SBJ/October 29 - November 4, 2001/Opinion

WUSA, you’re good; here’s how to get better

WUSA has the players, needs to find more sponsorship partners in second year.

The measurement statistics we use, television ratings and attendance, seem to support a successful start for the Women's United Soccer Association this year. Indeed, WUSA did better than it has been given credit for. A league is not an easy thing to start, even with a television network behind it (see XFL).

Talent is not an issue for the WUSA. Professional women soccer players from the United States are the best women soccer players in the world. Moreover, the best international players perform here as well. The level of play during the league's inaugural season was fantastic and exciting.

WUSA met attendance goals (albeit, somewhat low goals) but it met them playing in mainly nontraditional venues. The league missed its ratings goals but did so with limited promotional support for a league that did not exist the season prior. WUSA did well enough to stay in business another year while not embarrassing itself in the process.

So what now? WUSA has the talent, it has a television partner/owner who has shown interest, it has plenty of young women soccer players (7.5 million casual female players over 6 years old), only eight teams, acceptable team marks and some powerful sponsors. Here's what the league needs to do:

Change people's behavior. WUSA can do it slowly over time and risk running out of cash or losing the interest of the networks, or it can hit people over the head with something they already know, love and have passion for besides soccer. Pop music is one of the answers. But it has to be the right fit.

The WNBA tried 'N Sync but did not strike a chord with potential WNBA fans enough to get them to go to a game. One potential fit for WUSA is Hanson. Don't laugh. Hanson fans are young women between the ages of 9-16 who would kill for their beloved trio. Partnering with the band, even in selected markets, will change behavior. Other music partners could include Nelly Furtado, Christina Aguilera, 'N Sync (a better fit for WUSA), Backstreet Boys, O-Town or others.

Here's another idea; have the player/owners (Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain) tour with key bands. Even introducing the bands in key markets will raise the awareness of WUSA and associate the league with a property that already has built significant emotional equity with its fans.

Market using grassroots vehicles but not grassroots creative. Soccer camps, youth leagues and associations around the country are perfect vehicles to deliver a powerful message. WUSA should continue to embrace this as a communication vehicle but should avoid the trap of coupling its grassroots marketing efforts with poor imagery and second-rate creative. The imagery must be empowering, cool and performance based, not boring, safe and expected. If an appropriate budget does not exist, find a partner with one.

As Ben Franklin might have said, "Don't be penny wise and pound foolish when considering league sponsors." Everyone understands that cash is king. And good sales people know that you must be willing to walk away from some deals to warrant premium rates. But now is not the time nor the climate for WUSA to be a big bad league. Moreover, the league has not proven itself enough — yet — to be turning away partners like the big boys do.

WUSA must embrace partners with big media budgets, nationwide retail exposure, huge segmented databases and exciting imagery, in lieu of cash. It has taken decades for established franchises and leagues to build the emotional equity they currently have in their marks. It may not take as long for women's soccer to do so if it finds partners whose business and marketing objectives can use soccer as a creative vehicle, moving widgets for their companies and selling tickets and delivering ratings for the league.

Manage your sponsorship/television sales people well. Don't get undercut or ambushed by team sales people, but don't alienate them either. There is a perfect balance between local sales and national sales, but it changes every season.

The big picture is important to drive home to local sales people. Carving out product categories and inventory is a wise first step, but it's a battle that will never be resolved. Treat it as you would a cold: Take care of the symptoms but don't let it ruin your day.

Your national and television sales people are the most important asset you have with respect to generating big cash deals. But they have lots of properties and programs and even more inventory to sell. WUSA must sell the sales people before the sales people can sell the clients. Arm them with compelling data, cool creative, innovative marketing ideas and bonuses for WUSA sales.

Make heroes of your players. Brandi is dandy and Mia is very good at what she does, photogenic and already a hero to American young women. She also has a deal with Nike, which can help make the league one of the coolest brands among young women.

Powerhouse franchises with a legacy of success and/or long traditions have tremendous equity in their marks partly because people idolize their players. The Yankees would not have the magic that surrounds them as a team if they never had players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.

Redskins fans love Joe Theisman, Steelers fans love Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann. Joe Namath will always be associated with the Jets, and Browns fans revere Jim Brown. Men like Pete Rozelle used television and NFL Films to make these people heroes to the fans.

Today, fans want access. They want access to what is mysterious and heroic. Take a page from NFL Films (or get Nike to do it for you) and make your players heroic using television. Give enough people access to that mystery — without letting them see completely behind the curtain — and they'll become loyal supporters and talk about their experiences at the water cooler.

"Location, location, location" applies to sports franchises, too. Something must be done about where some of the teams play. The New York Power plays at Mitchel Field on Long Island. After I found out where it was, I knew that I would never go there, nor would anyone from New Jersey or Connecticut — especially now because it lacks convenient public transportation. But let's assume that WUSA knows this and got what it could to start a league and it worked.

Consider playing exhibition, preseason or even regular-season games in high-profile or unexpected venues. Central Park is an idea; it may be problematic now, though the City of New York may be interested in this type of idea now more than ever.

These are only some ideas. I must emphasize again, however, that key people at WUSA have done a wonderful job so far, literally launching a league overnight. And it worked. Their continued success can only mean great things for soccer in this country.

Joseph M. Perello, former vice president for business development of the New York Yankees, now runs Perello & Co., a sports marketing agency.

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