TUPELO FANS FAILING ATTENDANCE TEST FOR PRO SPORTS
BY PARRISH ALFORD
Shame, shame, shame on Tupelo.
That’s what John MacKenzie says, anyway. The commissioner of the Eastern Indoor Soccer League, MacKenzie praised the play of the Tupelo Hound Dogs in their last home game (a 17-9 loss to Daytona Beach) but ripped the city for putting only 1,026, a generously-estimated crowd, in the Tupelo Coliseum seats.
I have seen the EISL, and it is as advertised. It’s a fast and exciting game, something I never thought I’d hear myself say about soccer. There is lots of music, spotlights and promotions, and the game is a well-run event.
It is a sport that with very little effort could develop a following, but people have to be willing to follow.
The Hound Dogs do their part. There’s a quality product on the field, and organizers have gone to great lengths to ensure (popular catch phrase coming up) “family entertainment.”
Players play to the crowd and many stay afterwards to sign autographs. In short, they’re approachable.
But while the Hound Dogs put big numbers on the scoreboard, they’re not putting big numbers in the seats.
Tupelo has averaged 1,460 for four home games. That ranks the Hound Dogs fifth in the league, and they’re back at the coliseum at 1 p.m. Saturday against league-leading Lafayette, La.
Since Tupelo’s team was announced I’ve heard many people say how well it should do here, since “Tupelo is a big soccer town.” There’s a big difference in soccer as a participation sport and soccer as a spectator sport. Soccer is big here because our children and young people enjoy running outdoors in the sunshine. It’s a great physical activity.
But there’s a stigma in America applied to outdoor soccer as a spectator sport. It is a slow and methodical game with too few shots on goal. For generations, many Americans have had little knowledge of soccer. That may be changing with the sport’s popularity in recreation youth leagues, but changing hearts and minds takes time.
The EISL is vastly different from its outdoor cousin. There is speed, scoring and physical contact. The goalkeepers have a smaller net to defend but must contend with many more shots on goal. Rebounds off the dasher boards allow for more shots and create more strategy.
The commissioner’s comments should not be taken lightly. The average home attendance of EISL teams is 3,021. Tupelo is averaging less than half that figure. Most of the EISL teams actually have ownership groups within the city. Tupelo does not.
With minor league hockey talks on-going, you would think the city and the coliseum are under the microscope as Tupelo takes its first journey into the pro sports world.
Market size will always be a question here. We have a great facility, but it’s of little value with empty seats.
The summer of 1997 may raise as many questions as it answers. Can two minor league teams flourish here? Would the Hound Dogs draw better if the Tornado wasn’t here? Or vice versa. Will the region support a sports team that does not necessarily involve its own youth?
School is still out on us. There is some affordable, quality summer sports entertainment out there if we choose to take advantage of it.
Parrish Alford is a sports writer for the Daily Journal.