They have one of the greatest soccer players ever to step on the field, a homegrown Olympian surrounded by lots of other great talent. They play in a soccer crazy corridor in a string facility between two major markets. They are in first place. Yet for all their success, fun and goodwill Sky Blue FC continues to make less than a small dent in the consciousness of soccer fans or casual sports fans in the New York area. Why?
It would be easy to blame the crowded marketplace. The teams that have been succeeding in the latest iteration of women’s professional soccer may be in markets where the competition is not as fierce. The Portland Thorns, for example, have a model where they have fed off the Timbers of MLS’ success, and their front office marketing savvy, to create a product that is working on the field and off. The Washington Spirit have invested in a very deep grassroots marketing campaign less in DC where DC United have deep roots, and more in suburban Maryland. Sky Blue does not have the support of a club like the Red Bulls, who could help bolster marketing and brand awareness, and they are not Philadelphia or New York based. Can they succeed?
The good news is that the National Women’s Soccer League has committed to finding ways to keep the professional side of the game afloat at least through the next World Cup, and the thousands of young boys and girls who have grown up in the last 10-15 years with a passion for the sport have now become more and more consumers of all things soccer. That has been the leverage point MLS has used and it has been key in the growth of global clubs and other national teams coming to the States to engage with their own fans and increase the soccer marketplace in the U.S. The base exists. NWSL is also cost controlled at this point, with a limited spend with each franchise. Some have bolstered that because they see a huge opportunity to add to the cash flow, but others like Sky Blue have not found that funding.
The result in New Jersey? Fun product operating in a vacuum. So what to do next. First, pick a geographic location that you stand for. The club has been nomadic in past years in where it has played, but has now set up roots at Rutgers. Become NEW JERSEY’s team. Sky Blue stands for no one. Not New York, not Philly, not even Piscataway. New Jerseyans welcome their name being used, so use it. Sky Blue stands for nothing. Second, tell your story. For all that the Red Bulls have done, they have not embraced the grassroots to the South and West at all. You have a star in Christine Rampone who even casual fans may know. Get the team out and when you do, tell people about it. Challenge with unique low cost promotions. Third, embrace the Hispanic culture. The corridor is ripe with a thriving Latin culture that already understands the game. Find those people and bring the games and your players to them. Fourth, media media media. Now there is of course limited spending on broadcast. Heck, the Red Bulls don’t even have an English language radio partner in the marketplace. So build the audience yourself. Use the digital space for streaming broadcasts and then get your players, who are very socially savvy, to help drive the interest. Even live streams of audio broadcasts are still novel enough to draw interest. Be different in finding media coverage to amplify the negligible marketing budget the club has.
Sky Blue has proven their competitive side on the field time and again. The tragedy is that the reward for being first on the field is somehow being last in attendance in a league which needs a boost to be successful. Maybe the hands have been thrown up and the market has been determined by the powers that be to be not worthy of success. That would be a tragedy for the league for the sport and for the thousands who play and love the game. If the whole league goes, so be it. However to have a franchise in the largest market fail because of lack of knowledge that it exists is an even bigger shame than if there was no women’s professional soccer at all. You have succeeded on the field, Sky Blue, here’s hoping you can succeed off it as well.