It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the Claude-Robillard Sports Complex. Humid, late summer sun is casting long shadows on a wide green field as the two teams—the Montreal Impact and the Minnesota Thunder—take to the pitch. There are fans everywhere; the east and west bleachers are packed and long stretches of grass on the north and south sides of the field are filled to overflowing. It’s the last home game of the regular season—many amateur soccer teams are in the audience, donned in their full regalia, and young families can be seen walking to the concession stands and back, arms and hands stuffed with potato chips and Coke. Everywhere I look there are soccer jerseys: the blue and white of our local team, the bright yellows and reds of local youth squads, the ubiquitous yellow and green of Brazilian jerseys that are seen at any soccer match worldwide. The weather is great, the home team is in first place, and the beer is actually cold—it is a perfect day for a sports fan.
There are those that argue that, even at its best, soccer is a tough sell for North American audiences; that games which regularly end 1-0 (or even 0-0) offer little excitement to consumers weaned on hockey, football and basketball. Soccer is seen as aloof, weirdly intellectual and European, like coalition governments or diesel cars. Here in Montreal, however, we are fortunate to have a professional soccer team that seems to have captured the imagination of the city. The Claude-Robillard Stadium, where the Impact play, is bursting at the seams. In a professional league where decent attendance numbers for other teams hover around 3,000 to 4,000 fans, Montreal’s squad has set a new standard, averaging over 11,000 fans per game.
It has been a long, steady climb to get here. Anyone who has watched sports teams in Montreal come and go knows that this is a tough town for teams to thrive in. So now, with the Impact set to migrate to a new $15 million stadium in the southwest of the city in 2006, spectators can’t help but wonder how long Montreal’s love affair with soccer will last after the move.
I am a fan of all aspects of soccer. I check stats. I watch second-string players warming up before the game and I ruminate on possible substitutions during the match. I watch the goalie when play is at the opposite end, just to get a feel for what the game is like from his perspective. I’m not a foam-finger or thunderstick-waving type of guy, but I truly enjoy the particularities of each game—I feel that this sort of appreciation is critical to soccer’s popularity in Montreal.
The Impact play in the colourful First Division of the United Soccer Leagues (USL), a second-tier league—behind the Major Soccer League (MSL)—that boasts teams from such peculiar soccer hot spots as Charleston, South Carolina; Rochester, New York; Virginia Beach, Florida; and Puerto Rico, among other locales. The soccer is pretty good—not of the calibre we witness via satellite whilst sipping espresso in Montreal’s Mile End cafés, but certainly entertaining and often surprisingly exciting.
Nothing beats getting out into the vast open air of a soccer stadium to see a game. It is an event of simple colours: the clean green and bright white of the field; the open dome of a pale blue sky; and the simple, solid hues of soccer uniforms streaking up the pitch to harness a small white ball. Seeing the game played live at a professional level is what defines it as “the beautiful game,” and seeing the beautiful game in a stadium stuffed to capacity is what gives it its humanity and charm. Being elbow-to-elbow with other fans gives the experience a further level of vitality, as anyone who has seen the Alouettes at McGill’s Molson Stadium or a Habs game at the old Forum can attest.
While the Impact have certainly made a case for the fact that they could benefit from having more room for fans, it remains a possibility that shipping the whole enterprise down to the Technoparc could kill the momentum they’ve established at Claude-Robillard. The simple fact is that the Impact cannot keep winning forever, as their semi-final loss on September 25 attests. Even dynasties end—ask a Canadiens fan—and when the Impact slip into a “rebuilding” phase, their ticket sales may slip as well.
As a Montreal sports fan, I think of the poor, beleaguered Expos, who enjoyed relative success until the 1994 players’ strike killed their momentum. When the league finally resumed play, the Expos were forced to ride out their tenure in Montreal at the Big O, a facility suited to the fan base of a winning team, but a hollow reminder of the Expos’ failure when they were not. Despite the Big O’s capacity to seat 58,000, by the end of their time in Montreal, the team was lucky to see a few thousand fans show up for a game. To put it in simple terms, nobody wants to go to a game that nobody else wants to go to.
A lesson can be drawn from the CFL’s experience in Montreal. When the Alouettes moved into their new, more intimate, environs at the McGill facility, they sparked a fan renaissance that some believe helped revive the CFL at large. By focussing on the idiosyncrasies of the team and league (such as the lower salaries CFL players make relative to other sports), by stuffing some Canadian players in the roster such as Girard and Proulx, and by moving to a smaller stadium, the Als are now well positioned to sustain the growth they’ve enjoyed.
There are certainly arguments in favour of moving to the Saputo Stadium, as the Impact’s future home turf will be called. Chief among these is the growth opportunity the facility will provide for youth soccer and for soccer’s general visibility in Montreal. But, while no one can blame the Impact for wanting to get more fans into their games, moving the team to a new space south of downtown can only distance them from their existing fan base.
The Impact’s championship win in 2004, for which 13,000 fans stuffed themselves into Claude-Robillard, and later flooded the field after the victory, is exactly the kind of lore that sports teams—the good ones, at least—are steeped in. It seems unlikely that a move to a brand new facility will nurture legendary stories such as these, and while the move may look good on paper—in terms of soccer’s growth and ticket sales—Montreal’s relationship with sports teams can often take unexpected turns.
The Impact should have stayed where they are. After all, if you can’t get a ticket to the hottest item in town, isn’t it just incentive to line up earlier next time?