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?

7 Responses

  1. Great point of view. However, I think there is a huge difference between ex-soccer players (regardless of the level they played), and the Avid Football Aficionado.

    To be explain further, the first (ex-soccer player), typically consumes very little of the game other than playing it on the weekends or a pick up game here and there with their H.S. or college buddies. They barely make time for USMNT friendlies, and to your point do not have a favorite team they follow…they value good goals/plays, recognize some names in the soccer world and just want to see a “good” game. They are not fully invested in the game, but can be. They are the “battle grounds” of U.S. soccer. They fall under your definition of “Soccer Fan” by virtue of having been around the game a little more than the average population.

    The second (the Avid Fan) is a little different in that they make time to watch the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga on the weekends; they are veterans in the art of soccer consumption, often taking on pre-game and in-game rituals (see: chants, etc.) unique to the team they are cheering for. They often have a favorite team and are more emotionally/psychologically invested in the game than the average soccer fan. It is this group that the MLS should focus all fo their marketing dollars on, IMHO.

  2. I had a friend in town the other day, an avid soccer player and fan of the USMNT and great international club teams.

    When we talked about MLS teams he just didn’t get excited. When we talked about Rooney’s bicycle goal or anything Euro leagues he really lit up. I definitely noticed the difference.

    I know the old-school MLS fans sometimes scoff at “star power” but that’s the fire people look for. Great energy in the crowd is hard to manufacture in a young league (although Seattle is unbelievable).

    Also, the SS stadium thing cannot be overlooked and I think Garber is very right in this respect. Having a “home” rather than some half-empty NFL stadium is very important. It creates energy.

  3. You ask the question…”What should the League do to keep them?”

    I think you will find that the owners need to step up and take care of the fans that they have. First off every team should have a home that the fans can be proud of… It’s time for the Kraft family to build a stadium in Boston, DC United need to sort out the stadium, either sink “a ton” into RFK or build a new one, and the Earthquakes need to get out of Buck Shaw. It would also be nice to see the Galaxy or Chivas move to another stadium or city as sharing a field has to suck for the fans.

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