Bringing the Fans to MLS: Part III-Soccer Fans

fansTo many, they are the “holy grail” for MLS.  They are fans of the beautiful game, yet not devoted followers of MLS.  They follow the National Team regularly and will make time for a big clash between Man U and Chelsea or Barca and Real Madrid. They might spend some time following soccer stories on the web and do know the names of players on their local MLS side,  Yet, they typically only make it to the stadium for “big” doubleheaders.  They are not “eurosnobs” but cannot quite get into MLS.  Many of them played soccer at a high school or college level, and love the game.  They are soccer fans, but not fans of Major League Soccer.

This is part three of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here and part II here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, familes, store owners and acquaintainces in an effort to determine what will bring more fans to MLS. We have asked these questions at soccer matches of all levels, dinner parties, social gatherings and board meetings.  We have been asking these questions since February with an eye towards seeking out trends about MLS fandom and what brings people to Major League Soccer League stadiums.

Today we are looking at the every day soccer fan.  These are the fans that MLS knows are out there.  They are not “anti-MLS”, but they are not sold on the League? Why not?  During our interviews, two reasons repeatedly emerged.  Atmosphere and quality of play. Many of these fans had attended games at Gillette or Giants Stadium, they had watched games televised from a sparsely populated Pizza Hut Park or at an empty Cotton Bowl.  And they had found these experiences wanting.  These same fans are unimpressed with the quality of play in MLS.  They know enough to recognize the distinction between a USMNT game and Red Bulls/Seattle.  They are not offended by the quality of play, but they have suffered thorough some hackfests and some snoozers and want more from their local soccer league.

What does not bother these fans?  They don’t care about turf fields, football lines or playoffs. They aren’t worried about promotion/relegation, advertisements on jerseys or unbalanced schedule.  They are willing to embrace the League, but haven’t been drawn in yet.  The will go to games, but won’t set the DVR for the local team.

These are the fans that MLS should relentlessly target.  They are not wed to a specific European side and are willing to give MLS a look.  These are the fans that would come out to see a big name player and would come back if they enjoyed the experience.  They don’t thumb their noses at Major League Soccer, but recognize the superior play in the EPL and would rather devote 2 hours to watching higher level soccer.

So the big question is, how does MLS grab these fans?  What should the League do to keep them?

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14 Responses

  1. why does mls need these fans
    you should suppoort your local team .if they came and hated let them hate.

  2. I disagree with this. You have a set of people willing to give MLS a shot multiple times. I think it is incumbent upon the League to keep these people coming back.

  3. I fall somewhere into this category! I played Footy in College and HS and have always loved the game, but never was big into it except at WC time or Olympics time. Over the last year I began my personal journey to discover the EPL (full knowing that MLS had a team in my backyard in DC united) I determined I was a Liverpool fan, so over the last year I have tirelessly scoured the internet for footy news day in and day out on my beloved Reds. I have spent money on kits and bar tabs at my local Liverpool FC bar and paid big money to see Chelsea(who I hate) play AC Milan(Go GOOCH) however it was not until two weeks ago a friend of mine who is an avid DC united supporter season tickets and all took me to see DC united vs Real Madrid and i was blow away the atmosphere the fans and the vibe were great! I am now planning on buying season tickets and splitting my devotion between Liverpool FC and DC United and USMNT ( I may or may not attempt to leave work early on a consistent basis i to watch these teams play! As an American I hope that MLS is successful because when you see players like Charlie Davis and Jozy Altidore and Gooch make it on the world stage comming from MLS you feel pride in the domestic league and what it has to offer!

  4. Pro/rel is the way you will draw soccer fans to MLS.

    Look at how many cities have USL teams?

  5. Phil:

    I like your story and I think it is more common than many think.

    Erik: Why do you think that?

    From a business standpoint, I don’t think the investors putting up money to buy franchises would sign on for pro/rel. In a salary cap League, one or two injuries can turn a mid-table team into a relegated one with nothing to be done to salvage it. In this environment, do you think the business model could support pro/rel?

  6. I would consider myself in this category as well, but I have become a fan of MLS when we got a team here in Salt Lake. Even having a local team to follow I found it difficult to become an MLS (in general) fan. It wasn’t until I started doing MLS fantasy football that I really started to learn the players throughout the league.

    I am hoping I am an exception to the rule, but after being a season ticket holder for 4 years now my excitement for the league has definitely diminished rather than increased. I believe there are 3 factors that have caused this:

    1. The treatment from the team front office. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but I feel like the RSL front office has focused its attention on other groups (like families and non-soccer fans) and has forgotten the “hardcore” fans. Season ticket prices have increased every year, yet the promotions that are offered to get people to the games are so good that I feel like I’m getting ripped off as a season ticket holder. I could have easily bought tickets for every game via promotions, spent much less money, and actually had better seats at least 75% of the time this year.

    2. Referee quality. I cannot tell you how many times an MLS game is decided by the referee. Every game I go to I am just hoping the official doesn’t think he has to make a name for himself and decide the game. And no, I am not a fan that jeers at every call that goes against the home team. Actually, I frequently find myself siding with away fans on the referee blunders. There is rarely consistency and it makes the games unwatchable at times. This is the main reason I stopped following the NBA and I think is a true detriment to MLS.

    3. Quality of play. I do think the quality of play is slowing increasing in MLS, but not quickly enough. The incredibly low salary cap and the league basically handling all salary negotiations is sending the best young domestic talent elsewhere. If I was an up and coming talent, I know I would much rather play in a “lower” European league than in MLS with all of its restrictions and the league handling of transfers, etc.

    I am still undecided, but am leaning towards not renewing my season tickets for next year. I’m sure I will continue to go to games, but I can see myself eventually losing all interest in the league if I don’t see improvements in the near future. Sorry for such a long post, but I thought I would share my story.

  7. I agree with a lot of what utePhan says. Quality will help tremendously, especially with the ugly style of play many MLS teams rely on. The Galaxy-Fire game on 8/20 being a prime example – featuring two of the “best” teams and on national TV, the Galaxy played almost the whole game with virtually all their men behind the ball on defense, waiting for the occasional space to counterattack. Do you think THAT will attract EPL fans?

    Bowing and scraping to the almighty family (who doesn’t care less about the game on the field) isn’t the answer either (although in SLC my guess is they don’t have a lot of choice). Treat the season ticket holders and supporters groups like gold – because they are. The supporters groups in particular make the game more exciting (did you see all the shots of the Sounders supporters during the game vs. Barca?). And make sure it’s cheaper to be a STH than to walk up and buy tickets – that’s a must.

    One advantage to MLS is its far lower (than other pro sports) ticket prices. Focus some sales funds on colleges (where they’re starting to form their sports viewing habits), and others on cross-promotion (local ads inserted in English/Euro soccer broadcasts).

    And always – ALWAYS – listen to the fans. A guy like utePhan should have already been contacted by a RSL rep about his concerns. That’s just good business.

  8. Why is relegation so important to people? It’s an interesting idea, but seems secondary to continuing to work on quality of play and building stadium atmosphere in order to make attendance a more compelling experience. It also seems doubtful that MLS teams have the fan loyalty and revenue stream to survive relegation?

  9. [...] is part five of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, [...]

  10. [...] is part four of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here and part III here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and [...]

  11. [...] is part five of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, [...]

  12. How big a group are we talking here? Seems like on MLS boards there’s endless debates about how to draw fans…soccer fans vs. families vs. non-fans -but-sports-fans-in-general vs. supporters vs the hated Eurosnobs.

    It makes sense you’d want to go after soccer fans, but if the issue is quality of play, there’s not much you can do there. MLS is working in it, but it’s a slow process, and if the competition is with EPL, La Liga, etc, the ROI surely is not there to make quality of play that level of priority. The demographic of the “soccer fan” just doesn’t seem large enough.

    Seems like the goals should be keep appealing to families, support the supporters so they can drive the atmosphere with the goal of keeping it more enthusiastic than roudy. Use both of these tacks to draw in the general sports fan gradually. Ultimately it’s about more than just filling stadiums through discount tickets. You want people spending money on merchandise, and you want the sport to gain a following on tv.

  13. [...] Bringing the Fans to MLS: Part III-Soccer Fans [...]

  14. […] is part five of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, […]

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