Part Four in the Series: How Major League Women’s Soccer Can Work in the U.S.
Last weekend, nearly 20,000 fans filled a sold out PPL Park in Philadelphia to see the U.S. Women’s National Team defeat China 4-1.
This is the same Philadelphia where Women’s Professional Soccer had a franchise that couldn’t fill the 4,000 seat Leslie Quick Stadium at Widener University.
This paradox was not lost to many analysts covering the match. Most of the comments had a common theme.
If the WNT can draw a crowd like this, what’s wrong with attempts to run a women’s major league?
The answer is obvious. In a city as large as Philadelphia, for an international match one can fill a stadium with a combination of pure soccer fans, a large contingency of youth soccer programs, traveling teams and high school soccer programs.
You can get the minivans out for one big game in which all the heroes are on the pitch together, especially when it involves a classic rivalry.
But, the demographics WPS most hoped to lure in large numbers, pre-teen and teen girls, their coaches and families—the soccer mom entourage—do not seem to be disposed to coming out every week to watch someone else play, especially since they’re playing multiple games every week themselves.
There isn’t enough time in the week, or enough money in a typical family budget, for this group to be the primary fan base.
Sure, they’ll come out once during a season on a team field trip. Not every week.
Who is the fan base? What can be done to develop, expand and maintain it?
The fan base is the same for major league sports in larger cities. NBA arenas are not full of young basketball players and their families. The same is true of hockey, baseball, football and men’s soccer.
Families are too busy running around to their kids’ games, paying for them to play. Some make an annual outing to see a game. Few have season tickets.
Why did anyone think it would be different in women’s soccer?
That seems to be the most significant miscalculation made by both of the failed leagues.
Who attends other major league sports? Young adults without children. Families whose kids aren’t playing a sport, or at least the sport they’re watching in the same season as the sport they’re attending. Business people. Celebrities. Die-hard fans of the team.
Where do die-hard fans come from? They’re bred primarily.
Kids grow up going to games with Dad—or, more recently, also with Mom—and it gets in their blood. It becomes a ritual. The ritual somehow becomes integrated with a sense of community.
Then it isn’t just about the sport, it’s about being part of the community. It's about celebrating the community, finding personal and communal affirmation and redemption through that of the community in the vicarious experience of the team’s quest for victory.
In other words, to get a fully fanatical, loyal fan base, it takes a generation.
But, if a community is new to the major league experience, bonding between fan and team can be accelerated to achieve in months what would normally take years. The trick is that the community has to be able to identify with the team, coach and key players.
This is why the best way to re-launch major league women’s soccer is to locate in cities where the new team will be the only major sport on the market.
With no competition for loyalty, time or money, people who thought they didn’t like or understand soccer will suddenly become soccer fans, just by primarily becoming fans of the home team.
In order to maximize this opportunity, the teams need to do everything possible to endear themselves to their markets. This includes the usual player appearances and autograph sessions, but it also needs some outside-of-the-box ideas.
For example, teams can raffle off players to have dinner with fans. Families or community groups can give money to charity to “adopt” a certain player, and that player would participate in family or organizational activities over the year.
Season ticket holders can have greater access to players and coaches via protected email accounts. At season opening and ending events, season ticket holders and lottery winners from the general fan base can attend and rub shoulders with the players.
This is especially important and feasible in smaller markets, since the size of the community and the fan base is more manageable. We’re not talking about a market of several million people, or 80,000 fans in a stadium for a single game.
Smaller markets and venues give the women’s game the potential to offer much greater access and a certain degree of intimacy between fans and players.
And, even though we can’t count on the youth soccer community to be the core constituency, there is much that can be done to maximize interest in this market. Teams can increase player and coach involvement in the youth soccer community.
Western New York Flash just launched an adopt-a-team program by which each player adopts one youth team in the area and regularly have contact with them. Marketing departments can arrange for coach buses to transport whole teams and families to a game together.
This still won’t make the youth market increase in season ticket holders in large numbers, but it would likely turn a one game per year fan into a two game per year fan.
Perhaps the most important thing that creates a great fan and major league experience is a full house.
If the stadium has more empty seats than people, there is a limit to how much energy and excitement can be generated—no matter how good the talent and competition may be.
The teams need to do whatever is necessary to ensure a packed venue every game during the first couple of years. This means finding local companies and organizations to buy blocks of tickets to give to their customers, clients or employees. This means giving away tickets at the last minute, if necessary.
Every startup needs to give away products and services for a limited time in order to attract customers and create a buzz. If the product is good enough, people will be willing to pay a fair price before long. The worst thing that can happen is having thousands of empty seats.
If people are let in free to fill seats, at least they’ll spend money on concessions.
Next: We’ll consider ticket pricing more thoroughly as part of a discussion of business and financial models.
Missed part one? Here’s the link.