Chapter II: Marketing
Here’s a quick test: when I say “NASL, USL Pro, and NPSL,” which teams come to mind? For me, and I suspect for most who follow American soccer, it’s those with the greatest levels of support. Orlando, Sacramento, Indy, Minnesota, Detroit, Chattanooga, San Antonio, to name a few. What do all of those clubs have in common? Sizeable, dedicated supporters’ groups.
Supporter-Friendly > Family-Friendly
A big mistake that a lot of new clubs seem to make is marketing themselves strictly to families with soccer-playing kids. There is nothing wrong with free admission for children of a certain age or group discounts/special accommodations for local youth teams, but if you truly want to succeed as a club, you must focus on building a base of diehards. It’s fine to try and bring in the “soccer moms,” but they should not be your primary focus.
With the recent explosion in the amount of televised soccer in the U.S., every corner of the country has access to the sights and sounds of the big leagues from around the world. No matter what state or city you are in, there are likely many people (typically in the 18-45 demographic, but some older and younger as well) who love the atmosphere of the European matches they see on TV and want to experience it firsthand in their own backyards. Your job is to give them their outlet.
Supporters and Atmosphere
Supporters are the ones who will snatch up season tickets each year as soon as they become available. They are the ones who will travel hundreds or thousands of miles to watch your team play. They are the ones who advertise the club the most, through word-of-mouth, social media, and simply by wearing your colors around town. They are the ones who will stand with you through thick and through thin.
That being said, you MUST NOT attempt to create a supporters’ group or derby yourself. Everything must spring up organically with no involvement from the front office. What you need to do is create an environment in which your SG will thrive. In the same way that palm trees and brightly-colored poisonous frogs can only live in a tropical environment, your SG can only exist and grow when it is allowed to stand and sing for 90 minutes, set off smokebombs, and display tifos and banners.
Here we see some supporters’ groups in their natural habitats:
You should give your SG a basic set of rules and boundaries, including but not limited to: no physical violence, no racist, sexist, or homophobic language, no open flames, etc., and allow them to police themselves until they show that they are unable or unwilling to do so. Be aware that they will use salty language and insult the opposing team and its fans. This will turn a few people off, but as long as your overall attendance numbers stay steady and continue to rise, you shouldn’t consider it a serious problem.
To sum up, many people don’t go to soccer games just to see the play on the field, they also go for the incredible experience provided by a vibrant atmosphere.
…atmosphere is one of the crucial ingredients of the football experience. These huge ends [supporter sections] are as vital to the clubs as their players, not only because their inhabitants are vocal in their support, not just because they provide clubs with large sums of money, but because without them nobody else would bother coming.
– Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch
The richer an environment you create, the more fans you will attract.
It would be unwise to spend too much of your money advertising on old media (TV/radio/newspaper); social media is free, popular, and its reach is growing by the day.
At the bare minimum, your club should have an official Facebook page, Twitter feed, and probably a YouTube account to upload your highlights and interviews. Whoever you put in charge of these accounts, make sure they keep posts professional – it would be poor form to have an exchange with a kid who thinks you “totally suck ass” appear in an official club feed. It would also be a good idea if the person in charge of your accounts had a good grasp on spelling and grammar and posted on a regular basis. The following is a screenshot of FC Sparta Michigan’s official Twitter feed:
They then created a second account, the result of which was this:
That’s a total of six tweets in five months, with none for the entire summer in which actual games were taking place. In case you were wondering, this club lasted for one year.
When it comes to your website, you don’t need to rewrite the rules of web design, but it should be well-done and – here’s that word again – professional.
Here’s a good example:
And here’s what not to do:
The difference between model organizations and one-and-dones should be very clear by now.
Chapter III: Other Ideas
Now that we’ve gone over how to lay your club’s foundation, it’s up to you to build the house. You’ll have to do the legwork on these, but here are a few ideas to keep in mind.
Unless you have a boatload of cash and political connections in your area, building a new stadium right off the bat is likely out of the question. Your options will probably be limited, but you should consider:
(1) Location – Find a venue that doesn’t conflict with your club’s name. If you call yourself Detroit City FC, you definitely can’t play your games outside of the City of Detroit. If you do, it won’t look good and will cost you credibility.
(2) Size – Try to find a place that gives you room to grow, but isn’t too big. Capacity should probably be at least 1000 and no more than 5000.
(3) Playing Surface – Natural grass is more expensive to maintain than field turf, but it typically plays better and looks much nicer.
(4) Atmosphere – If possible, try to find a stadium without a track around the field. It separates your supporters from the action and can lessen their impact on the game.
Don’t try to find the next Mourinho, you’re looking for someone who can work well with college-age players for a few months in the summer and run a simple, straightforward system (typically 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1) due to limited practice time.
Keep in mind that NCAA rules do not allow players to work with their coaches during the offseason. For example, since Detroit City’s current head coach is a Michigan State assistant, current MSU players cannot play for DCFC.
Open tryouts are obviously essential for a team that is just starting out. Something that Detroit City has done that’s been very well received has been to give season tickets to all its tryout attendees.
On top of that, do your best to establish relationships with local college coaches and programs. If players have a good experience playing for you, word of mouth will spread to their teammates and can help build a pipeline to bring talent to your team on a consistent basis.
Chapter IV: Recap
We’ve covered a lot of ground, but I think you’ve got a pretty good feel for the initial tasks that go into building your club. To review:
(1) Professionalism – This is key in all areas. The way you present your club to the world determines how it will be perceived. If it feels minor-league and second-rate, you won’t be taken seriously. If you show that you have legitimate ambitions, people will rally around you.
(2) Name and Crest – They should be simple, unique, and represent something special about your city/state. NO cheesy nicknames, NO cartoon soccer balls.
(3) Focus your marketing towards potential supporters. They will form a strong attendance base and will attract more people with the atmosphere they create and through word-of-mouth.
(4) Connect to your fans through social media. One amazing picture or video can find its way all across the internet and introduce your club to people who never would have heard about it otherwise.
We’ve come to the end, and now you must take the lessons you’ve learned and run with them. I have the utmost confidence that the club you found will NOT fold after a single season, and that its crest, jerseys, and supporters will be met with nods of approval from across the American soccer community. I’ve done what I can; the rest is up to you.