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Six-Pack Interview Series: Kyle Sheldon, D.C. United’s Director of Marketing Communications (Part 2)

Editor's Note: This is a shorter version of our “12-Pack Interview Series” where we talk to the people, personalities, and groups that are shaping soccer in the United States.

Kyle Sheldon (far left), in action, at the press conference
announcing D.C.'s signing of Charlie Davies.

Selling soccer in America is no easy task. Particularly in cities with many other major sports teams abound makes bursting through all that more difficult. The men and women on the front lines of this marketing war for Major League Soccer and their clubs have their work cut out for them.

We've remarked before that there are MLS clubs doing some amazing things to sell their teams and bring soccer to the forefront of fans minds in the U.S.

If you're a fan of any MLS side you may or may not be aware of all the work that goes into the successful selling of soccer. Today (and tomorrow) the Free Beer Movement hopes to give you an inside look at the marketing efforts of one team, D.C. United.

We spoke with Kyle Sheldon, United's Director of Marketing Communication and self-proclaimed “soccer nerd”. He was kind enough to sit down and provide, in excellent and extreme detail, the focus of his department in selling DCU for the 2010 season.

Given Mr. Sheldon's (very welcome) verboseness we've decided to take down a whole six-pack in one sitting may not be the most responsible thing ever so we'll give you all two days to get through it all. Think of it like respecting a very high-alcohol imperial IPA or barleywine… those need to be sipped slowly and enjoyed in their full flavor.

Much like Kyle's words.

[You can read “Part One” of our interview with Kyle Sheldon here.]

4) All season the FBM is focusing on the supporters’ impact on the MLS game. How important is having two major supporters groups for DCU? How do they make your job easier from a marketing perspective?
Our supporters clubs are of paramount importance to our success. Clearly, Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles set the standard for in-game support in MLS. They were doing 15 years ago what you now see in Toronto, Portland and Seattle – and, quite frankly, only Portland has recently approached the same fervor and intensity that our supporters have been bringing to RFK Stadium since 1996. In more recent years, La Norte and District Ultras have also joined the fray. While they’re still smaller than the originals, they’re bringing additional energy to an already rockin’ RFK.
When I have a conversation with someone who hasn’t been to one of our games, I always tell them it can’t be described, that they have to see it in person. One can’t understand what it’s like to experience several thousand people standing, chanting, singing, banging drums, waving flags and generally losing their minds for 90 minutes straight. It is truly awesome. While our product on the field over the last 15 years has – on the whole – been very successful, it’s really our unique supporters culture that has been the factor that sets us apart from other sports teams in-market. None of the other teams have what we have and that is a significant advantage.
From a marketing perspective, our supporters clubs make our job easier by creating one of the most unique experiences you can have at a sporting event. One of the most difficult things we face is trying to communicate that experience outside the 50-year old walls of RFK. You’ll notice in any video we produce, we include several shots of the supporters in action – seats bouncing, flags waving, drums banging. It’s one of the few ways we can attempt to capture that energy.
Also of note, for our College Night program – which saw 200% growth from 2009 to 2010 – we hold seats in several sections just behind the supporters. We don’t want them in the thick of it, but is there anyone that enjoys a rocking good time more than college students? I’d argue there’s one group that enjoys it more – our supporters. We believe large numbers of college kids will enjoy the experience so much that they’ll come back of their own accord.
5) You’re welcoming three International friendlies into town: Manchester United vs. Barcelona (August) and D.C.’s matches against Ajax (May) and Everton (July). All three games are a part of season ticket holders’ package. How do these sorts of matches help DC United’s image in the local market even when the focus is less on your team and more on the high-profile “other” teams? Is any soccer played in D.C. automatically good for DCU?
Our Executive Vice President Stephen Zack did an incredible job of securing games against Ajax and Everton early in the year and negotiating the inclusion of the FC Barcelona-Manchester United game in our season ticket package. Our club has a long history of playing big international opponents over the years. The likes of Real Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea, Celtic, Newcastle, Bayer Leverkusen, Boca Juniors, Blackburn and many others have made their way to Washington to play United. There are two major opportunities (among others) when hosting these games – 1) the possibility to make significant dollars (still very important for a League that has only a handful or profitable teams) and 2) the opportunity to gain attention from the soccer fan in-market who might not be a D.C. United fan.
I’m not sure If it’s unique to D.C. – I don’t think it is – but, our market has thousands of soccer fans who follow teams from England, Spain, Italy, etc., as well as Central and South America, but aren’t necessarily committed to their hometown club, D.C. United. The success of Toronto and Seattle, in particular, can be attributed to the fact that they were somehow able to capture the imagination, interest and (eventual) support of those very fans. Friendlies against the teams these folks support give us one opportunity to showoff our product – both that seen on the field and that seen off – i.e. our supporters.
Any big-time soccer played in our market is good for us, especially when we own the game. In the case of Barcelona-Man United, we’ve got the possible Champions League final coming to town. The Redskins actually own the game, but we did secure tickets – at significant cost to the club, as we had to pay full price – for our season ticket holders. While the cost was significant, we felt it would be a great value to our most ardent supporters to provide them with a ticket to perhaps the biggest game Washington has seen in a decade. That being said, we also know that we have fans who are only interested in seeing D.C. United play, so we offered those fans the opportunity to exchange their ticket for any other D.C. United match, whether in MLS or U.S. Open Cup play.
In summary, big games against big opponents provide big opportunities. In sum, big is big.
6) What sort of impact has the arrival of Charlie Davies had on ticket sales (season or singles)? From a marketing perspective how has his inclusion (and, so far, success) been a benefit to DCU? Is the hope to sign Davies to a long-term deal?
After scoring his fifth goal in his fourth game (the team’s fifth), Charlie Davies is on pace to score 34 goals in 2011. It’s safe to say, if he keeps up that pace, I think it will be everyone’s hope that we sign him to a 10-year deal. Clearly, though, Ben Olsen and the technical staff will evaluate his play over the entire campaign and decide whether or not to buy his contract from Sochaux at the end of 2011 (which would not come at a small cost).
It’s difficult to say exactly what impact Davies’ arrival has had on specific ticket sales. While it’s clearly had a positive impact, I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen more value from the relative awareness his presence has brought. In the several weeks Davies has been with the team, we’ve seen highlights on SportsCenter, major articles in Sports Illustrated, USA Today, the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post (on a few occasions) and dozens of interviews for local TV and radio. Still to come in the near future are features on SportsCenter and the CBS Evening News. His story and journey is clearly an incredible one and has resonated well beyond the average soccer fan. While we can measure things like web traffic (which soared when news first hit he was on trial and when we officially signed him) and see the increased media attention, it’s tough to attribute ticket sales directly. That being said, his presence has had nothing but a positive impact in that department.
Beyond the coverage and attention, Charlie is like a lot of the young guys on our team this year – great personality, a willingness to do whatever is asked, a positive attitude and, simply, a lot of fun to be around. In seven seasons with United, I haven’t seen a better group of guys when it comes to helping the club off the field, not to mention that they’re an absolute trip on twitter. Follow our guys here if you like having fun.
To expand upon that point, while Davies has clearly been the biggest story of the year so far, it’s the new-look squad, built in the image of Ben Olsen, that has really made the difference for us in the early stages of 2011. We’ve got a long way to go, both on the field and off, but with one of the youngest rosters in MLS and some of the best young players in the League – things are looking up for D.C. United fans.
I’m excited to be a part of it.

Finally, an offer, from one beer drinker to another:
In honor of the Free Beer Movement, I will be providing a delicious keg of the brand spanking new DC Brau at D.C. United’s May 14 game versus the reigning MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids. 
I’ll host the “Free Beer Movement Party” in our Lot 8 Tailgate beginning at 5pm. In order to qualify for free beer, you must simply bring a D.C. United/MLS newbie to the game, prove you’re over 21 and agree to soccer-nerd talk with me. Send me an email for more details: [email protected].

[You can read “Part One” of our interview with Kyle Sheldon here.]

All Photos Courtesy (and with permission) of D.C. United's Flickr account unless otherwise noted. 

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Tags: Major League Soccer, Six-Pack Interview Series, Soccer Marketing 101

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