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Posted by on Jan 28, 2013 in MLS, Philadelphia Union, Recent | 5 comments

Who Are We?

Who Are We?

Marketing a club like the Union has to be one of the more interesting jobs in all of sports. On one hand, you have the daunting challenge of creating an identity out of almost nothing. On the other, you’re in an area that is well-known for its masses of rabid fans who will support a team regardless of how the team’s season is going. But who are the Union marketing to? And are these the people that they should be spending money on to try to get them to come to a match?

In my last piece, I lambasted the Front Office for trading for Sebastien LeToux. While I like LeToux as a person and as a player, I still portend that we did not improve our team on the pitch by trading for him. Instead, I called the move little more than a public relations move to bring back suburban soccer moms. In the week after that piece ran, the Union has had Le Toux calling season ticket holders (I wasn’t one of them – that’d have been an awkward phone conversation). They’ve sent out emails to season ticket holders as well as former season ticket holders trumpeting his return. He showed up to the Sons of Ben’s annual Help Kick Hunger charity event. He was on zany morning zoo schlock-jocks Preston and Steve’s radio show. He was on FOX 29′s Good Morning Philadelphia in the morning and at Kildaire’s in West Chester during the evening. If that’s not a PR blitz, then what is? Make no mistake, the Front Office is using every opportunity to remind anyone in the Philadelphia media market that Sebastien is back in blue and gold.

But why? On-field reasons aside (I still have yet to hear a logical argument why we brought him back), why are we using LeToux? I believe it’s because he looks like the people who the Union and MLS have been conditioned to try to attract – white, suburban families. It seems to explain (at least in part) why the overwhelming majority of the fans in the stands are white – because at least at first glance that looks like the demographic toward whom the team and the league are marketed. Look at the Union’s Facebook page. Besides a couple of photos (notably of new signings Damani Richards and Stephen Okai), it’s all white faces.  Do I think this is part of some intentional racist plot? Certainly not, however I do see it as a subconscious slight that in part helps keep minority fans away.

It explains the reason that even though I watch a lot of Spanish-language programming – mostly Liga MX matches on Univision, Telemundo, and TV Azteca – I very rarely see a commercial for the Union. While watching the Liga MX Final between Tijuana and Toluca, I didn’t see one commercial for our local club. This saddens me, because the people who watch the Tijuana-Toluca match are exactly the people you want to attract to a fledgling soccer team. These are folks for whom soccer isn’t a cheap alternative to the Eagles, but something that is ingrained in their culture. Whether from Mexico, Central America, South America, or Spain – chances are if your predominant language is Spanish then soccer is as much a part of your cultural identity as football is for someone born in the United States or hockey is for someone born in Canada. Why isn’t the league working harder to attract a fan base that doesn’t need to be taught the offside rule and who understand that sometimes there are going to be chants and songs that contain some bad words? Instead, the team and league seem to be more interested in bringing in people who don’t get the culture, who don’t get the rules of the game, and instead of trying to learn the culture seem to be more ready to fire off a nasty note to a Front Office about bad language damaging their precious children. Mind you I’m not against bringing in people who don’t yet understand how soccer works – on the contrary I want new people to come to matches. But there will always be people who want to experience something new in the form of a soccer match. What we need to do before we go after the people who aren’t into the game is to go after the people who are already fans of the game.

Joanna Lohman (former USWNT and Philadelphia Independence player) wrote an excellent article about the new women’s professional soccer league and what the league needs to do to draw fans to a game and a league that has had multiple failed attempts in this country. While her article focuses on the yet-to-be-named successor to the Women’s Professional Soccer, it is equally applicable to Major League Soccer.

I said it then and I will say it again: I am convinced, after significant research, investigation and personal experience, that the “soccer mom” is NOT who we should be marketing to. With all due respect to her, she is too busy, too distracted, too overloaded and too disinterested in sports to hear our plea. She just doesn’t have the time, energy or desire to come out EVERY weekend to cheer on the team in a passionate and sophisticated manner. Sure, she could bring her screaming daughter and her friends once or twice a season – but you don’t build a team or a league on people who come once or twice a season. – Joanna Lohman, How to Market Our New Women’s Professional League

Why we seem to be chasing a demographic that neither respects the game nor has even been relevant to the political pundits who created her since the 1996 US Presidential Election is beyond me. Why are we spending so much energy (not to mention capital) chasing after someone who doesn’t really exist anymore? Why not go after those who know the game and the fan culture? According to research done by the Brookings Institute, 9% of the people in the metropolitan Philadelphia area (a total of roughly 500,000 people) are immigrants. Nearly 75 percent of greater Philadelphia’s labor force growth since 2000 is attributable to immigrants. This seems like the perfect market – people who know the game and have disposable income – yet it goes largely ignored.

So what can be done to help bring in this largely untapped market? For the sake of the article I’m going to focus mostly on marketing to Hispanic people, since they make up the majority of the immigrants in this region.

  • Make a concerted effort to reach out to these folks via traditional media. The fact there were no commercials for the Union or MLS during any of the Liga MX Liguilla (playoffs) on any of the telecasts is inexcusable. Who better to ask to come watch a soccer game than people who are already watching soccer? When Liga MX restarts in January 2013, MLS should start advertising during these matches in markets with teams. Maybe remind folks that unless you’re in San Diego, you’re much closer to watching an MLS game live and in person than a Liga MX game. And it’s even further for people from other countries to see their home team live. Channels like Telemundo, Univision, and Azteca TV are available to people who do not have cable, so there is no real reason why we shouldn’t be running commercials often during Spanish-language sports shows and soccer matches. And let’s not forget good old print media – while I haven’t picked up an Al Día newspaper in a while I’d venture to bet that there isn’t an ad there for MLS or the Union and hasn’t been in quite some time.
  • Along those lines, teams should do more to reach out to teams through digital social media. If Tijuana can have an English-language Facebook page, teams in MLS can have a Spanish-language page. They’re priced right (free) and would require someone to update it often, but part of what I enjoy most about the Union is how well they engage fans via Facebook and Twitter. If they could have someone do that same level of interaction with fans who may not speak English all that well, it would help draw them in. The players are amazing on Twitter and Facebook, and for those that can post and tweet in Spanish (or any other language) I say go for it. Engage fans who speak your language – you may be the person who draws in a whole new segment of fans to come and watch.
  • Update the Spanish-version of the website and ensure it has the same content as the English version. This seems so simple, yet the last time the news on the Union’s Spanish-language page was updated was August 24. We were still in playoff contention then. This is no way to run a professional website. Content should go up on both the English and Spanish-language pages simultaneously. If you truly value people as equals and want to show that, you disseminate information equally.
  • Stop making almost every friendly against European teams. In the three years the team has been in existence, it has played 7 international friendlies – 6 against European teams (Celtic, Manchester United, Everton, Real Madrid, Schalke 04, and Aston Villa), and only one against a team from outside of Europe (Chivas de Guadalajara). While the Real Madrid friendly did help bring in Hispanic fans, it was at the Linc which is a terrible venue for soccer. And let’s face it, Real Madrid isn’t going to come here every year. The Chivas friendly got it right – two loud groups of supporters singing and chanting for 90 minutes in a stadium that was built for soccer. Sure, still bring in clubs from the EPL or La Liga or the Bundesliga, but also realize there is a wealth of great teams close to home that would help draw in Hispanic fans. A good jumping off point would be to work with Bimbo to bring in other clubs they sponsor – Mexico’s Club América or Monterrey (since we already brought in the third Mexican team the sponsor – Chivas), Saprissa from Costa Rica, A.D. Isidro Metapán from El Salvador, or San Francisco F.C from Panama.
  • Work with groups like the Sons of Ben and Bearfight Brigade to reach out to these groups. If there is diversity in the stands, it’s in the River End. The Sons of Ben and Bearfight Brigade are very inclusive and have membership from all walks of life. Utilize this in marketing – show a diverse group of people tailgating and having fun and singing songs about Andy Najar’s mom. Show the Colombian camper and the punks with Mohawks and lawyers in neat polos and gay couples and all of the awesome people who show up to these games – these are the folks who let the people watching at home know this is Philadelphia. We are your neighbors and co-workers. Come have a beer with us and we’ll show you the most fun you can have with 19,000 people who are just as fun and weird as you are. 


  1. I think most fans of Mexican soccer have their team and they’re loyal to their team. When the Union hosted a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara you saw pretty clear where they stood. And as far as Hispanics as a whole being more inclined to watch soccer, those people probably know about the Union. Not sure if marketing in a different language would change much.

    • You’re kind of attacking a straw man here. You base your whole argument that the U is marketing toward soccer moms on a transfer move. Have you seen Antoine’s “Is it March yet?” Commercial? It looked exactly like a Sports center ad. Not exactly soccer-mom fodder.

      Additionally the prospect that most of the team is white is preposterous. The Farfans are Mexican-American, Damani Richards and Keon are from Trinidad and Tobago, Amobi Okugo is Nigerian America, Soumare’ is from Mali, Hoppenot and Le Toux are both French.

      In a league with international restrictions that is a damn diverse team.

      Lastly bringing in Mexican teams might be neat, but I think a general rule of thumb is to bring in the biggest teams available and Liga MX isn’t exactly better than many UEFA teams.

      • I forgot Torres from Colombia, Okai from Ghana, and Christhain Hernandez from Mexico

  2. I believe just last week, the Union announced that their entire site will be available in Spanish now.

  3. I agree the team is missing a huge opportunity. I’d welcome a different mix in the crowd. Based on my Latino friends, the club has barely scratched the surface of that market.


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