Sunday, June 19, 2011

No minivans or orange slices: PNW soccer is cool

Anne Peterson of the USA Today writes of how soccer has become the thing to do in the Pacific Northwest.

Fans in the Pacific Northwest have done something for Major League Soccer that David Beckham and a million soccer moms couldn't. They've made MLS cool.

Young urbanites in a region that gave America grunge music and Starbucks are flocking to see the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps — and the marketing departments for all three teams are wisely tapping into that demographic.

The trend was evident last month when the first MLS match between the Sounders and the expansion Timbers drew more than 36,000 fans to Qwest Field in Seattle. It played out again recently when the Whitecaps visited Seattle, the second of the fan-created Cascadia Cup rivalry between the teams.

The atmosphere at both matches has been called European — and that's a big compliment.

"Is there a reason going to a soccer match in the Pacific Northwest seems like going to a European soccer match more than anywhere else in the United States? Well, yes. There's a culture here that was really accepting of it. It's a younger audience; young professionals, that pub culture you talk about," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at University of Oregon.

In the early days of MLS, the focus was on families and capitalizing on the legions of kids across the nation who play soccer. In more recent years, stars like Beckham and Landon Donovan have been trumpeted.

But teams in the Pacific Northwest — or the PNW, as it is affectionately known — appealed directly to 20- to 30-something tech-savvy professionals. The teams already had an added advantage in that all three clubs dated back to 1970s with the old North American Soccer League, so they had a history of sorts.

"We already had a brand, we already had the young, urban relevancy. And I think we just built on that with MLS. We know who we are," Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said.

The Sounders, who joined the MLS in 2009, set the standard. Their fans made match day a ritual, priming in trendy downtown bars before a raucous prematch march to the team's stadium. The sustained buzz surrounding the team — which competes in a market that is also home to the NFL's Seahawks and MLB's Mariners — has been enough to regularly draw an average of more than 35,000 fans per game, by far best in the MLS. Their gear is also the league's most popular.

Portland and Vancouver jumped into the fray this season as MLS expansion teams.

Portland launched the "We are Timbers" ad campaign that featured everyday fans posing with axes and other logging tools. The word "Timbers" did not appear in the campaign, just a logo and "2011" for the team's inaugural season.

"We had a very unique marketing strategy, and it was critical that it reflected this city, our fans and really the Timbers' brand — the authenticity that's unique to Portland," Paulson said. "We went with a focused campaign that I think was edgy and attention grabbing."

The Whitecaps drew attention — not all of it positive — with a television spot that featured an attractive young woman and body painting to ethereal music. It didn't have much to do with soccer — except that a team jersey was painted on her skin — but it certainly got noticed.

All three groups also embraced social media to promote their teams.

"That is your driving force," Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "Your driving force is the adults and if you can get that fan base then that is where you're going to win. And then your kids become fans because of it."

Keller, who played at the University of Portland, noted that the Pacific Northwest has always been partial to the beautiful game. He joked that the Pilots soccer team always got the hottest girls.

But what ultimately made the biggest difference was the teams' appeal to their fan groups. Seattle has the Emerald City Supporters, Portland has the Timbers Army and Vancouver has the Southsiders.

The groups work tirelessly to make the game-day experience well, European — there's that word again — with their chants and coordinated displays known as tifos. The Timbers Army was given the honor of singing the national anthem at the team's home opener, while Sounders supporters have a say whether the team's GM should be fired.

"They gave supporters almost a sense of ownership of the team, something that's getting harder and harder to do with big teams in the NFL and the NBA," Swangard said.

But truth be told, fans bristle when the suggestion is made that they've helped make soccer hip.

"When you start talking about cool, that implies you're just doing it for the appearance," Timbers fan Nikki Suydam said at a recent match. "And nobody is here just because it is cool. We're here because we love the sport, we love the team and we love the city."

Fellow Portland fan Seth Hunt, 30, said any popularity the teams have ultimately comes from their fostering a sense of community.

"We come with our friends. We all like soccer," Hunt said. "We're from all walks of life and were drawn together by love of the game and supporting a team."

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