The Monday After: U-17 World Cup, Fan Survey & More

Back from a week overseas and thus back to the regularly schedule of posts.  As we do every Monday, here is a roundup of business items from Friday afternoon and the weekend.  Once the MLS/WPS season starts, this section will include thoughts on attendance, broadcast quality and more.

Since I was in Jamaica last week, I’ll start with the U-17 World Cup qualifying tournament which was going in in Montego Bay, Jamaica during my trip.  Overall, the impact of the tournament on the locals seemed fairly minimal (despite some vocal crowds).  In the Montego Bay area, there was some signage regarding the tournament (especially near the fields used for the matches),  but locals had little to say about the tournament.  February is a heavy tourist time for the island, so it didn’t appear that there was a significant economic boost from the games.  Not surprisingly, those with spoke with who hailed from CONCACAF nations, had little to no knowledge of the games despite a professed interest in the sport.

We forgot to mention the results of an ESPN sports poll referenced in the SBJ.  According to the survey, approximately 30% of sports fans consider themselves as having a “casual” interest in MLS.  That number is up from just under 27% in 2006 and represents a high water for the league over the last five years of the poll.  The percentage trails the NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR and NHL.  Approximately 6.5% of sports fans consider themselves “avid” fans of MLS.

Since we mentioned attendance at the top, we’ll look at the numbers for the first leg of the RS/Columbus Champions League tilt last week.  Attendance was announced at just over 4,600 for the game, a dissappointing number, but not a surprise given the conditions, nature of the tournament and the location.  However, there are reports that RSL is hoping for 15k in the return match.  That would be a great number and a significant accomplishment for the RSL Front Office.

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Bringing the Fans: Video Games

At about the same time I was wrapping up high school in the early 1990′s, SEGA was the premier video game system.  Arguably the most popular game of that period was the EA Sports  hockey.  Whether in high school, college or elsewhere, boys around the country were gathering in basements and dorm rooms for tournaments of NHL hockey.  Although most knew little about the sport, regular game play brought names like Pavel Bure, Mike Richter and Ray Borque to the forefront of sports culture in the United States.  Soon thereafter, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup and the popularity of hockey exploded.  Video games weren’t the only factor, but the NHL had achieved an enormous amount of brand recognition through video games and created life long fans of the sport because of that first connection.  Can MLS achieve a similar success?

This 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, store owners and acquaintances 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.

This is the last part in our Bringing the Fans series from 2009.  We should be back on US shores tomorrow and posting live by Monday night.  When it first ran, this part of the series was the most widely read and commented on.  Since then (August 2009), FIFA soccer video games have continued to increase in popularity.  This post asks the question, can video games create MLS fans?

EA Sports recently unveiled the cover of the 2010 version of “FIFA“.  Alongside Chelsea star Frank Lampard are American  (and Chivas USA midfielder) Sacha Kljestan and Mexian (and Chicago Fire forward) Cuauhtémoc Blanco.  Soccer has long been one of the easier sports to translate into video games (along with hockey and football), and thus millions of American males will dutifully purchase the game regardless of whether they know anything about soccer.  And from our interviews, it is readily apparent; the less they know about soccer, the more likely they are to play with teams from Major League Soccer (many soccer fans migrate to the EPL). As a result, it is these fans that may embrace the teams and players from MLS.

From  our interviews and discussions, it appears that video games are having this effect. I’ve spoken with a number of folks (adults and teens) who started to become soccer fans because of their video game experiences.  They caught some of the Confederations Cup and recognized players from their game.  Many have since seen MLS matches and have kept an eye on their favorite team. Will it continue?  Can MLS keep these  fans?  Are video games a legitimate method for attracting fans?  Let us know your thoughts.

Bringing the Fans to MLS: The Soccer Hater

Still on the road…so here is the next part in our 2009 “Bringing the Fans” series.  This post looks at the “soccer hater” and asks whether they are a desirable target audience for MLS.  Did the World Cup change some minds?  We should be back posting live Monday morning.  The next part in this series should run tomorrow…internet access permitting. Here is the post in full:

“Soccer is a girl’s game”  “There are no goals, it is boring” “It will never succeed”  “Why do they roll around on the ground all the time”

All soccer fans have heard these statements.  We all know people who feel this way about the “beautiful game”.  This 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 acquaintances 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.

Should MLS attempt to bring “soccer haters” to the game?  Are they worth converting?  During our interviews, the sentiments set forth at the top of this page were repeated over and over.  Most of the people who fit in this category would rather watch anything other than soccer.  They are annoyed that ESPN even bothers to carry the games and cannot believe that the game gets “so much attention.”  Most think it is a kids’ game or sport for girls.  They decry the lack of content, lack of scoring and lack of commercials.

Yet, among the people we spoke with, there were a couple of passionate MLS supporters that say they started as soccer haters.   All remember getting dragged to a soccer event and having a surprisingly good time.  All of these converts are more dedicated to their local MLS side than many season ticket holders.

However, these folks are the significant minority.  Most of these soccer haters detest the game and have no inclination to give it a chance.  Overwhelmingly, these folks describe the NFL as their favorite sport.  They typically like sports radio and turn it off if there is a soccer conversation.  They told me they believe just about every negative soccer stereotype, and many related that they disliked the guys that played soccer in high school or college.  They don’t want to be “won over” or sold the game.

So the question is, should MLS try?  Is it worth devoting marketing dollars and efforts to convince these potential fans to come to MLS?

Bringing the Fans to MLS: Soccer Fans

With actual MLS clubs involved in competition for the first time in months, we got to wondering whether the Champions League, which has struggled to capture even hard care MLS supporters, could ever be a draw European soccer fans. Out of town with only intermittent internet access, we thought now would be a good time to re-run Part III from our 2009 Bringing the Fans series.

To 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?

The Beauty of Facebook

In December we ranked our top 5 stories of 2011.  Number 3 on that list was the explosion of Twitter as a marketing and sharing tool in the world of American soccer.  This is what we wrote:  Few sports fans are as devoted to social networking sites as soccer supporters.  Because of the lack of soccer coverage in mainstream media, soccer fans are forced to the web to follow their favorite teams and games abroad.  Twitter has provided the perfect vehicle for fans to keep track of live matches, interact with players and journalists and discuss the beautiful game 140 characters at a time.  Anecdotally, Twitter use among soccer follower has exploded in 2010, with even technophiles recognizing the value of Twitter as a source for information on the beautiful game.

Facebook is equally valuable to clubs and teams seeking to promote their brand and reach out to fans.  One of our readers (Johnie Smith) reached out with an interesting take on Facebook and its use in MLS. Using “likes” as a barometer of team/fan interaction Smith tracked the relative popularity of the teams and their social networking presence.   According to Smith’s review of the various MLS team sites, Seattle is the king of the medium with 100k “likes” more than the next highest team. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chivas USA was the caboose of Facebook “likes” with 7k total. According to Smith, some of the league’s original sponsors (e.g. New England, Dallas and Colorado) are near the bottom of the “likes” list, while relative newcomer Philly is near the top of the league rankings.

As readers of this site know, we have repeatedly asked team executives about the importance of social networking sites in their marketing plans.  Universally, these front office representatives believe Facebook, Twitter, etc… are important and necessary tools for connecting with their current and future fans.  It provides teams with a dedicated avenue to reach the folks that have already identified themselves as having an interest in the team in an immediate fashion.  As the clubs become more proficient at using Facebook to connect, it will be interesting to monitor the “likes” to see if they are an accurate predictor of attendance, season ticket sales, tv ratings or something else.

Thanks to Mr. Smith.

The Monday After: FSC Deal, Champions League & More

As has been widely reported, FSC and MLS have re-upped their broadcast relationship for the 2011 season.  Reports indicate that the deal is for slightly more than the $6 million and reprents a significant increase over the $3.25 million FSC had been paying.  Under normal circumstances, this would be viewed as a success for MLS, but after SBJ broke a story earlier in the offseason that
MLS was demanding $20 million per year for a long term relationship, MLS is left looking bad.  However, the one year deal affords both the league and the network maximum flexibility.  From the league perspective, MLS can spend the next year searching for a long term, big money deal with the security of a significant payday from FSC.  From FSC’s view, they only committ to a one year relationship that afford them the opportunity to monitor ratings before agreeing to a long term deal.

Sticking with the FSC theme, the network will be one of two outlets televising the Columbus/RSL quarterfinal match this week.  Galavision will provide the Spanish language telecast and all quarterfinal games will be available on either Galavision or Telefutura.  As we said in the Summer, FSC pours significant resources into televising an event that has yet to interest a significant portion of American Soccer Fans.  Games from Honduras, El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago do not grab the imaginations of fans focused on European soccer and the MLS regular season.  The stands are typically empty for these games (whether in the US or abroad) and field conditions are typically terrible   While ratings are tough to come by, it is almost certain that far less than 100k people (and likely less than 50k) tune in to watch the CONCACAF Champions League matches.

Despite these challenges, FSC has made a devoted and dedicated effort to broadcast these matches from all reaches of the region.  For fans of MLS and soccer in the Americas, FSC’s coverage is more than sufficient and is welcome beacon in the late Winter when the knockout stages of the tournament kick off.  FSC’s coverage may not be ideal, but it is important.  If the tournament wasn’t televised, it would fade into obscurity and importance.  Improved camera work and commentary are inexpensive enhancements that will come with time.  Until then, celebrate FSC’s broadcasts of the Champions League.

One final note.  For an update on the status of Portland’s efforts to get PGE Park ready for 2011, click here.

Footiebusiness Archives: Bringing the Fans to MLS

Another MLS season is just a few weeks away and the league is hoping that attendance will continue to grow in 2011.  Back in 2009, we took a look at how teams were looking to increase the amount of fans coming out to the stadiums.  Part 2 of that series focused on families and their importance to the league’s efforts to grow attendance.  Here is what we said then.

They are the bane of many an MLS fan, yet they continue to represent a substantial portion of American soccer crowds.  Teams cater to them, by offering special four packs, pre-game soccer celebrations and mascots. Who are these fans?  They are families.  Kids, soccer moms minivans and more.

This is part two of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and acquaintances 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 with an eye towards seeking out trends about MLS fandom and what brings people to Major League Soccer League stadiums.

“Hard core” MLS fans have railed against the presence of families for years.  Complaints against these fans include: “they are too quiet”  “they don’t care about the game”  “the don’t let me have fun” “they come once a year and don’t support the team” “they get up every 20 minutes” and “the stadium doesn’t let me do x because of families.”

So we asked these families (moms and dads), what they wanted from the MLS experience.   Overwhelmingly, they want their kids to have fun.  These parents are looking for a night out, and the bounce houses, mascots and T-shirt tosses are part of that.  They are looking for affordability and fun.  Many are shocked about how “professional” the MLS experience is and that the matches are “big-time.”  They are “amused” by the supporters groups, but don’t want to sit with them. They are also very willing to purchase team gear for their kids.

But perhaps more interesting was the number of these parents who desperately wanted to both understand the game and have their children understand the game.  Like the non-soccer fans discussed earlier this week, many of these parents wanted someone to explain the nuance of a sport unfamiliar to many of them.  They wanted to know the back stories of the players and whom to cheer. For many, they wanted to comprehend the intricacies of a game their kids devote hours per week to playing and appreciate more than the distance of a goalie’s punts. They view MLS as a way to connect with their kids and enter their world, but need the information to get there.

Unlike many soccer fans, MLS is not competing with European soccer clubs for the attention of these families.  While most will not become season ticket holders right away, they will come back if they enjoy the experience and if the game means something to them.  The “quality” of the game is not that important, because the level of play is far higher than anything they have seen before. They think they can co-exist with the hard core supporters and actually appreciate the atmosphere and noise they bring.

So what do we think?  Are families an important part of the MLS fanbase?  Should the League turn away from efforts to bring familes to games in lieu of younger, more passionate fans?  Can these families become those passionate fans?  Let us know your thoughts.