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