Small leagues may mean small budgets, but they also mean more innovation
The second-division United Soccer League is expanding to more cities this year, including Nashville and Atlanta, with an eye on several more, among them Memphis and Austin, in 2019. It has also taken on two additional teams this season — North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven — that have chosen to stake their future on the growing USL.
The constantly improving American athlete means major leagues are getting increasingly competitive. As a side effect, second-division leagues continue to benefit from the abundance of talented players. Combine that with the smaller, high-quality facilities being built around the country, and you have a recipe for top-shelf sports experiences. Smaller leagues are also benefiting from innovative sports executives who are determined to take advantage of their resources to produce the best product possible.
Challenges Create Opportunity
Because they can’t command the huge budgets bestowed on major league franchises, smaller teams must rely on their creativity and knowledge to attract and sustain adequate fan bases. They may not have the best players or facilities, but they do have a higher degree of flexibility with their promotions, messaging, and branding. It’s critical that smaller teams use this to their advantage to differentiate themselves.
One thing these small teams do have in abundance these days is data. Data is an amazing tool in both sports and sports marketing. You may not be familiar with the 2002 Oakland Athletics team, but you’ve probably heard of “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The book (made into an acclaimed film in 2011) told the story of A’s general manager Billy Beane, who used advanced metrics that flew in the face of traditional scouting views to build a team that won the American League West with the second-lowest payroll in baseball.
A traditional mentality dictates that smaller teams and smaller budgets mean more limitations, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Instead, smaller leagues are an excellent platform for showcasing the innovative strategies that will drive success no matter what budget you’re working with — and there are a few things the big leagues can learn from their smaller, scrappier counterparts:
1. Take Chances
The aspect I admire the most about well-run smaller teams is that they take chances and realize that things might not always work out. What taking risks will do, however, is provide opportunities to gather huge amounts of data on the behavior of fans. This experience will allow these smaller teams to have a deeper understanding of their fan bases and create more successful campaigns down the road.
Major league teams are often more corporate and structured, and as a result, their relationship with fans feels less organic. Ultimately, forging a genuine connection with fans is the key to a successful franchise.
2. Build an Emotional Connection With Fans
Fans want to know that you care and that you’re thinking about the same things they are. A sports team might be a business, but it can’t always be about making money. Fans should feel like an important part of your brand.
It’s critical for teams to distribute their content in the channels where their fans are consuming it, but it’s equally vital for them to know how to engage their audience. Fans are in the digital realm, so teams need to meet them where they are.
3. Invest in the Proper Infrastructure
As TV ratings continue to decline for leagues — even the ever-popular NFL — teams are beginning to understand that social media is crucial to their success. While their core audience might come from their geographical home base, fans are all over the world, and social media is a great way to reach them.
Small teams that can’t afford expensive air time for advertising campaigns have been relying on social media as a far cheaper way to spread their message. It might not happen often, but a well-crafted tweet or Facebook video can become a viral sensation and spread across the globe overnight. And compared to an ad that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the price of sharing on social is right.
Applying the same strategies in a large organization doesn’t have to be difficult as long as you put yourself in your fans’ shoes. Not all fan bases are alike, but historically, owners have treated them largely the same with the one differentiating factor being their ticket category.
Today, fans have plenty of options when it comes to spending their money. They’re increasingly fickle and want true engagement with the teams they’re passionate about. To win the hearts and minds of fans, sports teams need to offer a customized experience that demonstrates a higher degree of personalization and meets fans in the proper channels. After all, according to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: “We are not in the business of selling basketball. We are in the business of selling fun.”
Robb Heineman is the co-founder of FanThreeSixty, a sports consulting and technology company that helps sports organizations develop their fan bases. He is also an owner of Sporting Kansas City and sits on the board of governors of Major League Soccer, and has twice been named to Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40.