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.