Marketing in New England: Interview with Revs COO Brian Bilello

Earlier this week, we posted our Q&A with Timbers VP of Marketing Cory Dolich.  Today, we were fortunate to have Revs COO Brian Bilello answer some questions about the Revs marketing strategies and efforts.    The Revs have really amped up their online presence in the last couple of years and have started to aggressively use Twitter as a marketing tool.  Also, their new blogger initiative is very innovative and should provide a great forum for fans to connect with their team.  We last chatted with Mr. Bilello in April of 2009.  A copy of that interview is here.  Thanks to Mr. Bilello.

Footiebusiness.com: In a recent interview with the Sports Business Journal, you discussed the Revs’ decision to credential independent bloggers in 2011.  What is the motivation behind that decision?  Do you believe this will help the team better connect with its fans?  What will qualify a blogger for a credential?

Brian Bilello: In terms of team communication, we’re always exploring ways to better inform, entertain and service our fans. During the past few years, social media has opened new avenues for bloggers to increase their reach to fans. In our case, they can tweet an entry with #Revs or post it on our Facebook wall and have it seen by tens of thousands of Revolution fans. Given that bloggers now have this larger promotional platform, they are reaching more and more fans and becoming greater influences in the soccer community. We feel it’s important to help them get accurate information about the team, so that has been the basis for this new initiative. In terms of qualifying, we’ll be looking to first credential those who have existing blogs and who regularly write content. It will be somewhat of a work in progress as we get into the season and we launch the program. But as you can imagine, we won’t be able to credential 100 bloggers, so we may have to create a new accreditation process at some point.

FB: Similarly, how are the Revs utilizing social media?  Some teams are aggressively relying on Twitter, posting frequent training camp updates, linking to blog posts about the team and providing teasers about signings and ticket promotions, while others have been slower to adopt the technology. You are currently on Twitter as are members of the team’s communications staff.  How do you anticipate the team using Twitter and Facebook going forward?  Does the team have a policy on players using Twitter?

BB: In terms of Twitter and other social media tools, we’re going to continue to use them to update fans on the team, website content and events and give fans some snippets from behind the scenes. For me personally, it is a great way of getting real-time updates on soccer news as I follow all the relevant writers so when Kyle McCarthy or Grant Wahl post an article, I can see it right away. I also like the ability to be able to reach out to fans directly when they have questions about the team.

We don’t yet have any formal policies as they pertain to Facebook and Twitter with players. They are individuals and are, of course, free to do whatever they like, but we are in the process of creating suggested usage guidelines to help them navigate social media. That being said, we continually emphasize that commenting on Twitter or Facebook is the practically same as making an on-the-record statement to a reporter, so they need to be careful as to what they post or say.

FB: With respect to ticket promotions, last year the Revs used Groupon to sell more than 2,500 tickets to the Revs/Seattle game.  Do you anticipate using Groupon in 2011?  Is it possible to identify how many purchasers of that opportunity will become repeat visitors to Revs games? Does the team view that promotion as a success?  Should fans expect other game day promotions in 2011?

BB: We’re certainly looking to work with Groupon again in 2011 but we’re have to be careful not to devalue our tickets through vehicles like this. As a one-off, it’s nice to be able to give fans a free t-shirt or other value-added amenity, but I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to just start throwing such significant discounts out on a regular basis. There is no direct method of tracking GroupOn purchasers since they are fairly protective of their lists. (After all, that list is their business.) However, we used other incentives in the stadium that night to encourage them to sign up for our newsletter, so could communicate with them directly about the team and upcoming games. That promotion was certainly a success and we are looking at more promotions in 2011.

FB: What is the Revs rate of season ticket renewal for 2011?  Will the team announce its final season ticket numbers at some point during the season? What do the Revs offer as season ticket incentives?

BB: At this point we are at 82% with about two months to go in the process. Given past results, that will likely put us among the top 2-3 teams in the league for renewal percentage. That’s also off of a base that is essentially the median for the league.

We really try to provide our Season Ticket Holders the best service and benefits in the league, and this year especially they have rewarded us by coming back strong. Given our performance on the field last year, the success with our Season Ticket Holders renewals really speaks to the hard work done by our customer service team throughout the year. We offer a long list of benefits, including several exclusive STH events with owners, players and coaches, a dedicated parking lot, early stadium entry, discounts on additional tickets and pre-sale opportunities to events at Gillette Stadium (international soccer games, concerts, Patriots games, etc.), not to mention a great discount on their Revolution tickets versus face value. Ultimately, I look at our renewal success this year as a leap of faith by our Season Ticket Holders that we’re going to be better on the field.  Now it is our job to reward them for that faith.

FB: Finally, Commissioner Garber announced in November that a number of teams will announce jersey sponsors for 2011.  The Revs are one of the few remaining teams that have never had a jersey sponsor.  Do you view that as a lost revenue opportunity over the past few years?  Do you anticipate the Revs joining the list of teams with a jersey sponsor in 2011?

BB: Yes, it is a lost opportunity for us and we need to get a partnership finalized. We were very close this off-season, but it didn’t happen. We’re still in talks with a number of companies, but hard to put a timeline on it right now.

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Soccer Business Bits: ESPN Coverage, Revs Respond & More

The day of the big World Cup draw has arrived and ESPN has big plans to cover the event with maximum fanfare. ESPN2 will provide three hours of coverage and will include usual suspects Harkes, Lalas and more to break down the action.  It is fairly remarkable that we have reached the stage in American soccer where the World Cup draw rates a three hour presentation.  ESPN.com also has fairly extensive coverage of the draw with both text and video stories.

A number of months back, we conducted an interview with Revs COO Brian Bilello about the Revs’ marketing effort.  It’s no surprise that the Revs front office has been taking some heat for their playoff attendance and fan/team relationships. Full credit to Bilello for taking questions and providing detailed responses to fans on the Revs’ official forums.  We recommend checking out this site.

Finally, we are an American soccer blog, but when a team in the EPL can’t pay its players, it is something that bears reference.  Such is the situation in Portsmouth. Salary cap anyone?

Attendance in New England: What’s Wrong with the Revs?

revsIt seemed like the perfect confluence of events: A beautiful night, a team on a winning streak, a Saturday night in September (the Revs traditionally pull big fall crowds) and a fireworks spectacular at the end of the game. However, instead of a big raucous crowd, less than 9,500 were in attendance as the Revs fell to Kansas City in a fairly exciting game. This was the second straight Revs game under 10k, and while the previous game fell victim to the remnants of Tropical Storm Daniel, these are disappointing numbers for a proud franchise.

The poorly attended match continued a downward trend for the Krafts’ soccer franchise. For the season, New England is averaging less than 12,000 The Revs averaged 14,300 in 2008 and 16,700 in 2007. While attendance has fallen, the team has been a consistently successful performer on the field. The Revs have been to multiple finals, won the SuperLiga, won the US Open Cup and have been a perennial playoff participant.

So what has gone wrong? Some fans believe that the early years of MLS (where the Revs were fairly well supported), were so dismal in New England, that fans stopped turning out. Others believe that the Revs neglected the “hard core” supporters in lieu of promoting family attendance and as a result, the young crowd stopped coming. Others believe that the cavernous atmosphere of Gillette stadium combine with turf fields and football lines have conspired to drive fans away.  Moreover, there has long been a feeling among Revs’ fans that the team is barely a blip on the Kraft family radar, and that there is an unwillingness to bring in players or spend on the team.  Over the last few years, the Revs have lost quality players like Dempsey, Noonan, Dorman and Parkhurst without finding ready replacements.

To the Revs’ credit, they are making an effort to bring “hard core” fans back to the stadium.  Check out our interview with Revs’ COO Brian Bilello for more on their efforts to attract fans.   But is it enough?   The Boston area seems to be a great place for a professional team.  Youth soccer is popular in the area, there are strong ethnic communities and a history of turning out for big soccer events.  A huge crowd turned out in 2002 for the Galaxy/Revs final in Foxboro in full throat for the Revs
(and were disappointed by the result).  That game occurred at a time when the region was desperate for a champion and ready to embrace the Revs and the sport of soccer. The Revs lost, and slowly, the fans stopped coming.

The Revs need to take steps to right the ship or risk further alienating their fans.  In our view, the team needs to take a hard look at using its DP in 2010 and bringing in a player or two with international recognition to ignite the soccer base in the Boston area.  With a healthy Twellman and Joseph,  the steady Matt Reis, an improving young defense and a big name “number 10”, the Revs can generate the press and excitement to re-energize their potential base.  Moving towards a stadium will also help; Gillette can really suck the life out of soccer game.

So what should the Revs do?  Will the construction of a stadium bring the fans?  Does the team need to sign a big player or two?  What can the Revs do to bring them back to Gillette?

Interview With Houston Dynamo Senior Vice President Rocky Harris

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We have previously posted on Houston’s promotional efforts ( a promotional date for every game) and some of their marketing efforts. Rocky Harris, a Dynamo Senior Vice President, was kind enough to chat with us about the Dynamo’s marketing plans in 2009, fan outreach and more.  Mr. Harris has been with the Dynamo for about one year following a six year stint in the N.F.L. with San Francisco and Houston.

Footiebusiness.com:  What is Houston doing differently in terms of marketing in 2009?  How has the economy impacted those efforts?

Rocky Harris: We made a few marketing changes based on the economy. 1. Develop plans early – We knew early on that we needed to put our strategy together early so we don’t miss any opportunities. An example of this is that we finalized our entire promotional calendar before the season started so we could promote our games/themes/giveaways earlier and to get sponsors to commit to their nights and support their themed nights with media support. The promo calendar was complete before the season started and we have seen a lot of positive feedback from our sponsors and our fans. 2. Decrease media spend – We reduced our media spend and we justified it based on the following: the mainstream media is giving us more coverage, our unpaid promotional and media partnerships are more effective based on our partnership with the CBS affiliate, we signed a deal with Comcast delivering television advertising, better leverage of sponsor assets and we are shifting that money into sales and marketing initiatives that return direct ticket sales. 3. Going with what works: Our business plan was developed strictly on programs that have a history of success. The 50 programs we have in place will accomplish this goal. The marketing department took on a much greater role in helping the growth of our business. The marketing department is focused on creating or supporting programs that drive tangible business results.

The marketing department’s purpose is as follows: 1. Make a connection with a targeted audience/building fans, 2. Drive ticket sales, 3. Create sponsorship assets, 4. Build brand presence and major league image, 5. Provide valuable market exposure, 6. Help drive broadcast ratings, 7. Help drive camp registrations, 8. Support all departments.

Marketing’s general area of focus includes the following: advertising/media, promotions, grassroots marketing, Hispanic marketing, web-based marketing, production, game management and game day experience.

FB: How have the Dynamo utilized online avenues, such as social networking sites, SUM’s new online ad network, etc..- to promote and market the team? What is the endgame for these online efforts? Is there research that suggests such efforts will increase fan interest?

RH: We were the first MLS team to have a social networking site and we already have over 2000 members. We love it. It gives us a direct connection to our fans. Our executives and players can blog about insider information. Our COO writes a blog every few weeks about the status of the team.

There are three objectives: 1. engage and build fans, 2. Increase online revenue, 3. Sell tickets. We are also in the process of putting together a Twitter strategy. Yes, there is a lot of research to suggest this is the best way to reach our fans, specifically young and Hispanic fans.

FB: Is there anything unique or different about the Houston market that distinguishes it from other MLS markets? How do your advertising/fan outreach efforts account for that uniqueness?

RH: We have five (5) key target groups that drive our attendance. All of our business comes from these groups therefore all of our strategic efforts will focus on at least one of these targets. They are as follows: Youth Audience, Hispanic Community, Corporate Community, Adult Soccer-Playing Community and the General Market. We have identified and established 50 results-oriented programs and initiatives aimed at reaching these audiences and driving specific company-wide goals. These programs serve as the basis for our 2009 business plan.

FB: Although still in its infancy, Seattle is being trumpeted as a “model” franchise for purposes of marketing and fan outreach. Are their any lessons that an established franchise like Houston can take from Seattle’s efforts?

RH: Yes, it taught me that timing is everything in business. Plus, they have a solid plan to execute and deliver the promises they made to their fans. As you know, Seattle has some disgruntled fans with their NBA team’s departure so the fans have grabbed on to their positive image in the marketplace. They have a great international community and a solid soccer fan base. We looked at their marketing efforts and we see a lot of crossover to what every other MLS team is doing.

Thanks to Rocky Harris.  Check out our recent interview with Revolution COO Brian Bilello for his take on many of these same issues.