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How Groupon May Skew NBC's Deal With Major League Soccer

American futbol fans will cheer NBC's new deal to broadcast Major League Soccer next season, lifting the beautiful game from the cable ghetto of Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN2 to prime-time TV. But the bigger media venue comes with a problem: Some of U.S. soccer's biggest teams are playing in stadia that feature thousands of empty seats -- and it may be Groupon's fault.

The Aug. 13 clash between the New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire sold out the 25,177-capacity arena according to the home team, but as this highlight video shows there were hundreds if not thousands of empty blue seats:

From my viewpoint in Section 133* of Red Bull Arena, I estimated there were at least 4,000 seats that went unfilled. In addition to an alarming number of premium seats on the half-way line that were empty throughout the game, sections of the upper deck's corner seating were devoid of fans, as this freeze-frame from the highlight reel shows:

Attendance across the MLS is up this year, most agree, with games seeing an average of 17,411 fans. That average has been given a massive lift by the Seattle Sounders, whose matches take place in front of an average of 37,000 people per game -- more than the English Premier League average. Several teams -- Portland, Philadelphia, Vancouver, San Jose, Kansas City and Toronto -- have an attendance that hovers around 100 percent capacity. This year or next, it is likely that average MLS attendance will become greater than that of the NHL or NBA.

Those are the numbers that have tempted NBC. But at some places, attendance is lagging. At New York, Chivas USA, New England, and Dallas the numbers are down. The Columbus Crew -- traditionally one of the strongest sides in the league -- is experiencing a slow-motion disaster this season: It has lost 26 percent of its fans from last year and gets just 10,000 spectators per game.

Conspiracy theory
Attendance at MLS games is tracked obsessively by its fans (you can delve deep into the numbers here, here, here and here). Some are openly questioning whether the New York Red Bulls are fiddling their numbers -- by holding them down. This conspiracy theory requires you to believe that the Red Bulls have concluded that they do not want MLS to award a second team franchise to New York, which would almost certainly go to the New York Cosmos, because it would draw fans away from the Red Bulls. Thus, empty seats suggest that there aren't enough fans in New York to go round, and MLS should look elsewhere.

It's ridiculous of course -- but the Red Bull front office didn't respond to three requests for comment from BNET on why the stadium wasn't full when the club said it was. Hmm.

It's more likely that seats are empty because some fans buy tickets but don't show up. The best seats in the lower deck are mostly taken by season ticket holders, many of whom apparently don't feel the need to watch every game they've paid for. Red Bull Arena also has a persistent problem with slow lines at its concession stands, which keep hundreds of fans inside the mezzanine for periods during the game.

The curse of Groupon
And then there's Groupon. This season, the Red Bulls have sold thousands of discounted tickets on the daily deal site: 551 for the Chicago game; 1,578 for the New England Revolution match; and 800 for the San Jose Earthquakes.

They are not alone. Columbus sold 400. Chicago sold 5,848 packs of multigame tickets. Chivas sold a modest 163 for the San Jose game. New England sold the better part of 4,000 to its Kansas City and Manchester United games. And Dallas gave away 175 Groupon tickets for the game against L.A. plus two batches of 652 and 563 tickets to its Chicago faceoff.

There's nothing wrong with dumping unsold tickets on Groupon, but the discounter is known as a destroyer of businesses as much as a builder. Groupon users are precisely the ones least likely to show up -- by definition, they're buying on a whim. Come the day, a trip to the rainy wasteland of Harrison, N.J., suddenly doesn't look so thrilling to someone who doesn't know who Thierry Henry is.

Of course, NBC has a large audience, and live games function as 90-minute ads for tickets. So the problem may fix itself. But perhaps NBC should give viewers a taste of the insanity that goes on in Seattle before the network shows a New York or Columbus game:

*Disclosure: I'm a Red Bulls fan and have bought seat 27 in Row 8 of Section 133 for most home games.

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