Stu Cowan: CF Montréal struggling to attract fans at Saputo Stadium

Ranks 25th out of 28 teams in Major League Soccer attendance and only 13,520 showed up Saturday night to watch 2-1 win over Charlotte FC.

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It was a gorgeous summer Saturday night at Saputo Stadium.

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The sun was shining and the temperature was 28C for the 7:30 pm kickoff between CF Montréal and Charlotte FC on the St-Jean-Baptiste holiday weekend.

That was the good news for local soccer fans, along with a 2-1 victory for CF Montréal.

The bad news is only 13,520 were in attendance, well short of the capacity of 20,801 at Saputo Stadium.

Heading into the game, CF Montréal ranked 25th out of 28 teams in Major League Soccer attendance — according to Soccer Stadium Digest — with an average of 13,950. The only teams below them were the Colorado Rapids (13,864), the San Jose Earthquakes (13,132) and Inter Miami FC (12,614). Atlanta United FC ranked first in attendance with an average of 45,776 and 11 teams were averaging more than 20,000 fans per game.

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CF Montréal improved its record to 8-6-2 with Saturday night’s win, including a 5-3-0 record at home. Romell Quioto (sixth minute) and Mathieu Choinière (47th) scored for CF Montréal, while Guzmàn Corujo scored for Charlotte FC.

The small crowd highlighted again how Montreal is a great Canadiens city and a great event city, but not necessarily a great sports city. Last Sunday’s Formula One Canadian Grand Prix — the first big event of the Montreal summer — was a sellout, attracting a record 338,000 fans over the three-day event, plus the open house. But one weekend later, on a gorgeous summer evening, less than 14,000 showed up at Saputo Stadium.

You have to wonder if the Canadiens playing in a charity soccer game might attract more people.

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The Alouettes played their Canadian Football League home opener Thursday night at Molson Stadium, beating the Saskatchewan Roughriders 37-13 in front of 16,027 fans on a rainy night at Molson Stadium, which has a capacity of 25,012. The Alouettes improved their record to 1-2.

Earlier this month, Alouettes owner Gary Stern spoke passionately at the Montreal Sports Celebrity Breakfast about how much the team and the CFL mean to him and how he was going to work hard to get fans to fill Molson Stadium. He has also been very active on Twitter recentlytrying to connect with fans and asking for suggestions.

“Hey Alouette fans,” Stern tweeted Friday. “We are looking hard at increasing family zone and family specials. Want to make coming to a game family entertainment. Tell me what is it you want the most when you go to a game. Thank you.”

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He also tweeted: “To the I like football, but need to be entertained, what can we do for you to party with us. Love your thoughts.”

And: “To the hardcore football fan. How can we get you more involved in the game. Please your thoughts very welcome.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and inflation haven’t helped CF Montréal or the Alouettes when it comes to attracting fans, but it certainly didn’t hurt the Grand Prix or tickets to next month’s NHL Draft at the Bell Centre, which sold out quickly.

“Inflation is skyrocketing, gas prices are what they are and people’s discretionary income has gone down,” Impact owner Joey Saputo said in a recent interview with the Journal de Montréal. “People will think twice before spending a dollar and they will cut the soccer ticket first. I know it will be difficult for the next few years.”

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Saputo added the key now is to make sure the fans who are showing up at Saputo Stadium have fun and then focus on attracting more fans in the future.

Montreal fans had fun Saturday night, including members of the Ultras fan club who returned to Section 132 directly behind one of the nets for the first time since the team changed its name from Impact to FC Montréal in January 2021. The Ultras still aren’t happy with the name change and had a big “Impact Montréal” sign draped over the front of their section and held up signs early in the game that read: “Pour toujours on chantera ton nom Impact!” (Forever we will sing your name Impact!)

It was back in 1993 that former Montreal Gazette sports columnist Michael Farber wrote about soccer in the city, noting: “Kids play until they are old enough to drive. After they get their licences, the last place they think of driving to is a soccer field.”

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Kids in Montreal still love soccer — just look at all the pitches around the city and in the suburbs — and CF Montréal still can’t fill Saputo Stadium.

The biggest problem might be a case of Habs-itis in the city. Montreal sports fans can’t seem to get enough of the Canadiens, even though they finished last in the NHL standings this season. The Habs-itis will only get worse this summer with the NHL Draft slated for July 7-8, followed by the free-agency period that begins on July 13.

Meanwhile, CF Montréal and the Alouettes will keep working hard to put people in the seats at their stadiums.

The best way to do that at this point is to keep winning games — and hope Habs-itis might wear off a bit.

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