American Soccer: A Little Bit Dangerous?

Does soccer need more ‘danger’ to sell in the United States to the right demographic?

Comments made by former MLS Commissioner Doug Logan to the Oregonian in this regard made waves recently. “Soccer audiences at their best have got to be a little dangerous,” Logan said. “It’s three guys with a beer cursing at the guy on the field. It’s not a family activity. If you want a family activity, go to the circus.”

Logan further criticised the reliance of MLS teams on group ticket sales to youth soccer groups. ”Success at the gate has to have a tribal following and not just a van of soccer-playing kids who come to one game a year,” Logan said. “If your business model depends on youth soccer, it won’t be enough.”

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This might seem an obvious statement to fans outside the U.S., but for years, soccer marketers in MLS have mainly been all too on message that the sport is a family-focused activity based on appealing to youth soccer. In recent years, that’s begun to change league-wide, and Logan was recognising that, albeit clumsily.

Yet Logan’s comments were curious in that he himself was MLS Commissioner during the period of its launch years that most of its teams — DC and Chicago excepted — were attempting to sell the sport solely as a family activity, and doing little but alienating the 18-34 adult demographic in their pursuit of the youth soccer crowd: which led to most MLS teams cracking down on anything that might potentially alienate their own stereotyped view of a sensitive soccer mom, who’d be frightened away at the mere hint of a swear word.

We can all get along

While he did not address the league’s past failures, it seems that what Logan really meant to do was point to the fact that MLS teams do now need to market more to adults who like to drink beer and come out to matches with friends to support their team week in-week out, rather than solely to families and youth soccer team groups — especially if the aim is building a strong season ticketholder base. What he failed to acknowledge was that this doesn’t necessarily exclude attracting families and children elsewhere to the rest of the stadium, and that many of them can also be passionate  fans themselves.

In a recent interview on du Nord, the Fire’s former President and current Red Stars President Peter Wilt explained that the two demographics can co-exist, with some effort to grow understanding on both sides.

The two most important audiences in American soccer are suburban families, which are traditionally conservative and sensitive to vulgarities and rowdy behavior, and young, urban, male, passionate fans who like and partake in extreme behavior. It’s two extremes that are oftentimes seated side by side. It’s ironic that they have this dichotomy while their end goal is the same: supporting the team they love to victory.

Throughout my time with the Fire, the key I found was communication. I get most credit for my dealings with Section 8 — with the young, urban, passionate fans — but I spent just as much time dealing with the suburban soccer community. It’s important that both constituencies understand each other and that they’re empathetic to each other.

Interestingly, this was a similar point to one made by Portland Timbers owner Merrit Paulson in an interview also published in the Oregonian this week, in which he deliberately played down the ‘danger’ of American soccer when asked about Logan’s comment that soccer support needed to be “a little bit dangerous.”

I disagree with that, strongly. I strongly disagree with that. That sort of plays to the worst stereotypes. But I understand the point, and I just think he’s trying to make the point in a flamboyant manner.

And the point that I agree with is a model that just targets soccer moms and youth soccer is an inherently flawed model. Those people spend their lives going to soccer games every weekend. Trying to target them for season tickets is the wrong way to go.

Now, the reality is, you’re going to get some of those folks. One hundred percent, you need a family environment. I don’t know if you could see a better family environment than Seattle right now. It’s one big party.

But in my mind, soccer is about the new America. It’s a younger demographic, by and large. The 20- to 30-somethings, more urban, is definitely a sweet spot. But families and sports fans and suburbanites are very much a target. And it’s a really unique sporting experience. I don’t think it needs to be dangerous.

What I’d say to that is, we have a section of our supporters, the Timbers Army, which adds to the ambiance, adds to the atmosphere, and I would not suggest that families sit there, with kids. So you need to have different environments for different people. And that’s part of the show, the Timbers Army.

So I would agree with him to the extent that there’s probably a section that’s not a family-oriented section. You get a lot of the European flair here — especially in Portland, even more so than in Seattle, in terms of the standing and the chanting and the synchronized chanting.

It’s never been clear to me why it’s been so difficult for so many MLS executives at the team and league level to figure out that the two demographics are not mutually exclusive, as Wilt and Paulson explain. One section or even end of ‘rowdy’ fans isn’t going to put-off most families attending in the rest of the stadium; in fact, the unique atmosphere that supporters’ groups engender is only likely to improve the spectacle and differentiate a soccer game from the other sports youth groups and families attend.

Kevin Payne, DC United’s supremo, figured this out back in MLS’ inaugural season, 1996, and ever since, DC has had strong support and solid attendance.  I interviewed Payne last year, and explained how they facilitated the supporters’ groups who created the most passionate support in MLS at the time. “The biggest difference between our approach and the rest of the league was that we set out from the beginning to appeal to people who already cared about soccer, whether they were American fans of the game or came from another country with a love for the game,” Payne said. “We thought there were enough people like that to be successful. Part of our philosophy was not expecting to attract non-believers.”

Chicago Fires Section 8

Chicago Fire's Section 8

Unfortunately, the rest of the league largely ignored this approach, aside from expansion team the Chicago Fire under Wilt, who in 1998 launched to strong attendance numbers and worked with the Barn Burners and the Polish Ultras ’98 (later standing in Section 8 together) who helped develop the Fire’s identity as a club with their tailgates, tifo displays and vibrant support.

In neither DC nor Chicago, despite the existence of strong supporters’ groups, were families and youth soccer groups sidelined as a result or scared away en masse. That’s not to say there was never a balancing act or some explaining to do by the front office, but all it takes is good communication and an effort by the club to connect with both sides.

Again, though, much of the league ignored this success, presumably petrified that the perceived ‘danger’ of supporters’ groups would scare off their dwindling youth soccer crowds. Obstruction to supporters culture based on a customer service rep occasionally receiving a few emails complaining about a curse word or because of the myth that youth soccer groups who come a few times a year would inevitably develop into an adult fanbase on their own dampened the atmosphere and slowed season ticket sale growth. Without a large base of season ticketholders, MLS teams were constantly scrambling to group sales, ticket giveaways and promotions to half-fill the stands at the expense of building an identity as a club people would believe in and support through thick and thin.

Payne’s absence from DC’s leadership from 2001-4 and Wilt’s firing from Chicago in 2005 (by an AEG executive who had never attended a Chicago Fire match) hardly helped matters. But Toronto’s arrival in the league in 2007 kickstarted their approach again with a successful launch with a largely adult supporters base who were already into soccer, an echo of Payne’s approach in 1996.

Toronto’s successful season ticket drive created a bandwagon wholeheartedly leaped on by expansion team Seattle this season, who have over 20,000 season ticketholders in part thanks to their Scarf Seattle marketing campaign. Nearby, Paulson in Portland seems to have the right approach, recognising the base of organic culture the Timbers Army that already exists provides, and planning to grow from that when the team joins MLS. 2010 expansion team Philadelphia have done the same thing, working closely with their supporters group, Sons of Ben, who had thousands of members even before the team had a name and an MLS franchise.

Toronto fans celebrate their first ever goal

Toronto fans celebrate their first ever goal

Meanwhile, MLS has begun to encourage existing teams to follow this approach, including at teams that have long had very weak supporters’ sections. Brian Bilello, COO of the New England Revolution, told footiebusiness.com earlier this year about the change of emphasis in their marketing campaign, with a new “Defend the Fort” theme aimed at supporters:

The primary reasoning behind the Defend the Fort campaign is to grow the number of season tickets in The Fort, our supporters section. While we’ll do as much as we can to grow the supporters section in general, we feel that season ticket growth is the key because those fans are the most passionate, most involved and have the biggest stake in the game, so to speak. So we didn’t want it to be where people are coming two, three or four games and sitting in that section, but rather growing a base of fans who are here every single week. That will drive the energy in the building.

Whilst this is welcome, hardcore soccer support can’t be generated solely out of a new marketing campaign. MLS front offices can do much to facilitate supporters’ groups, but in many places there is a lot of damage teams will have a hard time repairing, if they even try. The years of neglect and obstruction to supporters’ groups at teams like Dallas and Colorado mean it might never be possible for strong supporters groups to develop there.

It’s a shame it’s taken so many at the top of MLS so long to realise all this, exemplified by Doug Logan’s comments ten years after the end of his tenure as MLS Commissioner. What MLS has long lacked is not just snazzy marketing campaigns or “danger”, it’s the mere facilitation of supporters’ culture, despite the examples set in DC and Chicago and more recent expansion franchises. This does not mean the exclusion of everyone who doesn’t want to stand or sing or drink. Family sections and supporters coexist quite comfortably and safely in European stadia in various places: you can have atmosphere without alienating a family who comes to support the team as well.

What MLS needs to appeal to the 18-34 demographic is not danger in itself, but simply smart, far-sighted leadership by MLS executives and supporters’ groups who can work together to grow soccer culture bottom-up.

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