Would you believe it: how about an expensive marketing campaign focused on the history of a club and the sport, promoting an actual competitive domestic match — in American soccer.
So much of this “summer of soccer” in the U.S. has been huff and puff about games that don’t matter (aside from the $$$), with the series of high-profile friendlies sweeping the nation featuring Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea et al. These are all well and good, but the point of a competitive sport is, after all, to win trophies: and DC United’s marketing campaign for the upcoming U.S. Open Cup final to be hosted at their stadium hammers home that point with some verve.
We Win Trophies
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup — America’s oldest cup competition, founded in 1914 — is sadly neglected by US Soccer and MLS in terms of promotional dollars and ideas; despite the drama it provides, the fairytale upsets for lower-league teams, and the attractively simple knockout format, it’s never received the marketing buzz it deserves — and hence, attendances are usually pitiful.
DC won the bid to host the final on September 2nd this year at RFK Stadium against the Seattle Sounders, whose own marketing machine this year has been quite the marvel — partly prompting DC President and CEO Kevin Payne to pump some serious cash (by MLS standards) into promoting the game to prove DC remain the standard-bearer for MLS as they look to add another trophy to their cabinet.
DC’s campaign has gone into overdrive for the final focusing on the club’s history of success. The first hints of it came with some simple but effective teaser marketing in the form of a sticker campaign across D.C., with an enigmatic rendering of the actual US Open Cup trophy (enigmatic given so few people actually know what it looks like!), the date of the match and “peel here” on the front — with the reverse side simply reading WeWinTrophies.com.
As you can see, Wewintrophies.com itself is masterfully simple, on-message, and easy to share virally — everything almost every MLS website hasn’t been for years (Seattle’s set a new standard recently, with DC’s main page also a vast improvement over many others). Tellingly, DC aren’t missing any of the tiny details either: even their Twitter icon has that same image of the cup and the date of the game on it. And popular urban news website DCist.com is completely blanketed by an advertising background with the same imagery promoting the game.
WeWinTrophies.com makes abundantly clear DC’s history as the most successful team on the field in MLS history. It includes an open letter from Kevin Payne addressed to “Washington, D.C.” playing this angle up. Payne writes “Since our first season in 1996, D.C. United has won 12 major domestic and international trophies and is firmly established as the most successful organization in the history of U.S. professional soccer.” (Some may quibble with this final statement: paging Kenn Tomasch!). It’s an old adage, maybe, but nothing sells like success, and seeing history (albeit only since 1996) touted in MLS is a welcome sight.
This isn’t a cheap campaign based only on stickers and a website, though. United also splashed out on a full-page ad in Sunday’s Washington Post printing Payne’s open letter to the city. The selling point Payne emphasises is success and city pride: “I know not all of you are D.C. United fans,” Payne ends the letter with. “Many of you aren’t even soccer fans, but a challenge has been issued and we expect all sports fans in D.C. to meet it. Join us at RFK. Hear the songs of passion. Feel the stadium bounce. Stand up and cheer. Stand up for another championship. Stand up for D.C.”
DC United vs. Seattle; or, Kevin Payne vs. Adrian Hanauer
Dig deeper into the letter, and it’s clear that the motivation for this angle of the campaign is fuelled by the feud between Seattle and DC over the decision of US Soccer to award the final to DC following their secret bidding process. Tellingly, Payne writes:
Our opponent, Seattle Sounders FC, is new to MLS. They’re in the midst of a great inaugural season and have developed a large and passionate fan base. The Sounders, and its fans, have said that Washington, D.C. and its fans do not deserve to host the match at RFK. They insisted the match should be played in Seattle.
For 14 seasons, our fans have been the standard by which other fans in Major League Soccer are measured.
For 14 seasons, our fans have brought unmatched energy, enthusiasm and passion to RFK Stadium and Major League Soccer.
And now, after 14 trophy-filled seasons, it is time for our fans – for all D.C. area sports fans – to remind everyone who the best sports fans in the country are.
Payne’s motivation to prove this is pretty obvious, following his public spat with Seattle boss Adrian Hanauer, who criticised US Soccer for awarding the final to DC, and not to his expansion franchise with their legion of fans at Qwest.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was frustrated and somewhat skeptical of the process,” Hanauer said. “I don’t think D.C. has played a game in the Open Cup on the road in two years. They had a road through all lower-division teams to get to the Open Cup Final. I’m not in the know … enough to be able to raise any real issues, but I’m frustrated and I wish U.S. Soccer would explain why one bid wins over another.”
Hanauer then really stuck the knife in, suggesting if Seattle hosted the final they’d have packed their stadium with 30,000 fans and pointedly predicting DC would fail to attract a strong crowd.
“Our fans deserve some answers,” Hanauer said. “And, by the way, U.S. Soccer has been trying to raise the profile of the U.S. Open Cup. A game in front of 10,000 fans at RFK I don’t believe is going to raise the profile as much as a game in front of a sold-out Qwest Field.”
Hanauer was probably wrong when he said Seattle would have sold-out Qwest: as US Soccer obviously knew, scheduling issues in Seattle meant that had the game been there, it would have to have been played on a weekday afternoon. But it’s true that for last year’s final, only 8,212 showed up at RFK to watch DC win their last trophy.
The comments from Hanauer, in his first-year as an MLS GM, enraged Payne, who has been (on and off) leading DC since the first season of MLS in 1996. “I was surprised and disappointed and offended,” Payne told Soccer Insider. “Adrian uses the word ‘skepticism’ to describe the process, which seems to be implying that it wasn’t on the up-and-up. Which is really an outrageous implication. . .Adrian has no knowledge of what we bid or didn’t bid; my guess is that we bid more aggressively than they did. I appreciate that Seattle’s fans are great. Our fans have been great for 14 seasons. It’s really unseemly for Seattle to suddenly show up in MLS and everything should be handed to them.”
Payne went on to say that DC would “promote the game aggressively.” He has been proven true to those words: as we can see with this campaign, United are pulling out all the stops to ensure the crowd is significantly larger than the 10,000 Hanauer predicted would show-up at RFK. DC are spending “significantly more” than on the 2008 campaign, their marketing department told us.
If it takes a bit of a feud and a smart marketing campaign to raise the profile of the U.S. Open Cup and get a strong crowd out for a nationally televised final in D.C., then this is all to the good. A little juice and bitterness does wonders for fueling interest. And if DC can make money on the final thanks to their marketing (as Payne believes they will), then perhaps that might, just might convince US Soccer and MLS teams to invest some money to make some money by promoting the tournament as a whole with further similarly smart marketing campaigns next year.