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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. Katie says:

    I agree with everything you said, but there needs to be more. Teen girls are very interested in women’s soccer and so are teen boys. I know from playing on a high school level that going to a collee game with my team is a blast, so I could only imagine how fun a professional league game would be. The teams should be very involved with youth soccer in the US. The women’s league will give me and every young teenage girl something to strive for that isn’t so untraceable like the USWNT. There should defiantly be a program where youth teams can be able to practice with players from the women’s league. You may use half time shows as an advantage. If you have a famous performer have a mini concert during halftime of opening night, a lot of te performers fans will come. They will attend the game and watch it. Once they watch it, I bet some will come back for more soccer. To say it simply there isn’t a specific target audience and if there has to be one it should be lovers of the game. Fans will follow the players and the team more on social networks. I know this because I love watching YouTube video of “behind the scenes” that make you feel connected with the players. If the players connect to fans, more fans will connect to the players.

    • vanessa Wyndham says:

      I think the idea of seeking a more diverse, adult audience, though not at the expense of the youth market is very important. Having venues that are accessible via public transportation is very important. Thw Washington DC franchise in the WPS made that mistake and as a result excluded a good part of the population that is described in the article. I think striking some balance is the key but I am not convinced people will come to see women’s soccer. People in the US love the national team but whether they will support a league where the stars are dispersed among 8 teams remains to be seen.

  2. hercircumstance says:

    I’m a woman in my 20s but when I go to games I instinctively try to find adult males to sit near (I guess I revert to stereotypes when desperate…) and hope a team of shrinking girls don’t sit near me. Maybe creating safe places at games for both is a start. Right now it is really hard for me to bring other adult sports fans to a game if their experience with sports is MLS or NBA or whatever. Even men’s minor league games still have sports while being family friendly. I can hold my nose at a lot because I really want to see the game, but it is a lot for me to ask my friends to learn to tune much of that out when they are used to a different experience. What’s on the field isn’t the problem in other words. I look forward to seeing how it’s solved.

    • necron99 says:

      It is interesting how most other sports don’t have that stuff even at the minor league level. I don’t remember seeing a moonbounce at a Fredrick Keys minor league baseball game. When you go to a MLB game you see dad, mom, or a grandparent showing a young child how to fill out the scorecard or pointing out a good play, while sharing the popcorn. Not standing in line for facepainting.

      • hercircumstance says:

        Maybe another look at the more successful men’s minor leagues markets should be in order. The scope is more in line with the budgets floating around out there, or at least more than the established major leagues, and it seems to attract families AND the sports fanatic without compromising the sport/environment. I don’t want things to swing too far one direction or the other. I don’t particularly want obnoxious, drunken fan sections either for example. That would be an interesting problem to have. Hah.

      • Beau Dure says:

        Really? There was a great comic a few years ago about a family going to a baseball game, and the kids kept coming back to the parents to ask for more money for the in-stadium arcade or the concessions or all the other distractions.

        Minor league baseball in particular is all about sumo competitions between innings, shirt tosses, etc.

        Some of it is better integrated into the game itself. Kids want souvenirs, so they’ll crowd around the edge of the field where a player might toss a ball into the stands.

        Even in the non-family sections, it’s all about other stuff. When I went with a law firm, everyone was just chatting and schmoozing. I think a couple of us took turns paying attention just in case something interesting happened or a ball was headed toward someone’s head.

        And baseball went through a big stadium-building phase for a reason. Parks of the 80s and 90s are quirky and fun. New parks are like Disney World.

        It’s really about the atmosphere. Most people who go to minor league games couldn’t name any of the players. It’s a few beers (some people try a beer an inning) and an outdoor picnic with a pleasant game in front of them.

  3. necron99 says:

    For some practical thoughts. I know that we are talking about a Women’s league, but they need to make jerseys, t-shirts, swag, etc available in men’s sizes. You need to expand your following and cutting out half of the possible fans makes no sense. We men want to represent our team, and it spreads awareness when we do. But nobody wants to see me in a baby tee.

    Maybe teams should make printable marketing material available on their supporters website or to season ticket holders in some way. If you have materials with the message you want to send that people can print at home, they can pass it out or hang it up at their rec league games, gym, Starbucks, or Community Center. Many of the people that should be target demographic for this league find information in those ways (along with online). Let the fans get the word out.

  4. hercircumstance says:

    The USWNT and league need to be looked at separately. It’s like comparing a U2 arena concert with a cozy indie band that ends up at the same bar as fans after the show. Completely different experiences, marketing, and spectrum of fans. The NT is riding out the summer’s popularity, but historically that isn’t even sustainable. It isn’t the best mirror for the league.

    The league has the opportunity of finding a sustainable solution because it is more accessible to fans not just in its smaller, intimate scope but its weekly presence in the sports community vs the NT cycles.

    Take the indie approach. Know your fans. Whoever figures out how to mitigate the adult soccer fan and the preteens and their parents will have struck gold. I don’t think kids should be turned away, but so far I feel like coexisting has been at the cost of the adult soccer fan.

    Maybe that means a family section vs a supporter section/beer tent/adult section or simply less inflatable bouncy houses everywhere I don’t know. The focus should always be on enjoying the soccer game. Not being mistaken for a school fun fair. I even think the soccer mom would still bring her kids to the same number of games with or without the kiddie stuff. It’s just another date in the schedule book. A little of kiddie stuff goes a long way IMO. As long as players throw stuff into the stands after the game and sign tshirts the kids will be happy.

  5. necron99 says:

    This article and it’s comments leave me with many thoughts. The comment on bringing kids if they watch the game was something I really noticed last year at DC United Women’s games. There would be parents with a whole team of young soccer players, and all of them would be rolling on the hill. It was always a nice suprise to see the one boy or girl who stayed in the stand watching the play on the field for enjoyment or the learning opportunity. Why would parents bring their soccer playing kids if the kids didn’t care about the game anyway?

    I can understand your comment about playing in the city, but personally I am not a fan of it. I had tickets to the WUSA Freedom but only went to the first 3 games because I could not stand RFK stadium, and the hassle of getting into the city from where I live in the burbs. I did go to every game at the Soccerplex though. It might be different for others in the burbs, or if your core demographic lives in the city.

    As for Brian’s comments I think it is far better for the USWNT if both hardcore soccer fans and the soccer families with kids show up and fill the stands. The greater ticket sales and support after the 2011 WWC drove the games to be televised and positive support from USSF after the down years 2008-2010. The ticket sales for the send-off game to the 2011 WWC were depressing. Everyone can’t be hardcore, bring flairs, and boo the opponents. As long as you can make room for both types, it isn’t a failure.

    • necron99 says:

      To clarify, I agree with the need to market to market to other people not soccer-moms. But I disagree with those who think their should be only hardcore fans there. With a market this small you have to accept all paying customers.

      So market to 18-40 something fans, beer drinkers, rec league players, etc.

      Accept families and soccer groups if they come. Assign sections like they do at many MLS venues. No moon bounce or face painting. Hope they are using the game to teach their children to be better players or better soccer fans.

    • vanessa Wyndham says:

      Having venues solely in the suburbs is what’s going to kill the league. The majority of people they are attempting to attract live. If they want to keep their homogenous fan base that will doom the league from day one, then so be it. I attended many games at RFK and it was just fine. I do not have a problem with coming into cities in order to support the franchise.

      • necron99 says:

        And I am the exact opposite of you. I won’t drive to RFK to watch a game. I can’t stand the place. What percentage of city dwellers, at least in DC, play or watch soccer? Are they a demographic that will show up for women’s soccer?

  6. Charles says:

    Gerry makes a good point – there should be space for many different kinds of fans at the same match, just as there is impressive diversity at many MLS games these days. Creating an inclusive atmosphere — not just at the stadium but in everything they do — looks like an important priority for the new women’s league.

  7. tracie says:

    I agree with all of this. I am a fanatic. Last summer I drove over 2 hours each way 5-6 times just to see Liz Bogus play with the Pali Blues. When I go to games, I want to be around other fanatics though. Not pre-teen girls who are not watching the game or their mothers who squeal every time a player goes down or gets knocked around a little. And I would like to enjoy some beers while watching the games. I’ve met lots of other fanatics like me at soccer games. Some of them aren’t interested if the USWNT are not playing, but I bet they could be persuaded if they got to know the players on their local teams and saw that the level of soccer isn’t really all that different. I hope the new team owners are reading Lohman’s article and taking some notes.

  8. Lori says:

    I agree that we have to get away for the soccer mom idea. When I attended the USWNT game in Dallas vs New Zealand, I was surrounded by preteens screaming for Hope Solo. I watch the game like I am in it as a goalie: directing, making comments, I even shouted out passing lanes/ runs that are on! It was really distracting and also annoying having girls just scream for no reason. I paid attention to the entire game, not just when Hope touched the ball. A player would make a good play, but the crowd ignored it.

    I am stuck in Texas with no team, but if was in say Kansas City, I would want those things you listed Jo.
    Tailgates, rowdy groups of fan with sections leading chants, drinking allowed, passionate fans that create an electric atmosphere. It is possible. Take the recent UNC vs BYU game in Provo. You could feel the energy through the screen and UNC commented that is was one of the best atmospheres to play in. You had passionate fans for BYU, cheering for the entire BYU squad, not just one player. Imagines of people climbing onto the roofs of surrounding buildings was jaw dropping. Just think about it, where do you find some of the most electric atmosphere in sporting events? Colleges. I would look into how places like BYU created such a passionate following from local fans. The league would be wise to take some notes.

  9. Ray Radlein says:

    Given that, as Val mentioned, Atlanta does not seem to be in the cards for now, I sincerely hope that the new league has robust on-line plans, so that I can at least watch more games on the internet while I wait for the third iteration of the Beat to come into being.

  10. Meg says:

    This is the most insightful article that I have read thus far on the topic. In every conversation I have had with Amy Carnell (one of the leaders, possibly GM, of the Seattle team) she portrays this same vision. I think that if US Soccer can figure this out it then there will finally be a league that lasts in the long-term.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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

  19. Mia says:

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

  20. 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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