Editor’s note: We write about the supporter experience a lot here at Pitch Invasion, but what’s the view like from the other side of the fence? We’ve invited Peter Wilt, the President and CEO of the Chicago Red Stars of WPS and former President and CEO of MLS’ Chicago Fire to write a weekly column on his experiences as an executive in American soccer and on the business of the sport.
I have been fortunate to start or restart five professional soccer teams in the United States and have been rewarded with six championship rings in three different professional soccer leagues. I managed the MLS Chicago Fire from its 1997 inception through my unpopular (at least in my household) dismissal in 2005 a year prior to the team’s move to its new stadium, Toyota Park. The last several years have been dedicated to launching the Red Stars, Chicago’s first professional women’s soccer team. The Red Stars ground share of Toyota Park with the Fire allows me to work at (or near anyway) the stadium whose development and design I led. I continue to be an ardent supporter of the Chicago Fire.
Pitch Invasion has invited me to write a weekly piece on soccer business in America. I anticipate most of the weekly posts will be anecdotal and will share lessons learned from my own experiences. I also hope to write occasional pieces that are a bit more in depth and feature analysis of specific data and will also have interviews with various personalities in American soccer. If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover in the future, please mention it in the comments or send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My first post describes the ten pillars of my soccer management philosophy, which will help provide perspective for my future posts and put them in context.
1. FANS ARE IN CHARGE. While professional soccer teams have an ultimate fiduciary responsibility to the investors in the team, I believe two important factors steer decision making towards the premise that soccer executives should work for the fans. First, professional sports teams are a community asset that represents the community in a fashion unlike any traditional business. The investors are (usually temporary) caretakers of this asset for the fans. Secondly, what is good for the fans is usually good for the organization and investors. If the fans are happy, engaged and supportive of the team, they will spend more money, watch more game broadcasts and promote the team better themselves. Fans, and I am one also, ultimately cheer for the badge, the team it represents. They don’t cheer for the organization or the owners.
2. WE ALL SELL. Sometimes it seems that everyone wants to get into sports, but few want to get into sports sales. The truth is that EVERYONE in sports needs to sell their team and their sport, whether it’s in the traditional sales sense or not. Of course ticket and sponsor sales staff sell, but it’s important for all staff to keep their sales hat on constantly whether they’re in operations, marketing, accounting, team administration or communications. Hiring staff with this mindset and indoctrinating this mentality creates a culture of sales that pays dividends directly and indirectly.
3. TARGET THE SALES AND MARKETING EFFORTS. The market place is huge and cluttered and soccer teams are always short of resources, both human and financial. While there may be some incremental sales and value to a general audience sales and marketing plan, the preponderance of resources should be used to sell to those who are ALREADY economically and emotionally attached to the sport (the soccer community). An exception to this is with a startup, which needs to establish a brand in a community at large in order to gain credibility and relevance with media and corporate decision makers.
4. BUILD A GOOD STAFF. It sounds simple. Hire hard working, talented people with good character – move all others along. I also believe in the importance of a diverse staff and promoting from within. I like to hire entry level employees from an intern pool, because we have had the opportunity to see their skills, work ethic and passion first hand.
5. BE A GOOD LISTENER. This is more than a management skill. It is an important way to learn ways to improve your business and to help reach agreement in negotiations – whether it’s a sponsorship deal, a youth soccer club partnership or a trade with another team. If you know what the other party wants – and you’re able to put yourself in their shoes – you’ll be much more successful in creating agreements that are positive for all parties. Paying attention to fans is another way to benefit by being a good listener.
6. TRANSPARENCY IS GENERALLY GOOD. If you believe in your organization’s integrity, intelligence and decision making ability, you should not only have no fear of the public seeing into your organization, you should welcome it. There are certain caveats to this such as privacy needs for many personnel, financial and health issues. But in general, providing insight into an organization’s decision making invariably improves fan relations and fan support. Transparency, i.e. public explanation of decisions and situations, takes away the mystery and allows the team to provide context into its decisions. It also engages the fans in a positive manner that allows them to gain understanding.
7. PROVIDE GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE. Like common sense, good customer service is something that everyone thinks they have, but surprisingly few actually do. Good customer service is the cheapest and best form of advertising and business retention. Customer service is a process and a culture that develops over time through consistent, honest and fair actions and communication with all team stake holders. The result is a team and organization that fans, sponsors, media and observers all feel good about and willing to support and even evangelize.
8. MAKE FAN(atic)S NOT SPECTATORS. Getting people to ATTEND soccer games in the United States is difficult. Getting them to CARE deeply about the sport, team and League to follow on their own is even more difficult, but long term is more important.
9. CREATE EMOTIONAL CONNECTIONS. The best way to get people to care about the local team is to provide opportunities for personal contact with the team (players, coaches and staff). This can be done in person one on one, in small and large groups and virtually via countless online social marketing tools.
10. BE AUTHENTIC. Don’t try to be something you are not, whether as an individual or as an organization. It’s much easier to be yourself and more effective.
I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts, perspective and experience with you on the business of soccer in the United States and hope to add discussion via the comments section as well.