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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