photo courtesy Minneapolis City

News, The Angle

Why Start a Soccer Club? Guest Post by Dan Hoedeman

by on 14 March 2019

This is the sixth (I think…) in a series of articles that take a look inside what it’s like to run a lower division club. In this article I talk marketing. It’s personal for me because it’s my day job and, though I know it’s boring and cliche, I really love the craft of what I do so doing it for City is a blast. It also is interesting if you are curious how we think about marketing this lovable little ramshackle club.

I was motivated to help start Minneapolis City for two reasons.

First, I believe that, more than anything, American soccer lacks opportunity. I know that I lacked it when I was a player.* City is a way to create opportunities for players, to give guys from the community a chance to play in a high-performance environment at a national level–professionally amateur, we call it–and that is why we make a big deal about our local focus and work hard to attract players from all parts of the diverse Twin Cities community.

Second, it seemed like a lot of fun.

By day, I run an advertising agency. Over my career I’ve done work for brands like Subaru, Intel, Dr Pepper…great brands, but established brands. Scaled companies. It seemed like fun to build something from scratch.**

It was also a crucible for my beliefs about advertising, the chance to put those beliefs to the test, in a real situation, with real money on the line, in a crushingly competitive category.

As an aside, if you are thinking about starting a lower division soccer club one of the most important ingredients to success is having a portfolio of skills within the founding group. Success is going to be the result of the group’s efforts, and the group will have to work successfully in recruiting players, coaching players, operating the team, marketing, gameday operations, etc and so on. So it’s for the best that you have a lot of different people with a lot of different skills and one of those skills just has to be advertising/marketing.

Anyway, this is how we approach marketing things at Minneapolis City Intergalactic World Headquarters:

Purpose matters.

At least in this category.***

Purpose is, simply put, the reason why a company exists beyond the obvious “to make money” (or, in this case, to win soccer games). Because the world does not need another soccer club out there just making money/winning soccer games. In the Twin Cities alone, we have 1 MLS, 3 NPSL, 5 UPSL, and 3 WPSL teams. There are more than enough options. [Editors note: At the time Minneapolis City started, there was only two NPSL sides and one NASL side]

So why exist?

Minneapolis City was founded on the idea of community power. That a(n ever-expanding!) group of regular people could DIY a soccer club that would do good in the community, primarily by creating affordable, high-performance opportunities for local players to compete at a national level. That’s our purpose.

So, while we want to win games and will wildly celebrate all trophies, real and imagined, we’re really here to do something else. Something larger. And that is what keeps us together, it keeps us motivated, and it keeps us going when things are tough (they do get tough). Especially when you are asking people to take a leap of faith with you–to volunteer, to buy season tickets, whatever, it’s best to ask them to take a leap of faith for something that’s really meaningful.

Know who you are talking to

A clear enough purpose and you start to self-select your audience.

For us, with the DIY, community focus, it seemed like the people who would be more into that were an awful lot like us: 20’s-30’s, had a history of going to live lower division soccer games, loved the human aspect of soccer, and were super into the sport. It was more psychographic than demographic.

We targeted people who, at an emotional level, believed in people power and wanted to be part of a DIY club. We targeted those people not just with our messaging, but with the things we did and the match experience that we put on. It was purposefully a little nostalgic for the old NSC days (because those were awesome), purposefully homemade and hand built.

It seems so obvious in retrospect, but when we were starting we were told over and over that we were going after the wrong people.

You need to reach youth soccer players and their parents! said a fellow NPSL owner. You need to go after people who watch Premier League soccer but don’t watch MLS! said another lower division owner. You should target the pro/rel enthusiasts! said a bunch of people on Twitter.

They were wrong and we were right, but the larger point is that we had to make a choice.

We want just about everyone to come to our games and think that just about everyone would really enjoy them. All too often people have that same thought, that and it paralyzes them. They can’t make a decision and, instead of really owning who they are and they type of person who would be into that, they try to be everything for everybody. They end up as nobody.

Success follows a simple formula: Tightly identify your audience. Over-commit to being for them (in your advertising, experience, etc). Use their (no doubt wonderful) experience as a beacon for others. Profit.

Be interesting.

It’s not that most advertising is bad, it’s that it is boring. Frankly, so are most soccer clubs: they have boring logos, kits, and social feeds. Especially the social feeds. They say nothing and they do it with ugly graphics.

It’s impossible to be interesting without a strong point of view.# Luckily, if you have a clear purpose the point of view comes directly from that. Then, your point of view informs the behaviors that you, as the club, have or don’t have. Those behaviors define the brand’s personality. This happens as a sort of waterfall. If you believe in the stated purpose, you think this “specific thing” about the soccer world and because you think that “specific thing” about the soccer world you act on it in concrete ways.

From there, it’s about accepting risk. Differentiation doesn’t come from a neat logo, it comes from acting differently. That requires the fortitude to accept the uncertainty that comes from doing new things.

Like the time we launched a “throwback” logo and jersey before we had played a single game. That could have gone horribly awry. It didn’t.

We started wearing pink before it was cool. It was so unusual a decision that we even had to talk one of our coaches into it. Turned out that we were trendsetters! It doesn’t always work like that…

Then there was the time we got unfairly kicked out of the U.S. Open Cup and made #Undefeated t-shirts and trolled the national federation hard about it for a year. It was a risky move on multiple levels.

We took a risk when we shared our financials with the world. You do something that others aren’t doing–no matter how much you believe it’s right–and you just don’t know how people will react.

…sometimes you don’t, at least. We anticipated the response to our first logo and preemptively launched with a trendsetting explanatory infographic that included Grumpy Cat hating on the logo. We continued to use Grumpy Cat as a response to any negative feedback, we leaned into winning the “Worst New Logo” award, and we built a huge portion of our Twitter following on that single episode.

Those, and so many other harebrained things we’ve done, are the behaviors that a DIY, regular person-built club would obviously have. Of course we do weird stuff. Of course we don’t take things too seriously. Of course we’re just here to have fun. And on and on.

And we try to say and do these interesting things with a high degree of craft.

An old Creative Director I had used to say that we owed it to people reading our ads to make them worth the attention the reader had given us. I always loved that formulation. Because it’s about respect. So, while it often looks like we’re just shooting from the hip–and, honestly, we often are–we’re doing it with a group of really talented professional writers and designers%. If we’re lucky enough to get your attention, we are going to do everything we can to make sure we deserve it…and hopefully get it again.

You can’t best practices your way to success

In many cases, best practices are valuable. Operational efficiency is an admirable goal. Replicable processes can–and should–be Six Sigma’d to death.

But creativity is not a replicable process.

There is a sort of economic-engineering model of human behavior that management consultants and political pundits have.^^ In this model, people are rational and persuasion is nothing more than reaching them efficiently, probably though targeted digital ads on a platform like Facebook.

This issue is, if I may paraphrase the great Rory Sutherland, that marketing is one of those human activities, like soccer or sex, where efficiency and effectiveness are poorly coordinated.

Had we used the economic-engineering model of human behavior to guide our on-field strategy, we would have ended up with Charles Hughes’ in-the-mixer-because-math approach. Undoubtedly efficient, although ineffective at actually winning anything.

Persuasion, it turns out, is messy, illogical, and and often irrational. It’s largely about feeling.

Specifically, it is about creating a specific, recognizable feeling that is delivered in advertising as it is in the actual product experience. So, DIY Minneapolis City ought to feel DIY when advertising and ought to feel DIY when you meet us in person. Not that we had any other choice, but our hand-built store and our delightfully ramshackle gameday experience deliver on everything we tell you to expect. So if the DIY, community club, build-this-together brand of soccer is your jam then you’ll find what you’re looking for here.

By relative longevity and current finances, you can call us a success. But we’re not a blueprint.

Another club can’t just copy what we’re doing and be successful. Because our success comes from more than good kit design, a sharp Twitter presence, and Grumpy Cat. Those are just tactics. The tactics absent the power of a big idea are hollow.

Look, there aren’t original ideas out there. There are just too many damn people thinking too many thoughts. Luckily for you most ideas are never acted on. That means that the separator isn’t the idea, it’s the execution. The fact that you are there, in the arena^^^, doing everything you can every way you can.

If you try to copy anyone else–us, say, since a fair few have tried–you won’t be living your purpose. You’ll be trying to live ours. And you can’t possibly live our purpose with any more passion, dedication, and downright fanaticism then we can.

tl:dr

Four steps to marketing a lower division soccer team:
1. Orient your organization around a purpose, and it better be bigger than ‘winning games’ or ‘making money.’
2. Be crystal clear about your core audience and orient everything toward them.
3. Create interesting work that at the very least pays people back for the attention they give.
4. Don’t copy anyone else.

In conclusion.

Being part of this club has been a lot of fun. It’s been a passion project where I could finally swear once or twice in advertising, at least for a little while.^

I am serious about the passion project aspect.

I completely believe in the mission. I evangelize for the mission. I can’t wait to extend our actions far beyond where they are now to levels that seem impossibly naive to even consider, that’s how true a believer I am in what we’re doing.

I also love doing the brand/marketing/advertising stuff. It’s fun. Always has been for me, ever since I was a kid and made my brother film all these commercials I wrote for fake products. The anthem spot for Dan’s Dandy Dog Food was Cannes-worthy, I swear.

Lower division clubs need to be chock-full of people like me. Not just coaches, though our all-volunteer crew is absolutely doing the labor of love thing with their skills that I am doing with mine, but everyone, with all sorts of skill sets and interests. With people like Sarah Schreier whose day job is all about organization and who, you guessed it, keeps us all organized. Or Adam Pribyl, who knows how to make a bunch of coaches and athletes work harmoniously and is doing just that with us. Jon Bisswurm likes watching soccer and meeting people and turned that into what could be a second career as a recruiter. I could go on and on.

Minneapolis City works because everyone has thrown themselves (and their skills) into it.

Our marketing works because we followed the four steps above and had a lot of fun doing it.

The End.


* Long, long ago in the pre-internet days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

** And it was. Launching a throwback before our first game, winning awards for our logo, the Grumpy Cat thing, it was really enjoyable to be creative like that in service of a good cause. Re-energizing.

*** In my professional opinion, while purpose is critical to every organization as a business strategy, it is simply one of many positioning options for brands as they go to market.

# The risk with a strong point of view is that some people will have a strong point of view in conflict with yours. Or just not like that you’re strident about what you believe. Most people don’t want to rock the boat and so they don’t risk it. That is a mistake. The don’t-rock-the-boat status quo only helps the current leader.

% It is astonishing how often this is not the case. I know just how expensive good writers and designers are. I also know just how willing they are to work with you on price if it’s a passion project (for them) and lets them do good, fun work. In other words, there is no excuse for bad writing and design in soccer.

^^ It’s the reason for books like What’s The Matter With Kansas? and pundits who wonder aloud why people vote for emotionally-satisfying things like group identity instead of for coldly rational things like a government program that experts predict will lift middle third real income by 1.7% annualized over the next 10 years.

^ While, to borrow from Rory Sutherland again, I am independent-minded, with a visceral dislike of bureaucracy, and a stubborn reluctance to defer to arbitrary authority, even I have to pick my battles. I prefer battles where I have a chance to win.

Tags: