Who Owns a Soccer Club? Creating Tribalism

In addition to being the Chicago Red Stars President and CEO, I am also an owner of the team…and I am a Red Stars fan.  None of that needs to be mutually exclusive.

In the Red Stars case, thousands are fans of the club, hundreds are supporters and only a select few are actual owners.  While that is true, it is my goal to have the role of Red Stars fan equate virtually to the role of  Red Stars owner for all Red Stars fans.  Tribalism is at the heart of team support.  The greater that connection, that feeling that a fan is one with others in support of the team, the greater the support will be.  Fans who completely identify with their team and truly feel a sense of ownership will be passionately committed through good times and bad.  They will become angry when things don’t go well and will be jubilant when they do.  Avoiding apathy is the goal as apathy from fans is worse than anger.  Apathetic fans can’t be won back.  Angry fans can.

Lech Poznan Fans

Lech Poznan Fans

Ultimate success in cultivating a fan is when he (or she) believes that the athletes on the field are truly representing him (or her).  In any sport, the team on the field represents a certain constituency – if it’s a college game, the team represents the students, faculty, alumni and all people who have identified themselves as supporters of that school.

In soccer, the goal is to build the size and depth of support of your “constituency” aka fan base.  The size and degree of support is manifested in rivalries, often based on geography and even politics and culture such as the rivalry from the 1970s to 1990s between Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moskow or the South Coast Derby in England between Portsmouth and Southampton Football Clubs.  Fans (and hopefully the players, too) feel as if their city is waging battle against their rival’s city.

Tribalism is not easily achieved.  A fan’s support generally evolves from interested observer to casual fan to ardent supporter over time though there are examples (Seattle Sounders FC) where that evolution occurs rapidly.  There are different things a team can do to increase numbers in each category.  i believe MLS has always been brilliant at creating interested observers.  Interested observers are generally youth soccer players and their families who attend one to two games per season as part of a group, attracted by a promotion or guests of season ticket holders.  The last two categories are more challenging.  The following are important elements to increase pools of casual fans and ardent supporters:

*  Winning – Bill Veeck: “I’d never suggested that promotion by itself attracts fans. Winning draws fans. Winning plus promotion sets attendance records.”

*  Access to players – San Jose Earthquakes founding General Manager Dick Berg told Soccer America in 1974 that the best way to sell a ticket was to introduce a person to a player.  That still holds true today.

*  Access to staff – Not as marketable as players, but staff members are more likely to be on message and incentivized to sell.

*  Continuity of team, staff and brand – people like to stay connected to those they have a relationship with.

Teams and stadia often spend more time trying to inhibit fun that provide it

Teams and stadia often spend more time trying to inhibit fun that provide it

Enjoyable game experience – See Bill Veeck quote above.  Different types of fans seek different experiences.  Teams benefit by offering fun zones for families, high end hospitality for corporate fans, opportunities for social interaction for young people and a good variety of food and beverages for all.  For supporters in particular, teams should allow the freedom for the fans to create their own environment.  In general, teams need to be enablers of fun, not restrictors.

*  Access to away games – Whether it’s via television, radio, internet or bus trips, keeping the fans connected to the unfolding story of a season on the road is important to gaining their deeper support at home.

*  Value added incentives – Giveaways (both announced and unannounced) make fans feel appreciated.

*  Quality and affordable team merchandise – Team merchandise serves as advertisements and tangible reminders of their connection to the team even when they aren’t at the games.

*  Input into organization – Some of the best ideas come from those you are trying to attract and by listening, you are making them feel part of the team.

*  Membership – a formal commitment to be part of the organization whether it’s defined as a season ticket holder, a supporters club member or an actual owner.

The Red Stars and most teams have “membership opportunities” in each category:

  • Season Ticket Holder – Be one of thousands.  In Seattle, the Sounders FC give season ticket holders a say in the leadership of the team every four years.  This is a brilliant move that vests the fans deeply in the team.
  • Supporters Club Member – Be one of hundreds.
  • An Actual Owner Be one of a select few by buying into the actual ownership of a team.  This can be viewed as the final step of commitment as a soccer fan.  We are all fans and we can’t all own Arsenal (thanks Stan Kroenke!), but to take a club to the next level it takes collective commitment – virtual and real ownership that you can contribute to in your own way.  Whether ownership is in the form of tickets (hopefully season), supporters club memberships, sponsorships or team investment (large or small), a team’s growth is dependent on outside support becoming internal.

In WPS or USL for instance, the teams are capitalized, but to extend presence and ensure permanance, most clubs are open to additional committed investors.  I enjoy the fact that i am a Red Stars owner as it extends the sense of ownership i have as a fan and as a staff member.  In the old eggs and bacon business axiom, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. With all the changes in USL, the continued launch of WPS and MLS expansion plans, there are real opportunities to increase your level of engagement with your favorite team.  I encourage you to reach out if you have the capacity and interest and become as committed as the pig.  You are needed.  The rest of the world has seen supporters groups coming together to buy stakes in teamsoften at critical points in a club’s life.

You may not have thought of yourself as an owner of a professional sports team, but most sports team owners probably felt the same way prior to investing.  The background of WPS owners, for example,  is very broad and includes attorneys who played collegiately and wanted to remain connected to the sport, former soccer coaches who want to help shape the future of the sport and fathers and grandfathers who know the League is the most important thing to their daughters and granddaughters.  Sure, there are some billionaires, but more importantly, ownership is made up of a broad committed base — all prepared to risk their investment OR grow it tenfold.

You could make the difference between your team continuing to operate as it is or elevating its profile and contributing to its success.  Reach out to any club that you want to support, you’d be surprised how receptive they may be to extending ownership.  Become an “owner”- whether it is through a season ticket purchase, a supporter’s club membership or step forward and become part of the investment group.  Soccer needs more owners of all kinds to succeed!  If you have questions about how to do this, feel free to reach out to me directly.

Editor’s Note: Chicago Red Stars President and CEO Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion.

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