“Feeling Thorny” A Great Marketing Try…

Professional Women’s Soccer needs every break it can get in its third go-round. Two well-funded previous attempts to create a pro league have come and gone, and now a third version funded in large part by USA Soccer and some others with a stake in the game is going to give it another try.

This version will have eight teams based in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Western New York, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.  and will have heavy cost control and marketing spends to try and make it moderately successful.

One of those teams will be the Portland Thorns, who have the savvy and skill of the MLS Timbers, one of the best success stories in North American startups in the past 30 years, to draw from. The Timbers know how to sell the soccer experience, and with it, the stories, athleticism and the professionalism of the female athlete as well. It won’t be easy getting exposure, but this past week the Thorns created a good amount of buzz before even giving anyone a chance to talk soccer.

The team started to market a program to draw attention to the squad, with the slogan “Feeling Thorny,” as an off color play on words. In a progressive town like Portland, with a young, vibrant and active community, the shorts sold like wildfire.  Team head Mike Golub, one of the smartest marketers in sport, and someone who knows the marketplace, said that last week   half of the sales at the Adidas Timbers store in Jeld-Wen Field were of the T-shirt, giving the team a nice lift and showing most importantly, that the organization was not afraid to take a chance to expose the franchise to a casual audience. It was not a big spend, with billboards and TV ads with suggestive poses…it was a controlled test to see what the market would bear to help get the franchise off the ground in an unconventional way.

It appeared to be working. The slogan was vetted with a wide group of supporters and was even created by a female employee who did not see the short as offensive.

That’s when the PC world started to chime in. A Facebook page went up and the social world started reacting, positively and negatively to a slogan which some people found offensive and sexist to a family audience. The team, seeing that the simple slogan could cause more damage than it’s worth and could be a distraction to a franchise that is going to struggle to hit its margins, quickly recanted and pulled the shirts. End of story.

While it is probably the right thing to do for a franchise in need of every ounce of support as a startup, it is a shame that the Timbers organization, one which has taken every positive step to make sure it is part of the fabric of the community in Portland, had to recant on a slogan which was clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and did not offend the core fan or the women who were playing for the team. It had a great viral effect, and probably really hit home with a Portland community that loves a bit of an edge and can be all about counter culture.

Can “Feeling Thorny” make it back? Doubtful in the mainstream. Can those t-shorts find a niche home and help the team grow, even if they are not “official”? You betcha. The slogan and the shirts struck a chord with casual fans, and even by pulling them, the organization sent a message that the game is supposed to be all about having fun and enjoying the communal experience of sport.

The next promotion probably won’t be as edgy, but for sure the Thorns brain trust as created a demand for a product, and by testing the waters has given a nice look into their marketing prowess as they attempt to help a league, and a sport, finally turn a corner.

Nice try Timbers/Thorns, keep shaking the tree.