Marketing the New League: a Rebuttal to Joanna Lohman

About me: I’ve been a follower of women’s soccer since 1999, a Washington Freedom season ticket holder since 2001 (including the W-League era), and ran the primary Washington Freedom supporters’ group, the Freedom Fighters, from the return to WPS in 2008 until the team was moved to Florida in late 2010.

Joanna Lohman has written a heartfelt, well-thought-out, well-researched article about how to market the new women’s professional league, saying that the most important thing to do is to focus on the most enthusiastic fans (the “fanatics”, as she puts it). Unfortunately, I think that’s both wrong and pointless.

First off, it’s important not to alienate anyone who might want to come to the games. Not that she’s saying this, but it needs to be kept in mind. If you set up a game-day environment where a fan feels out of place if she doesn’t have a clever tifo and doesn’t want to stand and chant for 90 minutes, you’re in trouble.

The main problem, though, is that there aren’t enough of us. According to the Rogers Innovation Diffusion Model she cites, 2.5% of the population are innovators. The Washington Freedom’s average attendance in their last year (2010) was 3,825. That would imply that there should be 96 “fanatics” at your average Freedom match. But if you add up the fans in the Freedom Fighters/Braveheart section (10 on a good day), those who pay for the sideline seats because they’re enthusiastic (maybe another 10), and a dozen or so more in the stands, that gives you 30-40 Freedom fanatics, tops, and that’s being generous. (And I bet Jo and I could sit down and in five minutes write down the names of just about every one of them.) I can tell you as head of the main Freedom supporters group that our membership didn’t come close to 30.

That’s just not enough. (And 96 would still not be enough.) The bottom line is, alas, about quantity, not quality. Even if we bought top-level season tickets and emptied our wallets on food and merchandise at every single match, we still wouldn’t have the same impact each as 100 casual fans, which is what we’d need to do.

Now, Jo claims that we can entice other people to join us. I don’t know about you, but this has been a miserable failure from my perspective. My wife is supportive in principle but doesn’t want to attend, and most of my friends and other relatives just aren’t interested. The few times I have managed to get someone to a match, they’ve come and enjoyed it but not enough to make a habit of it – they always have something else they’d rather be doing at the time.

And in any case, there’s no point in marketing to us fanatics because we’ll show up, regardless. We showed up to WUSA matches even though the marketing was almost entirely geared to ten-year-old girls. We showed up to WPS matches even though, well, frankly, I never figured out who WPS was marketing to. A few of us even showed up when the Washington Freedom only had an amateur team in the W-League (and where were the rest of you while I was watching players like Lori Lindsey, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger turn into world-class performers?).

The bottom line is that Joanna’s article is appealing to us fanatics because it makes us think we’re important. And we are important to the players – we’re the ones who inspire them and make them want to put on the best possible performance for us. That’s a large part of what makes her article so enthusiastic and heartfelt. But in terms of the cold finances of marketing, we’re inconsequential. We’re like enthusiastic voters in a non-swing state: they already know we’re going to turn out, and our participation doesn’t affect the result. Don’t kid yourself that it’s otherwise.

That being said, her conclusions are sound: stadiums need to be accessible by public transportation and in good-sized cities; they need to serve alcohol; and they need to affiliate with an MLS team to achieve economies of scale. But none of those conclusions follow specifically from her premise – they’re good ideas whether you’re marketing to the fanatics or not.

And I agree heartily with her final words and will not even try to better them:

This new league must be successful or else women’s professional soccer in this country will go away forever. I do not want to see that happen. I do not want our league to be the poster child of failure.

I have a dream that the right people will come out to watch “The Beautiful Game played by Beautiful People” — that we, as both skilled athletes and role models, can empower younger generations. So I hope, as the saying goes, the third time will be the charm.

8 thoughts on “Marketing the New League: a Rebuttal to Joanna Lohman

  1. John

    I guess I’m not as fanatical as you describe, since I didn’t have interest in sitting in the tiny Freedom supporters’ section, but I did have season tickets for the two seasons of the Washington Freedom WPS team, attended a handful of W-league Freedom and DC United Women games in the pre- and post-WPS Freedom years, and watched other WPS, USWNT, and women’s college soccer games on Fox Soccer. And I’m not a soccer mom either, though my daughter’s participation in youth soccer leagues did escalate my interest in watching professional, semi-pro, and top level amateur women’s soccer. So I agree with Joanne Lohman’s appeal to serious fans, but suggest they can be grown from many sources and don’t need to be as “visible” as the fanatics you site.

    Thanks for your support of the Freedom, DC United Women, and women’s soccer. Too bad so many others are missing a great sport played by intriguing athletes.

  2. Val

    I liked this article as well. You are correct. I (the fan and repeated season ticket holder) will show up to women’s games regardless. It’s just that when I do, I am ignored, not included on special promotions, or treated as second to the kids that are there. The environments are not conducive to allowing adults be adults. This turns off my friends, who would become steady fans if not for the child-oriented atmosphere. It did not seem like a professional event, but more like a child’s birthday outing with people not paying attention to the game, constantly getting up and blocking the view of people trying to pay attention, etc. , not just in some areas of the stadium, but even at the sideline seats where we sat every game. If the event is treated as a professional event, caters to all fans of all types, does not limit marketing to kids and families alone, fewer people will feel left out, and more will attend. Broaden the outlook, marketing and vision. Make all people feel comfortable and welcome. Treat the environment as a serious, professional place…with some obnoxious fanatics gearing up the audience for some fun. That would be a sporting event that is attractive to a bigger audience. It is a difficult problem to solve, but it needs some serious consideration, of course.

  3. katy

    I agree with Val. I’m all for having a children’s bday party at a WPS game, but let’s get enough people in the stands (or create a certain environment) so that kids are experiencing a sporting atmosphere instead of sports fans experiencing a children’s bday party.

    This league needs to – and CAN – appeal to soccer fans. I despair that something that is seen to appeal to women and children isn’t taken seriously, but that’s how it is. And irrespective of that irritating status quo, Val, your description of the game atmosphere is right on. Even if the stands were 100% kids, it would be better if they were at least into the game.

    Though I will say, the thing about PROMOTING (not just being a fan of) women’s soccer is this: in the long run, it’s crucial for girls (heck, for everyone) to see professional women athletes. Not see them as kindhearted, perfect role models, but to simply SEE them. That develops the sport. Much like men’s soccer loses some of the most gifted U.S. athletes to more “mainstream” sports, or lack of interest in a “niche” game, women’s sports are stifled because only the most hearty few girls will work THAT HARD for such a dearth of career prospects. (Not to mention disparities in social cache between men and women athletes.) So, yes, until a league is able to financially sustain itself, it’s a worthy public good.

    I live in a city where a team has been added to this upcoming league and I can’t wait to buy my season tickets!

  4. stephen

    Cities like Portland, Seattle, Kansas City have MLS audiences of nearly 20,000 or more. If only 20% of this audience attended women’s matches that would be a very healthy crowd of 4000 by itself. In order to convince more fans of men’s soccer to support the women it would be helpful to convince the opinion leaders, the fanatic supporters, that it is okay to do so. They need to be encouraged to support the women’s team in the same manner as they do the men, with the chanting and the banners, etc. This will convince fans that the women’s game is just another extension of soccer culture, like supporting the reserves or the U-23s or the development academy teams. This is the idea I take from Lohman’s article.

  5. Bill

    I do understand how the disinterested ‘soccer mom’ can be a bad word demographically, but you still want to hit that market indirectly – by hooking the kids. My daughter met a couple of the local college players at a camp, went to one game and met some more afterwards, and now wants to go to *every single possible game*. (Which is not practical with school and other commitments, of course.) But you hook the kids, you’ll get the parents to drag them to at least some of the games, and get the kids going more when they get older.

    Of course, with the closest team in the new league still being about 6 hours away from me, I’m not sure that much of anything they’ll do (aside from a TV/web presence) will help in my specific case…

    1. cow pasture alum

      Bill: It appears that there are (at least) two kinds of kids. Your daughter represents one kind, and yes, she certainly would be most welcome, precisely because she is interested in the game and the people who play it. Finding such people through camps, etc. would be a great idea. However, that still means that there is no place for the kind of marketing that attracted the other type of kid; namely, the type that portrayed pro women’s soccer matches as the functional equivalent of Wednesday morning matinees at the multiplex for mothers and other caregivers and their charges.

  6. Wear Nikes Drink Gatorade

    I guess the shorter for Lohman’s suggestion for marketing the new league is, “I’m the one I want.” The people who complain about marketing women’s professional soccer towards families and their children are neither interested in nor believe that there is a good reason for acting in this manner.

    Instead of complaining about and attempting to get rid of the dreaded “fangirls,” the new league has to find a way tap into their passion and keep them involved. If things go according to plan, many of those unbearable “fangirls” will grow up into the fans Lohman wants to target. Until then, you go with the fans you got and learn to accept it. Money is the same, be from a disinterested mother or a fanatical young adult, and there isn’t a large enough audience to complain about quality.

  7. allison

    I actually agree with both articles…

    We certainly need to create an atmosphere at games that allows childless adults to feel comfortable and not crazy for attending so many games. The screaming is too much for me to handle at most games and the fact the Freedoms alcohol sales was limited to the worst seats in the house certainly enforced the fact that adults weren’t the target market. But really, as a young urban professional I wouldn’t have gone to germantown more than a few times a year anyways.

    That said, Lohman’s article is a little reminiscent of the starry-eyed, head in the clouds attitude of the early WUSA–the the leagues would be so popular they could afford to alienate. Parker’s right–you can’t afford to alienate anyone and the youth groups and two game a year fans are a very important revenue source.

    To me it seems the key is to make each of these demographics feel welcome, or at least comfortable, when they attend.


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