MLS needs to target the urban crowd
Out of the fabulous Toronto FC starburst of success grew the Red Patch Boys, a grassroots supporters group filled with young, urban soccer fans who know how to properly get behind their club.
The subset Red Patch Girls tumbled out of that movement. With a little support but no official direction from the club, they generated a very cool calendar ("Stadium beer girl," "Control room girl," etc.), with proceeds supporting two charities.
These are the exciting and energetic grassroots efforts that flourish when fans are seriously engaged, truly bonded with the Danny Dichios and Ronnie O'Briens, entwined in the fabric of the work. This is what happens when fans are truly fans, and this is how the game will grow virally.
Believe it. This is where MLS will jump the cultural divide, finally climbing past the sticking point and graduating from second-class status in domestic sports.
And, if we're all honest, we have to admit that this stuff will happen far less frequently (if at all) to MLS teams based in the 'burbs, clubs that continue to relentlessly chase the suburban "family" dollar.
That model is cracked. It's flawed. As dated as Napster or acid wash jeans.
Coveting the American family has been the preferred marketing model since the Disco '70s, when NASL pioneers fanned out to evangelize and teach parents and kids Soccer 101. The kids will grow, we were told, to spin gold from the great game.
Indeed, the kids did grow up. The first generation that didn't eschew soccer as some foreign oddity was ready embrace it. Except that some of the MLS movers and shakers forgot something important: that lots of those Gen Xers now dwell in the city. They neglected to tweak the model. Too many MLS deciders remain hopelessly tethered to the old model, forever in futile pursuit of the family dollar.
Those old theories are being overtaken by reality. That reality (something MLS would be wise to remember as its assigns new franchises and renders critical 30-year decisions on where to build stadiums):
Pro soccer works best in this country when it targets 20- and 30-somethings and ethnic audiences, influencers whose presence can create true happenings around game nights (over disparate cultures, no less). When it becomes "the thing to do," families and suburban singles will follow. That's the way our culture works.
MLS needs to think more "Urban Outfitters" and less "Chili's." Look at music and fashion: It starts in the city and spreads outward.
So, why must we cling to misguided notions that things will work backward in professional soccer?
Look at the MLS clubs that have truly been successful at drawing fans (as opposed to fake, "paper" success in some markets). Start at RFK, where D.C. United has always enjoyed robust support. It's in the city. It's on the Metro rail line.
Chicago did well right away, drawing hardy numbers even in a too-large stadium -- but one that was downtown. Real Salt Lake enjoys good support despite an ill-suited venue and a lousy side. The grounds sit atop a beautiful part of town, just up the hill from Salt Lake's epicenter.
Houston's Robertson Stadium is, in a word, a dump. It's in a bad part of town. But the upside is that it's near downtown. And you need only to walk the aisles to see who's showing up: young urbanites and Latinos, neither of whom are prone to start shaking like a squirrel if a nice, safe suburban strip center isn't nearby.
The Dynamo just sold out two playoff games, about 30,000 each. That doesn't happen in MLS. Why? Because team sales efforts often target families, who pick out three or four games per year and spend a nice evening at the ground (but maybe leaving in the 75th minute). It's a nice outing before they (understandably) return to worrying about parent-teacher conferences, birthday parties and the serious business of being parents.
They aren't true fans, engaged and engrossed. When the playoffs roll around, they shrug. Many of them, anyway.
Now think about the Red Patch Girls and their calendar. Something like that is far less likely to happen in Columbus, Kansas City, Denver, Dallas -- or even New England, for that matter, despite all of the Revs' on-field success.
Would it happen in Portland, where a new team might play smack downtown at awesome little PGE Park if a club ever lands there? You bet, as fast as you can say MySpace.
And by the way, the Red Patch Boys (named after the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, a Toronto outfit which earned a similar nickname in Europe during World War II), has a MySpace page. Or you can learn about the Red Patch Girls calendar in a YouTube video. If you don't think this kind of viral networking can produce momentum and allegiances in a way mainstream media once did, then you aren't paying attention to the way people connect and exchange news and views in 2007.
Families will follow once soccer gains a toehold in an area, providing it's an affordable outing. And affordability is an area where MLS excels. Fact is, most families are going to come to a couple of matches a year anyway, even when the heavy munitions of marketing point toward the nuclear unit. In other words, aiming a significant portion of marketing resources toward the families doesn't guarantee that they'll visit a significantly greater number of matches.
So, really, what's the point?
Here's the caveat to all this: Even if you advocate the inner-city model for MLS, a cold reality may trump theory and sales tactics. So much of the greater equation depends on real estate. None of this works if owners must overspend on the front end to acquire land. So owners or potential MLS investors are often left to pursue two options: sketchy urban areas at the center of the gentrification debate or the outer ring exurbs, where land is cheaper.
That's where stadiums recently went up in suburban Chicago, Dallas and Denver.
Perhaps the answer is in places like Harrison, N.J., where new Red Bull Park will reside. (The renderings look fantastic; let's hope they actually start building this time.) Harrison is on a rail line, and the city has been targeted for transport-related redevelopment.
Otherwise, it's important that MLS commissioner Don Garber (et al) weigh the newest theorems as they pick and choose new ownership groups. They can keep chasing dead ends in the suburbs, or they can follow the calendar girls.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.