A few years ago, I was speaking to an employee with the Colorado Rapids, and we were discussing the various subgroups that make up the fans of the Colorado Rapids. Some of my thoughts were based on a section of the book 'Soccernomics', which I found highly enlightening. Some were my anecdotal observations.
The first group is 'soccer families'. Many, but not all, are there because they have soccer-playing kids. Because of the cost and makeup of soccer clubs in America, this group is also predominantly white.
The second group is young singles in their 20's and 30's, AKA 'Millennials'. They come probably because they are new to Colorado, because soccer is a rising sport, and because the supporters section and the tailgate are unique and fun. They seek something fun, authentic, not-corporate, and different from your standard traditional American sporting event. In many cities in the US, they constitute a massive component of the fan base, and are very active in the supporters group. This is less true in Colorado.
The third group is the Latinx community. They typically have familial and cultural roots in soccer. Often, they primarily root for a Liga MX team, but since they live in and/or were born in the US, they show interest in domestic soccer. The younger generation is ripe to be converted over fully to an MLS team, but often, it hasn't happened yet. My father was a Red Sox fan, I grew up in LA and was a Dodger fan. My son, meanwhile, has an autographed Rockies hat, signed by Dinger T. Dinosaur himself.
The fourth group is 'general sports fans' - the folks that saw a light rail ad or watched a Women's World Cup game and thought 'Huh. The Rapids. Maybe that'd be fun.' I came from that group lo these many years ago. They are highly unreliable; bad weather will keep them away, a dope promotion like fireworks or dollar-beer night will get them to come out in droves. That said, because they represent the largest sector of potential fans on any given game day, a lot of the team's marketing is focused on this fan pool.
The fifth and final group is 'EPL fans.' It is the eternal desire of every MLS team to convert wide swaths of English Premier League viewers who are tuned in to NBC Sports on a Saturday morning to dedicated MLS fans. We all know how much of a challenge this is, because every MLS twitter thread and every soccer message board inevitably has someone shouting 'The MLS is rubbish' over and over again. Still, it has not stopped the Galaxy from competing in the International Cup of Champions, nor MLS teams from shelling out big bucks for the career-in-decline portion of the soccering life of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, and Wayne Rooney, not to mention patient zero of EPL players that established MLS as a so-called retirement league, Mr. David Beckham.
When I finished this long-winded and perhaps mansplain-y discourse, our friend inside the offices at Dick's Sporting Goods Park replied, "You know, we had meetings with MLS a few weeks ago about marketing, ticket sales, and market segments, and they said most of the same things you just said." (MLS should totally hire me, guys.)
I bring all of this up because the Rapids attendance this year is down. Way down. And it might be important to explore things that the team can do about it.
In 2019, the Rapids have averaged just 14,209 fans per match, down 7.9% from their 2018 average of 15,333. That places them 23rd in MLS attendance out of 24 teams; only the Chicago Fire are more poorly attended.
In 2017, the team average 15,322 a game. In 2016, the year in which the Rapids signed Tim Howard and made a run to the Western Conference Championship, the team averaged 16,278. And all the way back to 2015, Colorado averaged 15,657.*
One could say that the Rapids are doing just fine - that with a stadium that seats 18,000 to 19,000 fans per game, filling 85% of the seats is decent. The rebuttals to this point are twofold.
One, it has been pointed out many times that the Rapids attendance numbers are counting tickets *distributed* - a significant number of seats are free giveaways to kids at youth tournaments, and another decent chunk is folks who bought a ticket in part of a package but may not have used them. Almost every fan knows that Rapids tickets aren't a hot commodity, and the team's struggle in five of the last six seasons have also meant that ticket prices have remained largely the same since a slight bump at the end of 2016. In other works, in terms of stadium sales and the team's bottom line, the Rapids are not doing just fine.
Two, just filling 85% of DSGP and maintaining a little more than 15,000 fans per game isn't going to cut it in the new world of MLS. League noobs Atlanta United are pulling more than 52,000 a game. FC Cincinnati draw more than 27,000 a game. And the Portland Timbers recently expanded Providence Park from a capacity of 20,438 to 25,218.
In other words, averaging over 16,000 isn't good enough, and averaging around 14,000 a game *really* isn't good enough. This team needs to set a target of better stadium attendance each and every season.
Winning Cures Everything
We'll start with the most obvious solution: winning. Colorado started the decade by winning MLS Cup in 2010 and following it up with a solid 2011 season. They've been adrift ever since, save their surprising 2016 campaign. Whatever gains they made that season in capturing the attention of the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area and claiming media attention were almost instantly squandered with the disastrous 2017 season. Ditto the 2018 rebuilding year. And now, 2019 has also become a rebuilding year. The team needs a turnaround, and it needs to sustain it. Colorado also knows that it takes more to win in the modern MLS, and cost commensurately more as well.
This column is not dedicated to my thoughts on how to rebuild the Rapids, not only because it's a whole 'nother topic, but also because I think I've written this article twice in the past several years and just can't stomach doing it again (at least right now).
Suffice it to say what might be obvious: there will be tremendous pressure in 2020 and 2021 to win and compete. Another year at the bottom of the table would likely result in a lot of front office and coaching-staff turnover, and continued erosion of the already-anemic attendance might put the very existence of the team in Colorado in jeopardy. Why struggle to sell tickets in Commerce City when fans in San Antonio, San Diego, and North Carolina are dying to get a chance to see to have first-division soccer in their hometown?
Shift the Marketing Focus - Part I, Where It Has Been
Anecdotally, it seems to me that the Rapids front office's marketing and advertising efforts have been primarily dedicated to groups 1 and 4 above: soccer families and generic sports fans. And I think it's been reasonably successful. Group 5, the English Premier Leaguers, are a tough and expensive get. The key method of converting EPL fans to MLS is by bringing a former EPL player over to your team, and hoping that the Manchester United and Chelsea fans you attract will stick around after their beloved hero retires. That might work in attracting folks to an unestablished club like NYCFC, and with Beckham, this play jump-started the entire league. But we will see when Wayne Rooney leaves whether DC United will retain the new fans after he is playing for Derby County.
Colorado could try this - to some degree, they did in getting Tim Howard, who came with a tremendously high profile to the Rapids after playing for Everton and Manchester United. But like I said, it's really expensive, and in terms of getting a player in good form, the results are hit (Beckham, Rooney, Year 1 of Drogba) or miss (Gerrard, Lampard, Year 2 of Drogba).
Bringing in an EPL team like Arsenal is also meant to convert Anglophiles over to MLS, in addition to just making a team scads of cash. But again, it's a tough sell. EPL fans are drawn to the glitz and the quality of the best league in the world, and I'm not entirely sure that they feel an affinity for 'soccer' the same way they feel for 'Manchester'; they like football on television, but don't seem to be electrified to a sufficient degree by soccer in person. I don't really understand the psychology of this type of person, but somebody ought to do a doctoral thesis to explain the phenomenon of the American fan of Liverpool who has never seen an actual soccer match in person, anywhere.
Shift the Marketing Focus - Part II, Where It Ain't Been
That leaves us with two groups that Kroenke Sports and Entertainment has yet to truly attempt to capture in earnest: millennials and the Latinx market.
Millennials will need several things to decide the Rapids are worthy of their time. Essentially, they want a sports experience that isn't like the sports experience of their parents - with Aramark concession stands, bad jock jams pump up music, and t-shirt cannons. Instead, they need an authentic, unique experience. Confetti and tifos and a legitimate supporters culture; avant garde food options; a feeling that the gameday experience is an event worthy of posting on instagram. There are some ways in which the Rapids provide that - the C38 tailgate, for instance.
And other ways in which the experience has fallen short.
Compare everything Forward Madison and Las Vegas Lights have done in USL this year to everything the Rapids have done. Both teams have offered whimsical and strange elements that were fun, but not forced. They tried to be very different; to stand out. They don't take themselves so damn seriously. They have fun. They also care about the quality of play, but primarily, they care about the fan experience (including the merch, and the team colors and design template) being *different*. These are teams tailor-made for the instagram era. By comparison, the Rapids have a small fireworks display - fun for kids, sorta meh for adults since it's de rigueur amongst American sports teams - and DJ Jen Jones, who is forgettable at best, and Poochie the Dog at worst.
The other challenge is location. Millennials in Denver live in the Highlands and LoDo, RiNo and Five Points and Aurora. From all of those places, there's no easy way to get to DSGP. Many supporters have dreamt of an easily accessible downtown stadium for the Rapids, perhaps located where Elitch Gardens is (Elitch's is adjacent to the Pepsi Center and also owned by KSE). I'm neutral on that proposal, but crafting a plan for a more accessible DSGP would be a good first step.
In short, the Rapids are still being marketed almost exclusively for soccer families. It needs to be better - more fun, more real, less corporate and generic and identical to what folks would get at a Nuggets or an Avalanche game. The game day experience falls short of what it should be.
Then, there's reaching the Latinx market. But that topic is worth exploring all by itself in a column down the road.
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* All numbers care of https://soccerstadiumdigest.com except the 2015 numbers, which come from wikipedia.