Despite having won two of the last three MLS championships, the San Jose Earthquakes have continued to struggle attracting fans to cozy Spartan Stadium. They were ninth in the 10-team league in attendance last year with an average of about 10,000 spectators and drew only 8,230 for the season opener this spring.
But everything suddenly changed last weekend for the Earthquakes' second home game. The crowd of 17,667 was their biggest turnout since the fall of 2002.
What caused the spike in interest? Freddy Adu.
Five weeks into the season, D.C. United's 14-year-old forward has had a profound impact on game attendance, TV ratings and media attention for the nine-year-old league.
Following four reserve appearances to start his career, Adu is expected to make his second consecutive start tonight when United plays the winless Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium.
"Without doubt, we have a tiger by the tail," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "We did not expect Freddy to have a direct impact this early in his MLS career. We signed Freddy to keep him in the United States and allow soccer fans here the opportunity to potentially experience the sport's first [U.S.] phenom.
"Once the media and general public got a hold of him . . . [it] turned a great sports story into one of the year's biggest general interest stories."
United's visit to San Jose is only one example of Adu's impact. The turnout at RFK so far (an average of 22,919) is the largest for the first two home games in five years — and it probably would've been the biggest ever if not for the team's decision to close the upper deck at the 52,000-seat stadium.
United officials believe they could've drawn 35,000 to 40,000 for Adu's debut on April 3, but in an effort to create ticket demand throughout the season, they cut off sales at 24,603.
Last year United averaged about 15,000 for its first two matches and 15,565 over the entire season.
United's road trips have also brought out curious fans. A match at Los Angeles drew a sellout crowd of 27,000 at Home Depot Center and a week later, 31,419 were at Giants Stadium for the D.C.-MetroStars game. United is by far the league's biggest road draw, averaging 25,362 — nearly 9,000 better than any other team.
MLS's TV ratings, although still very low on a national scale, have also gone up. The season opener, in which Adu made his pro debut in the second half, garnered a 1.3 rating for ABC (about 1.4 million viewers), 30 percent higher than the network's broadcast of the 2003 MLS opener.
Locally, WJLA attracted a 5.9 overall rating (about 130,000 viewers), making it the third most-watched sporting event in the Washington market that day — ahead of golf and auto racing and behind the NCAA Final Four games on CBS. For the last half-hour, when Adu was playing, the rating jumped to 7.2 (160,000 viewers).
Three of ESPN2's four MLS games this year have involved United, with an average of 290,000 viewers nationwide. The network's non-United game (Chicago at San Jose on April 10) had only 170,000 viewers.
Overall, the viewership for ESPN2's games is up 73 percent over last year. "Freddy has definitely made an impact and we are pleased," ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said.
On Adu's general appeal, United President Kevin Payne said: "He has managed to cross over beyond just soccer fans in a way that few players ever have in our league. His impact on TV ratings has been substantial, his impact on ticket sales here has been substantial but not enormous — we've always have a pretty solid following in D.C. — but in other cities it's been substantial.
"It's a special event when Freddy comes to town."
Adu said he has been surprised by the friendly receptions he has received in visiting stadiums but doesn't pay much attention to his impact.
"There are a lot more cheers [when United is the road team] than I thought there would be," he said. "But I really don't think about it. We just go to play and win. All the other stuff just comes with it."
The question now is whether the buzz around Adu can be sustained.
"We never expected so much attention, so soon, so we would not be surprised if the heat dies down during the summer," Garber said. "A little less attention wouldn't be the worst thing for Freddy or D.C. United. It will allow him to establish a more normal routine and get fully integrated into the team and his new life as a pro."
Payne sees peaks and valleys as Adu continues to establish himself.
"It won't be the same kind of hysteria unless he really starts having [a huge impact] on the field," he said. "I would think there would be another bump — and it may not be this year, who knows? — at whatever point he becomes fully comfortable on the field and if he starts doing the things we think he will be able to do. Then he'll be a star on the field and not just a human interest story."