Toronto FC looks to improve fan experience

Toronto FC used to be the standard for MLS fan fervour. No matter the performance on the pitch, the stands at BMO Field were rocking. But with Toronto fading on and off the field, Seattle has become MLS 2.0, along with Portland and Kansas City, in terms of fan experience.

GM plans to have more evening matches

A Toronto FC fan during a game against the San Jose Earthquakes at BMO Field March 24, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Abelimages/Getty Images)

It starts with a sea of green and a marching band.

For some the day is a family affair, while for others it's a chance to share a cocktail or two in Seattle's bustling stadium area before cheering on their local soccer team.

Whatever the motivation, it's no surprise that the Sounders (9-7-4) lead Major League Soccer in average attendance at 40,521 a game at CenturyLink Field. The Seattle game experience is hard to beat.

Toronto FC used to be the standard for MLS fan fervour. No matter the performance on the pitch, the stands at BMO Field were rocking. But with Toronto fading on and off the field, Seattle has become MLS 2.0, along with Portland and Kansas City, in terms of fan experience.

Located adjacent to the Mariners' Safeco Field, the Sounders' downtown home is easy to get to by foot or transit. There are bars and restaurants galore nearby, adding to the game-day feel.

Hours before a Sunday evening start, green-clad Sounders fans were everywhere in the area.

Fan gather prior to kickoff at a nearby plaza where the Sounders' 55-person Sound Wave band puts on an enthusiastic show. An MC hands out prizes .

Then it's time to make the short march to the stadium, with fans chanting and clapping down blocked off streets. The band follows, playing as it goes.

When they arrive, they find themselves at a giant, glistening stadium. The top deck is artfully covered in a sharp-looking tarp, reducing the number of seats without making the venue look empty or cheap.

The stadium is comfortable and well-appointed. The fans are knowledgeable, applauding a nice defensive play as well as the more obvious ones.

Fans in the supporters' south end section stand throughout the match with a leader facing them, orchestrating chants and moves. Many others in the bottom tier also stand throughout.

As teams march onto the field from the southeast corner, the crowd slowly starts to clap — ramping up the speed as they reach the west stand for the anthems. Fans yell out the last name of each Sounders starter during introductions and the anthem is followed by fireworks and green streamers as the game kicks off.

There is a good variety of concession stands and the stadium website lists the food trucks that will be outside each game.

Of course, the two stadiums in Seattle and Toronto are apples and oranges in terms of budget.

The 72,000-capacity CenturyLink Field (67,000 seats with 5,000 additional seats available for special events) opened in 2002 at a cost of US$360 million, with $300 million coming from public coffers and the rest from Seahawks owner Paul G. Allen.

A roof covers 70 per cent of the seating area, with more than a dozen elevators dotted around the stadium.

Small gem

BMO Field, which opened in 2007, cost a modest C$62.9 million with the federal and provincial governments combining to provide $35 million. The original plan called for an $83-million, 30,000-seat stadium.

There is no roof and one elevator.

Despite its modest home, Toronto was a hit with fans right out of the box.

"Without doubt there's more buzz and anticipation with this team than any other in our history," commissioner Don Garber said before the franchise's first kick in 2007.

The success of Toronto, owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, helped sell the league to other investors.

Franchises followed in Seattle (2009), Philadelphia (2010), Vancouver and Portland (2011), and Montreal (2012). A second team in New York is slated to join in 2015 and the league expects to add four more franchises by the 2020 season, bringing the number of teams to 24.

Is it time to improve the game-day feel in Toronto?

"Absolutely," said Toronto FC president and GM Kevin Payne, whose plans include some form of roof and more evening kickoff times to help improve game presentation.

Time to improve

"We're going to look at a number of ways to improve the fan experience, to create new fan experiences ... and try to make it a much more modern MLS building. Because compared to Kansas City, it doesn't compare."

New MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, no stranger to MLS through his days running the Anschutz Entertainment Group, dispatched several club officials to Kansas City for last week's MLS all-star game to see Sporting Park and study.

Opened in 2011, Sporting Park is the jewel of the league's soccer-specific stadiums with average attendance of 19,842 this season, seventh-best in the league.

Portland is a different story. Originally built for US$500,000 in 1926, Portland's Jeld-Wen Field has undergone a $40-million renovation. But the Timbers' game-day experience is more about the rabid devotion of its fans. The team averages 20,674 fans a game, fourth in the league after Seattle, the L.A. Galaxy (21,764) and Montreal (20,957).

Vancouver is fifth with an average of 19,948 while Toronto is eighth at 19,446.

Seattle's stadium is comfortable and exudes class. The fans are loyal, especially when it comes to the NFL — the Seahawks capped season tickets at 62,000.

On the field, the Sounders have also tasted success. Entering this season, Seattle's record over its first four years was 59-32-37 and the team made the post-season every time.

In contrast, Toronto's record over its first six playoff-free campaigns was 45-88-55.

And Toronto is 1-5-1 all-time against Seattle. The two teams meet Saturday at BMO Field.