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    Finding the audience

    Duane Rollins

    It almost seems blasphemes to openly worry about CanPL popularity at this point. Suggesting that the league will struggle to find relevance in a crowded sports market is something grumpy old sportswriters, clueless hockey fans and (some) Ottawa Fury fans do.

    The rest of us are all in. True believers in this wonderful project. Planning has been ongoing for five years now. Everything has been put in place to make this thing work.


    It’s failed before. Twice. First when the NASL blew up in 1984 (although that was more top do with American teams – OK, the New York Cosmos – overspending and ultimately misreading the market. Once the stars left so did the fans. The second time was all on us though. The CSL died on the vine in the 1990s and with it the hopes of nearly two decades of Canadian soccer.

    Those failures are not viewed with nuance by most. Rather, it’s just proof that trying again is foolish and that it’s only a matter of time until it all comes crashing down again.

    If you’re reading this you probably feel that things are different this time. You understand that two of the three NASL teams that didn’t fold (Whitecaps and Toronto Blizzard) were in Canada and both would have continued on if the league had not pulled the plug. It’s appreciated that the CSL was littered with owners who had far more good intentions than actual capital and that the CanPL owners are running in a completely different tax bracket.

    You get all that, but that doesn’t mean that the feeling will be held by the majority of sports fans in this country. Those grumpy sportswriters and broadcasters still hold a lot of influence. The most listened to sports radio show in the country has featured two segments on the latest attempt to start a spring football league in the USA, but not a single word on CanPL.

    We in the soccer community can dismiss the importance of this, but the reality is it’s an obstacle that is going to need to be overcome for the league to thrive.

    Note, I said thrive, not survive. It will survive just fine. The demographics have shifted. The soccer-hating generation is literally dying off. Twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable that the three MLS teams would have become as important to their market as they have. Now, it’s silly to even suggest that’s going to change. Flash-forward 20 more years and it stands to reason that many of the current CanPL markets, and some we have yet to even conceive, will feel the same way about their soccer team as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal feel about theirs now.   

    But, there will be struggles initially. Struggles to get attention and to get butts in the seats.

    And, make no mistake, those that want the sport to fail – and their remains a few who do – will glory at any struggle the clubs face.

    Hell, even MLS still faces this in certain places. To the point that they had the research firm Boston Consulting research the market in 2015 so that they could grow their fan base. This is useful to CanPL fans in that they also included Canada in the research. Although they did not separate the data, you can draw conclusions of what CanPL will be facing when it comes to getting people to care.

    What they found was that 66% of MLS fans fell into one of two broad categories. The “Soccer enthusiasts”--  highly engaged, soccer-first fans – and the “Hardcore Sports Fan – basically the crazy guy at the end of the bar that can talk in detail about the 1996 Western Regional final in NCAA basketball while filling out his fantasy NFL line-up and watching the Sens play the Hurricanes on a Tuesday night in November

    That guy also likes soccer now. That’s a change over last couple decades.

    The thing is those two groups only account for 32% of all soccer fans. So, MLS is missing out on 68% of its potential market.

    Therein lies the biggest problem for CanPL. How do you avoid the same resistance to MLS that more than 2/3 of American soccer fans have?

    It starts by understanding why that 68% aren’t watching their local team. There the numbers are a little less obvious.

    The inclination of many would be to assume that those fans are so-called “Eurosnobs,” – fans only interested in watching the highest levels of play. However, the MLS research suggests that only 2% of fans fit that description. Related, that 2% account for 98% of the posts on BigSoccer’s US abroad forums.

    Where, then, do the rest fit in? We can only speculate, but it stands to reason that a good chuck are “MexiSnobs” and a good number don’t have a local team to relate to.

    You can’t do much about the ____Snobs fans. They have made up their mind for the most part. But, on the latter point you can absolutely address it. You need to be doing all in your power to make sure that the clubs are extensions of the community they represent.

    MLS does a lot of things right, but they often default to the business side of life. If you talk to a lot of MLS fans they will tell you that their loyalty is to the stand that sit in and the friends that have made at the game over the years more than it is to the franchise that they watch.

    Even as MLS teams do things to become true “clubs” they can’t ever totally shake that “franchise” label. The CanPL has the great advantage of being able to look at everything MLS has done right and everything that it has done wrong.

    And that might allow them to tap into the missing 68% more effectively.  

    Edited by Duane Rollins

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