SBJ/March 5 - 11, 2007/This Weeks News

Kicking it up a notch: SUM doubling fan development staff

Soccer United Marketing is doubling the staff of its fan development department and funneling more than $2 million into it in an effort to convert casual soccer fans into fans of Major League Soccer.

Former Colombian World Cupper Wilmer Cabrera
(right) will reach out to Hispanic players.

The fan development department, which will grow from three to six employees this year, will be charged with connecting the league to elite soccer clubs nationwide, converting Hispanic soccer players into MLS fans and reaching out to recreational soccer players.

Few leagues have a department devoted exclusively to fan development. The NFL has 10 employees in its marketing department working directly on NFL Youth Football, an introductory program, and the NHL has eight employees in its marketing department dedicated to fan and diversity development. The NBA and MLB focus on fan development as part of overall marketing efforts.

MLS’s efforts on fan development follows nine months of research last year by Jay Gladden, an associate professor of sport management at the University of Massachusetts. In his studies, Gladden discovered that most elite level youth soccer players and Hispanics are aware of MLS and have watched or attended games but “only lightly consume it.”

“One of the challenges moving forward is how do you increase their consumption, both in the media and in person,” Gladden said. “They’ve done a lot in terms of the new stadiums and media contracts, but the increase in resources can promote awareness and encourage kids to talk about MLS as something really cool.”

The fan development department will address that by working with 65 elite soccer clubs it has identified as influential in the soccer landscape. As part of an effort to tie them more closely to MLS, clubs such as FC Delco of Eastern Pennsylvania and the Colorado Rush will receive benefits from the league, including Adidas gear and the chance to play against MLS reserve teams.

The league will also hire two former MLS players who will attend elite tournaments and elite camps, where they will interact with the nation’s top youth soccer players. One will work in the Northeast and the other in the Midwest.

A similar approach is being taken in reaching the Hispanic community. The league has named Wilmer Cabrera, a former national player for Colombia who played in two World Cups, its fan development manager. He will meet with more than 50 key members of the Hispanic soccer community nationwide to discuss how the league can be more relevant to them. He also will implement youth soccer clinics and other Hispanic event programming.

The league will use surveys to track the level of avidity among the groups it reaches out to, but hopes that eventually the efforts will contribute to better attendance and TV ratings.

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