MLS Marketing and the New England Revolution

I’ve talked before about being a marketer by trade, so my intrigue about a number of recent MLS marketing related news items should come of no real surprise.   What was a bit more surprising was my inability to immediately tie them into a neat and tidy theme, with the exception of the inevitable thoughs about how these items affect, or compare to, our local New England Revolution.

What prompted these thoughts was L.E. Eisenmenger‘s interview with MLS EVP Dan Courtemanche on the marketing of MLS (if any of this is interesting to you, go read Part One and Part Two) which included a number of interesting tidbits, only a few of which I’ll cover here.

Courtemanche made it clear that the MLS marketing is targeting the “core soccer fan in the 18-34 year-old age group,” and his belief that marketing messages to that core group will resonate reasonably well with older and younger audiences who all seek to emulate that group anyway.   Key to winning over this group will be a focus on “authenticity and the Hispanic audience.”   (I’ll cover some thoughts on attracting the Hispanic audience in my next post.)

The interview spent a fair amount of time focused on “game presentation,” which I agree is not a trivial topic, though Mr. Courtemanche rightly called out that “what occurs on the field during the 90 minutes is top priority.”  I heartily concur.

I was hoping to hear more about how to better communicate an ever-improving soccer product in MLS via marketing, but talk centered more on how not to distract from the game than promote its continuing improvement.  I think there are opportunities to do both, and hope and expect that MLS brass agrees.

And, while I agree that the demographic of core soccer fans between 18-34 is an obvious target… it is also more competitive to win their soccer mindshare in a crowded international soccer market.   By more competitive, I presume that the targeted  demographic is quite likely much more knowledgeable about and interested in John Henry’s purchase of Liverpool, and are significantly more likely to be at a pub (or in front of their TV) watching the English Premier League than the local mom and dad looking to bring their kids to their local professional sporting event.

The competitive bar is raised for winning the “core soccer fan’s” attention, exceeding their expectations of on field quality and being seen as a Tier One sports offering.  Soccer Moms (and Dads) may have a lesser bar to leap and shouldn’t be ignored.

To that end, there is a largely unexploited “value” message the Revolution (and MLS generally) could be better promoting to families, who have to spend literally hundreds of dollars on a memorable day at most other local top tier professional sporting events – and likely far less on a similar excursion to see the Revolution.  (Unless they linger too long at Patriot’s Place…)   I think this value message might resonate less, though would not be irrelevant, for the current target market who probably buy tickets for smaller sized parties at any one time.

There should be room for more than one marketing strategy in today’s market.   That will be an interesting thought for a Chief Marketing Officer to figure out – and luckily MLS just hired one.   J. Russell Findlay has assumed the CMO role of both the MLS and Soccer United Marketing, and (not surprisingly) has extensive brand management experience and has worked with MLS and SUM from a sponsor’s perspective.   Good luck Sir.

It will be interesting to see if  the Revolution marketing leadership, like the seemingly well liked Cathal Conlon (who I’ve never met), has the marketing pedigree that is up to par for what MLS, it’s new CMO and a more sophisticated consumer demands.   Time will tell.

Another key theme that discussed in the interview and which resonated strongly with me, was the focus on the fan experience “from when the fans drive into the stadium” and that everything from “parking or getting into the stadium through the ticket turn styles or the concession stands or the restrooms or the seats” can affect that experience.

Given his focus on this, I’d love to see Mr. Courtemanche provide a Report Card for the various teams in MLS on how their game day experience is representing MLS the way he and Don Garber would expect.   I would bet the grades varied wildly across the league.

I’ve not yet been to nearly as many MLS stadiums as I’d like, but have attended many at both Gillette/Foxboro and Giants Stadium and a couple games at Qwest Stadium in Seattle.  (I’m excluding the MLS Cup final in RFK Stadium, since that was very much a one-off special event, not a regular season game.)  Looking at those games and stadiums, there are both significant similarities (all are NFL-first stadiums) and vast differences.

Giants Stadium was clearly an NFL home where the MetroStars/Red Bulls were a rent paying tenant that was clearly playing second fiddle.   However, the Red Bulls have now moved to their own, world-class, soccer facility.   “Experience” problem fixed.

When I first attended a Seattle Sounders game I was astounded by (among other things) how the details in and around the stadium were transformed into Sounders and MLS branding, with few Seahawks/NFL remnants jumping out.  Large soccer themed tarps covered unoccupied areas, Sounders gear shared space with NFL selections in the Pro Shop without feeling as if it was was being overwhelmed and expensive looking Sounders logos adorned doors and entryways around the stadium.  The Sounders may be a second class citizen at Qwest, but it sure doesn’t feel that way on game day.

There is still much work to be done at Gillette Stadium.  Now, some of this is out of the hands of the team staff, but it’s not out unfixable when the team owner owns both tenant teams and the stadium itself.   It isn’t necessary for the Revolution to gain parity with their more storied and successful Kraft-family team, but much more could be done to ensure the Revolution doesn’t feel like alien being invading Patriots territory.

I will be interesting to watch MLS efforts to better target key demographics and improve game day experiences.  I’ll also be intrigued as to how these changes make their way, if at all, to the New England Revolution.

From this outsider’s perspective the team has made improvements in engaging the community via social media and communications and seemingly has been working more closely with supporter’s groups to energize the base.

It’s time to see how far the pendulum will swing toward more aggressive, proactive marketing and then, most importantly, if the on-field product going to make the marketers’ lives a bit easier by winning some games and playing some attractive soccer.