Get Them to the Match: The NWSL and Connecting with Their Fans
By JJ Duke
After a year without women’s professional soccer in the United States, 2013 will be a re-awakening for fans around the country. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was christened last December and since that day fans have found out where the eight teams will be stationed for the inaugural season as well as where their heroes from the US, Canada and Mexico National Teams will be playing.
But outside of that, there is much to be figured out about a league that (at the time of writing) has yet to launch a central website, schedule, and full rosters among other things. So it has been up to the individual teams to market not only themselves to the world of American soccer, but to market the league as a whole.
As the date for the opening matches of NWSL draws nearer, here is what some teams have been doing to get fans interest and get them out to the games:
WHAT HAS CHANGED IN MARKETING THE GAME
In the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) days, there was no doubt that on paper WPS had the best talent base in the world on their teams. This time around, the talent in the NWSL will be primarily domestic with limited spots for international players. But some of the expectations were set too high from day one. While WPS learned from the mistakes made financially from the WUSA back in the early 2000s, there was one common factor throughout the league that led to a decline in fan attendance.
“I believe a lot comes down to creating the experience,” said Boston Breakers General Manager Lee Billiard. “I think you can go look back and every team had good crowds at one point. The key was creating the experience to bring those fans back. Some teams focused on this more than others. The importance of a front office sales department was an area not every team paid serious attention to.”
While some teams remain the same in the name from WPS, this go around will be much different for those existing teams. Alyse LaHue, the General Manager of the Chicago Red Stars, said that after playing in WPS in 2009 & 2010, then dropping down to the Womens Premier Soccer League (WPSL) the past two years, opened some eyes for the franchise.
“When the team departed from WPS there was just one remaining owner (Arnim Whisler) that collected the Red Stars name and brand and kept it alive,” said LaHue. “He literally ran the WPSL team by himself, carrying coolers, setting up tables, mailing tickets. I returned last year to help during WPSL Elite, but it was a bare-bones operation. No staff at all. We will have full-time paid staff during NWSL but no where near the same number of staffers as WPS.”
But on the other side, while you learn from negatives during those previous experiences, positives come out for the future. And for Billiard, he believes that this time around in the NWSL, organizations will have the mentality for running first class operations for both the players in the leagues as well as the fans.
“For this coming season, we all realize we are re-marketing ourselves and the NWSL,” said Billiard. “The focus for organizations is on the off-field standards; teams are being made more accountable of driving revenue to make more sustainable organizations and overall league. The good part is you have former WPS teams, MLS links, teams that built great fan bases in the W-League, and a team in Kansas City that already operates professional sports teams. All of these teams know from experience how crucial it is to build and sustain their fan base and more importantly already have loyal supporters.“
FOLLOW THEM, TWEET AT THEM
In the new age of technology, communication has gone from posting flyers on street corners to putting out a message in 140 characters or less. The advantage of putting information out on social media has become one of the easiest ways to sell a product. And the best thing about using platforms like Twitter and Facebook is that it’s all-free.
“When you don’t have a large marketing budget to compete in a heavily saturated sports market like Chicago, we do rely on social media as a way to not only connect with, but also mobilize fans to spread the word about our team and players,” says LaHue. “This isn’t necessarily a manufactured thing, but just a natural grassroots thing that develops over time as you create a rapport with fans online. We try to be very responsive and participative in the online community, and many of our players naturally do this as well, so it helps build the brand for the team and the league.”
Using social media, teams can get information out very quickly ranging from player signings to ticket sales to upcoming promotions. For example, if you combine the followers for all eight teams in the league on Twitter, that’s over 50,000 followers plus another 15,000 that follow the NWSL Twitter feed. That’s a lot of eyes that will see information in a short period of time for just a quick message. So it is very important that teams regularly update their social media, which they have done for the most part.
Not only can teams promote the league on social media, but players can get in on the act as well. A lot of the time, you will see players interact with fans about promoting their games and thanking people for their support. But a new campaign has come out in the past few months that brings players, owners, league officials and fans together in a forum to talk about the women’s game.
Current players Ella Masar and Yael Averbuch started #WSoccerChat a few months ago on Twitter. It allowed the opportunity for fans to send out questions to players and media about the happenings in women’s soccer using the hashtag on Twitter.
“I think that women’s soccer is unique to some other sports in this respect,” said Averbuch. “For the most part, players are even more accessible than the fans may know. We as players are all extremely invested in making a successful professional women’s soccer league last in this country, and I think the majority of us see it is a joint venture with investors, team staff, and fans as well. The fans are a huge part of what makes the league work and it’s vital that they feel how tied they are to the success of the venture.”
And when the NWSL started releasing more information during the winter, #WSoccerChat was the place to go to get answers and clarification. More players have been getting involved with fans plus various personnel from some of the NWSL teams have joined the chat as well.
“The owners and team representatives are the ones privy to most of the vital information,” said Averbuch. “They have the most up-to-date view of how things are unfolding and are also part of the decision making process in many ways. It is great for fans to be able to question team personnel directly, for us as players to be privy to their answers, and also for the owners/team reps to get a feel for how dedicated the fan base is and what the common concerns and questions may be.”
With more and more people joining in on the social media trend, the NWSL and their teams have a great marketing tool to get fans involved with the game leading up to the start of the season.
NEW TEAMS, NEW IDEALS
“PT—FC, PT—FC, PT—FC”
Now MLS matches won’t be the only times you will hear this chant sung in the Rose City (for those who don’t know what the chant acronym stands for, Portland Timbers FC). One of the newer franchises in the MLS, the Portland Timbers, will become the first team in the league to boast a top-level women’s team, the Portland Thorns F.C., along with their men’s program.
For Timbers Chief Operating Officer Mike Golub, it was the right time to make this addition in a soccer-crazed city.
“We have had enormous success with the Timbers in MLS to the point of we have been getting every game sold out,” said Golub. “We felt that we have an amazing stadium, great soccer market and great soccer history for women’s soccer. So when we heard the league was forming we looked really hard at it and ultimately felt that we could succeed here, as well as help support the women’s game and it would be good for our community.”
While women’s professional soccer will be relatively new to the Portland area, women’s soccer on a whole is big in Portland, namely because of the college team in the city. The University of Portland Pilots have won two NCAA championships and have established a great program over the years.
And now, with the Thorns landing former Pilot and one of the best goal-scorers in international soccer history in Christine Sinclair, the connection was complete.
And for getting crowds to watch this new team, it is looking good thus far. The Thorns already have over 5,000 season ticket deposits before sales go out, plus a successful base to start with, with the Timbers.
“Step one was to make sure that our existing fan base, our season ticket holders and people who follow us know about the Thorns,” said Golub. “The next group we understand and believe that there are a lot of people that are fans of the women’s game, obviously there are fans of both but for some they are particular fans of the women’s game and we know those folks already. They are the people who coach teams or girls who play on clubs and we have had the women’s national team here in Portland the last two years, and those games were very well attended games so we will reach out to those people to come and watch the Thorns. Our plan is to use the Timbers platform to let the people know about the Thorns and they will play in the same stadium (as the Timbers) for very affordable prices and so far it is getting a lot of traction.”
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF CROWD…
The game of soccer has changed over the years, and with that comes different fans. People that attend matches all over the world come from different parts of the world, have different backgrounds and have a wide range in their knowledge for the sport. While the game in America missed a generation after the demise of the North American Soccer League in the 1980s, the popularity has quickly caught up. And a lot of that has come in the recent technological era, where the game can be exposed on all types of media. Which explains why the culture of the game has been most popular in the mid-to-late teens as well as the young adult.
In the past however, which what the Breakers will be continuing to follow, is marketing towards those soccer playing families with the hope that younger children watching their current idols will make them want to continue playing the game for a longer time.
“We are now marketing to those youth soccer players and teams who in 10 years time will still be supporting us through college and 20 years time bringing their own kids to games,” said Billiard. “Young families who will be bringing their children to Dilboy (Stadium) this season. We want to build a lifelong family fan base.”
At the same time, other teams will look to market towards the current trend of people that are watching the game.
“The experience of our games will not be a juvenile one exclusively. A group of 20-somethings can come, hang out in the beer garden, be vocal during the game, and still feel welcome,” said LaHue. “Every game needs to be an ‘experience’ for fans of all ages, so there will be something for everyone. Young soccer players will be happy because they will have the opportunity to meet their idols after the game or get autographs, young adults will be able to drink beer and mingle with like-minded fans in the beer garden, and the overall game atmosphere and experience will not be focused towards one particular demographic, but inclusive for many.“
One advantage that the NWSL will have over it’s predecessors is the marketability of the players from the Mexican Women’s National Team. The country of Mexico has been obsessed with the game of soccer for many years and has carried over to those who support Mexico in the United States. That includes selling out more matches that the Mexican Men’s National Team play in the United States versus playing in their home country, leading the team to schedule a handful of friendly matches in the US every year to continue their exposure. Now with the women’s national team players playing in the leagues, teams can have an opportunity to market towards Mexican-American demographics as well
“We have a decent size Mexican community in Massachusetts, which is great as soccer is a huge sport in Mexico with a passionate following and culture, similar to what we provide at the Breakers,” says Billiard. “Out of the 415 towns in Massachusetts, I believe Somerville (where the Breakers play), is 28th in terms of highest Mexican population and neighboring Cambridge is 3rd. With our Mexican national team players, we hope to forge stronger relationships with the Mexican communities and the youth soccer players.”
…AND NEW VENUES
American Soccer in the past decade has become obsessed with building soccer specific venues across the country, to avoid playing the game in large stadiums that would take away a positive atmosphere. Starting in 1999, the MLS Columbus Crew built Crew Stadium and since then, 16 of 19 MLS teams have their own venues, plus various lower division clubs owning or sharing soccer specific stadiums as well as the odd college team or two.
The reason for the uprise of the SSS (Soccer Specific Stadiums) were to have venues small enough so you aren’t hosting crowds of 15-20,000 people in massive football stadiums, but big enough to hold a strong crowd and to create an atmosphere.
In the NWSL you will see a variety of stadiums, from the 3,500 seat Dilboy Stadium that will host Boston Breakers matches to the modest 4,500 seater at Starfire Sports Complex in Seattle to Jeld-Wen Field in Portland that seats over 18,000. But each team had different ideas when it came to choosing their venues.
“We want to make sure Boston Breakers tickets are ‘hot tickets,’” said Billiard. “We did a good job of that [in the WPSL-Elite]. We sold out every game and had people lining up two hours before kickoff for standing room tickets. We have added an extra 1,000 seats this year making our capacity 3,500. I believe we will again sell out every game, keep it a ticket that is in demand, and make it more manageable in our budget where we can be making a profit on game days. “
Meanwhile on the other spectrum, the Thorns F.C. owner Merritt Paulson has announced that they have over 5,000 season ticket deposits with more on the way, and looking to average around 10,000 people per game at Jeld-Wen Field. While the stadium does hold over 18,000 for men’s game, that number is off the charts in comparing that to women’s teams around the world.
“We are going to have great crowds, if not some of the best crowds in the league, but we don’t think that we are going to sell-out a 18,000 seat stadium,” said Golub. “So one of the challenges that we face is while we will have great crowds that any soccer team would love to have, we will have to scale down the seating so that the stadium so that it can still maintain its intimacy and that we are still figuring that out to get the best atmosphere possible.”
Another noticeable change that may be seen throughout the matches is the atmosphere inside the stadium, most notably supporter’s sections which have popped up all over American soccer in the past few seasons. Having fans singing and chanting for 90 minutes brings the entire crowd into the match as well as gives players real motivation towards the end of matches when they know the fans are behind them. And the one question that was on my mind when talking to the Thorns is will the famed Timbers Army follow their women’s side as well.
“The Army are really excited about the Thorns,” said Golub. “So they are in discussions now about what their support will actually look like for women’s games.”Will there be a separate name that is just associated around the Thorns is where I think they are kind of going. But from everything that we can tell, perhaps will be under a different name but the Army will be strongly represented at Thorns games throughout the season.”
JJ Duke graduated from Rider University in New Jersey with a degree in Digital Media Studies. While his playing days may have ended back in high school, he still prides himself of being a decent shot-stopper and an all-around fanatic of the beautiful game (fervent supporter of Manchester United and the founder of a Rider supporters group, the 206 Ultras). He is the Student General Manager at 107.7 The Bronc at Rider and has contributed to various local newspaper and Web sites in the Trenton, NJ area of high school and collegiate sports including The Rider News and Fish4Scores.com. He became involved with Our Game Magazine early in 2012 when upon following OGM on Twitter, he was contacted within minutes (which caught him by surprise) by Tiffany about working with the team. After spending the summer covering the USL W-League and the WPSL-Elite league as an intern, he is looking forward to continue working with the OGM team, especially on games in the US.