How to Kick Your Way Into a Saturated Market
Professional soccer has arrived in Cincinnati. In a big way. And, even if you’re not from Cincinnati, you may have seen one of the club’s dramatic, nationally televised upset victories in the US Open Cup or heard about the team’s success on ESPN’s SportsCenter or in USA Today.
In just two years, FC Cincinnati (FCC) has created a booming spectator phenomenon in a heavily saturated sports market. Despite competing for fans’ hearts and wallets with the likes of the Reds and Bengals (not to mention successful college basketball teams like the U.C. Bearcats and Xavier Musketeers), FCC now averages 20,000+ fans per match. In fact, USSoccer.com even named Cincinnati the “Capital of American Soccer,” for its incredible home atmosphere and passionate fan base.
But how did we get here? How did we get 33,000+ strong representing the blue and orange on a school night like it’s always been a thing? How did a team that didn’t exist two years ago become arguably the biggest success story in American soccer? AND, most importantly, what can marketers from other industries learn from all this?
As an article from Entrepreneur.com points out, a handful of key factors can truly make or break a new product launch in a crowded market.
And wouldn’t you know…
There are some interesting parallels in how FCC successfully kicked its way into the saturated sports market of Cincinnati, OH.
1. FCC found their niche—and owned it.
When FC Cincinnati was first established, there were negative rumblings: Soccer isn’t popular enough in America. We already have two major league sports teams, who’s going to go to this? It’s not even top division.
This didn’t deter the owners. Why? Because they had done their research and knew these misinformed platitudes were simply untrue. The rise of soccer in the U.S. is well documented, and youth soccer in the tri-state has been hugely popular for years. Now, the first generation that grew up playing “the beautiful game” is sharing their passion for the sport with their own children.
So while Cincinnati natives may not have been openly campaigning for a new pro soccer team, FCC’s leadership had enough sense to look past the negativity, and fill a niche they knew was there.
And it paid off: FCC is seen as a first-rate, professional organization. And though the team may play in the second-division USL (perhaps not for long, by the way) fans would argue that nothing about this team is “minor-league.”
Key Takeaway: Entering a saturated market is never going to be easy, but if you can identify a sizeable niche and construct a sound strategic plan for owning it, then success can be well within reach.
2. They sought expertise from the beginning.
The founders of FCC didn’t leap blindly into their new venture. The club had strong roots in soccer and business—as well as industry expertise—from the moment it began. The owner and CEO, Carl H. Lindner III, came from a strongly rooted Cincinnati family of hardworking business owners, while President and General Manager, Jeff Berding, had nearly 20 years of professional sports experience, as an executive with the Cincinnati Bengals. Beyond that, if you peruse the bios of their front office staff, you’ll see plenty of people with a history in soccer—whether that’s as a player, a coach, or someone with experience in the athletics industry.
Moreover, FCC brought practical expertise directly to the field, with highly experienced head coaches. For the inaugural season, they turned to John Harkes—a retired national team member, MLS player and the first American to play in the English Premier League. Their current head coach, Alan Koch, brings experience playing in his home country of South Africa, as well as Germany, with an impressive resume that includes: chalking-up 100 victories quicker than any other coach at Simon Frasier University; winning “Conference Coach of the Year” for six consecutive years; and leading MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps FC to their first-ever playoff win.
In addition to the staff and coaches, FCC taps into the expertise of their fan base. The coaches, Lindner and Berding all regularly visit local bars to talk with fans and invite members of the supporter groups to present opinions and ideas.
Key Takeaway: Entering a saturated market is like jumping into a tough race where the other runners have been given a head start. But by tapping into others’ expertise, you can quickly make up ground towards the ultimate goal of standing out and surpassing the established competition.
3. They added value to the overall experience—for everyone.
When FCC’s leadership formed the team, they didn’t simply sit back and wait for fans to flock in. Instead, they made every effort to appeal to the community by forming community outreach programs, relationships with local businesses, partnerships with youth soccer organizations and more.
Importantly, the team also remained focused on delivering the best match-day experience possible. For instance, the club has gone out of its way to ensure a family-friendly stadium environment. It also sets aside a special section of the stadium called The Bailey, where members of the club’s six organized supporter groups can sit together to sing, chant, hold two-poles and tifos, wave flags, pop smoke flares and beat drums. The presence of The Bailey has had a transformational effect on the environment that gives the team a competitive advantage and makes the match more fun for fans throughout the stadium.
Today, there’s no shortage of proud FCC fans—the club continues to shatter attendance records and grow its fan base with each passing match. Why? Because supporters are drawn to the unparalleled experience and added value that FCC delivers. They add value for families by providing reasonable ticket prices and a family-friendly environment. They add value for passionate supporters by letting them form their own groups and by designating a special section of the stadium for them to gather. They add value to greater Cincinnati as a whole, by giving back to youth soccer programs.
Key Takeaway: A saturated market gives consumers an abundance of options to choose from. Because of this, it’s essential to differentiate your offering by telegraphing added benefits that the competition can’t deliver. Once consumers recognize the superior value that your product or service presents, they are sure to flock your way.
FCC has demonstrated winning principles that any business in any industry can apply. Identify and carve out a niche, tap into the guidance of experts and add much-appreciated value for customers, and you’ll be much more likely to thrive in a saturated market.
Stephanie O’Brien is a Project Director at Seed Strategy where she specializes in transforming the nuances of consumer motivation into the foundation for strong, meaningful ideas.
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