The following is a post by Mike Coleman.
In Sheba’s excellent blog post, she made a point to discuss the inherent conflicts that can arise from business decisions. I’d like to expand a bit on that and focus on the value of a customer, and why I think MLS and the Timbers are taking some customers for granted while inflating the value of others.
All businesses are built on serving customers, and every business has a variety of customers it’s looking to satisfy. While it may hurt someone’s feelings to hear this, not all customers are created equal. Which customer you value depends entirely on how you want to run your business: Do you want a few customers who shop infrequently but make expensive purchases? Or do you prefer low margins that are offset by a higher frequency of purchases?
At the risk of offending people, at the end of the day each one of us is a customer of MLS. Some of us buy official gear, we watch broadcasts, we visit the web properties, and we attend matches.
In a Yahoo! Sports article today, MLS President Mark Abbot said: “The prohibition on political signage is in place to support the overwhelming majority of MLS fans who come to our stadiums to enjoy a great soccer game ... All of our fans and supporters are important to us and we will continue to engage with them to ensure that we deliver an incredible experience for all.”
I’m going to make a quick aside here that’s not really in the vein of the rest of this post: If you say all fans — and that includes fascists, bigots, and Nazis — you can GTFO right now (and based on what we’ve seen in some stadiums, apparently it does).
MLS is giving equal credence to all fans, but that’s a mistake, because there is a subset of fans — I’ll call them supporters — who are more important to the club than MLS apparently understands.
Let’s go back to a time before I was even really aware of the Timbers. In 2007, Merritt Paulson, through Shortstop LLC, buys the Portland Beavers, and he also gets the Portland Timbers in the deal. Look at that name: Shortstop. Does that name scream, “I am buying a soccer team!”? I can’t pretend to know the true intentions, but that name ...
In any case, Merritt has often said that he was warned about the Timbers Army after buying the club. To his credit, however, he recognized the Timbers Army as an incredible asset. He saw that the atmosphere was just the strategic advantage he needed to draw customers to his new soccer club.
In the end, Merritt goes all in on the Timbers and makes the push to go to MLS. And, who’s his biggest ally in this endeavor? The Timbers Army. People literally quit their jobs to volunteer on MLS2PDX. They showed up at all the council meetings. They lobbied business leaders. They gave everything they had to bring the club they loved to the highest level.
So, the Timbers are headed to MLS, and the Front Office decides they need an awareness campaign to reach people like me; people who didn’t even know the Timbers were still around. Who do they feature on those billboards? The Timbers Army. The same people who volunteered hundreds, if not thousands of hours, helping them reach this point.
“It takes an army to raise a club.” In-fucking-deed.
From my limited history, it really feels like bringing the Cascadia clubs and their supporters into MLS really was an inflection point. MLS featured the Timbers Army, ECS, and Southsiders in all kinds of promotional materials. The sold the league on the backs of the supporters who created an atmosphere unlike anything else in the US and Canada.
I am unsure what MLS would be today without the ability to trade on the work of its supporters. I can tell you this: We’d not have an MLS club today if it weren’t for the work of those Timbers Army members.
But now the league has grown; it has “matured.” Look at the pricing for the new sections added to Providence Park: $3750 for a seat in Tanner Ridge. The cheapest seats in the new section are $1150, making them more expensive than most other “normal” seats.
And who bought those seats? A lot of them went to sponsors and local businesses. These people are the ones who just want “to enjoy a great soccer game.” But, the game isn’t just the 22 men or women on the pitch. No, not even close.
These people also come for the circus. They come for the smoke, the songs, the tifo, the drums, the passion — they come for the same things that still brings goosebumps to my skin and tears to my eyes on a regular basis.
The Timbers have been sold out since 2011, and the Thorns absolutely CRUSH the attendance numbers for women’s soccer teams — and quite a few men’s teams as well. But it’s not because we always field great teams (at least in the case of the Timbers). Why did people still show up when the team wasn’t doing great? Because they wanted the party that the supporters provide.
So, which customer is more valuable? The company that buys four seats in Tanner Ridge to impress their clients? “Hey, Mortimer. Check out the Timbers Army.” “By golly, Randolph, those kids are absolutely bananas!” The folks who sit there to watch the dancing bears as it were?
Or is it the dancing bears themselves? Is it the supporter who doesn’t have $15,000 to write off as a business deduction? They have to save to pay for their tickets — and save they do. And they show up. They show up when the club is winning, and they show up when the club is losing. They show up at their local stadium, and they show up in stadiums across the country. They show up in the downpours, and they show up brutal summer heat.
Rain or shine supporters.
And, let’s be clear: Customers like Mortimer and Randolph are usually pretty easy to deal with. They don’t rock the boat. They don’t ask for much. They want their soccer games fun, devoid of any pesky politics.
They, along with MLS and the Timbers apparently, want us to shut up and sing.
But us? The supporters? We’re not easy to get along with sometimes. We know that this is more than a game, and that the Timbers and Thorns can be more than just clubs. And, we’ll hold the Front Office’s feet to the fire.
I’ll bet any amount of money that if the supporters were to go away and take that beloved atmosphere with them, you’re going to have a much harder time getting Mortimer and Randolph to shell out their money, because you no longer have a differentiated product to sell them: You have a homogeneous corporate sporting event no different from any other league in this country.
Because the clubs and MLS don’t deliver an “incredible experience for all” — the supporters do.