If you talk to Chicago Red Stars fans over the past couple of weeks, that number tends to hang in the air around the conversation, like gunpowder smoke after a fireworks show. The Red Stars generally post attendance figures for home games in the 3000-5000 range; comparable to the rest of the league, other than the Portland Thorns and Utah Royals.
Nearly two weeks ago, however, the Red Stars hosted the North Carolina Courage. At home, against the defending NWSL champions as well as the other half of one of the most intriguing emergent rivalries in the league, with their USWNT players returning home fresh off their historic win in the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Everyone knew the game was going to be big; even so, the official attendance figure was stunning.
17,388. More than their average by an overwhelming margin. More than their fellow tenants at SeatGeek Stadium have done all season. More than perhaps even the most optimistic fans had dared to imagine.
Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler has run through the emotional gamut in the build-up to that game. But one feeling absent from the mix: surprise. For him, this was payoff for work that started all the way back in 2008.
“Some of what we built upon was laid down 11 years ago,” Whisler told me last week over the phone. “Some of the principle, some of the ideas, we’ve been working on and waiting to employ at scale. So there is, I think, a sense among the organization, you know, learning this stuff over the years.”
As for the North Carolina game in particular, the planning started in earnest about three months ago.
“We started looking at games and trying to figure out what themes [we could work with] and how we were going to build interest,” Whisler said.
He also told me that the particular combination of timing, opponents, and the returning World Cup players offered a clear opportunity. “We didn’t know how everyone [at the World Cup] was going to perform, but we had ingredients— the time of year, the space between games, the return of the World Cup players, the nature of who we were playing. Just, everything was starting to fall well. So, we circled it and said, look, if you can get great attendance at this game, it’s our best chance to get that two or three more times down the stretch and build for the long term.”
Whisler said he’s aware that in this business, the competition for their fans’ entertainment dollar is exceptionally fierce. He’s also very aware of the realities of the industry, where attendance figures for live sports are dropping across the board.
“The only ones that are going to survive,” Whisler said, “are the ones that offer a great experience and emotional week that is far beyond what you can do in your living room home alone or with a couple of friends.”
One key ingredient for making that game a success from a business was recruiting fans and other stakeholders to get the word out— and even hand out tickets.
“We decided we couldn’t do it with our usual 14 [staff members]. We had to expand our sales force. So one of the big ideas was to use our several hundred season ticket holders as basically sales agents. And each of them were comped a couple of tickets but we said, hey, don’t waste these, but if you can get people out there who haven’t been there before and have a chance to become fans, give them these tickets. And then we had all the sponsors and other groups like Chicago Local 134, we saw they would be the best advocates for us in the marketplace.”
Justyne Freud, the team’s director of communications and marketing, was also on that call. She told me that another key component to that game’s success has been the emergence of new kinds of fans of the team and the league. She cited the increasing number of young boys at NWSL games during and since the World Cup as an example.
“I think the biggest difference you can see between the 2015 World Cup after the win and the 2019 World Cup,” Freud said, “is there [were fewer] young boys at NWSL games [in 2015]. Maybe in Portland, but that’s about it.” She relayed the story of a mom watching her young son play soccer with some friends in the goalkeeper position, with her son’s response to playmates saying they were going to score on him was, ‘no you won’t, I’m Alyssa Naeher.’
“So you’re seeing that type of movement, and I think it’s a progression here in the United States, just in general.”
Whisler jumped back in to talk about the importance of scarcity in driving ticket sales for the game. He said that the Red Stars sold out the first three or four home games after the 2015 World Cup, but at the time they were playing at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, at a venue that seated 3,300.
“That was a sea change for our organization,” Whisler said. “Once fans realize that if they don’t plan ahead they won’t get a good seat, everything changes. They buy season tickets. They purchase several games ahead. They do things that lets you, as a marketer plan. Because there are more people coming, maybe we do fireworks or a giveaway or whatever. It changes the way you can think about the market.”
Whisler said that kind of approach is more difficult to pull off at SeatGeek Stadium.
“It’s very hard in a 20,000 seat venue to have scarcity. So a lot of our fans, even hardcore fans, have gotten used to saying, well, what’s the weather like?”
The team worked that scarcity angle in an attempt to drive sales until the sections of the stadium that are usually open for Red Stars games filled up. Then they started opening new sections and repeated the process. It worked.
“Scarcity creates urgency,” Whisler said, “and we needed to build that hysteria.”
Circling back to the fan component, Freud sounded out Chicago Local 134 for helping make the day such a success— not only in helping spread the word and get butts in seats, but in creating a distinct Red Stars gameday experience.
“They’re the ones chanting, they’re the ones the players are hearing. I believe Rory [Dames] said something [about it], being able to hear 17,000 people in the stadium, being led by Local 134, it’s nice to be on that side of it. Compared to, you know, you go to Portland, you’re used to that, but it’s against you.”
Whisler talked about the relationship between supporters groups and clubs.
“I actually learned a lot of this from Peter [Wilt], who was CEO of the Red Stars in the [WPS]. My approach as a sort of outside person when I came into soccer was to think, let’s orchestrate and do these things to make sure the supporters are louder and blah blah blah. I can tell you that, the more you try and push and direct the supporters’ experience, the more you’re going to lose them. They’re fiercely independent, they need to be fiercely independent. We coordinate to the extent that we can, but part of the excitement for them is they’re setting an agenda that we don’t control.”
I asked Whisler what one thing he would change to make his job easier if he could wave a magic wand. His answer was straight and to the point.
“More and bigger sponsors,” Whisler said.
He also told me that engagement from sponsors and investors was important as well. “Every good sponsor becomes an incredible marketing partner. You look at what Anheuser-Busch did in and around their announcement after the World Cup to drive the whole, you know, #WontStopWatching hashtag, they put thousands of posters on the sidewalk before the ticker tape parade in New York… when you have a sponsor who’s all in, sharing a vision with you, it’s not just financial, it’s what they do from a marketing and awareness standpoint.”
Toward the end of the phone call I asked them how they can build on the momentum through the rest of the season and beyond. Freud told me one strategy the club is trying is pushing sales of partial season tickets to entice new fans to come out for the remaining 2019 home games. From there, Freud told me, full buy-in for 2020 gets a lot easier.
“I think you’re going to see, not just the Chicago Red Stars, but across the entire NWSL everyone’s season ticket numbers drastically improved. Because all these people, you know, you say you support, women’s soccer and you come up to that one game, but it’s not just the one game, it’s about continuing to build.”
Freud closed out the call by pointing out that, while the game may have been a success by sheer virtue of having so many World Cup players on the pitch at one time, the fact that the Red Stars are able to win games makes her job easier.
“Thankfully we won, because I know that has a lot to do with things too. Winning and having that fan experience on July 21st, I think that translates big. I think it if goes in a different direction, you have people leaving in a different demeanor.”