Your commissioner has said that your three target market groups are, in order of priority:
-Youth soccer players and families
-"Core soccer fans"
Without changes to the league structure or season (i.e. single table, no playoffs, etc. etc.), and with a reasonable but not unlimited marketing budget, what will you do to give MLS the "cool factor" that will ensure an attendance increase next season and beyond?
The Solution (MLS/SUM take note):
Yes, MLS will embark on its twelfth season in a scant five and a half months. Preseason camps will start even sooner, in mid-February. Here's my plan to drive more fannies in the seats come April...
On reaching the youth market:
Peter Wilt has the optimal situation with his nascent MLS Milwaukee effort, hard-wiring the local youth market into his new franchise. Of course, real-life MLS clubs can't turn back the clock, but there are many things that can be done.
1. Have local schools "adopt" players. Given the transient nature of MLS rosters, this can be tricky, but giving schools and school districts "ownership" over players create the oh-so-important connection that pushes junior to get Mom and Dad to drive them to the stadium. Substitute youth soccer teams for schools and double your fun. Send weekly updates during the season on how your player is doing. Schedule appearances by the player in gym classes/bake sales/HS and club matches.
2. Development schools. Many MLS clubs (RBNY, DC) do this very well, horning in on the local soccer camp scene and actually turning kids into members of the clubs.
3. Soccer Moms games. Bring your Mom to the game to play against the other soccer moms at halftime. Have some of the younger players serve as ref. Challenge the town next door. Watch the fun ensue.
On reaching the Hispanic market:
As we know, there are many, many groups within this market, although the love for football is nearly a given for all (save Dominicans, some Cubans, Venezuelans).
Speaking from the New York region, the Metros/Red Bulls have usually held heritage nights for the larger Hispanic populations in the area. The national teams of Ecuador and Colombia play at Giants stadium at least once a year, usually drawing around 35,000 fans per game. These fans don't translate into MLS fans. How to convert them?
1. Roster spots. I know MLS rosters (in theory) are put together to win. However, look at the Raul Diaz Arce effect among Salvadorans in the DC area created. Early on in MLS, RDA was good for an extra grand or two in the stands. It has to work for each market and each team, but it certainly couldn't hurt.
2. Club competitions. Why shouldn't the Red Bulls host a quick quadrangular in a bye week each year? Colo Colo, Emelec, Olimpia, and RBNY for a week each summer should do extra to highlight the skill and quality of the MLS boys, and may win over a few to a demanding public. Yes, the schedule's crowded. Make it happen.
3. Passion. Reaching out to Hispanic fans through a special socio a la Chivas USA could go a long way toward building loyalty for the local side.
On the "core-soccer" market:
This has been traditionally been the toughest to reach. As we know, fans of the Euro or SA game have their pick of matches each weekend to watch, and stay away from MLS in droves. Here we go:
1. Bar Nights. Bring those Red Bull Girls (and players, those old enough to drink) out at least one night/week with some tickets & merch. Raffle off front-row seats, a visit to a training session, jerseys.
2. Live the Dream. Some MLS clubs are trying to sell in-season "fantasy camps" for four-digit prices. I'm not sure how these are doing, but reaching out to soccer hotbeds (park leagues) and giving these away, or raffling them off offers access to MLS clubs that are nothing like eurosnobs can get back home.
3. Meet the Marquee. I'm choosing to believe the hype about the big names heading to MLS in the next few years. Make sure that these guys earn their vacation in the US by getting them out in the soccer community, commando-style, popping up in places you wouldn't ordinarily see them. Attract crowds. Want to meet Figo? Buy tickets here!
Baby steps, yes, but with a little bit of effort, MLS can effectively raise the attendance bar. Go get 'em, kids.