In a season where MLS saw record attendance — both average per match and overall numbers have never been better in the league’s 16 year history — the San Jose Earthquakes finished at the bottom of the league. Of course those numbers are deceiving, for the Quakes played in the smallest stadium in MLS. To put the attendance figures in perspective, San Jose also recorded a reconstituted-franchise record number of sellouts at Buck Shaw Stadium in 2011. Factor in the July 2nd match held at Stanford University — where the stadium comfortably held over 40,000 that evening — the picture for fan interest in the Earthquakes looks a whole lot rosier.
For the final home game of the regular season, the Earthquakes expanded the seating capacity at Buck Shaw Stadium by adding temporary bleachers, and the match was still announced as a sellout. A combination of good marketing, strong ticket demand, and a promotion for season ticket holders to trade in unused tickets from earlier in the season combined to push the crowd for the match against FC Dallas to 4% above standard levels. The entire evening was such a success from an attendance point of view, that Earthquakes team president David Kaval has intimated that he’ll push for increasing the capacity at the Buck for the entire 2012 season.
Again, to put things in perspective, the San Jose Earthquakes are looking to increase ticket availability to home games by over 4%. While that might not rival what the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have planed for the upcoming season, it marks a huge step forward for a team where supporters are understandably frustrated at the apparent lack of movement toward a new stadium. Kaval, an affable and accessible mouthpiece for the organization, as feverishly worked to rebuild the trust between the team and the fans, and has slowly gained the approval of the ticket buying supporters. The new stadium permitting and plans are on track — a slow and methodical track, but that is more than can be said for some other MLS original franchises languishing in outdated facilitates — and the team stands at the last hurdle in the process with the City of San Jose. What many had given up on, but are now realizing is going to happen, the Earthquakes expect to have the permitting done before the end of the year and the plans for the stadium worked out a few months after that.
But getting back to the current state of affairs, Kaval’s comments about raising the stadium capacity next season mark a change in thinking from the leadership of the team. Seemingly content to let attendance flounder below 10,000 in seasons past, the new regime in San Jose has progressively looked to create as good an experience as possible given the limitations of playing in a rented college athletic facility. The George Best Gate was christened — both a nod to the team’s NASL past and as a mark that Buck Shaw was not just the home of Santa Clara soccer — and an improved concessions program was introduced. On that second front, the Earthquakes concessionaires provide an option for in-seat delivery of your food and drink order — that includes beer, people — simply by using an app on your phone to select what you want. Now that is a forward thinking process, one I bet the fine folk in attendance at Red Bull Arena wish they had at their disposal.
The Ultras and the Casbah — the two main supporters groups of the San Jose Earthquakes — had banner seasons in terms of crowd involvement and tifo displays. (Okay, the Charlie Sheen tifo was a bit over the top, but the group made amends with some fantastic displays through the summer months.) Their energy carried over in ways it failed to do in seasons past — even in 2010 when the team successfully made it to the postseason — and less and less the stadium felt like a morgue. Unfortunately, the team on the field failed at their part, but most fans seemed to enjoy the in-stadium experience more than at any other time in the Buck Shaw era.
With whispers that the proposed new stadium for the Earthquakes not being completed until prior to the 2013 season, the team and supporters will have to be content with the Buck for at least one more year. Maybe the team takes a look at playing at Stanford again next season for a match or two — please don’t do the Oakland thing again, that is why too disruptive to fans and the team — in an attempt to create a "big game" atmosphere, but Buck Shaw will have to suffice over the lion’s share of the home schedule. And as the stadium capacity is increased, as the stadium organizers add more amenities to the scant but growing list provided by the Buck, and as the team makes moves to develop a better on-field product (that is an "if" for another discussion), the Earthquakes franchise and its supporters can hopefully take another step forward in terms of defending San Jose’s crown as "Soccer City, USA".