MONTREAL – You might be able to win a few bets with this little bit of Canadian trivia: Which sport has more Quebec youth players, soccer or hockey?
You’d be wrong if you said hockey.
“(About 10 years ago) soccer became the No. 1 participation sport, ahead of hockey,” said Richard Legendre, executive vice president of the Montreal Impact. “People do not realize that. … Right now there are about 200,000 kids registered at the Quebec Soccer Federation. Hockey is about 95,000. Of course, in the 200,000 there’s about 40 percent girls, which obviously helps the numbers. But still, it’s a real phenomenon what happened in Quebec in the last 10 years or so. And along with that, the Montreal Impact had pretty good success.”
The 19-year-old Impact played in soccer’s second division until this season, when it jumped to Major League Soccer in expansion. Today, Montreal opens its renovated home, Stade Saputo, with a first-ever visit from Sounders FC.
The Impact already got the Sounders’ attention this season by briefly dislodging them from their accustomed place as MLS attendance leaders.
Montreal nudged ahead of Seattle by averaging 40,529 through its first four home dates – including huge crowds for the home opener and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s visit while making temporary use of Olympic Stadium.
Since then, Seattle has returned to its usual spot as the MLS attendance leader, averaging 38,672 to Montreal’s 36,498. And the Impact’s average will further drop at Stade Saputo, which has a capacity of 20,341.
“Montreal is a city of events,” Legendre said. “… The opening game we had 58,000; the L.A. game, 68,000. But the other games were more around 20,000. So our capacity is 20,000. … We need to continue to work hard in terms of promotion. Season tickets were at about 8,000 – we were hoping to be a little bit higher than that. It’s still an interesting challenge where we need to continue to promote our game a lot.”
Part of that will involve expanding the Impact’s promotional target. As a USL club, the prime audience was families – often those youth soccer players and any adults they could drag along.
“The kids were taking their parents to the games,” Legendre said. “That is changing a little bit …with the MLS. Our crowd now is more and more 18 to 35. But I would say it’s a work in progress. It’s not done yet. We want to continue. There’s no bad customer. … It’s pretty much three tiers we’re going after: maintaining the family; more 18-35 and the international fans, and more corporate.”
The franchise also has a demographic segment unique in MLS: the official language of Quebec is French.
Legendre said on the island of Montreal, there is roughly a 50-50 split between French and English speakers. In the greater Montreal area, it’s more like 75 percent French. And in the suburbs, it is about 90 percent French.
The club has versions of its website in both languages. It handles media information similarly. A section from the current “Game notes” reads: “The Impact and Seattle Sounders FC will face each other for the very first time in MLS play on Saturday;” while the “Notes de match” read: “L’Impact et les Seattle Sounders FC s’affronteront pour la toute premire fois en MLS samedi.”
“It’s so much part of us that it’s not a challenge,” Legendre said. “The majority of the population is French; but we’re communicating in both French and English with the priority to French because French is the official language of the province of Quebec. When we do a press conference here we almost multiply by two the number of cameras and the number of journalists because of the two cultures. It’s actually more of an asset than a challenge for us.”
It might be more of a challenge for any players who cross the border fluent only in the more typical MLS languages of English and/or Spanish.
“It’s an adventure,” former Sounders defender Tyson Wahl said shortly after joining the Impact. “I think a lot of us are going to put in an effort to learn some French. I’m going to. I don’t know any at this point, but I think it will be fun.”email@example.com 253-597-8808 blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer @donruiztnt