22 July ~ Northern California has steadfastly resisted the growing popularity of MLS. With no Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg or David Beckham to lure big crowds, attendances at the region's only MLS side, San Jose Earthquakes, are among the lowest in the league. But some savvy marketing suggests that might be about to change. Two days after I watched the Earthquakes salvage an entertaining 2-2 draw with New York's Red Bulls, I was in a security line at San Francisco airport when I got a call on my mobile. "Hi, this is Rick from the San Jose Earthquakes. I'm just calling to see how you enjoyed the match-up with the Red Bulls on Saturday." "Um, well, it was fun thanks, Rick," I reply, a bit taken aback.

"And how did you find the standard of play?" Rick enquires, quizzing me as if we were both killing time waiting for our actual friends to show up at a bar. (I've never spoken to Rick before in my life.) The experience is so disarming that I forget to ask Rick why he's calling, but after a bit, he gets to the point: "Did you know that we have West Brom visiting tomorrow night?" I'm so enamoured of Rick's soft sell that I'm disappointed to have to tell him I'm flying to Las Vegas and won't be able to attend the Baggies match. He graciously concedes defeat and hangs-up with a cheery: "We hope to see you at a game again soon!"

Rick is the new voice of "personalised fan acquisition" in MLS, and it seems to be working. That Red Bulls match pulled in 41,028 fans, the third largest attendance in the Earthquakes' two-part 17-year history. That success was the result of a months-long multimedia publicity campaign which started with an email and Facebook campaign, concluded with huge billboards by the 101 freeway, and probably involved a few phone calls from Rick. For weeks, giant images of Henry and Mexico captain Rafa Márquez distracted commuters from their texting. As if that wasn't enough, fans were offered a half-time reunion of the 1994 US World Cup team (John Harkes, Cobi Jones etc) and a fireworks spectacular to celebrate July 4 at the game's conclusion. How could we resist?

The new marketing approach is probably a dream come true for Frank Yallop, the ex-Ipswich Town right-back, who is head coach of the Earthquakes. Yallop picked up the reins of the franchise for a second time in 2008 after the Earthquakes rejoined MLS after going "on hiatus" in 2006. He has since moulded a team that reached last season's play-offs, but match attendances have continued a decade-long decline. 2010's average gate of 9,659 was the lowest since 2001 and the third lowest in MLS.

In a nation where clubs with declining attendances tend to go "on hiatus", one can't help wonder whether the recent marketing push was inspired by the spectre of another league exit. (That break in 2006 actually saw the team move to Texas to become the Houston Dynamo.) Or perhaps the 'Quakes simply believed there are more potential Earthquakes fans among the Bay Area's seven million inhabitants. After all, 40,000 or more have showed up to watch Chelsea, Inter and Barcelona play friendlies, so why not the Earthquakes?

"Why not?" is probably the question that vexes the club's management most. It was probably also what Manchester City were asking when their pre-season clash with Club América of Mexico drew a paltry 11,250 to San Francisco's 42,000-capacity AT&T Park on July 16. Why are Bay Area soccer fans so fickle? Man City brought most of their stars and the match was publicised on local TV, but the organisers badly misjudged ticket pricing in demanding $40 (£25) for the cheapest seats. With unemployment locally at nine per cent, fans stayed at home.

But the marketing savvy Earthquakes seem to have learned that lesson too. Good seats were offered for the Red Bulls game for just $20 (after a discount offered by email, of course). The 'Quakes were indeed so confident of pulling in a large crowd that they switched the fixture from their 10,300-capacity stadium in Santa Clara to Stanford University's 50,000-capacity ground 16 miles north in Palo Alto.

Given San Jose seem to have found the magic formula, one wonders why they don't promote matches in this way all the time and move to a bigger stadium. Well, it looks like that's another trick Rick and team have up their sleeve, or in their call centre. At the time of writing, bulldozers had finished clearing a 65-acre area near Mineta San Jose International airport in preparation for the construction of a "New Earthquakes Stadium". Let's hope the San Andreas Fault stays quiet long enough for it to be completed. David McCulloch

Comments (9)
Comment by making_progress 2011-07-22 11:51:31

Excellent article.

Support a lower-league team and you'll end up despairing about the poor marketing; normally some WordArt-ridden advert in a local paper calling on an ambivalent town to watch 'YOUR LOCAL TEAM'.

This stuff makes me feel queasy as hell but it works and some English clubs could learn a few lessons about marketing...

Comment by Flynnie 2011-07-22 20:36:00

The Quakes desperately need good marketing...look, not my favorite profession either (even though I worked in it) but in an exceptionally competitive local sports scene - the Bay Area arguably has more local choice than any region in the country except for New York, even if most of the local teams are crap - the Quakes need to do what they need to do to gain attention.

Comment by alyxandr 2011-07-23 18:42:34

We're "fickle" thanks to being repeatedly screwed over by MLS, thank you very much. First we had the Clash (who killed the S.F. Seals); then they threw out whatever history we had managed to accumulate, and turned us into the Quakes; then they moved us to Houston; then they resurrected the Quakes (which killed the Seals again) at a stadium much less amenable to tailgating than Spartan was.

Combine that with massive amounts of better-quality play available on FSC and FS , and it's no wonder we've all turned into Eurosnobs.

Comment by alyxandr 2011-07-23 18:44:25

(Apparently the 'plus' symbol raises the autocensor's ire...)

Comment by clever_username 2011-07-24 14:57:00

You do know that ownership did those latter things, right, not "MLS."

It's fashionable to bash the league, but, honestly, look at the facts. How did the Clash kill the Seals? Did you mean the Blackhawks, who were there when MLS came to town? The Seals killed themselves after a nice Open Cup run, they went pro, moved across the Bay, and were generally inept as a club.

So they "threw out whatever history we had managed to accumulate" as the Clash...which was...1996, 1997 and 1998. In favor of a history that stretched back to....oh, 1974. You do get that, right? The Quakes name had a lot more history in the Bay Area than the Clash did, right?

And it was AEG that moved the club to Houston because SJSU wouldn't play nice. So when the new Quakes came back, THAT was what killed the PDL Seals? Not the fact they were drawing 157 people a game? And the Buck Shaw bit, that's your new ownership's call, not MLS'.

So, please, be a Eurosnob. You're insufferable. If ownership gets a nice shiny new stadium, you're precluded from attending if all you're going to do is whine and get your facts wrong about everything.

Comment by cockney1 2011-07-25 18:52:18

So much for this new marketing approach; I had no idea WBA were playing the Quakes. Personalised fan acquisition and posts or tweets on social networks might appear to be a fresh, pro-active approach but it all seems a bit Mike Ashley to me. Huge billboards on 101 should be the foundation to a successful marketing campaign rather than its culmination. TV, radio, and full-page newspaper advertising, the traditional ways to reach the masses, should be utilised as much as possible. Speculate to accumulate; it’s as simple as that.

The Bay Area sports media, other than Comcast Sportsnet, couldn’t care less about the Quakes; they barely report results and seldom show goals, let alone actual highlights or what’s coming next for San Jose. A consistent TV presence would work wonders – advertising on local channels, football channels, Spanish-language channels and sports channels during the airing of other games – is essential. Of course the location of the ground and the lack of public transport are huge deterrents to those of us living in Oakland or San Francisco, but I’d have made the effort had I known that a Premier League side was in town. Sign Simon Dawkins to a permanent deal and I’ll make sure I see more live games next year.

Comment by alyxandr 2011-07-25 19:39:24

Oh, well, "ownership", that makes it all better, sorry. You're not terribly clear on the whole "single entity" thing, are you?

And i've still got my MLS Opener t-shirt, so i can whine as much as i like, thank you.

Comment by chien_andalusia 2011-07-29 16:31:04

Simon Dawkins? He of the glass ankles who spent an entire loan spell at Orient on the treatment table? Blimey.

Comment by mjfarrow 2011-08-09 20:32:39

The problem for the Quakes is that despite having a team in San Jose for 15 years, bar two years, they've never really got going off the field and plenty of things have happened in that time to sour the relationship between the fans and the team. They had on-field success under Frank Yallop (two MLS Cups and a Supporters Shield) and folklorish games (the "Comeback Game" en route to the 2003 MLS Cup) but, other than that, the team has always been a bit of a shambles.

The Clash, as they were called, were originally "league-owned" and suffered from absentee ownership, which didn't improve when the Kraft family took over and the team sunk to the bottom of the league. Even when Yallop turned them around on the pitch, they had issues off it. SVS&E, the owner of the Sharks, bought in as the investor/operator (as they are known in MLS) and then divested themselves, allowing AEG to take over seemingly with the idea of either getting a new AEG-operated Spartan Stadium built, selling out to Club America or moving to Houston. Then-GM Johnny Moore's stadium plan using land bought from Paramount's Great America and his crowd-building efforts were both aborted and all his good work was undermined when they appointed Alexei Lalas, possibly the worst sports executive in history.

The current guys are making slow progress because it's slow going in the Bay Area. It took the Giants eight years to build a stadium when there was political will and it will hopefully be seven by the time the new Quakes stadium is finished and they finally have a home of their own. The population is more spread across the Bay Area than ever before and it's essentially two markets (or one and a half), where San Jose is actually on the extreme of the market and not the centre. It's going to take a long time, those fans have been wounded so many times.

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