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.