Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Portland Timbers...and the Building of a Fan Base

Soccer has a hard core group of fans. This group had been complaining for years that they would have to get up at 3am to watch certain major European matches at pubs. Recently, the games have been shown at better times here in the United States and more soccer coverage in general has become available.

Timbers Army photo
by Craig Mitchelldyer.
Along with this increase in access to good soccer matches (here and abroad) something interesting has been going on in Portland. Three years ago, Major League Soccer (MLS) awarded an expansion team to the city. And, a group of fans emerged that this side of the Atlantic hadn’t seen before. They are called Timbers Army and they stand…chant…sing…the entire time. They even sang the National anthem last year before a match.
Timbers Army has created a completely different environment and are changing people’s thoughts about attending a soccer match, especially one at JELD-WEN Field.
As evidence of this, it was just announced that the waiting list exceeds 7,000 for season tickets.
I talked to Mike Golub, Chief Operating Officer of the Portland Timbers, to learn more about starting up a new team and the unique fans.

PJ: What was your marketing strategy in starting up this new team?
Mike: The focus for the whole business of operating on the marketing side is to create an impactful advertising corporate partnership—bringing on the right companies that share the right values here in Portland. The sponsors could tell our story, as well. PR, social media—online communication, was built aggressively. Our community outreach is recognized as one of the most philanthropic in the state. We use the power of sports for good. Our umbrella campaign is “Stand Together.” We have hundreds of appearances for our players and give donations. We have meaningful broad and deep relationships with groups doing good things in the community.

PJ: Tell me about Portland’s soccer history.
Mike: Portland has a rich history of soccer—four decades. Starting with the NASL in the mid-1970s through 1980s…the first iteration of the Timbers was in 1975. We’ve had great support and many on that original team helped grow the sport in this region. University of Portland is coached by a former Timber and it is a national power. There was a re-introduction of the Timbers in 2000s…a minor league team. They had great crowds. Ultimately, we were awarded the MLS expansion team in 2009. We tap into the history of the Timbers and it has helped define the present existence in a unique way. The league itself thought of us as an expansion team with 35 years of history.

We are perceived as the people’s team. Our focus has been to be a major league team…to present ourselves and conduct ourselves commensurate with a major league team. And, we present ourselves as Portland—that has been our major theme.

PJ: How did you capitalize on this fan support?
Mike: We knew we had diehard soccer fans that we were going to capture. Then there were those people who knew the game, but would not call themselves die-hards. We wanted to bring them into the tent. Beyond that we brought in more general sports fans and casual fans who caught the excitement in the process. We have a great core of existing soccer fanatics and knew it had grown. We knew those with a passing interest would catch the bug and we think we’ve done it.

PJ: You have a unique atmosphere. Tell me about how you created this.
Mike: We had a supporters group that started on a small scale 10 years ago. Timbers Army has helped cultivate the conditions to flourish. We work with them and meet with them. We keep 5,000 seats for supporters who stand/chant all game. We embraced their growth, which is a big part of this.

PJ: Do other teams find it intimidating coming to play at your field? Do you consider this a home-field advantage?
Mike: Big Time! To a person the players say this is one of the best environments in North America. It reminds them of Europe. A TV sports executive who was here recently said he’s been to all the big sports events around the world and this is the best atmosphere he’s seen. We think we have something special here. We think the culture around the club and the city is great. Players love being part of it. When the city embraced the Timbers it make it that much more fun for the players to be here. They enjoy being here.

PJ: What’s next?
Mike: We’re obviously proud of what we’ve done so far. We need to stay hungry and keep at it every day. We want to do right by our fans and our corporate partners. We still have folks who are on the waiting list for season tickets. It’s a hard ticket to get and there are still a lot of folks who have not experienced it. We’d like to invest more in the community. We’re not taking success for granted and we are helping the sport grow.

To read more about how the team is doing this season check out