Monday, November 06, 2006

Carnival of Soccer #6: Getting Butts in the Seats

It’s Carnival time again, boys and girls! This go around we are looking at new ways to bump up the marketing of MLS, ways to increase fan interests and get them in the seats. Being limited by the constraints of not tampering with the league schedule or league format, we have to focus on targeting three specific areas:

- Youth Soccer Players and Family’s
- The Hispanic Communities
- “Core Soccer Fans”

Youth Soccer Player and Family’s
One point to make here is to try and get the youth soccer players to identify more with the local MLS team. Take advantage of the fact that each club has so many local youth soccer leagues in the surrounding areas. Have an MLS player volunteer as an assistant coach for a local youth team, as an honorary assistant coach for a season. Have MLS player attend one youth soccer practice a week to help with the training and offer insights both to the players and to the coaches. On the first visit out to the youth team, have the MLS player distribute club t-shirts to all the players, give them shirts that they can wear to school that shows that their team has a MLS player as a “coach.” Have the MLS player also present the youth team’s head coach with a MLS warm up shirt, something that the coach can wear to the youth practices. Along with the shirts and the warm-up top, the player can provide the coaches and the players with contact information for the club ticketing office.

Having this type of interaction would be huge in getting the kids interested in going to the MLS matches. The youth player can go home and ask their parents if they could all go to the next home match. The parents could then use the contact info that the MLS player has provided to inquire about the “4 pack” ticket plan. I think that MLS should try and give this thing a bigger push. Offer the 4 pack plan (4 tickets + 4 hot dogs + 4 sodas) but throw in a MLS mini-ball, all for $60.00. Include a free parking voucher and have the MLS mini-ball be one from the local club, instead of a generic one that has the MLS logo. $60.00, including free parking, for a sporting event is very, very hard to pass up. The mini-ball would be a great souvenir for the family.

For those families that do not have youth soccer players, greater community advertising should be done to reach them. A perfect example of an untapped source is the DC United partnership with Gold’s Gym. United has a partnership with Gold’s Gym, and at RFK before matches, you hear advertisements about joining the Gym and how to contact and find the nearest club. The DC United website has a link to the Gold’s Gym website on its main page that rotates with other advertisements. However, in two of the area Gold’s Gym’s that I have been to this season (2006) you would never even know that the two had any type of relationship. DC united could have a full color 11” x 17” advertisement posted at the front desk and in the locker rooms of every Gold’s Gym in the DC area. They aren’t even advertising the playoff’s in the gym’s. United could also offer discount tickets for Gold’s members, which could bring more people out to the matches. This is an untapped source of potential fans that would require minimal resources, but has the potential to bring in more fans every week.

One of the bigger challenges for MLS is to get the mainstream local media to provide a larger amount of coverage. Again, here in the DC area, it is Redskins first, then the Nationals, then the Wizards, than the Capitals, then the College football and basketball programs, then maybe, DC United. The Redskins suck right now, the Nationals suck and are out of season, the Wizards just started their season, as have the Capitals. The local mainstream (ABC, NBC, CBS) news sports reporting might have coverage of United, simply because they are in the Conference Finals. However, during the majority of the MLS season, they truly only have the Nationals as the local sport to compete with, so getting the local mainstream sports broadcasts to cover United, with game highlights and weekly player reports, the same type of coverage that they give to the Redskins and others, might go along way towards getting more people out to the matches. I am not even talking about daily updates, they could just have one report on a Wednesday night to recap the previous weeks events and to preview the upcoming weekend’s match.

Hispanic Communities
I think the biggest problem that MLS faces with increasing it’s marketing in the local Hispanic communities is that most of these communities are made up of immigrants from other nations; and as they bring their culture with them to the USA, they also bring the loyalties and support for soccer clubs from their home countries. MLS should try and manipulate those allegiances and try and get those fans to adopt the local MLS club as their “local” club. A Hispanic soccer fan from Argentina, now living in Los Angeles can still be a die-hard Boca Juniors supporter. He can still wear the blue and yellow and support Boca as they play in “La Bombonera, yet he can also support the LA Galaxy or Chivas USA as his local club. Just because you like a local club doesn’t mean you have to cut all ties with the original club that you supported. MLS should try and push for the local club identification with the Hispanic immigrants.

Another way to try and market the MLS clubs to the Hispanic communities is to try and cultivate club to club partnerships between MLS clubs and South American clubs. FC Dallas is doing this right now with Tigres of Mexico. FC Dallas could offer to take one or two of Monterrey’s lesser used players, players who only really get time on the reserves bench, and give them one or two months work in MLS. Monterrey could reciprocate with FC Dallas and provide some playing time for some FC Dallas players for a month or two. Getting the chance to be exposed to different styles and playing environments will do nothing but increase in the development of players. It will also give the local fans a way to identify with the other club, give them a tangible link between the two clubs.

A different part of these club to club partnerships would be to have friendly matches between the two clubs. Also using the FC Dallas/Tigres mold, they held a home and away series of friendly’s between each other this summer, contesting the Rio Grande Plate. If more MLS clubs were do this, it would spark interests in the local Hispanic communities. Imagine how many people would show up for a match at RFK Stadium between DC United & River Plate? What about a match at Red Bull park between Red Bull New York and FC Porto (ok, Portugese, I don’t think, are considered Hispanic, but the ethnic draw is still the same idea here)? Houston Dynamo vs. Club America? Chivas just played a match in Phoenix against Club America, imagine if Chivas USA played a match against PUMAS in Phoenix, which would be a match that would bring out the local Hispanic community to the match.

“Core Soccer Fans”
These might be the hardest group to convince to attend the matches. One way I suggest as the first step for reaching the non-MLS soccer community is to start producing more MLS advertising on ESPN during UEFA Champions league matches. Advertise the ESPN televised match of the week, as well as the local club home matches. Work with Fox Soccer channel to carry the same advertising during their EPL broadcasts as well as their broadcasts of the Argentine league. With targeted advertisements during these shows, you get the MLS brand and local events presented before, midway and after the matches that those non-MLS soccer fans are watching.

A second point would be to have the local clubs nurture direct relations with the local area soccer stores. I know of three in the DC area that loosely support MLS and DC United, but nothing major. MLS should have DC United merchandise all over the store. Links to the local stores should be on the DC United website and flyers for their stores should be handed out at RFK. DC United should coordinate player appearances at these stores, and should suggest that the local youth clubs go to these stores for soccer gear. Having this type of grassroots connection in the community would be able to get those soccer fans who are non-MLS fans introduced to the club.

The idea of the club to club relationships can also be carried over to this demographic. Getting clubs that core soccer fans want to see and have them play against MLS clubs is a way to introduce the fans to the MLS clubs. Having Barcelona play two Mexican clubs in MLS cities, regardless of having MLS clubs play double headers with these matches, does not provide a proper introduction for the clubs. Having Barcelona play the Red Bulls is a good thing. Hell, the Red Bulls were tied 1-1 at halftime, which happened to be when Bruce Arena put in all of his subs. Having DC United play Chelsea or Real Madrid or Celtic were really good ideas and should be done more often. Red Bull New York playing Bayern Munich at Giants Stadium is a good idea. These types of matches should be held as often as possible, without affecting the MLS season. The friendlies between MLS and USL teams, those are the ones that should be put on the back burner, in favor of matches against clubs like Liverpool, Rangers, Ajax, Lyon, Roma and so on. Getting these fans out to these matches would go along way towards getting them to return for MLS matches.

All in all, doing some of these types of ideas would go along way towards getting more fans out to MLS matches and to watch them on the TV. Providing broader advertising, anywhere from a poster at the local Gold’s Gym, to a poster at the local Albertson’s to having Red Bull New York jersey’s and sweatshirts for sale at the local Target or Dick’s Sporting Goods store, you get more people to see the league, the clubs and the opportunity to see a MLS match live. If we can have some 200,000 youth soccer players in the country, we should be able to get 20,000 people to attend a soccer match. We just have to present the matches right, and they will come.


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