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What Women’s Professional Soccer Can Learn from NASCAR: Love The Fans You’ve Got

July 9, 2009 – 10:07 AM

By Laura Pappano

Let’s get over the woe-is-us tone that shrouds women’s professional soccer. Yesterday’s NY Times story captured the uncertainty league bigwigs feel around the (admittedly) very challenging task of filling soccer stadiums, and getting enough sponsor and ad dollars to give WPS staying power – and in a recession.

What’s troubling, however, is that WPS seems to want something it doesn’t have: raucous, beer-swilling, MLB and NFL fans (read: real fans). You know, the guys sports radio hosts describe as living in their mother’s basements and existing solely to follow every move of their beloved team and call in to talk about it?

It explains the origin of “fan” – that is “fanatic.”

In the Times story, Boston Breakers director of business development Andy Crossley says, “We need to get out of the ghetto of being a role model for girls.”

The quote was in the context of wanting to reach the men (again, read: real fans) who are taking the pony-tailed, soccer-playing daughters to games.

I dare say there’s not an exec in Major League Baseball who wants to get out of the ghetto of being a role model for boys.  (The stress, rather, comes because the jerseys of certain poor-role-model players suddenly become unmarketable.)

Why are young male fans courted and prized while young female fans are considered a sign of failure?

How will we cultivate a generation of season-ticket-buying female fans if we don’t value them as kids? (I suppose it’s a good thing Disney and Hannah Montana don’t discount the economic power of girls).

This is where WPS can learn from NASCAR.  A few observations:

1.    NASCAR has been all about serving the fans’ interest, creating the Sprint Cup Series to stir play-off-style excitement throughout the season, and this year mid-season changing the format of re-starts to increase the drama for fans. (Lesson: Don’t be afraid of altering the format).

2.    Drivers talk about the value of fan support and fans are known for shelling out and covering themselves in fan gear and buying sponsor’s products (Lesson: As a result, who wouldn’t want to sponsor NASCAR?)

3.    NASCAR’s fans base is changing – and that’s OK. An ESPN Sports Poll, for example, shows that today 60% of fans live outside of the South, 41% are female, and since 2000, the percentage of fans making $100,000 or more has doubled from 7% to 16% — and with that an increase in college grads (now one in four). (Lesson: You can grow beyond your original fan base)

4.    Still, the shifting fan base presents a challenge. In response to rising prices, drivers give away tickets to followers who feel priced out – even as execs think about what fans want. As one report quotes Richard Petty, seven-time champion and team owner: “We have to play the game a little bit different than what we did 15 or 20 years ago because society is dictating they want to see something different. It makes it really tough from NASCAR’s standpoint (of) what is the fan really looking for?” (Lesson: Be nimble and listen to your fans)

5.    Driver Jeff Burton actually likes kids among NASCAR fans: “There are a lot more families today, a lot more kid-friendly environments. Last week we went out to do hospitality on Sunday morning and there was a kid’s playground area with inflatable toys and all kinds of slides and all kinds of things. There’s been a huge effort to try to get children involved, which I think is a great thing.” (Lesson: Kid fans are not a negative; they are your future. Just ask the MLB and the NFL)

If pony-tailed girls are the core fan base of women’s professional soccer, work with that. There are other groups at games, too, including a report on the opening day of the L.A. Sol’s season describing the excitement among eight nuns from the order of the Eucharistic Franciscan Missionary Sisters (coincidentally dressed in heavy blue and white habits — the team’s colors), clutching T-shirts they’d won.

Guys who live in their mom’s basements may never buy a ticket to a WPS game. But who cares? Twenty years from now, that pony-tailed girl will want a luxury box.

  1. 4 Responses to “What Women’s Professional Soccer Can Learn from NASCAR: Love The Fans You’ve Got”

  2. Amen!
    If we don’t get young girls excited about female sports while they are young, we will never get them. These are the future CEOs, EDs, Presidents of major corporations!

    And all the women out there that are not supporting female sports: shame on you! I don;t care if you have played sports, have an interest in sports, or even know the difference between a softball and a basketball. This is MUCH bigger than that. It is another step in ensuring equality. It is about shifting attitudes toward women and shifting the paradigm. Its about having woman’s bodies looked at not as a sex symbol, but a symbol of strength, grace and power.

    If you have no interest in sports, but you have the ability to buy some tickets, give them away!Support Women’s professional sports!!!

    By Diana Cutaia on Jul 9, 2009

  3. Completely fair commentary. It’s a common, but often fruitless, exercise to attempt to place a quote in its proper context.

    First of all, the quote is entirely accurate. However, that statement was part of a larger dialogue where I said our sport has been painted – by supporters and detractors alike – as SOLELY being about providing proper role models for young women, and not given any credit as a pure ENTERTAINMENT experience on its own merits, which is accessible and enjoyable to a broad and diverse group of fans – adults and children, men and women, soccer players and non-soccer players.

    In our case, we market quite heavily to an audience of young athletes – largely female – and their parents. However, we also take great pains to ensure that the game day experience is not geared solely to a pre-teen female audience. We feel our sport and our athletes do an excellent job inspiring these young women, but we need to make sure that other elements – music, video board content, food & beverage offerings, the style of the public address announcer – make the stadium inviting and enjoyable for a broader audience than solely young female fans.

    I think your interpretation of my “soundbite” is entirely fair and compelling with one exception. You’ve made the inference that our desired audience are “beer swilling” men who “live in their Mom’s basements”. Yes, I suppose that is a recognizable stereotype of a certain segment of the male sports audience. But I think we can agree that it isn’t one of the primary audiences for soccer and that I didn’t say anything to indicate we are pining away for that fan. All I did was use the word “Dad”, although that was trimmed out of the excerpt you posted above.

    I think a more accurate inference would be that I think Dad (or Mom) should have just as good a time as Daughter (or Son)…no matter what his drinking habits or living situation.

    We are not in a position to take any fans for granted. I don’t think any pro team is. I hope you have the opportunity to attend a Breakers game this season or in 2010 and see whether you feel we are getting it right.

    Best regards,

    Andy Crossley

    By Andy Crossley on Jul 9, 2009

  4. I completely agree with this statement: “Guys who live in their mom’s basements may never buy a ticket to a WPS game. But who cares? Twenty years from now, that pony-tailed girl will want a luxury box.” because I had such an amazing time when I had finished middle school and went to the WWC opening game at the Meadowlands. Because of that experience, I still watch and go to as many soccer games as I can.

    By espihir on Jul 9, 2009

  5. Andy,

    Thanks for your comments. I am a big women’s soccer fan and attendee. Even during the first incarnation of WUSA, we had 5 season tickets (and I actually won a refrigerator!)

    I appreciate your point that you are not pining for the fans who live in their mom’s basement ( a characterization that is from sports talk radio, not my invention, of course), but it is understandably hard not to want what they get: tons of media coverage, buzz, visibility. Poor (and by this I mean virtually non-existent) reportage is frustrating — I’m sure to you — and to fans who want to get to know the players and read about the drama on and off the field.

    I also appreciate your broader point — that is about wanting to be viewed as legitimate entertainment by a broad following. This is a fundamental and important challenge to women’s sports with high profiles. Women’s college basketball is too often positioned as Saturday afternoon birthday party fare — not positioned, marketed, and scheduled as evening entertainment.

    I believe women’s basketball and women’s professional soccer are GREAT products — and we do need women execs to use WPS games as a site for business deals. And if you can just hang in, I do believe those girls (and a generation of boys) will be there years from now in season seats. My son still cherishes his Ducar T-shirt with the autograph on the shoulder. My daughters’ Lilly shirts, of course, are still wearable.

    By FGN on Jul 9, 2009

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