When it comes to attracting the attention of sports fans, the New York Red Bulls play in the most competitive professional market in Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls are competing against more than 10 professional sports teams (Yankees, Mets, etc.,) for fans not just soccer teams. Adding to that challenge is next month’s debut of the relaunched Cosmos, and in 2015, the New York City Football Club, a new team funded by the deep pockets of the U.K.’s Manchester City franchise and the New York Yankees.
If those new entrants underscore the belief of soccer’s potential in America, the Red Bulls—who as the MetroStars was a founding member of the MLS—illustrate the difficulty in winning over adult fans of a sport better known on school fields. Earlier this year, the Red Bulls hired R/GA to boost recognition and ticket sales.
“Soccer is the third-most popular participation sport in America after basketball and baseball for kids,” said Tony Effik, managing director of R/GA media and connections. “But there’s a big difference between people who like soccer and people who go to games.”
Last year, the Red Bulls advertised on soccer-specific sites. The team had a little outside media help but developed a strategy internally with a focus on existing fans.
But preaching to the converted would only sell so many tickets. The Red Bulls would have to raise its profile.
“We have conducted a recent trial and awareness study, and it confirmed that we have work to do,” acknowledged Daniel Marrett, the team’s director of marketing.
R/GA broadened its target to adjacent audiences familiar with soccer but not attending games. To reach soccer moms, the agency promoted the Red Bulls’ camps for kids. Spectators are being wooed with wild postings—large numbers of ads posted in high-traffic areas—near soccer bars and playing fields. The Harrison, N.J., Red Bull Arena is near the PATH station, so R/GA used outdoor ads and train takeovers with the theme, “The beautiful game. Beautifully close.”
R/GA analyzed season-ticket data and found most of the sales were by people living within 30 miles of the stadium. After mapping out those tri-state fans, the agency found its marketing hot spots. “Soccer is a local game,” underscored Rory O’Flaherty, R/GA group media director. “Geography is very important in who we target and where we invest our money.”
The agency also sought to increase Red Bulls’ fan targeting through Facebook and Twitter content and ensure Facebook content is consistent with overall messaging. While search is still the best channel for ticket sales, Facebook now follows it.
Using real-time optimization, the Red Bulls have been able to learn from what isn’t working as well as seeing what generates results.
“We now have different styles of digital campaigns, both targeted and broad, and can make adjustments on the fly,” Marrett said.