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Joanna Lohman: How to market our new women’s professional league

By Joanna Lohman

Editor’s note: Joanna Lohman is an accomplished professional player who has starred for the Washington Freedom and Philadelphia Independence of Women’s Pro Soccer, Spanish club RCD Espanyol and the W-League’s D.C. United Women. The Silver Spring, Md. native is also the co-founder & executive director of JoLi Academy, a soccer school and women’s empowerment organization with programs in several countries around the world.

I had an interesting conversation recently regarding the target audience for the United States’ new professional women’s league. I was told, as I often am, that our league needs to reach out to the “soccer moms” and their respective children.

I said it then and I will say it again: I am convinced, after significant research, investigation and personal experience, that the “soccer mom” is NOT who we should be marketing to.

With all due respect to her, she is too busy, too distracted, too overloaded and too disinterested in sports to hear our plea.  She just doesn’t have the time, energy or desire to come out EVERY weekend to cheer on the team in a passionate and sophisticated manner. Sure, she could bring her screaming daughter and her friends once or twice a season – but you don’t build a team or a league on people who come once or twice a season.

So now that I am asking our league to wave goodbye to suburbia and the single-family home with the white picket fence, where do we turn?

We turn to the Rogers Innovation Diffusion Model, conceived by sociology professor Everett Rogers half a century ago. This is the curve the new league needs to pay very special attention to. This is the curve that has propelled Major League Soccer into a legitimate league.

This model explains how an idea becomes a phenomenon. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and listen to Simon Sinke’s Ted Talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” and they all reference this model. It is the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. The law. Not the idea. The law.

So, what does this law tell us? It tells us that we DO NOT and SHOULD NOT market to the majority and if you do, you will fail. We market to those who listen, who want to listen and know what they are listening to. We market to those who are innovative and receptive to new ideas.

We do not target those who will purely just buy what we are selling.  We target those who will buy why we are selling it.

Who are those people? Look at MLS as the model. Who are the fans that drive thousands of miles to see their teams play, don the jerseys and lose their voices from screaming?

They are the fanatics – the people who will bring their friends and families to the games. More importantly, those are the people you want to go to a game with. You feel their passion, your sense their dedication, and you tend to embrace the love they have for their team.

This new fan attends every game and experiences every minute of that game. When his team loses, he feels the pain of defeat. When her team wins, she celebrates the glory of victory.

The group will be eclectic – men and women ranging from 21 – 40 years old, both American and international, gay and straight, from all races, ethnicities and walks of life (notice it is not the majority, more like the minority). There will be few, if any, typical “soccer moms.” The new fan does not drive “soccer vans.” He or she may not own a car at all.

The new fan stays up late and wakes up early to watch soccer matches from all over the globe. She is young, energetic and enthusiastic to soak up life and all that it has to offer.  He is willing to try new things, step out of his comfort zone to not just cheer for a team, but feel as if he is part of the team.

The new fan knows all the players, what clubs they came from, and the numbers on the backs of their jerseys. She does not come to the game because it is an “event,” she comes to the game because the game alone is beautiful. There need not be bells, face painting, dunk tanks and bouncy castles. That actually detracts from the worthwhile product – the game on the field. Give them a tailgate, beer sales and 90 minutes of quality soccer and the experience is complete.

As a player, those are the fans I want to see in our stands. The ones who know the difference between when I play a great game as opposed to a good game. The ones that don’t mistake me for Lori Lindsey or Megan Rapinoe (no offense to either of them – its really a compliment) or tell me I played well when I actually didn’t play at all. I want the fan who appreciates the nuances of the game and not just the player who scored.

With that said, screaming little kids need not apply. Justin Beiber tickets are waiting for you at home. Come to watch the game and really watch it. The experience is the game and the game is the experience.

That is how you build a league. Don’t get me wrong: fanatical fans will not fill an entire stadium (unless you are Seattle) but they drive sales, buy the season tickets and entice all others to join them.

Word of mouth is the most influential form of advertising and thanks to MLS, we already know who will spread our message. Ask for MLS mailing lists, have the women’s players tailgate with MLS fans, and capitalize on the economies of scale in an effective manner to fill our stadiums. These relationships need to be built and the connection needs to be made. It is for the benefit of both leagues and their fans.

I am in no way discouraging parents from bringing their kids to the games. We need their support, but the league can no longer build the experience around them. Say goodbye to the balloon animals and hello to the beer gardens. Take care of the core fans that take care of us – give them the adult experience they deserve.

If this new league is going to survive, we need to move beyond the “soccer moms” mentality. Sure, invite them to a game or two – invite their entire soccer clubs – but focus on who matters. Focus on the innovators and the early adopters and THEY will tip the scale.

What this all means for the future of the league:

  1. Stadiums need to be in areas that are reachable by public transport
  2. Cities should be the target location for teams
  3. Every stadium needs to serve alcohol – beer garden
  4. Every team needs or should be associated with an MLS team – economies of scale

I am not telling a story; I am making a case. This new league must be successful or else women’s professional soccer in this country will go away forever. I do not want to see that happen. I do not want our league to be the poster child of failure.

I have a dream that the right people will come out to watch “The Beautiful Game played by Beautiful People” — that we, as both skilled athletes and role models, can empower younger generations. So I hope, as the saying goes, the third time will be the charm.

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  1. Janet says:

    Jo -

    So very right. As a soccer fan, soccer mom and soccer coach, the soccer fan is the one that supports soccer.

    Hanging out with pre-teens and teenagers at a women’s games is nice but they are not the ones who spend the money and if there is a sleep over or party they aren’t going to the game.

    I’m not going to the game to have my face painted or for the free wristband. I’m not looking for autographs.

    I’m there to support my team, have a good time…tailgate if possible.

  2. Rob says:

    As a STH for RBNY, I’d kill for the ability to order tickets for a women’s team along side the men’s. It doesn’t have to be an RBNY team, but give me a small discount for ordering both seasons at once? *sold*

    Possibly play at Red Bull Arena, even back to back matches? In a heart beat.

    But try as I might, driving to Rutgers more than 2 or 3 times a season wasn’t going to happen to see Sky Blue no matter how much I liked it. Economy’s of scale and convenience and I’d buy happily.

    • necron99 says:

      It would be great if this could work out, but I am not sure it is there yet. Back in the WUSA they had doubleheader games. The DC United game would be packed but my friends and I would be almost alone in RFK watching the Washington Freedom. A huge stadium like RFK feels empty if you only have 1k to 5k fans at a game.

      • Rob says:

        Agreed, but I’m also okay with buying the tickets at one time and having to go to 2 different arenas. Anything that encourages STH’s from one to check out the other.

  3. Mike says:

    What research needed to be done to come to this conclusion?? Everything she is saying is a no brainer. This is the mindset MLS should have had years ago. It was only recently they started to do so (thank you Pacific Northwest). The soccer mom is the most overrated demo in ticket sales. The # 1 demo should have been and should continue to be the young single professional male 24-35. Disposable income, willingness to passionately back a product, no kids to weigh them down, etc.

  4. Lisa says:

    Amen. As a hardcore soccer fan/working mom/beer nerd, I love going to MLS tailgates and games (with kid in tow) because I can see the game, hang out with other fans and enjoy a few great beers. I don’t expect – and certainly do not want – a sanitized place for families only, nor do most other friends I know who bring their kids to MLS games. I had less of a chance to go to the previous women’s league games because they were difficult to get to – the public transit angle – and sometimes conflicted with MLS games.

    This model is much more my style, and I hope that solid investment supports it. I fondly recall early MLS games in the 1990s when teams had to come hang out with fans at the bar after games – it was an approach that worked to help build momentum.

  5. Gerry Marrone says:

    Joanna – you are absolutely correct!

    However, what you are asking for takes time, lots of time. Unfortunately it also takes money, because to any business losing money time is the enemy. There are no Hunts or Anschutz’s who have the seemingly unlimited supply of money to make it work. Additionally, where is the market? No one wants to say it out loud, but is there really a market for the women’s game from a league standpoint? Is there really a business there?

    As a former GM in WPS I can tell you from first hand experience this is one of the hardest products to sell to a sponsor, and removing the soccer mom makes it exponentially harder. Most classical marketers want to reach the soccer mom. I think the secret is finding a formula that can appeal to both groups – the real fans or supporters as many of the MLS markets have (after 17 years!), and find a place for the soccer playing kids and their parents. That is the only way this has a chance of becoming financially viable.

    There isn’t question that the quality of play is the best in the world – however, it simply has not been proven that there is a real market for the women’s professional game in the USA or elsewhere.

    • Joanna Lohman says:

      Gerry, you are absolutely spot on. This is also a concept that racks my brain. I am not one to look at life through rose colored glasses. I very well know that a market may not exist. It’s sad to say but history is the most telling indicator. I plan to write my next article on this subject. People seem to be perplexed on how our National Team can be so beloved and successful, yet we can’t create a sustainable league.

      To me, this is not a surprise…to be expected really. Will share more of my thoughts in my next article but I appreciate the honest and real feedback. We, 100%, need to be having these conversations.

      • Jane says:

        It’s easy for people to get psyched about a showcase event with national pride on the line that happens on an international stage once every four years. Everybody raved about Michael Phelps (and then Ryan Lochte) during the past two Olympics, but I don’t know anyone who subsequently turned into a big enough swim fan to find out about and go watch the lesser meets they compete in. Without the novelty and cachet of the Games and all-superstar rosters, the interest level nosedives.

    • StarCityFan says:

      When you get right down to it, the fundamental difference between the success of MLS and the failure of women’s professional soccer is that Anschutz and Hunt were willing to lose tens of millions for years to make the former successful but weren’t willing to lose a few million for more than one year to help the latter.

    • Diane says:

      It’s hard to prove there’s a market when you’re marketing to a demographic who’s not really a fan of the game. I don’t think you ignore soccer moms or kids, but they can’t be your main focus. I think in the past leagues the teams wanted squeaky clean sponsors because of the kid angle, marketing to adults opens up more varied sponsor possibilities.

  6. Jim says:

    Agreed. One more thing is to plan the schedule as to not conflict with MLS scheduling. This and the no alcohol problem cause most of the problems in getting more Sons of Ben members to Independence games. We have a small core but could have done a lot better if the marketing was better. That means not placing away players families right in front of us and having them complain that we are being mean to their daughters. You are on the right track. I hope that the new league will once again be in philly so we can have the SOB’s cheering on a philly team.

  7. Brian says:

    Thank you! Great piece and so true. The whole soccer mom mentality is holding the sport back as a whole. I attended the USWNT vs Germany in Chicago in October and the game was annoyingly friendly and soccer mom-y. Almost the entire stadium clapped for each German player during their introductions. The Germans, our biggest rival, were being applauded. It shows that things are wrong with the mentality around the game in the states (fan wise) and that things need to change. Your article describes this perfectly and the changes that need to take place. Well done!

    • Diane says:

      Brian, I’m not sure why you find respecting the other team during introductions such a terrible thing. The men’s game could use a little more respect, that doesn’t mean you can’t cheer against them, it just means it doesn’t have to get nasty.

    • Patricia says:

      Brian, I completely agree with you. The problem is that kids tend to idolize the player over the game. I was extremely bothered by the constant screeching and being asked to sit down by parents behind us when our team did amazing things. We had flags and chants but were told to put them down and shushed before we even unfurled them. It was terrible. I’ll take a Fire game over a USWNT game anyday because of those “fans”.

      We respect the game, Diane, but the passion that will finance the future of the league depends on people being so passionate about their team that anyone else is the enemy. I really, really wished that more teams were affiliated with the MLS because those same fans would gladly go to another game during an away week, as long as the game times don’t conflict and tailgating is available.

  8. Laura says:

    Great blog! Kids don’t have disposable income. Adults do.

    Then again, I’d be happy if the new league just marketed at all. /snark

  9. Mia says:

    Lets go Portland! Whatever are team may end up being named.

  10. Val says:

    Thank you, Joanna. You basically described me! As a two-league women’s pro soccer season ticket holder (WUSA and WPS), and consumer of all things women’s soccer, I felt isolated at many games as the kids were the ones catered to. I don’t need to be catered to, but I do want to feel welcome at my own home games, especially since I’m the one paying for 3 season seats every season so I can bring friends!

    Too bad the outreach wasn’t to me and my friends on our rec league teams: dozens of women who are into the game, love the game, but many of whom feel like going to a match in suburbia surrounded by screaming preteens is not the ideal sporting event to attend.

    Unfortunately, we aren’t included in this newest iteration of women’s pro soccer at all, so I suppose we can live in hope and see if Atlanta one day regains a team. If so, I hope it is one that is more inclusive of a broader audience.

    Thanks for speaking for the rest of us!

    • big eye tuna says:

      The author’s point #3..Every stadium needs to serve alcohol – beer garden….not true at all. Follow the Euro model, no alcohol served during games..sure they get a load on before and after, plus they aren’t shy about showing their racist sides, but then again, its way better than going to a game in the 90s, if one ever has. Violence has subsided, although in the press lately it has seem to come alive.

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