Thursday, May 5, 2011

Filled stadiums, Empty Markets and Making Soccer Cool in America

When Major League Soccer launched, its marketing seemed to have advertisement ADD. Football stadiums, family marketing, no-tie shootouts unlike anyone else in FIFA and ultimately an unreliable target audience.  In its inaugural 1996 year, several of the MLS teams shared stadiums with their city’s NFL counterparts. They also shared owners. Consider the Kraft family in New England, it made sense for them to encourage the Revolution to use its stadium as oppose to renting out others.  Money saved and marketing space to be shared. Of course, now Gillette Stadium appears a cavernous beast swallowing the meager component of loud and passionate Revolution supporters. Stadium choices can certainly be forgiven, particularly in the league’s infancy and the relative unknowns that come with starting this new thing called soccer.

Some things however cannot be forgiven, particularly those flamboyant jersey designs and logos to boot. Anyone remember those MetroStars jerseys? How about those banner flags intended to corral the NFL market? Hot commodities if you’re a collector, shameful displays if you’re a league supporter. I mean, what is that? That taxi looks to be designed by a talented fourth grader.

Which brings me to my primary point: Who was MLS marketing to? Families. Certainly not a bad idea and certainly one to pursue in the smaller markets (something we’ve seen evidence of in the NASL, but that’s another story for another day). The problem with marketing to families is this: does the average sports fan want to go to a game in which five year olds are running around, kids are screaming and parents are pushing strollers? While there is certainly a place for that, its not how you fill stadiums with raucous support. One need only look to Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Toronto to see evidence of this.  These fans are die-hard, on their feet, yelling and screaming. Even the Barra Brava of DC United or Section 8 of the Chicago Fire. Not the ideal place to bring your toddler.

This certainly doesn’t mean there are no place for families in MLS, in fact teams like the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake have had great success with it. That said, the rest of the league should take note: It’s the hardcore sports fan, the college kids and the boisterous that will sell your product. With active and loud crowds, the atmosphere will sell itself (and doesn’t look too shabby on TV, which brings sponsors).  Marketing to families would be especially effective in the small markets, provided teams can offer consistent reason to return. Any parent can tell you, bringing kids to any outing is expensive making it difficult in the post recession years to show up to repeat games. MLS is realizing that it needs to reconsider its target audience. Seemingly, its starting to work. 

A final point to consider: for the past three years the average attendance for Major League Soccer has been on the rise. In fact, Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) of the Washington Post tweeted out recently that the average attendance for past weekend games was above 19,000.  Remarkable when you consider that less than a decade ago this 18 team league stood at only 10 teams. Much of this is owed to new marketing strategies, appealing to the “cool kids”, conservative quality in jerseys and logos. I’d encourage you to visit each teams’ individual websites, see how the set things up, their logo, their jersey and their outreach(es) to their community.  All these things matter in bringing MLS to the forefront of the American soccer fan’s mind. If soccer is to continue to grow in North America, the perception of the sport has to change. It should be one of passion, volume and power...not strollers.



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