Joey Saputo aims to bring 'buzz' back to Montreal Impact
Falling ticket sales, empty seats worrying owner
The Montreal Impact want to get the buzz back in their dwindling fan base.
Team owner and president Joey Saputo didn't hide his disappointment in falling ticket sales and fan interest in the team, which played before swathes of empty seats as it finished last in Major League Soccer last season.
The club that drew more then 50,000 to a CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final at Olympic Stadium in 2009 now fears it may only get half that for a similar match with Mexican club Pachuca on March 3.
"The buzz is not there anymore," Saputo said at a gathering of media at the team's home stadium on Wednesday. "Not only for the CONCACAF game, I can say the buzz for the Impact is not there.
"That worries me a lot."
When the Impact made the jump to MLS in 2012, they were third in ticket sales in the then 19-team league. By 2014, they were down to 11th and they fear they will be 13th this season. They have sold only about 5,000 season tickets.
He said the Impact fell $2 million short in their ticket sales target last season.
They hope to turn that around with better marketing, and that interest will be renewed by the club's major off-season player moves, including the signing of Belgian international defender Laurent Ciman and Italian midfielder Marco Donadel.
Fans are waiting before buying tickets
"If people are saying 'Let's see what kind of team we have before buying season tickets,' I can say we did our part," said Saputo. "We changed the team.
"We saw what wasn't working last year. We brought in 11 new players. The 12th player, our fans, is tougher to sign."
Despite the gloomy numbers and a feeling that the club has failed to make inroads in public interest after three years in MLS, Saputo said he has not considered selling or moving the team.
"It's disappointing where we are now, but I don't want people to start thinking we're going to sell the team or shut it down," said Saputo, who also owns part of the Italian club Bologna FC. "We'll continue to be there, but we hope the trend changes."
Buying into MLS, building Saputo Stadium and a soon-to-open training centre and bringing in expensive foreign talent has cost the team more than $100 million, he said. The result so far has been a drop from about 19,000 fans per game to about 16,000.
"The disappointment is thinking we'd be more relevant in the city after three years," he said. "Either we missed the boat (in marketing) or we missed the boat totally in thinking this was a soccer market.
Thought Impact would be more relevant
"When you look a it, maybe we're not the soccer market we thought we were. If it means we have to work harder, we'll work harder. But I won't hide my disappointment with where we are in the overall sports landscape of Montreal."
Saputo feels the 2014 season wasn't a total disaster. The team won the Canadian championship, which put it into the CONCACAF Champions League. It got through the group stage and now has a quarter-final tie Feb. 28 in Mexico and March 3 in Montreal.
So far, about 15,000 tickets have been sold and Saputo said that, unless interest picks up, it looks like they'll be lucky to get 30,000 fans.
The main goal for the season is to get back in the MLS playoffs. After a promising campaign as an expansion team in 2012, the Impact squeaked into the 2013 playoffs despite a late-season collapse.
The weak play carried into 2014, prompting wholesale player changes.
The central defence has been rebuilt and quality midfielders like Donadel and Englishman Nigel Reo-Coker should strengthen the middle of the midfield.
They will also have the gifted Ignacio Piatti, a designated player who joined them last August, for the full season.
"On paper, we're stronger than we were last year, but we'll have to see how it goes on the field," he said. "I feel comfortable with the decisions that were made and the direction we're going.
"Last year, I think we missed some bite, some attitude, some leadership."