Holiday Finale: Bringing the Fans

Our final post of the holiday week brings Part III of our 2009 Bringing the Fans Series.  It was three years ago that we first raised the issue of bringing soccer fans into the hold.  The presence of those fans has recently been confirmed by the great ratings for Euro 2012.  Can MLS capture that audience? Drop us a line and let us know your thoughts.

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, 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.

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?

6 Responses

  1. I think MLS should do nothing to attract these fans. So they dont follow a team b/c of the standard of play? So what do fans of teams outside of the Big 4 leagues do? They follow their teams no matter what!! There is nothing you can do besides signing Euro stars to attract these people, they dont have the pride and passion that is neccesary to follow a local club. Its something that comes from within and these fairweather fans obviously dont have it. If they dont have a sense of connection with a team then they will never have it. I have been a FCB fan since i was 14 now 35 and i know theres a diff in the level of play but does that make me not want to support my NJRB? Does that make me think that every other club is inferior football and should be looked down upon? I’ve actually become more of a devoted fan of NJRB than FCB just b/c of the sense they give me of a team belonging to me and me being a part of it ,something that is a little diff from being a Barca fan where the team is based across the Atlantic. Support your local club, meet the players, go to team functions and then you will maybe see what it feels like to have a team that actually belongs to you and represents you and plays for you. I love Barca to death since the Stoichkov days and that love has translated to NJRB,Spain, and the US NATS, its all about passion and pride and the love a person has for the game no matter what level the game is played at. How you dont translate that love from following European/SAmerican etc etc leagues is beyond me.

  2. I’m a huge soccer fan, but I’m luke warm at best with following MLS. Here are my 2 main reasons. 1) No local team; I’m from Detroit and if I’m going to follow a soccer league/team that isn’t anywhere near me, it’s going to be one of the top tier leagues. I bet very few baseball fans in Europe are big followers of the Japanese J-League. 2) Promotion/Relegation; I’ve been to my share of games for the local team (Michigan Bucks) and while they are entertaining, they’re where they are going to be. No matter how good they get, or how much support they receive. I would love to follow them more intensely if there was a chance to get promoted and ‘try’ to climb the ladder (even if it wasn’t going to happen). Without promotion/relegation there is no reason to hope for a lower level team, which would elevate my interest in MLS.

  3. Frank: they just said in the article most fans don’t care about promotion relegation.

    Mase: completely agree with you. MLS is doing pretty damn good and the fans are starting to show up. Even at Red Bull Arena which usually doesn’t see a packed house until late summer got its best showing (likely ever) last home game.

    You can’t have a rich market like the US and not have high quality play. The money will find its way here and the players will come and the fans will come. It’s only a matter of time. We just need to stop gritting our teeth until it does. It’s inevitable.

  4. It is a tough one to pull in those fans, but we should bear in mind that the “I won’t support MLS because it is not the best soccer in the world” can’t be the complete answer when we have a perfect example in the US of millions of people following (and living and dying) with teams that are clearly inferior to the teams in other leagues—college football and basketball compared to the NFL and the NBA (and it is not just the alumni and current students who are fans, but entire states). It takes a while, but maybe just simple local pride and the ability to actually see live games (at least to me, the TV product, no matter how high the level of play, never beats actually being there, particularly as the stadium experience improves in MLS). It is tougher for someone like Frank who is not near an MLS team and in some ways it might unfortunately mirror the MLB experience—the allegiance to local teams swamps all and even the World Series has relatively poor ratings outside the viewing areas of the participating teams.

    And promotion/relegation ain’t happening, so that is not a consideration. What rational investor is going to put up the big bucks in a relatively new venture such as professional soccer in the US when in return the investor gets a team with the possibility of being wiped out by poor sporting performance? The European adoption of that mechanism was purely an accident of history and would not happen today if they were starting from scratch. I know that outsiders are investing in EPL teams, but I guarantee that the team values are less than they would have been had there not been promotion/relegation (and that even goes for the ManU’s of the world where the possibility of relegation looks miniscule).

  5. The college sports argument has always been one of my favorites. I think the comparison is apt.

  6. People want to be with other people. Its the total experience that those who become fans are seeking. In American football, it not just the game, its all the hoopla that goes with the game and the tailgate parties, the marching bands, the half time entertainment and the cheerleaders. In baseball, its the attention to statistics (marking your scorecard), the hotdogs, peanuts and beer, the seventh inning stretch that help the game become an experience. The key to the MLS is to create an experience for the casual fan–give him/her a reason to come back or to purchase a season ticket next year. Here is where the hard core supporters come in. They are the ones that create the atmosphere. My son recently came back from a Vancouver Whitecaps game and was hoarse from the singing and chanting along with the Southsiders (Whitecap supporters). He had a great experience and is planning another trip to go back (a trip which includes a 2 hour ferry ride). The other key ingredient is that the MLS teams continue to improve the product on the field so that the fans have something to cheer about. Also ,the networks need to be more selective of the games they televise. Few fans would care to watch New England at home in a cavernous venue with no atmosphere. Give me Portland any day on tv where I can’t hear the play by play because the fans are so loud. The product may not be up to the standards of the Premiership, Serie A or La Liga, however i have seen some games in those leagues that have put back to sleep in the morning. The MLS is what it is — a league in its infancy and it needs to be nurtured along slowly.

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