Do you remember what the Internet was like in the 90s? Downloading from the free CD-ROM that AOL sent out, listening to the whirring of the modem until it connected with an exclamation of “you’ve got mail”?
But once you were connected, there really wasn’t all that much to do beyond chat rooms and playing games (and let’s be honest, chat rooms were not the best place for a middle schooler to hang out). My teachers didn’t accept the Internet as a legit source of information, which meant I still had to crack open the Encyclopedia Britannica for my schoolwork, so even in its early stages, the Internet was a great place to procrastinate. While it was mostly fun and games for kids, for adults, the World Wide Web was also a source of news and a way to connect with like-minded people through listservs/mailing lists.
While I was spending my time on the Internet playing games and avoiding homework, a couple of guys named Mark Spacone and John Wright were forming one of the first U.S. Men’s National Team Supporters’ Groups – Sam’s Army. The two published a soccer fanzine after the 1994 World Cup, and later connected with Mark Wheeler, who had created a World Cup website. Using the website and a listserv, Sam’s Army was one of the first groups to start harnessing the power of the Internet to connect fans of U.S. soccer.
Around this time, DC United was also taking advantage of the Internet to hold a “name the team contest”, using Screaming Eagles founder Matt Mathai’s personal webpage. The Screaming Eagles was formed in 1995 (before the first official game of MLS), and had a listserv to connect fans and spread the word about DC United news. According to Kim Kolb, a DC United Season Ticket holder since 1997 and the Screaming Eagles Communications Director since 2011, the role of the Internet in connecting soccer fans in the United States only increased from there. “People that would have previously only connected casually at RFK connected several times a during the week (or a day), cementing relationships. These first steps then moved to Big Soccer, a big catchall soccer message board. Again, increasing interaction between fans.”
Kolb, who originally hails from South Jersey, says Big Soccer also connected fans who eventually created Sons of Ben, a group of Philadelphia supporters. The group started traveling to cheer against New York and DC teams, and are credited with “directly influencing the decision to award Philadelphia with a MLS franchise”.
In September 2000, Project Mayhem, a plan to disturb the sleep of the Guatemalan National Team before a World Cup qualifying match vs. the United States at DC United’s RFK Stadium, was organized over the Internet. After coordinating the plan online, about 40 fans gathered in a room in the hotel where the Guatemalan team was staying. At 2 a.m. they started running around blowing air horns outside the player’s doors to wake them up (the U.S. ended up winning 1-0 the next day).
Over the years, the Internet has evolved into a beast of its own, and is considerably different from the days of the AOL CD-ROM. Today, the Internet and its offspring, social media, are a part of everyday life, giving fans another way to connect with each other between games. Between Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat, fans aren’t just people who sit next to each other on game day, they have created communities of people who are genuine, real-life friends. They hang out in person, they connect throughout the week and throughout the offseason, and are more likely to attend games because “everyone else” is (positive peer pressure at its finest).
The way that social media has changed our lives has forced companies and sports leagues to change the way they interact with us, too. While some of the longer established leagues like the NBA or NFL relied for years on traditional media, MLS came in at just the right time to take advantage of technology as a marketing strategy, allowing the league, teams, and even players to connect directly with the fans (like when Marco Pappa liked one of my Instagram pictures and I almost died). Major League Soccer is consistently active on Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and has high engagement across those networks.
But you could argue that the social media movement in MLS really gained momentum when they realized the huge potential of the Millennial fan base – the golden demographic with an “unprecedented enthusiasm for technology” that has changed the way we use technology to communicate.
Amanda Vandervort, Director of Social Media for MLS, says the goal for engaging in social media is specifically to grow the MLS fan base by “always trying to connect with current and future fans”. While MLS looks at where traffic to their website and social media accounts is already coming from, they also want to be “wherever our fans, and prospective fans, are engaging with soccer-related content”.
And sometimes this means improvising, like in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy shut down the MLS offices. Everyone was working remotely, which meant that their popular daily video feed wasn’t happening – no one had access to the video equipment nor could the video be uploaded – so the staff set up Google+ Hangouts to continue the daily broadcast, labeling it “A Hurricane Sandy Special”.
Now, MLS has more than 2.5 million followers on Google+, second only to the NBA, and is one of the most popular ways that MLS connects with fans and potential supporters (we were surprised, too). In 2013, the MLS Commissioner’s preseason address and State of the League were both broadcasted over YouTube and Google+ Hangout.
By focusing on creating fans vs. just selling tickets, and listening to what fans want (i.e. stadiums in urban/walkable areas that creates a downtown soccer culture, like in Seattle), Major League Soccer continues to grow in popularity in the United States. Since 2009, attendance in MLS games in general has increased an impressive 35 percent, and in 2015, the average attendance per game was 21,574 fans (up 12.5 percent from 2014).
The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Sporting Kansas City all have season ticket waiting lists and regularly sell out home games. The Timbers, Columbus Crew SC, Orlando City SC, San Jose Earthquakes, and Real Salt Lake regularly have higher attendance than their city’s MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL teams. And with plans to add Atlanta FC in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018, and Minnesota FC and Miami FC sometime in the near future, MLS is getting bigger and bigger, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.