After serving as an executive with the Philadelphia Eagles and 76ers, Tim McDermott had a message for his new staff soon after being named chief business officer for the Philadelphia Union in January 2016.
“There was a feeling that we always apologized for ourselves, but we’re not sitting at the kids table here. We’re at the adult table, and we need to act it, believe it and don’t apologize for it, because our brand is big,” he said. “Look around MLS, look at the attendance, look at the trend on TV ratings. There’s no reason not to act and look like we’re in that conversation, and we should be there.”
|The Union is trying to rebuild attendance at Talen Energy Stadium.
Interest in the team slowly waned, however, and paled in comparison to the passion for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and 76ers. The team suffered from poor play on the field and lack of accessible public transportation to the stadium from downtown Philadelphia.
“There’s no doubt in the top cities it’s a tougher road for new MLS clubs, and I think that comes down to what you’d expect — competition that has been there for generations,” McDermott said. “In a smaller city where maybe there is only one other team, you automatically become part of the civic pride.”
The Union saw hope last season, making the playoffs for the first time in five years. Attendance rose for the first time since that inaugural year, an increase of less than 1 percent for an average of 17,519 a game.
For McDermott, who had been chief marketing and innovation officer of the 76ers, as well as CMO for both the Eagles and the Washington Capitals, the “question now is how do you accelerate growth.” McDermott has laid out an 11-point strategic growth plan for the club, which includes everything from improving the club’s digital and social content strategy to better connecting with youth soccer players.
“Our five-year vision is that we can have a sold-out stadium, and be in the top four to six [in MLS] sponsorship revenue,” he said. The Union played last year at 95 percent capacity and has 10,000 season-ticket holders. The team ranks near the middle of the league in total sponsorship revenue.
Part of that strategy involves bringing more sports experience to the Union.
In June, McDermott hired three senior executives: Doug Vosik, vice president of marketing, who came from Under Armour; Jean-Paul Dardenne, senior vice president of corporate partnerships, from the New Orleans Pelicans; and Charlie Slonaker, vice president of ticket sales, from the Indiana Pacers. Overall, the club increased its front office staff by 30, to a total of 95, at the start of the season.
It also reworked its ticketing strategy, taking a page from McDermott’s time with the 76ers. One immediate focus was customer service. While best practices across the industry often have a ratio of 400-to-1 to 500-to-1 for service representatives, McDermott said the Union’s ratio was closer to 1,400-to-1. It also had among the fewest ticketing sales and service representatives across MLS. The club took an ROI-approach similar to what the 76ers have done, hiring several new staffers in that department, helping set records in both sheer percentage of renewals and renewal revenue. Its 86 percent renewal rate was ahead of the league average, which fell in the low 80s.
At the crux of the Union’s growth plan is re-energizing its brand so that it is positioned apart from those of the big four sports teams in the city.
Vosik said that when the club launched, it used elements of the city’s history to craft its message and quickly connected with fans — including himself. He was living in the city working in Virgin Mobile’s marketing department and became a season-ticket holder before moving away.
“When the club launched, it was this shiny new object and captured a lot of hearts and minds, but my perspective now is that it need some new energy,” Vosik said. “There needs to be an injection of spirit that goes beyond that this is still the new club in Philadelphia.”
The club went through five months of research, including meetings with its supporters group and sponsors to understand the views on the club. Vosik said the takeaways were clear: The city has the fastest-growing millennial percentage among big cities, according to data from the U.S. Census; historical ticket data shows strong sales to both soccer-loving families and millennials looking to hang out with friends; and the team’s fans heavily value how much the club invests in its youth development efforts.
“Youth, youth and youth,” Vosik said. “Steering a brand to be more youthful can mean a whole lot of things, but we wanted to take that millennial in the market, listen to them and see what they’re into, and embrace that too.”
That view has led the Union to embrace things like street and supporter art and trending social media topics. The club cleared two large walls just inside the entrance of Talen Energy Stadium and let fans hand-paint a mural on them, including one done by the Sons of Ben supporters group with their logo. When the club unveiled its secondary jersey in January, rather than releasing promotional shots, it instead spoofed the popular Migos song ‘Bad and Boujee’ with players. The video was one of the most shared pieces of digital content the club ever created.
The efforts have been supported by owner Keystone Sports and Entertainment and Chairman Jay Sugarman. While McDermott declined to comment on the level of investment from the ownership group, he said the recent moves show the commitment to the club.