They both bring infrastructure and established fan bases with their MLS teams. ... As we explore any expansion plans, we’d welcome interest from other MLS franchises.”

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