Don Garber is sitting at the head of a long table in a big conference room talking about the future of his league. The commissioner of Major League Soccer could be here all day, really. This is his passion. His life. What he’ll be remembered for.
Growing soccer in America is a tricky proposition, of course. For most of the last 30 years, soccer has always been The Next Big Thing, but alwaysnext
, not yetnow
. There are signs that this is changing. Slowly. Subtly. Without the major party-crashing of our country’s so-called established major pro sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — and even if that label needs updating, it’s a bit irrelevant to Garber’s vision of a bigger MLS.
Stop comparing his league to the NBA, NHL or major-league baseball. In terms of what Garber is trying to do, you might as well be talking about the movies or Angry Birds. Garber’s league is focused on converting non-MLS soccer fans, not nonsoccer sports fans.
“One-hundred percent focus is converting global soccer fans to MLS fans,” Garber says. “When that happens, and the market is bigger, then we can go after the (nonsoccer) sports fan.”
Garber cites World Cup television ratings among the factors that say America has enough soccer fans already to grow MLS into a much more popular league. And actually, Garber has a good model for what he’s talking about.
You can see it here Wednesday night, when Sporting Kansas City plays Seattle in front of another sellout crowd at Sporting Park.
This long-term growth strategy for the league is awfully similar to what Sporting has done and continues to work on: grow a passionate fan base through those who already like soccer, then let that energy bring in fans of other sports who will get behind the local team.
In this way, MLS’s model is already working in Kansas City.
“Oh, yes,” says Howard Handler, chief marketing officer for MLS. “Definitely.”
Sporting’s ascension from circus sideshow playing awkward games crammed into a minor-league baseball stadium to a worthy member of the major local sports scene packing a gorgeous new stadium may have started when European power Manchester United played the then-Wizards at Arrowhead Stadium three years ago.
It was a preseason game for Man U, which wasn’t playing its best roster, but it was still a monumental day for the local soccer team. Many of the 55,000 or so fans were wearing Man U red, but once the game got going and the Wizards took the lead, you could feel the energy shift.
Those were non-MLS soccer fans switching sides, and there are always more factors involved than the obvious, but Kansas City’s MLS team took a big step forward that day.
In the three years since, Sporting has essentially lived a microcosm of the growth strategy Garber describes for the entire league — a process he says might take a decade or more.
Through a wicked combination of rebranding, surgically targeted marketing, a beautiful new stadium and — most importantly — a winning team, Sporting has crashed the local sports scene and become what Garber has repeatedly called the league’s greatest success story.
The club took momentum from the Man U game and continued to convert non-MLS soccer fans with World Cup watch parties and other events. Boulevard and Grinders are on the in-stadium menu; pregames often include live music outside. That’s part of specific marketing toward a young and hip demographic, hopefully convincing them that Sporting is a local team worth their time and money.
Nearly 20,000 fans are at every game, and it’s hard not to wonder how many of them even know this team used to be called the Wizards? That it played games at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, and before that Arrowhead Stadium?
Sporting doesn’t have empirical data on this, but there’s overwhelming circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to suggest the long-term MLS model is playing out here already. You can find a lot of global soccer fans in the Cauldron, and other twenty-somethings at Sporting Park.
That makes for a live atmosphere, and has helped attract more casual fans to the scene. This includes — Garber’s end-goal here — sports fans who haven’t been interested in soccer but want to be at the party and cheer on the local team. The team used to print off lyrics for chants. Now they’re all done by the fans. Sporting has invested in bringing those fans back, with an oversized video board and powerful sound system that makes the stadium feel bigger than it actually is.
Toronto was the first MLS team to target this younger demographic in this way; Sporting has been among the most successful. Every game this season is expected to be sold out. The club has a season-ticket waiting list. There has been talk of expanding the stadium in the next four or five years. Sporting debuted a black and argyle kit during their last home game and sold more jerseys at halftime than they did in entire seasons back in the day.
This is the outcome Garber wants to see in every MLS market, and in so many ways, Sporting has written the playbook. The hopeful future of the MLS plays out in real time here in Kansas City.