How to grow a fan base

October 5, 2015

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 13, 2015

All big cities want to be home to major sporting teams. But surely it takes generations for new teams to cultivate loyal fan bases? Not always, as Joe Boyle discovers.

If it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum, how do you explain the NFL-shaped hole in Los Angeles? The second largest metropolis in the USA has been without a team in the country’s most prestigious sports league since 1995. Elsewhere, the equally glamorous Las Vegas is the largest American city without a major team in any sport.

That’s set to change, however, as the new Las Vegas Arena takes shape, with the aim of attracting an NHL ice hockey franchise for 2017. If it happens, as expected, it will be a major coup for the city, and an operation that many other team-less cities all over the world will study closely.

How do metropolises lure in big sports franchises? And once the team moves in, how does it foster a loyal fan base? There are valuable lessons in recent sporting history.

BUY NEARLY-NEW

Rugby union: Wasps RFC

British sport does not have a franchise culture, so when London Wasps dropped the ‘London’ in 2014 and moved 100 miles north to Coventry, they urged their fans to migrate with them. People who know both cities might wonder why you’d swap one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities for, well, Coventry. The reason was a virtually brand new but empty stadium, deserted by stone-broke soccer team Coventry City FC. Wasps moved in and the cynics were flabbergasted as attendance figures rocketed.

 

THE ONLY SHOW IN TOWN

American football: Green Bay Packers

Green Bay hasn’t had a new professional franchise since 1921. And that’s the point. This unassuming Wisconsin town shouldn’t be large enough to host an iconic sports team. Yet, its 100,000 inhabitants follow, indeed own (the team are not-for-profit and community-owned), one of the most successful teams in NFL history. Why? Perhaps because there is no other professional sports team within 100 miles or so. It’s a simple lesson in supply and demand.

 

YOU CANNOT BE TOO SERIOUS

Tennis: Singapore Slammers

It takes hard work and money to convince the world you deserve a global sports franchise. Singapore boasts lots of both. From the Serapong golf course which, in a feat of imagination and terra-forming, literally rose from the sea, to the Singapore Sports Hub, a new US$1billion sports and entertainment complex, the Singaporeans have worked hard on their sporting vision. Their latest reward came in 2014 when the fledgling International Premier Tennis League gave them one of four inaugural franchises, the Singapore Slammers.

NAMING RITES

American football: Baltimore Ravens

Getting the name right is one of the more crucial (and surely enjoyable) decisions in establishing a new team. Animals predominate, though the simple step of choosing an appropriately fierce creature can go wrong, as Japanese professional baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, demonstrate. A happier example came with the controversial 1996 move of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, when sceptical fans were given a vote on the renaming. They drew on a poem, The Raven, by former resident Edgar Allan Poe. It ticked all the right boxes: fan involvement, gothic menace and an eye-catching motif for the side of a helmet.

 

GET THE KIDS INVOLVED

Soccer

Heard of the soccer moms? Unlike in Europe where soccer fan bases tend to be dominated by men (and often their sons), American league MLS has succeeded in attracting women and girls, too. One key demographic is the so-called soccer mom – typically an American middle-class mother who spends much of her free time ferrying her kids to and from soccer practice. New MLS team Orlando City FC knows how converting soccer moms and their kids into fans can result in increased ticket and merchandise sales. The club’s establishment of successful youth coaching programmes for players aged four to 18 no doubt reinforces this conversion. Based in southern Florida, and run by a Brazilian, the club also knows the importance of appealing to the local Hispanic population, hence the inclusion of Brazilian legend and former Real Madrid and AC Milan player Kaka as their marquee player.

 

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

Soccer: Real Salt Lake

You’re a fledgling soccer franchise, in the Utah mountains, with no history in the sport and no name. What do you do? You adopt the most famous epithet in world soccer, of course. Thus Real Salt Lake was born. Many laughed, and the real ‘Real’ in Madrid didn’t mind, though mooted closer links never materialised. Still, the brief, early notoriety was clever marketing and established a maverick reputation that has followed the club ever since.

The Baltimore ravens drew on a poem, the raven, by former resident Edgar Allan Poe. It ticked all the right boxes: fan involvement, gothic menace and a motif for the helmets.

CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT

Basketball: LA Lakers

It’s not just who’s on the team but also who’s in the stands that matters. When the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to (lakefree) LA in 1960, they had superstars on the court in the shape of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. They also had early super-fans off it, in particular Doris Day. Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Dean Martin followed in her wake, part of an ongoing off-court roster of celebrity fans that means the Lakers are never out of the news. This is how relocations should work.

 

GET GOD ON YOUR SIDE

Cricket: Mumbai Indians

The success of cricket’s Indian Premier League since its formation in 2008 was the result of combining the country’s deepest pockets with its biggest stars. Mumbai Indians were guaranteed success not simply because they were backed by India’s biggest business conglomerate, Reliance Industries, but because their designated icon player was Sachin Tendulkar, a virtual, if ageing, deity in India. His presence even allowed the drably-named Indians a lean couple of early years before they got into top gear and established themselves as the IPL’s strongest side.

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