Building and Branding Soccer in Boston
By Andrew Karl
Boston is a soccer town. Having lived there for the majority of my adult life and recently moved to Texas, I’ve realized it’s damn true. There’s just a few layers you have to dig through to find its rich footy core. You don’t have to live there to know that Boston as a whole is completely obsessed with sports – everyone knows how insane Boston fans can be about the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics. But what about Boston’s own soccer team?
What most people don’t realize is the City doesn’t actually have its own professional soccer team to root for. (Apologies to the Boston Breakers and their fans but I’m into dudes OK). Metropolitan Boston and the surrounding eastern Massachusetts area is simply void of a serious, dedicated, and professionally operated football club.
For purpose of writing whatever the fuck I want, I’m not interested in questioning why this is the case – I’m more interested in how to make it happen. So, here’s how I think a successful Major League Soccer brand could potentially be built and maintained in Beantown. If you’re allergic to idealism, either grab your EpiPen or hit the back button now.
It all starts at the top
The No. 1 most important factor in building a successful soccer team in this country seems pretty obvious to me: dedicated ownership. MLS markets where teams are spearheaded by an owner or ownership group that is passionate for the game (see: Kansas City, Portland, Seattle) and for providing a true football experience at the stadium on matchday are the ones that work best. While things like shit players, crappy location, or even incredibly moronic club names can certainly delay or even derail a club’s success, as long as this cornerstone is in place there is hope and potential.
Build it and they will come
One of the biggest obstacles for a Boston club to overcome is plopping it’s own stadium down on available property. Screw mixed-use stadia, we need to get soccer specific with this bad boy. Imagine (then, drool): good beer on tap, stands that end 5 feet from the pitch, large swaths of dedicated supporter sections, and some kind of weirdly iridescent partial-roof structure-like thing. Problem is, Boston is hell for this sort of real estate deal to get done, especially if public funding is involved. But that’s where our mysterious soccer loving multi-billionnaire owner comes in. He’s got the cash to get it done and, more importantly, the passion for the game to see it through. He is so dreamy.
Treat the fans like the fans they are
I am not naïve to think that you can just build a stadium and expect it to fill up with footy fanatics. Sports clubs need to compete across sports against their home-town colleagues to put butts in the seats and they do it by managing the gameday experience as best they can. At a soccer match this means a few things: no piped-in music, minimal public address interruptions, constantly singing (and uncensored) supporters groups, and massive tifo displays. It also means having two-way negotiations with the fans and supporter group leaders and using those relationships to treat them like the fans they are. Some are going to be family-oriented and some are going to be hardcore, intimately pierced, die-hards. Make them all welcome, show them all a good time, and they’ll all come back.
Branding for Boston
Branding is a pretty broad term but in this example I’m thinking of how the team is marketed to build a specific and consistent brand in the Boston market. I think that the success of doing such lives and dies by how a team identifies itself with its city. Boston is an old, working class town with relatively humble and unified people. Things like club name, club crest, adornments around the stadium, and even style of play need to be hooked into that. Employing a simple name and crest and filling the squad with a mix of skilled and hard-working players (11 Dirk Kuyts, please) who will leave it all out there for the shirt would lay the foundation. This ties into treating the fans like the fans they are but also ties into that ideal top-down dedication to the cause.
This little thing called winning
As much as Bostonians are crazy about their sports teams, they’re not crazy about losers. When the Bruins and Celtics spent a few years in the cellar, the Garden wasn’t selling out. Once these clubs put competitive teams on the ice/court – the C’s traded for some skyscraper called Kevin Garnett and the B’s bought a giant bear from a Russian circus named Zdeno Chara – attendance numbers turned around almost as quick as results. A proper Boston soccer club must do what’s necessary to bring in the right mix of players and be a perennial playoff contender. Don’t draw much from the comparison to the NBA and NHL though, MLS is very much it’s own beast. Team-building strategies from other franchises (I don’t know, say…the Patriots) just won’t work because their league setups and talent pools are irrelevant to MLS. Ownership, not just management, needs to know the MLS game – the ins and outs of the salary cap, international slots, all that other admin crap – to get the right deals done and put a winner on the pitch.
I may not live in the Boston area anymore but I know what Beantown soccer fans want, need, and expect. I was one of them for more than five years. The concepts outlined above aren’t revolutionary, not by any means. Look at Seattle and Portland for best practices on providing a spectacular gameday experience. Look at Salt Lake, New York, and LA for examples of front offices willing to do what it takes to put a great soccer team on the pitch. On the flip side, you can see what a bad stadium location does in a market like Dallas – or in Chicago where a rash front office changes coaches like socks without putting something cohesive between the white lines.
The 107 degree weather in Austin this past weekend may very well have warped my logic like a ping pong table that’s gone through too many college parties, but this I know: Boston’s soccer fans deserve a competitive and professionally run football club. The fact that so many major MLS markets have come so far only for Boston to starve as it does should shame any and all billionaire soccer fans living in the area.