Houston Dynamo forward Mauro Manotas, left, could be playing in front of as many as 6,600 fans at … [+]
Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has issued an executive order to allow businesses in the state to operate at 100% capacity beginning on March 10, Houston Dynamo FC will take a more measured approach to getting fans back to BBVA Stadium during what everyone hopes will be the final stage of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a reply to an email from Forbes.com, the Dynamo revealed they will permit crowds of up to 30% capacity for early-season games, doubling the number of fans allowed during games following the resumption of the 2020 season. A 30% capacity crowd would amount to 6,600 fans per game if every available seat is sold. The Major League Soccer season begins on April 17, though the schedule has yet to be released.
“Our plan, which we put together in consultation with MLS and NWSL as well as our local public officials and medical experts, is to begin 2021 with a limited capacity, with the goal of eventually returning to a full stadium later in the year,” the Dynamo said in a club statement. “We’ve increased our capacity to 30%, up from 15% last year, while still maintaining social distancing, requiring masks, and following other safety protocols that align with the guidelines provided by MLS, NWSL and our local leadership. While our goal is to return to a full capacity, we will only do so if and when we are confident that it is safe for our fans, players, staff and community.”
The Dynamo are one of three Major League Soccer teams in Texas who will navigate the complicated question of how many fans to allow amid the freedom provided by Abbott’s executive order. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned the order is likely to result in an increase in cases and fatalities in the state over the short term, the temptation for those three teams to lure as many supporters back to the stadium as reasonably possible is understandable.
Proportionally, Major League Soccer clubs depend more on match revenues than the other four major sports leagues in the U.S. and Canada, because of the relatively meager $90 million earned from the league’s annual national TV deal. That’s less than a tenth of what the NFL’s current TV rights bring in, and even the NHL generates more than double the MLS amount from its national TV contract.
Additionally, for the Dynamo and FC Dallas — two teams with relatively modest profiles relative to others in MLS — the ability to recoup gate revenue when others are unable could allow a rare chance to gain some financial ground on big spenders like Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, LAFC, Atlanta United and so on.
At the same time, MLS fans skew younger, more diverse and somewhat more progressive than those of other North American sports, except for maybe pro basketball. So there’s perhaps a greater risk of alienating a team’s core support by appearing callous to public health concerns than exists, say, in Major League Baseball.
Houston’s decision to begin at 30% capacity reflects an awareness of the tension between competing financial and public relations interests. Further north, FC Dallas is still deliberating on the path it will take when the season opens.
“We’re reviewing Governor Abbott’s Executive Order,” club spokesperson Gina Miller said in a statement. “As we work towards our opening weekend on April 17, we’re committed to operating responsibly and in compliance with MLS policy to ensure that all the proper health and safety measures are in place for our fans, guests, players and staff.”
The response from both clubs also suggests the decision may not be entirely their own. The league may wish to restrict attendance at events even if larger crowds are permitted by local authorities. In addition to public health and public relations reasons for doing so, the league also had pointed to the likelihood of reduced crowds throughout this season as justification for invoking a force majeure clause with the collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Association back in December. Having any of its teams allow unrestricted crowds early in the season would discredit that decision and maybe even leave it open to a legal challenge.
Unlike Houston and Dallas, expansion club Austin FC at least has the luxury of waiting until its home opener scheduled for June, in its brand new Q2 Stadium. By then, the majority of Americans may have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and case numbers may be far lower than they will be on MLS opening weekend.
“We will continue to actively monitor guidelines and trend lines,” team president Andy Loughnane said in a statement. “And with our first home match anticipated in June we have the ability to remain both observant and patient prior to establishing a capacity estimate for Austin FC’s inaugural match at Q2 Stadium.”
I write about MLS and other American soccer for Forbes.com. Also a contributor for MLSsoccer.com, the Associated Press, MLB.com and elsewhere. The best single piece of