Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in America, and millennials are a large part of that growth. “The In-Stadium Fan Experience in MLS” was a panel discussion featuring 3 MLS owners who are using technology and fan-engagement practices to cultivate and grow this type of audience. Some highlights below:

Adrian Hanauer – Seattle Sounders
The key market for most MLS teams are young, hip, very tech-savvy audiences. “It’s a huge advantage, the demographics are on our side.” Authenticity between the sport and the fans is key, so the best things we can do is provide direction and get out of the way to let THEM create their own game-day experience. We observe and learn from them. One of the smartest strategies the MLS employed was to focus on the “cool kids” first. Traditional thinking suggested a focus on the youth soccer market and their families, but the MLS targeted young, hip audiences and families have followed to be a part of the culture that was created. Soccer is 90 minutes of non-stop action, so the product syncs well with young American millennials and their attention spans.

Sounders game-day experiences:
• “The March to the Match” idea came from a supporter’s group. It begins in a neighborhood about 4 blocks from the stadium, includes fans and a marching band, and 5 or 6,000 people typically attend. It’s become a huge part of the game experience, and it begins hours before the event itself. So it’s not all about the product you put on the field. Make it a full-day event, keep fans part of the family.

• Ticket-Cards instead of paper tickets saved the team $100,000 and created a better fan experience. Game-day programs have gone digital as well, helping sponsors connect digitally with fans.

Robb Heineman – Sporting KC
Supporters” is a key authentic term for soccer fans around the world. So we brought it here and put our own spin on it. Fans need to feel a part of the brand, not just a fan. We (as a league) are so young, we can try new things and be edgier, but in short, it’s all about creating 2-way conversations and learning from them. Almost all of our advertising is on social media.

SportingKC game-day experiences:
Fan groups are encouraged. Many have their own branding, sell their own merchandise, travel to road games. After consulting with these fan groups, they came up with an interesting solution to increase road-game attendance: Sporting KC will trade free tickets to road games in exchange for data. (names, emails, twitter handles)

Technology: In the course of a 90-minute match, there is about a terabyte of information being passed around. We are capturing those fields of information and creating profiles. We use this data to make everyone feel like a VIP the next time they come.

Merritt Paulson – Portland Timbers
In-game production is traditionally created by “the suits.” The fundamental difference in MLS is that it’s coming from the stands. Synchronized chanting, huge banners, and other things are more akin to college football where it feels tribal.

There are strong ties between fans and TImbers ownership. The Timbers Army has an elected board that has a seat at the Timbers table. They offer support and advice on security issues, stadium issues, road games, marketing, etc.

Timbers game-day experiences:
• The next wave of innovation will be in-seat ordering which helps smooth out the concessions business over the course of the game instead of the halftime crush.
• On the opening day of the season a few years ago, they decided not to have a traditional national anthem singer. Instead, they decided the Timbers Army would lead it, and it has become an opening day tradition.


My next session was very, very different. “How to remain relevant in today’s digital age” was a conversation between Richard Deitsch from Sports Illustrated and the legendary Charles Barkley. The first question established the reasons why Charles doesn’t use social media and never will:

“I don’t want to give those losers power, and it’s become such a mean-spirited place. If you don’t say everything positive about a fan’s team, they go crazy.”


From that point on, I learned very little about social media, communications, or anything else SXSW is about. One application might be the refreshing power of being authentic, and Charles embodies straight-talk. Social media can be a place where people present themselves as they would like to be seen, rather than as they truly are. So while I might not have learned much, I definitely laughed. A lot. I’ll leave you with some quotes from Sir Charles:

“Being famous is like being the homecoming queen; all the ugly girls hate you.”

“People love my honesty unless they disagree with me.”

“I came out and said ‘It’s ok to spank your kids’ and got killed for it. The Pope came out and said the same thing, nobody said nothin.”

“Golf and sex are the only two things you can be bad at and still have a good time.”

“Anybody who works past 60 is an idiot.”