Energy around new markets leaves MLS' old guard playing catch up

Attendance and marketing standards are being set by MLS' newest teams. How do the league's oldest teams change the message around their clubs?

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Major League Soccer keeps growing, and attendance at the swelling roster of shiny new stadiums keeps climbing. As every new club starts kicking – MLS is a 22-team league now – something becomes increasingly clear: The newest clubs are driving almost all of the attendance gains.

Last year, seven of the top eight teams in attendance entered the league in 2007 or later. They are all what we now commonly call “MLS 2.0” clubs. The top teams in attendance last year, in order: Seattle, Orlando, New York City FC and Toronto.

This isn’t exactly breaking news. We’ve seen this trend developing for a while. But the differences between “old” MLS and “newer” MLS in attendance and general market perception are becoming increasingly stark. So a deeper dive into the “why” seems in order, especially as the trend is almost sure to continue.

Atlanta United joins this year, having already sold 27,000 season tickets. If the team doesn’t sell one more seat in 2017, the Georgia club probably would still land in the top five in attendance. Season ticket sales haven’t been as bonkers for this year’s other expansion club, Minnesota United, but they are solid, at around 7,000. The club seems likely to add more season packs upon completion of its $150 million stadium in St. Paul's Snelling-Midway neighborhood.

Chew on this: The nine teams that got into MLS in 2007 or beyond averaged 25,481 fans last year. The other 11 averaged 18,591.

The bottom five clubs in 2016 attendance all were MLS originals.

So with numbers on both ends that look fairly revealing, it’s tempting to draw one of two conclusions. First, league architects got it wrong to begin with. That is, they chose poorly when planting the original 10 franchises at league launch in 1996.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

That seems unlikely; league leaders surely weren’t perfect, but there is a far more likely explanation, and this is it: The so-called “MLS 2.0” teams, those added in the second decade of operation and beyond, enjoy huge advantages in sales and marketing efforts. That means a big leg up in generating attendance, sponsorship, local media deals and general market perception – all of which feed off one another.

Teams coming in later get to ride the momentum of a league already up to a certain speed, not to mention a league that has worked out some kinks. MLS was starting to look, feel and act more professional and more “big league” by the time Toronto came aboard in 2007. So the newer teams benefitted from the mistakes of the league’s first decade.

Still, it seems worth asking the questions: Why aren’t the “older” clubs catching up? Why aren’t they riding the some of same momentum? In short, why do they seem stuck?

A little history on MLS marketing

To examine the sticking points of the “older” clubs, start here. This is from Peter Wilt, the Chicago Fire’s first GM back in 1998, as he wrote recently for Howler Magazine: “In MLS’s first decade, a majority of fans attended games much as they would minor league baseball: as a social outing where the result of the match mattered far less than whether or not they had a good time. But over the last decade, the league’s fan base has evolved, and games now attract a lot more people who care deeply about the results. This transition is a huge achievement. It has been fueled by the signing of brand-name players, holding games in urban areas where serious soccer fans live, and a growing demographic of young adults who follow soccer closely.”

Wilt’s article was about promotion and relegation; obviously, he isn’t talking about pro/rel, per se, in this part. But in setting up the framework, he’s biting into something critical. He’s helping you understand the league background, and that helps understand what ails some of the older clubs.

As MLS got going in 1996, it couldn’t really market for competitive pursuits. Sure, there was an MLS Cup, but it had no history, and therefore somewhat limited value. In the business world they might say it had “no brand equity.”

So the marketing mavens really had no choice. They had to sell “big-time professional soccer,” and “stars.” And, as Wilt said, having a good ol’ time on Saturday night. You could say that was the wrong approach, but there really wasn’t a choice.

But the value of MLS Cup grew as the league expanded (more than doubling in size) and became better established, as it became more important to more people. Plus, the league’s profile grew (thanks David Beckham!) and perception climbed steadily. Now, not only is the league’s championship more important, the U.S. Open Cup profile keeps climbing. Plus, claiming CONCACAF Champions League places has taken on some heft.

Put another way, teams like Seattle, Portland and NYCFC could build the brand around chasing championships. And that appealed to a group that mattered most: young urban adults.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The newer clubs came into a league with titles to chase, and where hard-earned lessons had been absorbed. They got into a league armed with the critical knowledge that seems so obvious now, but certainly wasn’t back in the late 1990s: Stadiums in the urban core, frequented by the trendsetting crowd, is the recipe.

“If it’s important to the cool crowd, it’ll be aspirational to the greater audience, to the kids playing the game but also to the kids’ parents,” Wilt told me by phone earlier this week. “They can go be part of the game, have a couple of beers and be part of something that feels edgy.”

Again, none of that is new. It’s the blueprint now, and it’s driving MLS growth. We just watched 12 communities line up to pay a $150 million buy-in for expansion ahead. Any drag on league growth, then, is mostly in older markets. So the question becomes, “How to dislodge those sticking points?”

Changing perceptions: no easy task

It won’t be easy.

First, teams in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia and elsewhere reside in stadiums beyond the urban core. Those stadiums mostly had prices tags north of $100 million, so they aren’t going anywhere. That is, there are no “do overs.” Not for another 20-30 years at least. In New England, the Revolution could certainly get out of Gillette Stadium, but that still seems years and years away. Generally, these are markets where clubs have to make due.

There is something else to consider: the media drag of older MLS markets.

New day platforms (blogs mostly) and social media have done so much to enhance Major League Soccer’s properties. Today’s “traditional” media – mostly talking about newspapers, local radio and local TV here – have shrank significantly in influence, but do still carry plenty of weight in public perception. And that’s an issue for the original 10 teams.

For too many teams, legacy media in those places still see professional soccer in the United States for what it was, rather than for what it is now, a league creeping on the NHL as this country’s fourth major team sport. Media influencers in some places still don’t take MLS seriously. While that isn’t the deathblow it once was, it still hurts MLS, tending to somewhat delegitimize the league for some of the viewers and subscribers.

It’s also difficult to fully divest from sales tactics that once served as lifeblood. Once the teams have marketed to families, it’s difficult to swing a full 180, to point all the marketing efforts toward “young and urban” without alienating some of the current crowd base.

What to do? “Get back to basics,” Wilt says. “Grassroots, bottom up. Appeal to the serious soccer fans, [ethnic minorities] and the adult millennials.”

He pointed out Kansas City as a place where a big swing in marketing tactics worked beautifully. Still, he acknowledged that in most places “there is only so much you can do to change public perception.”

In Atlanta and Minnesota and other markets bucking to get into MLS, they don’t have to change it: They just build around a perception of what MLS looks like in 2017 – and that looks pretty good to a lot of people.

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Steve Davis' column, America's Game, runs weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.