While the fan base can lament obvious decreases in attendance numbers as indicators that the strategies currently used by the Fire front office are not working, another question remains significant. Who should the Fire target to increase attendance and sell merchandise?
In July I wrote an article arguing for the need to market towards young families in order to create a family tradition; you can read that piece here. It was my assertion that the key to developing a passionate fan base is to market towards young families and to appeal to their sense of family tradition in order to create life-long fans of the Fire. I argued that there were likely new avenues to reach young families that could be tapped into, such as better use of the school systems, community clubs and organizations.
Was I wrong in my assertion? Perhaps young families are not the right demographic at all to be attempting to attract? On August 27th, OnTheFire.com contributor Sam Fels wrote a terrific article asking those very questions, wondering why the Fire's marketing seems ineffective. Fels' case is strong, and led me to take a second look at my initial assertions. Clearly, the Fire have been attempting for a long time to draw in families - but just as clearly, this strategy is not working. Perhaps, as Fels argues, a different strategy is in order? His well-formulated points led me to dig much deeper into the topic than I initially planned, and led me to question whether a younger fan might be a better marketing target.
To begin, I would guess that Fels would agree with me that a marketing campaign needs to be balanced. Marketing just to young people, just to old people, just to families - just to any specific demographic alone - does not make sense. Chivas USA has demonstrated that marketing to one demographic is not an effective way to build a club. Clearly the Fire need to attract a cross-cultural group of people to draw the fan base that they need. The real question is, "What level of attention should be paid to each group?" For this article, we will just focus exclusively on age as the demographic differentiator.
In thinking deeper on Fels' ideas - switching marketing focus to drawing in more people in their 20’s instead of families - my initial reaction was that it makes a certain amount of sense. When you look at the return spenders who show up to every match, have the time to go to a match each week, have less personal obligations to get in the way of attending and have the most energy and passion, they are by far mostly people in their 20’s. If the Fire were able to draw in more people in their 20’s and early 30’s Toyota Park might begin to look like a crowd seen in LA, Seattle or Kansas City. As Fels pointed out, the Sounders do not worry about attracting families.
However, there are some problems to a younger marketing strategy in Chicago. The main problem is the very demographics that we initially mentioned. Census figures as available on Wikipedia show that in Chicago 28.9% of households have children under the age of 18 living with them, 35.1% were married couples living together and 40.4% were non-families. Of all households, 32.6% are made up of individuals and 8.7% had someone living alone over the age of 65. At first glance these numbers seem to support marketing to younger people and non-families until you take into consideration that the average household size was 2.67 and the average family size was 3.50. This means that households with families seem to have more people living in them, and at a higher percentage than the average American family which was at a low in 2012 at 2.55 According to marketingcharts.com.
These numbers need to be comparison to be meaningful. Let’s look at Seattle’s numbers since they have been identified by Fels as a club that markets toward youth. Again using Wikipedia in Seattle, 42.9% of households were family households (higher than Chicago at 40.4) and 57.1% were non family households. In Seattle a total of 19.5% of households had children under 18 years which is much lower than Chicago’s 28.9% In fact Seattle is second-last in the country in terms of households with children. The average household size in Seattle was 2.06 (Chicago 2.67), and the average family size was 2.87 (Chicago 3.50).
When you look at these figures it starts to explain why a club like Seattle might want to focus more attention on marketing to 20-somethings, and why it might make more sense for the Chicago Fire to market more to a family audience. I think that, because the demographic of people who follow the Fire on blogs and twitter tends to be a younger, committed audience, it is understandable that us Fire junkies desire a strategy that appeals to people in our demographic. The idea of continuing to market towards families, as the Fire has done for years, might not be as sexy, but it makes sense.
There are also a few additional factors to consider. People in their early 20’s do not have nearly as much disposable income to spend as people in their 30’s and 40’s who are more likely to have families. According to USA.com the median Chicagoan under the age of 25 makes $23,292 per annum. People the 25-to-44 range (when they are most likely to have young families) make $51,110 on average, while folks in the 45-to-64 age range drop down to a median of $50,370. The people who have the money to spend on trips out to Toyota Park are the people most likely to have young families - the middle age range.
One might argue that the stalwarts who go to games every week are committing more of their income to the Fire which might justify a younger marketing strategy. People in their 20’s have more recreational time and probably are more willing to scrape the money together for season tickets. They are also more likely to come to every match each year. They might even buy a new kit every year. The problem is this age group is more likely to do their eating and drinking in the parking lot before the match, take a bus or get a ride, avoid paying for parking and skimp on purchases at the shop.
What needs to be considered is how much each seat brings. A young person might be at the match every week, paying $199 for their season tickets and 2 beers a match at $9 a pop. However a family of 4 might pay $25 a ticket, four hot dogs at $4, two sodas at $2, four beers at $9 and a souvenir at the clubhouse store for $60. On any given day that family (which is a different family each week) could be bringing more money into Toyota Park - but only if the Fire find a way to improve marketing and attract new people. (A good future exploration, if the numbers were available, might be to look at average Fire Sales by demographics, but that topic is better left for another time.)
There is also an elephant in the room in this discussion that needs to be discussed whenever the success of marketing or ticket sales is discussed. For better or worse, the Chicago Fire soccer club plays at the edge of the city in Bridgeview. We have to consider who is most likely to be able to make the trek out to Toyota Park. Not everyone is willing to take the party bus or a transfer from Midway. As the Chicago Tribune reported back in August, younger people in Chicago are not driving as much and just plain do not own cars. A marketing approach for the Fire must focus on the stadium we have and not the one we want. The Chicago Fire Soccer Club needs to attract the people who can get to Toyota Park week-in and week-out - and that tends to be young families.
Attracting lots of young 20-something people might be a nice temporary fix, but the Fire also needs to consider longevity of fans. In my initial article I talked about how I was drawn to baseball as a child and became a lifelong fan of the Mets. Marketing to people in their 20’s skips this impressionable time period where people can develop a life-long love of a sport. People in their early 20’s might have time and passion to give, but they are also at a point when they tend to have the most change in their lives. Often they are finishing college, moving to new cities, starting new jobs and starting new families. Marketing to an age group that is most likely to have major life changes that could inhibit their commitment (a new child, a job that moves them away, end of college and college loans kicking in etc..) is targeting a rousing but possibly temporary fan base.
A person might also argue that, even though the demographics do not make sense, Chicago is a big enough city that it can target a more focused, niche market to fill up the seats with committed young fans - fans that can be replaced with new niche fans every 5-10 years or so as life changes turn that demographic over. One could argue that the Fire have tried to market to families since the clubs' inception and that this strategy has not worked. One might say a new approach is in order because the old one has failed. I would argue that the family fan base has not been reached in the appropriate way to this point.
Just like families in Chicago, the niche market of committed soccer fans are already aware of the Fire’s existence and are either already involved in some way or are not likely to become involved because of external circumstances (distance to the stadium, attention is focused on other leagues, other social commitments forestall deeper participation, etc…). Whether there is a new epiphany in marketing strategies that can be found remains to be seen, but giving up on the family does not make sense given a look at demogrphics.
Even the Seattle Sounders, who can bring in armies of people in their 20’s to home matches, recognize that a young market alone is not a sound marketing strategy. The Sounders frequently market family-and-friend 4-packs to draw in more families. The Sounders even have an international family festival to draw in people of different ages, family situations and ethnicities to help diversify their fan base. Marketing is rarely a black-or-white strategy, and the Fire must take a diverse approach. The Fire can continue to learn from the success of other clubs in marketing.
All of this is not to discount Mr. Fels' points. His argument, at its core, is dead-on: There is clearly something wrong with the Fire's marketing strategy that needs to be addressed. It is also clear that there is value to marketing to the young 20-something population - it is a great way to build an enthusiastic and engaged fan base, much more so than families who come out twice a year. People go home from Toyota Park talking about those crazy kids in section 8, not that boring family sitting near the corner flag.
I appreciate Fels' contributions to the discussion and I feel fortunate that the Chicago Fire fan base and writers’ communities engage in such a positive and respectful discussions. Being that I grew up a Mets fan in NY, my initial experiences with blogging in the early 2000’s were about baseball. Differences of opinion often devolved into written-word screaming matches - so it is exciting to engage in such a useful, intellectual conversation on a topic as important as this one.
In closing, this article barely scratches the surface of this important issue. The Fire front office needs to straighten out its marketing in order to re-establish the club as a premiere entity in Major League Soccer. In the nation's 3rd-largest city, this expectation is not outrageous. Finding the right marketing strategy for the city we live in can make all the difference in the success of the club. If the Fire hope to be mentioned in the same sentence as clubs such as the LA Galaxy or the Seattle Sounders, they are going to need to figure out the correct formula of marketing demographics, then find effective means to reach those people to improve revenue and attendance.