Startup Success: 5 lessons learned from FC Cincinnati

Friday, October 14, 2016

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Were you part of the recording-breaking crowd that attended an FC Cincinnati game this year? Cincinnati’s newest professional sports team seems to be taking the city by storm and is making its mark, setting attendance records in its inaugural season that outshine even the major leagues.

I’ve never played soccer, nor did I grow up around soccer fanatics, so to say that I know little about soccer is an understatement. I do find the organization and it’s success interesting though. Enough so that I thought it would be worth attending a FC Cincinnati session at Cincinnati PRSA’s Media Day.

The football club’s President and General Manager, Jeff Berding, led the session and opened up about the creation of the team, the challenges he encountered when trying to launch and the success the organization has seen in it’s first year.

I always find it fascinating when you hear someone’s story. Jeff, previously an executive with the Cincinnati Bengals, had children involved in a local youth soccer league and saw the excitement and loyalty it generated among its fan base. Because of this experience, he saw potential for professional soccer in Cincinnati and made it happen.

Me, having no attachment to soccer, became interested and engaged as he talked about his journey to establish a noteworthy team. I found myself scribbling tips and takeaways from this soccer success story. From start to finish, it sounds like a Disney movie, complete with obstacles and victories. This session left you with a feeling of happiness and pride in this Cincinnati sports team.

So what should you know about FC Cincinnati’s success? Here are my top takeaways from Jeff’s talk:

Do your research before kicking off

Before taking a leap, Jeff did his research. He noticed that soccer had been gaining popularity over the last five years, moving up the charts, bypassing other sports. He said that in 2005, soccer didn’t even register on the sports pyramid, but that trend was changing. This sport was taking hold. He also knew there was a crazy amount of youth soccer families in the tri-state that would support a professional team. Additionally, establishing a pro soccer team would be a step in the right direction for Cincinnati, helping establish the area as a major league sports city.

Stats make the case and lead to buy-in

After doing his research, Jeff strategically crafted his case to get buy-in from the powers that be. He used his findings to pitch potential owners, secure a home stadium and get permission from the United Soccer League to start a franchise. He was able to show the value a pro soccer team would bring to Cincinnati and how it would help grow the popularity of the sport, even turning non-soccer fans into game go-ers.

Identify what success looks like

He received buy-in, but had to paint a picture of what success would look like. For example, he knew he would have to pack UC’s Nippert Stadium with fans, creating hype and excitement that would fuel the city’s commitment to the team. He was smart and strategic, even purchasing branded tarps to block off portions of the stadium, knowing full well they would have a hard time selling every single seat during the first season. This helped create the illusion of the stadium being full, while also customizing the space. A full stadium looked like success and created an exciting atmosphere for the fans and players alike.

Find and engage the ultimate influencers

Jeff provided insights regarding two sets of influencers who were crucial for first season success: 1) He tapped into the youth soccer clubs, providing them with the opportunity to buy group tickets and earn 20% back in donations; 2) He would frequent soccer-watching hot spots to talk to uber fans, learning about the culture and preferences of the ultimate soccer supporter. He utilized these two groups to craft a stimulating soccer experience.

Establish credibility

To be taken seriously, this soccer team had to appear just as noteworthy as the other professional sports teams in town. The organization decided to purchase TV airtime for all of the games, creating instant creditability. While this was a large financial undertaking, Jeff said it was definitely worth the investment.

Over the course of the last year, the FC Cincinnati management team created the perfect environment for soccer success, engaging both enthusiasts and first-time fans. FC Cincinnati even excited this girl with no soccer or sports interest.

So, will you attend a game this coming season?

(Image source: FC Cincinnati)

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