The Wave started in 1984 as a glorified amateur team. After their fourth season, they moved to the Bradley Center, and for about fifteen seasons their attendance averaged in the 7,000 to 8,000 range. About five years ago, they moved to the US Cellular Arena and attendance has steadily declined. Along the way, the Wave won the league championship four times.
My thoughts on the Wave attendance as a 24-year fan...
The Wave really must have papered the house with free tickets in the Bradley Center era. I am sure that some of the large attendance figures had a large paid gate, but I was at so many of those 15,000+ attendance games where there were hundreds of people in line exchanging vouchers for tickets a half hour before game time. But with a crowd in the five digits, the game was a blast. Fans cheering loudly, getting into the action, booing the usually poor officiating, etc. Ten thousand may have gotten in free, but we had a great time.
On one hand, when the Wave drew 7,000 with regularity (understanding that many were freebies), there was decent coverage in the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel - oftentimes with a color game photo on the front page. All of the TV stations used the Bradley Center video feed, and home game video was on the sportscasts during the evening news. Having 40 to 44 games helped as well... if a schedule is too short (or too long of a gap in between games) it is hard to gather momentum. But playing two games a week - and almost always having a home game every weekend - kept the Wave in the public eye. I think that is a word-of-mouth that the Wave relied on. (You can get a free ticket voucher and not use it, or you can get a freebie and because the team was in the public conscious, you decide to go to the game).
Then on the other hand, when the Wave moved to the US Cellular Arena, there weren't enough seats available to give out excessive free tickets... if you paper the house and then don't have enough seats to match the number of vouchers, that's not a good thing. I also think that around the same time, the Major Indoor Soccer League and the team started taking a stand against papering the house. I mean, moving across the streets cuts the average attendance in half? Many folks in Internetland feel that the Wave took a step backwards because of the feeling that the US Cellular Arena is minor league.
So although I would gather that almost all of the 2,600 in announced attendance was paid (maybe even a similar number as from the BC days?), the lower attendance has become a negative trend that has gathered momentum... less attendance means less coverage from the media. No more Bradley Center video, so less news highlights. Soccer reporter Charles Gardner got promoted to Bucks coverage, and he really wasn't replaced. Therefore, the MJS coverage is rinky-dink. Now the team plays only 30 games, and there is less "buzz" now that they've taken away five home games. There might be three weeks in between games, and if you don't see them on the news, then it is easy to forget that they exist.
Honestly, I completely forgot that the Wave had a game the previous weekend against La Raza de Monterrey. I buy my tickets at the door because they are always available, and I can rattle off more Wave historical and trivia stuff than almost anyone else in the city, and I forgot the Wave was playing a Saturday night game. Talk about a lack of buzz.
Other than the reduction in free tickets, I think a couple of other things may have cut into the attendance:
(1) There is a full casino in town now that wasn't there in 1984 (or 1994, for that matter). This is a big 8000# elephant in the room. It is more likely that mommy and daddy will blow the discretionary income (if not the mortgage and car payment, too) at Potowatomi than going to a soccer game with Johnny and his friends. Nobody wants to admit that they will deny taking the kids to the game so they can go gamble, but there is a reason that the Potowatomi Nation can't build expansions fast enough.
(2) The gawdawful game day presentation supposedly intended to make it an entertainment event. When a person goes to a Bucks or Marquette game, and it takes 10 minutes to introduce the players because they show a highlight video, and have the cRAP music behind the introductions, you've forgotten about the intros by tip-off because you are there for a Bucks or Marquette game. But when you see basically the same introduction at a Wave game, suddenly it looks so bush league. Now throw in the T-shirt tosses into the stands, the constant PA commercials during the game and the music, the entire experience overshadows the game (Side note, I've gotten to accept music during the games. My newest kick is the unlistentoable racket that is now played. The ticket buyers are in the 25-50 range - regardless of the ages of the kids. How about some sound that I can tap my toes to? You know that stuff; it is called music, complete with words and actual musicians playing actual instruments.)
(3) Ticket prices. Call it adjusting for inflation or whatever, but when $16 is your cheapest seat for an event that nobody wants to go to.... Years ago while at a Chicago Fire game at Soldier Field, I ran into Peter Wilt (then the Fire GM who previously was the PR guy for the Wave in their heyday). We talked about not undervaluing the ticket, because of the prestige that a high-ticket price brings. When the top-level ticket is $50, it gives the impression that it is a high profile event. Conversely, if a cheap seat is $8, there is less value associated with EVERY ticket. Whether I agree with that or not is irrelevant. What is relevant that is if the Wave is getting 2,600 fans, there isn't a lot of perceived value at all and the lowest price tickets need to go down. A lot.
I must say that it breaks my heart to see this happen. Again, I am one of the very few that has been to at least one game in each of the 24 seasons, and so many life memories revolve around indoor soccer games. One of my first dates was at a Wave game (tickets were $4 in 1984... I could afford that). As I got older, I got to date a player's wife (well, I call it a date, maybe to her it was someone giving her a free meal). My son and I started going to games in 1993 when he was too young to know what a ball was, but we still got to go to 10-15 games a year together for the past 15 years. He and I can remember so many things - both great and silly - and the Wave has really bonded us. I've gone through one wife (and My-Sugar-Na makes #2) and their divergent attitudes about the Wave.
But now that the Wave has gotten so irrelevant that I am even forgetting when there is a game... Something has to change, and quickly.