The November 9, 2009 issue of The Washington Post included something a reader doesn't see everyday—an ad from a women's soccer team.
"Fed Up Washington Sports Fans—Fight for Your Freedom!" read the first line of the Washington Freedom ad . For most DC sports fans, it was a not-so-subtle way of taking a jab at the Washington Redskins, which calls FedEx field its home. The ad continued on to list down the benefits of being a Freedom fan. But for Redskins fans, the list contained more zingers aimed at the Redskins and its management.
"It appears to take shots at the Washington Redskins in lieu of the PR nightmares it has faced this season. In that regards, this seems to be a brilliant ad campaign. However, if this is meant to be a 'stimulus package' of sorts for Redskins fans finding solace in a pro-women's soccer league, then this campaign is way in over its head," Redskins freelance writer Ryan Estorninos observes.
"Where I do believe they are on to something, and actively stumping for new fans, the Freedom should focus on its own winning tradition and hope for the future."
Meanwhile Redskins fan Alan Gonzales, after another disappointing loss by the team, laments, "If you're a true Skins fan, your skin is so callous from this season that all you can do is laugh about [the ad]."
The buzz spread around the Internet through blogs, Twitter, and other forms of social media. In the women's soccer community, most have praised the Freedom's bold move in drawing awareness for one of the least popular sports in the country.
At The Washington Post's Soccer Insider , there were mixed reactions . Some were impressed by the ad, while some criticized it. Some thought it was just harmless fun that won't make a difference.
Good or bad, there's no denying the Freedom got the attention it needed.
"When we introduce ourselves and say, 'We're with the Washington Freedom,' a lot of people say, 'What is the Freedom? Who are the Freedom?' There's a lot of people out there who don't know who we are so that's where we came up with the simple phrase 'Freedom Is,'" explains Washington Freedom VP of Marketing George Perry.
"Freedom Is" is the new ad campaign the Freedom revealed through The Washington Post ad. On their website, a Freedom Fan Bill of Rights was put up to let fans know what they're getting. The Bill of Rights ends with a question asking the fans what Freedom means to them. The question allows fans to be involved in building the evolving Bill of Rights and defining what the Freedom actually is.
Such a move is just one of the ways the Freedom makes its fans feel valuable to the franchise.Through the web, fans are given the opportunity to interact with each other and with the players. A few days before their playoff game against WPS champion Sky Blue FC, the Freedom created Facebook accounts and Twitter accounts for all of the players on the team.
At home games, Freedom staff members hand out programs, posters, and thundersticks. Players—from Freedom and the opposing team—stay after every game to sign autographs. At times Freedom players and staff members head to a nearby sports bar for a postgame party with the fans.
"The fans are so important to us and we just want to make sure they know that if they want to create signs, and if they want to complain to us and tell us what's going on, we're gonna listen to them. And we're gonna do whatever we can to make sure they have an amazing experience," Perry says.
The Freedom's "for fans" approach, may it be on or offseason, seems to be working. In the past season, the average attendance of a home game, not including the RFK doubleheader with DC United, is around 4,600—one of the highest in the league. Only one home game had less than 4,000 spectators, and that was held on weeknight. Season ticket sales for 2010 have by and far surpassed the previous season's.
"They're definitely doing their best within their budget constraints to take care of us. Whenever I talk with a team representative, player or staff, they're very positive, very helpful, and very grateful for my support," notes Freedom season ticket holder Kevin Parker.
The Freedom's average attendance count appears to be around 5 percent of the Redskins'. While the ad seems to pit David against Goliath in a rather controversial way, it definitely reached an audience outside the women's soccer community.
The question of whether or not the ad will help increase attendance in home games by drawing in new fans won't be answered anytime soon. As far as the Freedom staff goes, work continues during the off-season in both promoting the team in the DC community and keeping fans happy.
"We know we're not the Redskins, but we're certainly a great value, great sports entertainment, and we value the fans," Perry says.