The Columbus Crew are not likely to want to remember the 2011 season. Three years on from winning the MLS Cup, the team was a shadow of the group that achieved so much. The team backed into the MLS Cup playoffs and lost a one-game play-in to Colorado - a game most memorable for being the debut of Tony Tchani. The triumphs of 2008 and 2009 were long past. One of the most surprising outcomes, however, was the team's precipitous drop in attendance.
Since opening Crew Stadium in 1999 the team had drawn respectably - hovering near 15,000 fans per game most years. But not in 2011. Only once that year did the team attract more than 15,000 fans, and four times the announced attendance was under 10,000 - the worst such figure in team history.
Two years later, the Crew's attendance fortunes have changed dramatically. While clubs like Seattle, Portland and Kansas City draw headlines for packed houses, Columbus has rattled off the league's most significant gains for two straight years. Over the last eleven games in 2013, the team averaged more than 18,000 fans per game.
Recovering from 2011
A number of changes at the Crew laid the foundation for the current turnaround - starting with some key hires. In April of 2010, the team had hired Mike Malo as its Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Malo, a veteran of Major League Baseball (Arizona Diamondbacks) and the NFL (Philadelphia Eagles) was joined the next year by Clark Beacom - himself with experience in the NFL (New Orleans Saints) and NHL (Tampa Bay Lightning) as the Vice President of Ticket Sales. Brett Zalaski - then the director of the league's National Sales Center - also joined the club another year later as Senior Director of Ticket Sales. Beacom, in particular, is credited by Malo as being a key hire in the team's turnaround.
When reviewing these details, Malo points to a number of changes that were introduced at the club following the 2011 season - starting with a period of intense research.
"I'm a very analytical person," said Malo last week when recapping the last few seasons. "I dove into why there was a decline in sales. Was it our sales structure? The types of products we were offering? Their value? We went into a lot of research comparing ourselves to our market and other contexts."
The club re-examined its sales structure, the types of ticket packages and other products it offered, and their value. The team dove deeper than ever before in trying to understand the team's customers and its own staff - from plotting their location by zip code, to renewal rates for season ticket holders by longevity, to the number of sales calls and conversions by sales staff as they progressed through their career.
Then, Malo and his team began putting their newfound understanding to work. Using the data uncovered, the club restructured its operations. Malo split the sales team into two groups, one focused on season tickets and the other focused on group sales. Selling each type of ticket is fundamentally different, and salespeople should be given the ability to focus on the challenges and rhythms specific to each.
"You've got to use data" says Malo. "It is available all over, but you need to be diligent in applying it and coming up with the right plan."
The team came to understand that its sales operations had focused too much on some portions of its audience, while others - in particular corporate clients - had foundered. Malo compares the realization to that of a restaurant where the waiters focused on the lowest-priced items on the menu. That "lowest hanging fruit" was important, he notes, but ignored the opportunity to emphasize other products - and to encourage fans to step up to higher-value purchases.
Within the newly-structured sales groups, some representatives were focused on more premium items. For example, the field seats that the team introduced on the east side of the stadium were one area of focus. The team also changed its pricing structure to provide more differentiation among those options. Those lower-cost options should remain, he explained, but fans should be encouraged - at appropriate points - to consider other options.
Meanwhile, the club's leadership was doing more to guide and mentor the salespeople themselves. Benchmarks for each year in the organization were established, to allow first-year sales staff to strive for - and reach - appropriate goals in number of calls, appointments, and conversions. Those targets move upwards for each year in the organization.
At the same time that the coaching staff was signing its first Homegrown Players - products of the Crew's youth academy - the sales staff was following a similar path. The club has an outside sales team that acts as a training ground of sorts, ensuring that when vacancies inevitably open up within the sales team there are qualified candidates at the ready, already familiar with the team's approach.
"We've changed the culture of the organization", says Malo. "We've gone from saying 'I think this will work' to 'I know this will work' as we introduce new programs or approaches."
The Crew's season ticket base is still smaller than the league average. Malo mentioned only general benchmarks, but noted that the league average for season tickets is "between eight and nine thousand" full-season equivalent packages. The Crew, even after two years of strong growth, is still below that mark - but believes they could hit that target in 2014.
It is still an ambitious goal - renewal rates among first-year season ticket holders are lower than for fans with a longer history of buying, so it is all too easy for a team in the Crew's position to loose ground. Malo mentions that the team needs to work very hard to keep season ticket holders as customers, to shore up that base of the team's financial health.
Building toward 2014
One factor that should help these efforts is the release of next year's schedule. In previous years that announcement has come as late as the second week of February. The league beat that mark by more than two months this offseason, releasing the 2014 schedule on November 25th. This additional lead time - combined with the excitement over the hiring of Gregg Berhalter - has laid the groundwork for what should be another year of strong growth.
In planning a season's promotions and ticket packages, the team pursues a layered approach - combining group sales efforts and promotions, mini ticket packages and specific opponents in order to ensure large crowds. With that foundation, the natural demand for some games - whether because of a specific opposing player like David Beckham or Clint Dempsey, or a traditional rival like the Chicago Fire - can snowball to other games.
The schedule release can allow those efforts to be trained even earlier in the season. Historically, the team's worst-attended games have been in the spring months, after the initial rush of the home opener but before summer arrives. "In April and May, other factors like school, youth sports, and colder weather certainly are a factor for groups. But having the schedule now helps us overcome those questions." says Malo. "How much of an impact will all this have? We're not sure yet. But we've never been this far along in some of our strategic planning as we are now, because the schedule was released so early. It allows us to have meaningful dialog with potential customers."