Bringing the Fans to MLS: Part I-The Non-Soccer Fan

mlsWe’ve seen it all summer;  90k in the Rose Bowl, 80k in Seattle, 80k in Dallas and more.  Huge numbers tuned into the American run through the Confederations Cup and the  Gold Cup drew well nationwide.  Yet, MLS numbers remain fairly stagnant both on television and at the gate.  How can Major League Soccer tap into this multitude of soccer fans?  Should they?  Should the League be happy with crowds of 15k in smaller stadiums with limited TV ratings?

As announced, we are jumping into the business of MLS attendance.  Over the next couple of weeks we will be taking a look at different groups of people:  MLS fans, fans of the US National team, fans of European club teams, etc…  We’ve been talking to people in all of these groups about MLS and what MLS needs to do to get them to games.  Here are their thoughts.

Somewhat paradoxically, we are starting with the non-soccer fans.  These are people that are not soccer haters, but also not soccer fans.  Perhaps most interestingly, among this group, we found baseball fans most willing to give MLS a try. Those who had been to games found that they had “surprisingly” enjoyed the experience.  Perhaps second among the “willing” were hockey fans.  Far and away, the least interested were NFL fans.

Perhaps it’s the low scoring of these sports, but none of these people see put off by the relative low number of goals in soccer.  When asked what would keep them interested in MLS, a couple of consistent themes emerged.  First, they wanted atmosphere.  Those who had attended games in smaller MLS stadiums or had soccer experiences with loud and noisy crowds were far more likely to go back.  This was a different environment than what they had seen at other sporting events, and they liked it.  At the same time, these non-soccer fans wanted someone to explain what was going on in front of them.  This was true for the soccer, but more important for the “story lines” that many soccer fans hate.  They wanted to know about the players, the rivalries and the back stories.

When asked about whether MLS should be shooting for 80k at all of their games, the universal answer from these non-soccer fans  was “no”.  They all believed that 15-20k in small stadiums was a worthy target and that bigger doesn’t equal better.  Not surprisingly, these fans were not worried about the quality of play, the presence of turf or the nicknames of teams.  They wanted to have fun at the games and have a plot line to remember and cheer for (or boo).  In other words, they see no reason for the product to change.  The status quo is sufficient for them to come back…but they won’t go on their own.  They need someone to bring them to the game.

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19 Responses

  1. I think that is a brilliant analysis of the ‘non-soccer’ fan situation right now. I know it’s going to sound silly but those are the very same questions my mother asks if she happens to join me on the couch when I watch a game at her house. And my dad is a staunch NFL fan and really is more interested in ridiculing the game than ever watching it.

    I also have found that’s why my parents feel comfortable watching and even following at times the USMNT games. They know exactly who to cheer for, the US(!), and they can pick up on the story lines quickly. I have seen them struggling to understand the club situation and how players from different national teams can play on the same club team. However, relating it to the NBA and people like Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, and Yao Ming helps them grasp it.

    I can’t help but wonder if the MLS has the same information you presented in the last two sentences. I do not see a good system for allowing people to get tickets for friends free and yet I still see MLS games with TONS of empty seats. But considering it that these ‘non-fans’ need a companion to the lead the charge where is the assistance for them?

    And while I don’t go to MLB of NHL games often, I still don’t ever remember seeing an MLS stand at the game selling tickets or collecting information. If these are the fertile fields for crossover fans, why isn’t the MLS sowing the seeds there?

  2. This is a really interesting topic but I was underwhelmed by the article. Where did you talk to these people? How many people did you talk to? What are their ages and genders? I would be REALLY interested in that. This article failed to address this.

  3. Ryan:

    Great point…I will address that in next post.

  4. Good analysis of a non soccer fan.
    It’s time to read a great new soccer comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
    This is an adult soccer comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

    During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.
    http://www.eloquentbooks.com/ClassesApart.html

  5. john asks some good questions above. How does MLS convey information about teams and players to casual fans. As for NHL/MLB games, would those teams even let MLS in the door?

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