Bringing the Fans to MLS: The Hardcore Fan

fansThe MLS playoffs are upon us.  Traditionally, this has been a time of disappointing attendance in MLS when only the most hard core supporters still come out to support the team.  Because of a lack of group sales, lead time and cold weather, attendance frequently suffers (although this year may prove the exception).  Because of their committment to their teams and MLS, we wanted to ask a couple of these rabid supporters what drives them as MLS fans and what they want to see from their League.    Today, we present interviews with two of the hardest core supports.  Monty Rodriguez of the Midnight Riders and Corey Jamison of ESC.  Thanks to both for helping us look at these hard core fans.

During the regular season, we presented a five part series on bringing fans to MLS.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here part IV here and part V 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.   Here are Corey and Monty’s thoughts.

Footiebusiness.com  What does MLS (not a specific team) need to do in order to keep you coming?

Monty Rodriguez:  Keep improving the product. Increase the cap, let teams have more flexibility, and don’t favor certain teams over others. In all honesty, I’ll probably keep coming no matter what, but it’s important that they make these changes to improve the league.

Corey Jamison:  1. (continue to) Keep the game honest to the world standard (no overtime periods, etc). 2. Maintain a high level of play, and look to improve upon it. 3. Grow young American players.

FB:  What does your team do to keep you coming?

MR:  A lot of the above applies. A new stadium would be wonderful. Open up the purse strings a bit, spend to the cap, do a better job scouting.

CJ:  1. Produce a relatively competitive team (not every single year, but most years).
2. Respect the fans. (I root for NY, this they have not done)
3. Provide a reasonably compelling reason to show up (quality stadium/environment to watch the game, etc.)

FB:  Do you feel that you have a vested an interest in seeing great atmosphere/attendance at your home games as the team/League? Why/Why not?

MR: Yes … being head of the major supporter’s group, knowing the team appreciates the fan support, both of those are key.

CJ: Yes, as it enhances my experience in and enjoyment of the game. I belong to a supporters club to not just watch the game, but to be a part of it.

FB: What (if anything) do you do to increase interest/attendance in MLS?

MR: Improve the product first and foremost. That’ll help attendance. Marketing has to get better (both team level and MLS level). Show the competitive nature of the league. Show the cheap prices (as compared to other sports). Hell, show people some of the players that have played in this league and gone elsewhere, their improvement happened here.

CJ: I help run a supporters club, but basically I support my team and encourage others to join me and do the same. By standing and singing for 90 minutes, hopefully we create a fun atmosphere that will encourage other like-minded individuals to enjoy the game with us, and come back for more.

FB: If an MLS team is playing a non-MLS team in a competition or friendly, for whom do you cheer? Why?

MR: In a competition, the MLS team … it’s good for the league. In a friendly, I don’t pay attention.

CJ: It depends on the competition, really. I would say most games that my team isn’t in, I wouldn’t watch. I suppose I would generally root for the success of an MLS team in international competition to increase the stature of our league, but, RSL winning an off-season friendly against a second division German side while touring Spain for fitness…doesn’t exactly rile my competitive spirit.

Thanks to both for their thoughts. As we have said all year, these are the fans many MLS organizations are now trying to reach and keep.  We have seen the success in places like Columbus and now Seattle and Toronto.  Will the success spread?

One plug. We recommend you check out our guest spot on MatchFit USA’s Soccer Show.

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Guest Commentary: WHAT MLS IS DOING RIGHT (AND WHAT IT CAN DO RIGHT NOW) TO GROW ITS POPULARITY AMONG U.S. SOCCER FANS

mlsAll season, we have focused on the efforts of individual teams to convert soccer fans to MLS fans.  We have interviewed various front office personnel, analyzed marketing efforts targeted to hardcore fans and interviewed soccer fans around the country to determine what they want from MLS.  Today, we offer the guest commentary of Craig Codlin, a 38 year old corporate attorney and lifelong soccer fan living in Seattle.  Now a Sounders season ticket holder, Craig previously lived in New York City and endured multiple losing MetroStars seasons.  He is a fan of all things MLS and today provides us with some great insight into the League’s effort to keep and retain fans.  Thanks to Craig for some outstanding analysis.

Don Garber, the commissioner of MLS, recently articulated an important concept relating to the way MLS is going to be marketing itself in the future.  Essentially, he said that he believes there are plenty of soccer fans in the U.S. and that MLS’s job is to convert these soccer fans into fans of the League. This is important in many ways, not least of which is the apparent complete shedding of the original plan MLS had and stuck with for many years, which was to focus most of its energy to selling its product to the U.S. non-soccer fan.  The theory, I imagine, was that MLS would already have the diehard soccer fans in its pocket just by virtue of showing up in the U.S. and filling the void and that it should spend its resources on converting the non-soccer fans into fans.  As we all know, this was a flawed approach, resulting in such horrors in the early years as the game clock that counted down to zero and the “shootouts” to avoid the seeming travesty of a tie.

Soccer fans in the U.S. are a fiercely loyal and stalwart bunch.  They show up at pubs at 8am to watch games in Europe and they endure the constant barrage of barbs and verbal jabs that come from the general American sports media and fans who sometimes seem to feel that the possibility that soccer could gain a toehold in this country is a personal affront to everything American.  But because of their fundamental love for the sport, nobody else can bring as much passion to the stadiums, and as solid numbers to the TV broadcasts, as this group of people. But getting this group to embrace MLS, when they are generally more inclined to spend their soccer viewing time watching higher quality European, Mexican or national matches (even more so given the abundance of high quality soccer currently available on cable and satellite)is an immense challenge. I do not believe it is insurmountable, but it will take some time, partially because MLS in many ways dug a hole with this group of fans from the outset due to its focus on the soccer-mom families instead of the true U.S. soccer fan.

I believe that there are three actions that MLS is currently taking (or in the process of taking) that will greatly enhance its ability to bridge the gap and pique the interest of the U.S. soccer fan who has not yet embraced the League. seattle

Building and Cultivating Regional Rivalries. One of the major problems MLS confronts from a marketing perspective is that its geographic spread (which, of course, includes Canada) is much larger than almost all (if not all) of the existing domestic leagues world-wide, with major population centers spaced thousands of miles apart, making it much more difficult to cultivate interest outside of the cities that have teams. If you live anywhere in England, you are at worst a short train ride away from an EPL club and if you live in a major population center such as London there are many teams all within a ride on the Tube.  The proximity of all of the teams naturally creates intense rivalries, which in any sport generates interest. MLS simply does not have a situation where all of the teams can be in relative proximity to one another, so it must foster regional rivalries. The addition of Philadelphia, whose sports fans bear chips on their shoulders as the red-headed step-child city of the Mid-Atlantic, and two more Pacific Northwest teams, will clearly help.  The hope is that their entrance into MLS will create pockets of intense regional rivalries on which the League can build interest and a broader fan base. The first time Seattle Sounders FC heads into Portland, you can bet that the game will be nationally televised and promoted, simply to get as many U.S. fans as possible seeing a stadium packed to capacity with passionate fans creating complete and utter bedlam.  I would imagine that any soccer fan in the U.S. would find it worth their time to spend two hours watching that game, the same way that many hard core baseball fans country-wide love seeing the Red Sox and Yankees square off in meaningful October games.  The addition of Montreal would also create a natural rivalry with Toronto, which will also be great for the League. Putting aside the quality of the play on the field for a moment, nothing gets the U.S. sports fan more excited than the perception that a sporting event is something more than just a game, but rather something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Stands filled to capacity with screaming, chanting, passionate fans helps create that perception.  Which leads me to…

rio tintoStadiums: Even on television (and even more so in person), there is a vast difference between seeing a game played in a fantastic venue like Rio Tinto or HDC versus converted baseball stadiums (with pitchers mounds in full view, tiny dimensions and horrible fan sight lines) and cavernous football stadiums (particularly once the NFL and college football get started and the additional lines on the pitch make die hard soccer fans’ eyes bleed). Thank goodness, assuming there are no unpleasant surprises, MLS is in the process of building great new stadiums in Houston, San Jose, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Portland and New York, all of which should be completed and fully functioning by 2012 (and all of which, other than Portland, will have natural grass surfaces, I believe). Only Seattle (which seems to work, even in a large stadiumfor now), New England (which will not change in the foreseeable future), D.C. (which is actively seeking a new stadium deal) and Vancouver (which sees B.C. Place as a temporary home with a waterfront soccer stadium on its wish list) will be left in gigantic football stadiums, and there will be no more minor league baseball or small college football stadium eyesores left. This alone will make MLS seem much less “minor league” to traditional soccer fans. Getting the soccer specific stadiums filled, of course, is still a challenge (see Colorado and Dallas as prime examples), but I believe that as more and more games are played in proper soccer venues, soccer fans will as a whole take MLS more seriously and begin to show up in greater numbers.  Also, with the vast majority of MLS teams having permanent homes for which they control the scheduling, the League will be seen as more financially stable, eliminating the concern for fans that they will be getting themselves invested emotionally and financially in a team and league that could disappear at any time.  Ideally, MLS will do its best to ensure that future stadium projects are as close to downtown epicenters (or at least easily accessible public transportation from those epicenters) as possible, since those stadiums tend to draw the best crowds. Of course, in the end, it is the product on the field that will do the most to win over the hearts and minds of the U.S. soccer fans, leading me to probably my most important point…

collective bargainThe Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the traditional management stance since the beginning of time has always been to keep wages as low as possible, MLS needs to take a giant, progressive leap forward here and take a position which for management will seem counter intuitive. MLS teams have got to have the ability to pay, and therefore retain, their quality players, particularly the players that they spent the time to develop.  The wages paid to second and third tier players (after the designated players, of course) are disgraceful by any standard, much more so for a professional sports league that considers itself “major league”.  Even the top tiered non-DP players have every incentive to leave the U.S. for even minor European leagues since the pay discrepancy is so vast (Kasey Keller has stated he was offered three times as much as his $300,000 salary with the Sounders to play in the Romanian league).  Keeping as much domestic talent as possible (understanding that, for now, almost all truly world class U.S. players will still bolt for Europe if given the opportunity) should be a huge priority for MLS.  Not only does it keep recognizable American faces here, but it increases stability for the teams within MLS to be able to build their team (and their brand) around a core of high quality American players. Knowing that the same players will (generally) be around from year to year fosters more fan loyalty and, not coincidentally, sales of playerrelated merchandise such as jerseys. Currently, MLS team strategy seems to be to sign one aging big name DP plus a couple of decent players, and then to fill in the gaps with the chaff of dirt cheap, interchangeable parts. The solution to this problem is conveniently available right now, as the League is conducting its collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the MLS players union. The cap needs to be loosened considerably (possibly with a Larry Bird-rule type exception, allowing teams to keep the stars they cultivate) or, at the very least, should be more than tripled to around $6-7M (plus the DP exception) with annual lock-step percentage increases to the cap each year during the life of the new collective bargaining agreement. This action alone will immediately increase the quality of the product on the field and allow MLS franchises room to develop and sign players good enough to create much higher quality play league-wide on the pitch. MLS needs to be forward thinking about this and understand that while the “NASL dilemma” makes this step a bit scary, there is a way to do this smartly that will dramatically increase the league’s credibility among the U.S. soccer fan.

With the “Summer of Soccer” being an unquestioned success at both the turnstiles and in the amount of attention heaped upon it by the mainstream media, the time is right for MLS to make its sales pitch to the U.S. soccer fan.  By continuing to take the steps MLS seems to be consciously taking to foster rivalries, as well as building stadiums that represent well the sport we love, MLS has begun making much better choices to appeal to this crucial base of fans.  But in the end, the quality on the pitch will be the ultimate determining factor as to whether these fans will buy-in to the MLS experience.  The collective bargaining agreement is the tool with which the League can finally make a huge statement to these fans that it understands that quality of play is the single most important thing a soccer league can offer.  It is time to shed some (but not all) of MLS’s fiscal conservatism and give MLS teams the flexibility to go out and build quality clubs that have the capability to play aesthetically pleasing, competitive soccer.

Bringing the Fans to MLS: Part IV-The Soccer Hater

jim rome“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, 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.

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 surpisingly 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: 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?

Bringing the Fans to MLS: Part II- Families

soccer_mom1They are the bane of many an MLS fan, yet they continue to represent a substantial portion of Americn soccer crowds.  Teams cater to them, by offering special four packs, pre-game soccer celebrations and mascots. Who are these fans?  They are familes.  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, 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.

“Hard core” MLS fans have railed against the presence of familes 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 familes.”

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.