5 Weeks Left – How Much Has Changed with FC Cincy?

About three months ago I wrote an article about my criticisms and concerns for FC Cincinnati. While it did get a lot of response in the online, the question remains: did it have any effect on the club?

At the point of writing that article, the main issue was how the club chose to brand itself and market itself, specifically to young people and soccer fans. The overwhelmingly negative response to the marketing and branding was not quick enough or strong enough to force FCC to change the club’s logo or strategy immediately as supporters’ groups were able to do in Portland and Louisville. At this point there still isn’t what I would consider a strong SG leading the way or providing feedback to the front office. Because of the lack of a coordinated response, no changes were ever likely to happen until much later. The most likely option would be a rebrand in a year or two or if/when they accomplish their goal of MLS. Overall the club recognizes that the marketing and branding were failures, at least on the non-corporate side, and they have distanced themselves from the director and firm that developed it.

Part of that recognition has been hiring DJ Switzer from Wrong Side of the Pond as the Director of Communications. He is the most qualified person in Cincinnati for that position and I believe that he will have a very positive influence on the club’s direction. The challenge is that the rest of the PR/Communications/Marketing people at the club are not soccer people. It will take more time than the couple weeks on the job time for him to have a major impact on the public face of FCC and erase some of the slipups that have happened so far. On a positive note, there are less Yoda references on twitter.

The aloofness factor and lack of outreach from the club is still quite odd to me. I still don’t see FCC staff at the pubs in the morning. The marketing team have not done a single outside event since New Year’s Eve. I’ve met FCC’s entire staff and they all seem truly nice people but they do not have any interest in being with EPL fans and watching soccer in the morning as is the American soccer tradition. I still don’t see any element of their overall marketing that speaks directly to the cities current soccer fans and engages them. In my experience, successful soccer clubs have a ground game that converts fans on an individual basis. I know multiple people who speak glowingly of Peter Wilt, former Indy Eleven President, because they randomly met him in pubs and ended up talking soccer with him. He is a soccer person so he spends time with other soccer people and enjoys being in soccer bars. The top brass at FCC would do well to follow his example.

As far as public marketing has gone, the first ticket ad that they put on TV in mid-December was pretty terrible. It used the same voice a local used car dealer would and provoked plenty of scorn. Learning from their first ad, the club launched a second one, thought I haven’t seen it on TV yet, that is a much better. FCC did work with Louisville City to name their name rivalry cup via an online poll. It must be said, however: the name sucks. While FCC can’t solely be blamed for the weakness of the result, multiple names put forward on twitter were better and had more local character than “The River Cities Cup” but were not even selected by the clubs to be in the vote. Putting River Cities against three inferior choices was a way to get the engagement of fans without the risk of having a non-preferable result.

On the bright side, ticket sales are doing remarkably well. The club is nearing the four thousand mark, and could conceivably put in a strong second place to Sacramento Republic’s first season record of 6,105 in 2014 by time we get to April. I find it very impressive that they’ve been able to rack up so many season ticket holders considering the generally negative response to the marketing in the soccer community. While it is true that this number doesn’t represent four thousand individuals buying tickets and must include a rather healthy chunk of corporate season ticket holders, so does everyone else’s reported season tickets (FYI – this is also why “tonight’s attendance” almost always means tickets sold, not people present). I would love to have an answer on how they’ve sold so many because it just doesn’t compute with the model that so many soccer clubs have developed over time. A supporters group builds initial interest, a backer brings money, and onward but the process FCC took looks more like any other sport franchise than it does soccer. Is their effectiveness in selling tickets Cincinnati-specific, because of the amount of money they’ve been able to spend, or is does it point to soccer finally becoming mainstream?

Since my last article, there has also been some new happening on the SG front. Most notably, a new SG called Die Innenstadt has come into being. They began as a splinter off of the Pride, disappointed with the direction that that group was taking. This is an exciting development and the response from the soccer community tends to be positive about the group’s identity and intentions. The branding feels authentic and the guys running it are dedicated. What they might lack in SG experience, they make up for in passion and the legwork they’re willing to do. It feels like a true SG, but it is still in its infancy, having about 50 paid members.

I was ready to declare the Pride defunct. They have to this point only ever appeared in conjunction with official club events, save a kickoff meeting last summer. I asked to go to one of their planning meetings in December and they cancelled it ten minutes before it was supposed to start. They didn’t have a logo, a website, and they didn’t sell memberships or merchandise. Within the last week, however, they issued a newsletter with their logo and have scheduled an event to watch FCC’s preseason tournament against Icelandic side KR Reykjavik. I will be the first to say that I am potentially overly critical of logos (I’m in the process of updating mine) but I don’t know what they were going for with this. The font seems a bit off and the rest is very simple. The detailed infographic that you would normally see explaining it was a bit light on information. I reached out to them with questions but got no response.

From the club leadership’s point of view, the Cincinnati soccer community’s failure to organize and build a strong supporters group is the most mystifying part of the equation. It is there biggest challenge to success. When I spoke with the club, they seemed to be confused as to why a solid SG hadn’t just sprung up. Their basic thoughts were that they had built a club with some of the best players in USL, with the best backing (money) in the league, why aren’t soccer fans jumping to be a part of it? They’ve sold tickets but a lot what makes going to a soccer match unique and fun is provided by the SGs. If the environment isn’t great, I predict attendance will evaporate, even if the results are good.

I think the ownership doesn’t quite appreciate how disconnected a lot of people feel based on their poor community outreach. If I could condense the soccer community’s response it would be, “We’re willing to buy tickets to the game but we don’t feel engaged or excited enough to want to devote our free time to an SG.” The two must go together. I am aware that the club is busy and potentially understaffed but FCC must make more of an effort to reach out to soccer fans. They have to be at their events, they need to host fun events of their own that soccer people would want to attend (a futsal tournament was supposed to happen but never materialized), and they need to have a responsive liaison who is a soccer person and understands their culture. The response of the general soccer loving population will be the indicator of the effectiveness of FCC’s new marketing plan.

Overall FC Cincinnati’s marketing is trending in the right direction, albeit slowly. Their second ad is better than their first and there have been fewer snafu’s than before. Likewise, both SGs are making forward progress (even if they are beginning steps) and ticket sales are quite good. I still feel that they don’t value the current soccer fans to the level that is necessary but there are rumblings that more effort is being put in that direction. The challenge will be have they gone far enough by time the first ball is kicked to get a good soccer environment in Nippert.

Let me know what you guys think and if you have had a different experience with the club