Building a Better Preseason

Pro soccer should pump up the preseason marketing and give fans a vacation
by Nick Kosar   |   Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Marketing Soccer in North America - column on the marketing of soccer in the USA and Canada

Preseason soccer is just around the corner. It’s the time of year when most MLS teams begin training in warmer climes and participate in tournaments with other professional clubs (from other MLS ones to NASL and USL PRO clubs). For my part, I’ll be road tripping to Florida next week with one of my daughters to take in a few games at the Disney Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando in early February. We can’t wait.  

It should be a blast to enjoy the warmer weather, see the teams test out new players and let our hope spring eternal for a better season than last year. And yet, one thing I can’t help dwelling on is how much better it all could be. So, despite the fact that I’ve never witnessed a preseason in person yet, I’m going to make a few observations about the current state of soccer preseason, and how I think it could be better – for fans, for clubs and for the sport in general.

End the Mickey Mouse Operation

Like the venerable Major League Baseball spring training in Arizona’s Cactus League and Florida’s Grapefruit League, MLS clubs generally train and play in preseason tournaments in these two warm-weather states, usually joined by local NASL or USL PRO clubs.

In the case of Florida, the February preseason tournament usually centers around the ESPN World Wide of Sports complex in Orlando, for good reason: extensive facilities, concessions for fans, a nice climate and transportation/infrastructure to accommodate clubs and visitors alike.

But I think we need to dream of how it could and should be. As a soccer fan, I’d really like soccer – and not Disney – in more control over the preseason experience. Why? So clubs can have greater means to market their brands and the upcoming season, sell more club merchandise and interact with their fan base.

My daughter has asked whether I’ll buy her a new DC United shirt (the kid is growing up fast) when we get to the Pro Soccer Classic in Florida. My answer: “I don’t know.” She wonders whether we’ll meet some players. Again: “I’m not sure.” What about taking pictures with some of the players? “We’ll see.” Not the ideal way to plan a preseason road trip.

What should the merchandise experience be like?

Here’s a good example: baseball’s Spring Training Connection website states that the Boston Red Sox stadium in Fort Myers has a “large team store” in the stadium and then five more souvenir stands: “three on the concourse, one on the left field deck and another on Fenway South Drive.” Now, if soccer had even a quarter of those stores in their own facility, I could assure my kid that she’d walk away with a new team jersey in Florida.

How about buying tickets? I ended up purchasing my game tickets through a convoluted Ticketmaster site, after wading through some web pages that tried to up-sell me with Disney theme park ticket packages. Sure, some people may want to take advantage of that, but I had to work a little to find the site where I could purchase only soccer game tickets. I get to Florida on a regular basis. For this trip, I care about soccer, and not about Mickey.

The first part of my road trip planning (buying the tickets) should not be this confusing. Heck, the ideal should be that I buy my tickets directly through MLS, as you can do on the MLB Spring Training website. Let’s aim for that.

Bottom line: I have a strong suspicion that I will buy Mickey Mouse and other Disney merchandise at the ESPN Wide World of Sports shop (their website says that I’ll be able to buy “popular Disney collectible pins!”). Rather, what I want to be sure of is that I’ll be in pro soccer merchandise heaven. We’ll see what happens, but I don’t think Disney will be very accommodating.

What’s the solution? Well, it’s expensive, and pie-in-the-sky. But why not dream? How about soccer (a league, the federation, etc.) owning a large property that can provide clubs training facilities, feature large-enough stadia to house fans for preseason (and other) tournaments and allow clubs to sell merchandise to fans who are alive with hope for the upcoming season. It should be Soccer City, not Mickey Mecca.

Better Preseason Promotions

Building better, soccer-owned facilities is surely not an easy task. And I’ll bet it’s on the wish list of leagues like MLS, albeit way down the list. But better promotion is something that can be done here and now.

Google “disney pro soccer classic 2013” and what are the Top 10 results? Two Disney sites, a Wikipedia entry, one MLS page, a page each for Ticketmaster and a travel agency, a Yahoo Sports page and a page each from DC United and Sporting Kansas City and SB Nation’s SKC section. Disney gets the top ranking, not MLS.

The Top 10 Google results out West? Google “Desert Diamond Cup” for the February MLS tournament in Tucson and you get similar results.

One of the unfortunate things about these search results is that the “press release” style media mentions for the Florida tournament are all dated way back in Dec. 2012. For the Desert Diamond Cup in Tucson it’s even worse: Top 10 media mentions that go back to mid-October 2012. All for events that start gearing up in early February 2013.

This tells me that the leagues and the clubs need to do more online to promote their preseason opportunities. Something tells me that the clubs naturally look at preseason as more of a training endeavor, and that’s as it should be.

But (and here’s where the right facilities would really help) preseason should be a great – the great – marketing opportunity for the lead-up to the regular season. It should be an opportunity for clubs to encourage fans to enjoy the balmy weather with them as they start preseason tournaments. It’s a time when fans can start loading up on the new gear for the new season.

Google searches of preseason tournaments should bring up loads of information about pending rosters, interviews with players and coaches, plans for regular season activities and the like. “Join Us in Florida/Arizona” should be a mantra for every MLS team. And league soccer websites should be chock full of news in this area. Yet a visit to the home pages of the websites for MLS, NASL and USL PRO don’t feature any preseason news, feature articles or (travel and other) promotions.

I think for 2014, a more active preseason promotional effort should be at the top of the list of New Year’s resolutions for our clubs and leagues. What better way to kick off the new season than to have committed fans attending preseason games, and spreading the good word to other fans through Facebook updates, Twitter messages and Instagrams? Let social media and the goodwill of your fans do some of the work for you. We love our clubs, and we want to show it!

I understand that soccer is not yet ready to match the Spring Training facilities and economic power of baseball. I understand that baseball has been doing Spring Training for more than 100 years. I get that swanky new facilities and tournaments that are controlled by soccer – and not by another corporation like Disney – are easier said than done.

But soccer should maintain an ambition to have the best preseason possible, for the good of the game, clubs and fans. As the legendary baseball broadcaster Harry Caray once said: “It's the fans that need spring training. You gotta get 'em interested. Wake 'em up and let 'em know that their season is coming, the good times are gonna roll.”

Nick KOSAR

Nationality:
USA
College:
UVA, William & Mary
Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Tottenham Hotspur
A Dips fan in the 70s, Nick still thinks tiki-taka started with Cruyff in DC. Formerly in publishing but now a marketer, his career began in Tokyo but still doesn’t know which J-League team to support. His harem includes one lovely wife and 4 daughters.
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