Photo Credit: Minnesota United FC


Minnesota United Ramping Up Marketing (at Last) As Opener Nears

by on 28 February 2017

Minnesota United FC kicks off its MLS era on Friday, March 3, with a nationally televised away match against the Portland Timbers. Just over a week after that, on Sunday, March 12, the Loons will return home for their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

It’s all very immediate, which for fans is both thrilling — and yet another reason to #PANIC. The stakes have been raised for MLS expansion over the years. Seattle burst into the league in 2009 with crowds of over 30,000 and a playoff berth. Portland and Vancouver landed in 2011, setting standards for atmosphere and giving MLS its hottest rivalries. New York City and Orlando joined in 2015, easily packing large, temporary stadiums. In this same tradition, this year’s Atlanta launch appears poised to blow out all opening season expectations.

Behind these remarkable successes have been memorable marketing campaigns. For example, the Timbers produced a brilliant billboard campaign, showing ordinary fans with the tools of the logging trade. In another case, Orlando flooded the city with magnets, using their robust USL fanbase to spread the badge one lamppost and car bumper at a time. And while Atlanta has marketed in many different ways, it has stolen the spotlight with interesting stunts, like converting a corner of a MARTA rail station into a small soccer field.

Hence the #PANIC. In contrast to their present expansion partners and the examples of expansion clubs in past years, the Loons have not captured the national spotlight with an innovative campaign, nor blown observers away with eye-popping ticket sales. News in the past weeks that Minnesota is on track to sell 35,000 tickets to its opener was greeted with excitement and a fair bit of relief. Yet a few days later, Atlanta announced they had sold 30,000 season tickets. They are widely expected to sell-out their opener, with over 50,000 expected in attendance when they move to the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.

Is this a legitimate reason for Loons fans to worry? In an interview, team president Nick Rogers seemed resigned to being the object of constant, cloying concern, even if he defiantly pushed against it. “The #PANIC thing has been a recurring theme as long as I’ve been in this chair,” he said, “nobody is ever completely happy with what we’re doing… we’re just going to keep doing the best we can.”

So what has the club been doing? Throughout the offseason, they’ve been running ads during broadcasts of European soccer matches, and have placed ads in local print publications. But it’s been a lot more visible in the past week. After the team’s inaugural kit release, the club’s social media channels began promoting pop-up scarf and jersey giveaways at prominent Twin Cities locations. There are tentative plans to take the scarf effort statewide, although that is unlikely to happen in the coming days. This week, the club also began a campaign of electronic billboards in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, featuring regular fans paired with players, showing how the club is a part of the community and the community is a part of the club. These initiatives were conceived in-house, and executed with some help from outside agencies.

“[The campaign is] trying to illustrate, through the juxtaposition of our players and our fans, what the club means to our fans,” said Rogers. “To share the passion of the sport with a broader audience.”

That’s all well and good, but is unlikely to pacify supporters who would’ve liked to see the club begin a campaign weeks ago. In speaking to Rogers and hearing from other club officials, it’s clear that the demands of preseason, the logistics of releasing the team’s inaugural jerseys, and the nature of the planned campaign were the primary factors which influenced the timing. For the majority of the last month, the team’s roster has been away from Minnesota, and Adidas’ highly abbreviated process of producing team kits was always going to cut things a bit close. Thus, it was only the weekend of the kit release that the players and the gear came together in the same place to create the kind of marketing materials that the club wanted. “It’s always better to show instead of tell,” said Rogers.

What might be argued is that none of the previous expansion examples listed earlier in this article required either players or kits. Those campaigns required both creativity and time to plan and execute. That may have been time and energy that the club did not ultimately have. It certainly seems safe to assert that the club’s resources were spread thin by the effort to convert the front office and roster to MLS standards, secure major sponsorship deals (Rogers also alluded to a stadium sponsorship deal being deep in the works), and also unroll a major marketing blitz. Ultimately, writing a chapter in the playbook of great MLS marketing was not a tip-top priority.

“We’ve been on a timeline that’s unprecedented in how short it is,” said Rogers. “We’ve been doing a million miles a minute. We would’ve loved to be able to deploy some of these things earlier, but we weren’t able to do it the way that we believed it should be done.”

The club will also be counting on a wash of new media attention as the ball begins rolling on the new season on Friday. In addition to growing ecosystem of online coverage that the Loons have inspired over the years, including FiftyFive.One, the state’s two newspapers of record, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press have massively expanded their coverage. On Sunday, a broad perspective on soccer in Minnesota made the front page of the Star Tribune, and a feature section on the team is planned before the opener.

Ultimately, however, what the club is most focused on is the long-term picture. The sponsorship deal with Target will be with the club long after the circumstances of the first couple of games are forgotten. And above all, building the proposed Midway stadium is the primary objective of the club. It can be frustrating and challenging to maintain a grasp on the short and long term perspectives, and Rogers leaves no doubt that his overriding focus is on the latter. Still, he says he understands the frustration of fans — to a degree.

“I get that the fans want their excitement to be manifested in different ways and something that their friends and co-workers can’t avoid,” said Rogers. “It’s validating to the passion that they’ve invested in the club, and I get it.”

At the same time, Rogers clearly wants fans to understand the club’s perspective. “We have things we’re trying to do to validate that passion… Do I wish that we had saturated this market with nonstop billboards for months and had our logo all over the newspapers? Of course. But it’s not practical for us and in the long run it’s not going to be what makes this club a special club.”

Over the next two weeks, we may get a better sense of to what extent the club’s approach has been successful. Or perhaps we’ll only really know in a couple of years.

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  • Bruce J McGuire

    Minn downgraded the expected attendance yesterday to 30,000.

    • Dillon Young

      which means about 3/4 of that will actually be in attendance. I love the squad, but man everything about this seems rushed.

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      The other day, I heard a number very close to 30k as the number of tickets already sold. I think the range will be from 30k-35k, and I’m not sure whether any predicted number is really “official.”

  • Peter S.

    “In an interview, team president Nick Rogers seemed resigned to being the object of constant, cloying concern, even if he defiantly pushed against it.”

    Not sure about the usage of “cloying” here. To cloy means to disgust or sicken (someone) with an excess of sweetness, richness, or sentiment. As in “a romantic, rather cloying story.” Synonyms: sickly, syrupy, saccharine, oversweet.

    • keytoarson

      It also means emotional so there’s really nothing wrong with the way it’s being used. Petty thing to pick on imo.

      Regarding the article, MNUFC are going to struggle mightily in their first season. Maybe everything will fall into place with the players they have but the fact that they haven’t signed any DPs so far will hurt them. It’ll be interesting to see but I’m fairly confident that this year will not be a fun one for the fans. Hope I’m wrong though!

      • STPCommuter

        I bought season tickets on the game-day experience having gone to a couple games in the supporters section last year. I want to go watch a sport that is fast-paced, not rife with TV timeouts. I think you’re right that this year will be underwhelming as far as the team’s record goes, but I am looking at any success on the field as a bonus. It’s really fun to chant and drink beer with other Dark Clouds/TNE!

        • keytoarson

          Timbers fan here (live in MN).. I’m very excited that the team is even here so if they do somewhat well, I’ll be happy for them (other than vs PTFC). However, the lack of talent was so evident when our first team came in the 60th minuted few weeks back. MN’s backline is the main cause for concert. Not a lot of teams can defend Adi but they were struggling with spacing, which should be elementary at this point. I’ll be at the MN home opener vs ATL so that’ll be an interesting game and it’ll really tell us the story between the two.

      • Peter S.

        I don’t mean to be petty. It’s constructive criticism. And there’s no e-mail address to send corrections to. But yeah, I’ll admit to being a little compulsive.

        And no, “cloying” definitely does not mean emotional.

        • keytoarson

          Merriam dictionary:
          Definition of cloying for English Language Learners
          : too sweet, pleasant, or emotional

          • Peter S.

            “Emotional” in the sense of sentimental

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      I thought about it for a bit, but I felt it was both in-bounds and creative. I liked ‘cloying’ as a descriptor, because the concern that fans have for the club is sentimental and coming from a genuine (some would say overprotective) love.

  • STPCommuter

    Haven’t they had an extra year to sell season tickets? Also, the Atlanta population (5.7M) is roughly 50% larger than the MSP population (3.9M).

    • Alex Schieferdecker

      Yes, Atlanta have had over a year’s head start.

      • Peter S.

        Superficially, you could argue that MN United had a several-years head start over Atlanta because they’ve been in existence as a club for a while. But of course, during that time they had to run a successful NASL club while working on transitioning to an all new MLS club, so their attention was divided, unlike Atlanta, who were starting from scratch, but had less on their plate.

  • MmattN

    30,000 would be fantastic (compared to what I was expecting) for the home opener

    • John

      Same here. I’m actually pleasantly surprised. Hope you guys kick butt! Welcome to MLS!

  • They should just steal a Twins ploy like “get to know’em” or one of their more success marketing moves over the last fifteen years.
    From the quotes it seems to me that they understand that the passionate fans want or need help getting their friends/family interested. Seems like a perfect place for a ticket deal. Bring a friend and introduce the game. Totally dorky but if it works.

  • Clark Starr

    I think it’s been tough that the team has only been together a short time and has been out of town so much. People (and kids) need to get to know the players. Some third-string Gopher came to my kid’s school and read a story to his class, he got his autograph and is now all hyped about gopher football. Sure, it’s likely to fade, but still, shows how much stuff like that can do.

  • Spence