As a passionate fan of Major League Soccer, I have come to love the atmosphere created by supporters groups in stadiums. No matter if my team wins or loses, the experience of going to the stadium excites me and helps me feel closer to the team. As a marketing and communications student, I was interested in whether or not teams were utilizing the positive fan experience created by supporters groups in marketing and communications, and whether that correlated with a higher average game attendance, a more expansive social media following and larger, more passionate supporters groups. These are some of the chief goals of the marketing team: to facilitate the growth and revenue of a team.

For those of you don’t know what a supporters group is, The Independent Supporters Council defines supporters as “Fans that do more than watch and enjoy the game; they actively participate in creating the game-day atmosphere by singing, chanting, and/or creating visual displays called ‘tifo’.” These fans also have a tendency to attend games more regularly and buy more merchandise to support the team.

Research conducted before on fans and supporters groups determined that:

  • Fans drive the value and meaning of a club’s brand (Guschwan, The Football Brand Dilemma).
  • The chief factors that affect brand image included identification with and strong emotions surrounding the team with a higher level of importance being placed on stadium atmosphere and the passion of other fans (Bauer, Sauer, & Exler, Does Brand Image Matter?).
  • Successful teams promote their fans as part of their brand identity. (Guschwan, The Football Brand Dilemma)
  • Fans represent the most important customer segment for teams and that fans are more committed to a team if they have a deep attachment that is persistent over a long period of time. (Bauer, Sauer, & Exler Brand Image & Fan Loyalty: An Empirical Assessment )
  • Strong supporters groups reinforce the “bioregional narrative” of the region leading to a more intense dedication to the team and more interest in the team. (Shobe and Gibson, Cascadia Rising: Soccer, Region and Identity )
  • Supporters play such a large part in brand loyalty as they ensure a stable following even when the core product (the play on the field) falters (Bauer, Sauer, Exler, Does Brand Image Matter?). 

In conclusion, the secondary research shows that fans and supporters help define a team’s brand which contributes to the conversion of non-fans to passionate fans and keeps the team’s revenue afloat even during years when the team doesn’t play well.

How I conducted the research

Specifically, I wanted to look at whether supporters and fans, when used in team marketing, lead to the fulfillment of three marketing objectives: a higher average attendance, a wider social media following, and an increase in the size and passion of a supporters group. To identify whether this was the case, I conducted an interview with a vice president of MLS to determine if the promotion of supporters was an objective to the league. After, I conducted a survey with 250 current fans from the MLS Facebook discussion group and smaller team-specific discussion groups across the league to determine why they became fans. Finally, I determined the teams with the highest and lowest levels of “fan support” to speak with their supporters groups and determine whether or not the teams were utilizing this support. I determined the levels of fan support by adding together the ranking of average attendance, the ranking of Facebook following, and the ranking of their supporters groups according the MLS Multiplex and Bleacher Report. I then identified seven teams to analyze: three teams from the top five in fan support and four from the bottom seven.

For the sake of this article, the teams in the top five will be identified as team A, B and C, with their supporters groups identified with the same letter. The teams in the bottom seven will be identified with the letters D, E, F and G. My research was limited in that I could only speak with the supporters groups as the research was conducted at the beginning of the 2016 MLS season when teams’ marketing departments are at their busiest point of the year, and were unable to speak with me. In addition, supporters group A refused to speak with me, so I conducted a content analysis of team A’s advertisements and social media to determine interaction with and usage of their supporters group.

Interviews with MLS marketing leaders

The interview conducted with the MLS vice president determined that they are well aware of the positive effects of the stadium atmosphere and its uniqueness and accessibility in North America. He identified it as the number one factor the league tries to market. The true MLS experience, he says, is built from the ground up by supporters, and MLS just extends an “invitation to join” to potential fans through the use of digital and fan-generated content on social media. But many leagues do not see the importance of marketing the supporters-driven experience to potential fans. A member of Team G’s marketing team said they don’t really interact with their supporters group and only give them a place to put their equipment.

Nationwide Survey

The study conducted attempted to determine the main reason why current fans first started attending games, why they keep attending games and what marketing messages persuade them to attend games. This survey proved to be an accurate representation of fans as 50% of the survey respondents were in supporters groups and 50% were just passionate fans.

The survey results showed that fans first started attending games because:

  • They were already soccer fans (74% of respondents)
  • They had played soccer growing up (47%)
  • They supported all their local sports teams (44%)
  • They had a great introduction to the fan experience (43%)

Next the fans were asked to rank the reasons that they were motivated to attend games with the number one reason being great atmosphere. 75% of respondents ranked the great atmosphere in their top three factors. The second and third most motivating factors were family and friends and entertainment. Interestingly enough, the team winning consistently was the third least motivating factor.

When asked what marketing messages persuaded them most to attend, more than 60% of respondents said the advertising of passionate fans, followed by price discounts at 14%. The advertising of star players came in at below 10% of respondents, running contrary to the belief that casual fans want to see the stars of the world in MLS. In addition, fans would rather attend a game when passionate fans were advertised more than the team actually performing well. 60% of respondents said that the advertising of passionate fans positively affected their decision to become a fan. 39% said it had no effect and only 1% said it had a negative effect.

Finally, of the respondents that identified themselves as supporters, 91% said they joined because of their passion for the team, 46% said they wanted to help create a great atmosphere and 45% said they wanted to be a part of something.

Interviews with supporters group leaders

Stronger Fan Support

My study then reached out to the supporters groups of teams A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Supporters group A refused to speak to me so I looked at team A’s marketing to determine if their marketing of fans and supporters correlated with them being the number one team in fan support. Their supporters group is widely recognized as one of the most passionate in the league. The team realized this and used it to bring more fans into the stadium.

I found that:

  • Team A uses their supporters group in local TV advertisements, focusing on the passion the group creates through chanting and holding up of scarves.
  • Team A focuses on the fans and supporters on social media as well with many images having fans in the background.

The supporters group numbers have increased rapidly since Team A joined MLS. In 2009, supporters group A totaled 600 members. By 2012, they were 2,700 members strong and growing.

In interviews with supporters groups B and C, some common trends emerged. Each group has weekly meetings with their team, which use their supporters extensively in social media and TV advertising while also giving them the right to refuse. They also report that the community sees the group and the team as one entity —  when businesses want to work with the team, they also seek to work with the group. Group B has exploded to 4,500 members since joining the league in 2011 and Group C has seen increasing membership fromabout 100 members to over 2000 with a two-year waiting list to join. Both groups report that their members joined because they love the experience. Group C described it as “fans go for the steakhouse (the great stadium, team, good prices), but the group is the ‘jazz band’ creating the atmosphere and experience.” Interestingly enough, all three teams have been some of the most successful on the field in the league over the past few years.

Weaker Fan Support

But interviews with supporters groups D, E, F and G reveal  a different story. These groups report that they only interact with the front office on ticket sales and if there are major issues. Groups E, F and G report that the teams previously promoted their supporters groups, but have since focused on other areas of marketing such as corporate partnerships and game promotions. Each of these groups has had their numbers stagnant or decline in recent years and some never gained much popularity at all. All of these groups cite the passion and atmosphere created by the groups as why people join, much like groups A, B and C, but it appears that passion is not being utilized by the team. Unlike A, B and C though these teams–D, E, F and G–have all performed poorly on the field in recent years.

Overall Trends

Strong Fan Support Trends Weak Fan Support Trends
  • Weekly meetings between supporters group and front office
  • Interaction and display of supporters groups in team marketing materials
  • Supporters group is seen as synonymous with the team; you can’t have one without the other
  • Little interaction between front office and supporters groups except on ticket sales
  • Team focuses on other areas of marketing
  • Supporters groups tend to be less recognizable in community

 

Conclusion

This analysis strongly suggests that there is a connection between the use of supporters and fans in marketing and the level of fan support. The survey showed that 75% fans became passionate about their team due to the atmosphere created by the supporters groups and that 60% of fans wanted to see more marketing focusing on these groups. This leads to the conclusion that new fans come to games because of the advertising of the passionate fanbase, stay for the great atmosphere the supporters provide and eventually convert themselves to supporters as their passion for the team grows.

Overall, MLS sees an increase in attendance year after year, but for some teams that level of fan support is falling. Three of the teams in the top five of fan support all collaborate frequently with their supporters groups on marketing initiatives while four of the bottom seven don’t at all. This shows a close connection between the need to use supporters groups in marketing to successfully complete the marketing objectives I noted above: higher stadium attendance; increase in social media following; and larger, more passionate supporters groups.

Connor Cummings

General Manager of Philadelphia Sports Nation. Die hard supporters of Philadelphia sports. Previously Union Nation Manager. Sons of Ben member since 2013. Founder of the A More Perfect Philadelphia Union blog. Admin of the Philadelphia Union Discussion Group. Been at Philadelphia Sports Nation and Union Nation since Summer of 2015.

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