Impact introduce new star Alessandro Nesta, announce ticket cuts
It's not often a soccer team introduces an international star like Alessandro Nesta and lowers its ticket prices on the same day.
But that's what the Montreal Impact did on Friday.
Faced with disappointing attendance records since moving back to the newly-renovated Saputo Stadium on June 16, the Impact slashed ticket prices for the rest of the season, beginning with Sunday night's match against the Columbus Crew.
That announcement came moments after introducing Nesta, once one of Europe's top central defenders and a member of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning team. The 36-year-old appeared before the media for the first time in his No. 14 Impact shirt.
Nesta will be reunited with forward Marco Di Vaio, his friend since they played together as children at S.S. Lazio's academy in Rome.
"It's unbelievable for me and him," said Di Vaio, who left Bologna to sign two weeks ago as Montreal's first designated player — someone paid more than the maximum of $350,000 US under the Major League Soccer salary cap.
"We'll play together again after 18 years. I'm very happy. He's a very good friend."
Nesta, who signed an 18-month contract, is not a designated player but will earn just under the limit. He's expected to be match-ready in about two weeks.
The Impact were so perplexed about the erratic attendance figures in their MLS expansion season that they conducted Twitter and Facebook surveys to find out why there were so many empty seats in their 20,000-seat stadium. They found the chief obstacle for fans was high prices for top-end tickets.
The club drew 58,912 to its home opener against Chicago on March 17 at Olympic Stadium and 60,860 when David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy visited on May 12. Other games at the Big O drew about 20,000.
But since moving back outdoors to Saputo Stadium, they have attracted 17,112 against Seattle, 12,357 for Houston and a disappointing 14,412 for Di Vaio's debut against Toronto FC on June 27. Only 12,085 watched their 3-1 loss to Kansas City on Wednesday night.
At the start of the season, tickets were priced at $25, $38, $57 and $85 before taxes. Most tickets will be cut by $10-$12, but there are new promotions — $20 or $30 for groups of four or six — as well as new student rates between $15 and $25.
The club had estimated average attendance to be 17,000 at Saputo Stadium in the first year. Club president Joey Saputo expressed his worry with attendance so far, stressing the importance of filling the venue.
He said the club won't be in financial trouble, but he's concerned that empty seats may affect how the team is perceived in the soccer world and hurt the Impact's capacity to attract future international stars.
"I'm not worried about the financial standpoint," he said. "I'm more worried about the image the club gives to the rest of the league and internationally.
"We were able to meet with and offer great players the possibility of coming to Montreal," he said, adding that he's had success attracting players by showcasing the team's large crowds in recent seasons." That was a great calling card for us and I don't want to lose it."
The Impact, who have about 8,000 season ticket holders, began the season without a designated player to help sell tickets, but were at work from the beginning to find one.
Saputo said he and sporting director Nick De Santis were in Bologna to meet with Di Vaio last winter and ended up also meeting defender Matteo Ferrari, who joined the Impact in February.
Ferrari also signed his former Italian national squad teammate Bernardo Corradi, but the big striker's season ended three weeks ago with a torn knee ligament.
When Di Vaio finally joined Montreal at the opening of the international transfer window, Nesta came to see him play against Toronto and was taken with the notion of playing in MLS.
Saputo said Nesta wasn't concerned with money, that he had already made his fortune, but wanted to continue playing and liked the set-up in Montreal.
Nesta speaks little English
Nesta speaks little English, but the Impact are loaded with Italian speakers, including former Inter Milan defender Nelson Rivas of Colombia and Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins.
"I was joking with them that I have to learn Italian now," said French defencer Hassoun Camara. "But it's good because we have a great player who comes here. It's another motivation for the other guys on the team. It can only be good."
Central defenders Rivas (abdominal strain) and Ferrari (thigh) are injured, but are due to return around the same time Nesta is ready to play.
Coach Jesse Marsch will then have decide which defenders to use, or whether to go with a three-man back line of Rivas, Nesta and Ferrari.
Nesta was named four times to UEFA's team of the year and was Serie-A defender of the year four times.
"He's not here just to take a pay cheque," said Saputo. "He believes in the philosophy of what we're trying to build.
"[Defender] Karl Ouimette just signed from our academy and now he gets to train beside Nesta. That's amazing for our academy."
The club also announced that all tickets for a friendly match against Olympique Lyonnais of France on July 24 will be $25.