The Sweeper: FC Dallas Marketing Fail Continues

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Average attendance in MLS in week one of the season was up from 2009. At the top end, an impressive 36,241 saw Seattle’s opener against Philadelphia.

But as has been noted across the blogosphere, at the bottom end FC Dallas reported a crowd of just 8,016 for their home game against Houston, who brought a decent number of fans to Dallas themselves.

It’s not news that Dallas have a problem attracting fans. Average attendance in 2009 came in at 12,441, a decline of almost 5% on 2008, but this comes with an enormous asterisk: that average number was inflated by almost 3,000 thanks to a double-header at the Cotton Bowl with a friendly between Mexico and Colombia that attracted over 50,000.

So in reality, the 2009 home opener for Dallas was about par for the course in recent times (and that Cotton Bowl crowd also tells us, quite obviously, that there are plenty of people in the Dallas region who do like soccer who are not regularly attending FC Dallas games).

Many point to the location in far-out Frisco of Dallas’ stadium, Pizza Hut Park, as the reason for Dallas’ attendance woes; however, the fact that more people used to go and watch Dallas games there and don’t any longer isn’t a good sign. And of course, it tells the lie to the claim that all MLS teams need is their own stadium to succeed in attracting fans.

The fact is, it’s just obviously not worth the time or expense for soccer fans to go to Frisco and watch FC Dallas play. Match Fit USA notes that the team second from bottom in week one’s attendance chart, the Columbus Crew, have the same owners as Dallas, the Hunt family (MLS largely owes its existence to the late Lamar Hunt). Columbus, of course, have a winning team and also their own stadium:

Last year FC Dallas started terribly and used a late-season push to get themselves in playoff contention. Winning is always a draw, and it’s possible that the fans stayed away because the team was poor to start the year. That conclusion might be reasonable if the ownership of the club didn’t have such a poor track record, both in Dallas and Columbus; the Crew are in the midst of a trophy winning streak yet have failed to crack the top half of league attendance the last two seasons. Dallas’ problems on the field combined with Pizza Hut Park’s location is a double whammy; but even bad teams and those playing in massive American football stadiums far from their natural base can draw more than 10k.

Where we go from here is, of course, the problem. In a franchise system without promotion or relegation one answer to solve the problem of a team in a sinkhole as deep as Dallas’ dragging down the rest of the league is to move the team, an unpalatable solution from a fans’viewpoint.

It’s possible to recover from disasters like these; in 2003, the Fire opened with an even lower crowd than Dallas’ in 2010, for quite different reasons, but you see the point. FC Dallas, though, are in the midst of several seasons of marketing fail in their own, rather nice stadium.

MLS has talked up Seattle and Toronto’s success in selling itself to “football fans”, the young male demographic, as its prime marketing strategy in this era of the league.  Dallas, indeed, were one of the originators of this strategy in an unsuccessful way, with their renaming from the Dallas Burn to FC Dallas in 2005. Dallas also introduced membership in an official supporters’ club that has also been a failure, already rebranded from “Hoops Nation” to FCD Nation.

The fail has kept on coming. In December, we mocked FC Dallas’ abysmal “We are NOT spectators” marketing campaign.

FC Dallas: We Are Not Spectators

This is a prime example of an MLS marketing foolishness: what succeeds somewhere is seen as a simple strategy for another team to follow, regardless of the nuances of the local fan culture, the history of the sport in each region or the prospective fanbase. Instead, there’s a powerpoint and some poorly paid graphic designer on their first job out of college is assigned the task of coming up with something that is supposed to mean something to people using a cupcake cutter vaguely copied from success elsewhere in the league.

It doesn’t take a lot, but it does take something to make people open their wallets and travel out to Frisco to watch an MLS game, and FC Dallas’ front office just can’t figure out what the hell that something is.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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