PantherU

Friday’s momentum could set the tone

If someone stumbled onto campus on Friday night at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, they would have thought two things: one, UWM has a lot of sports fans, and two, they care a whole lot about soccer.

Given several facts: it was the first Friday night on campus for students and the season opener, it was the Milwaukee Cup match against Marquette, there were all sorts of activities involved for the students to take part in, and they got free food.

But they stayed. They stayed throughout the women’s match when they got their free food and long after they got their t-shirts in between games. They stood during the entire Marquette match, sang songs and took part in cheers, and oh boy did they rip on Marquette’s goalkeeper.

The Class of 2017 introduced itself to the Milwaukee fan base at the same time they were being introduced to how it’s done here at Milwaukee. Of course, people who have been a part of the fan base for years know that 3,300 fans don’t make it to soccer games often.

But these students don’t know that.

Milwaukee has an opportunity here, to finally turn the grim realities of being a mid-major program into a boon for the school. Who cares if the rest of the state doesn’t care about soccer? The incoming freshmen got a taste of it Friday night, and they enjoyed every second. If the athletic department can turn the blissful ignorance into an advantage, perhaps 3,000 fans per match isn’t out of the question. That most definitely can carry over into basketball, where the team had a bad year last season but is almost assured to improve.

So how does the athletic department take a quick turnaround and put another 3,000 in the seats for the Panther Invitational next Friday night and Sunday at noon? Obviously the marketing budget over the next week is largely spoken for, so anything they do has got to be cheap or totally free. I’ve got some ideas, as always:

1. Post tailgating rules/guidelines on the website. Weekend soccer matches almost always draw at least two or three tailgating groups. With the large influx of fans that came to the match on Friday, why don’t we give the students and community a little prod in the right direction?

The lot that is normally used for tailgating, in between the field and Architecture, was taken over on Friday night by the athletic department. They hosted a fantastic pre-game party with free food for students, games, a rock climbing wall, and a blow-up obstacle course. That will give way to the usual open parking lot, ready for tailgaters.

Tailgating is the life blood of sports fandom in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers gameday experiences would be nothing like they are now without tailgating. Soccer is a sport, like football, that is perfect for tailgating.

So come up with some rules; no alcohol if you’re under 21, what to do with your coals after you’re done (read: don’t throw them in the dumpster), where to park, when to get there, etc.  Are you going to turn some kids away who want to drink? Maybe. Will you encourage some creative students to find a way to bring in alcohol anyways? Probably. But the most important thing is this: you will let the student body know that tailgating is something that happens at soccer games, and that it’s big enough that people are doing it and they should want to be a part of it. Many universities have tailgating policies on their athletics web sites; UWM just has to take it one step further.

Since it’s the first match of the season where the tailgating lot is open, they can get away with sending the e-mail before Friday – a message to all UWM students with the tailgating rules.  On some level, it’s even being responsible; you don’t want students showing up to tailgate without knowing the rules, coming drunk etc.

2. Keep pushing those placards on all the doors. This goes well, especially at the Union, Library and dorms. They’re much better than A-frames, which just look stupid and out of place. The placards are sleek, they’re directly in students’ line of sight, and they take up no space. They’re a big improvement, but they have to keep going.

They probably allowed it as some special deal because it’s the first game, welcome weekend and Marquette. But it’s something that needs to be there for every game, so students never are confused about when the game starts.

Essentially, you want to paint the neighborhood, especially campus, Black and Gold. The school has done a far better job the last year or so doing this; they need to keep it up.

3. Get other departments to promote the game as well.

Besides the Athletic Department, there are two other parts of school that make money from soccer matches: Restaurant Services and the Bookstore.  Both have tons of space in the union, and they obviously carry a lot of Black and Gold spirit in those spaces (not enough in the Gasthaus, if you ask me).

Since both of these places have skin in the game, they should also be putting in a solid effort to promote individual games. signage in the bookstore is smart, maybe a schedule card to go in with every receipt. Restaurant Services can promote the game with signage at Taco Bell, Burger King, Pacific Wraps and especially the Gasthaus.  If the athletic department takes care of it, what reason do these entities have to say no? They’re too lazy to put up posters?

The Gasthaus is where things need to really get better. Couldn’t they promote post-game specials for game days and nights? It’s all Restaurant Services, which stands to gain money by promoting soccer matches, where it handles concessions. Get everyone working together toward a common goal: more butts in the seats.

4. Get videos in the dorms promoting the matches. There are televisions in the dorms and the union everywhere. Most of the time, they just show a special closed-circuit channel that could definitely put up short 30-second videos every few minutes or so promoting the next soccer match.

Do you get the idea so far? The program has a real tight belt as far as its budget is concerned, so they need to do things that don’t cost them money or something that leans on other departments.

5. Put up billboards on the south side of town. It’s not the cheapest of ideas, but marketing on the south side – where there is a heavy Latino and European population – is gold. Put it in two languages, promote the Latino players we have on the team, and we may see a sizable increase in fans from the other side of town.

The truth is, it may not even be that expensive. Billboards are surprisingly inexpensive unless they’re on the freeway, so carpeting the south side with pictures of Declan Rodriguez and a new “mkepantherslatino.com” website URL gives us an opportunity to expand outside the East Side.

Of course, this last one is more of an idea for future seasons; I just felt like including it because I’d like to see us try and snatch up that part of town as our own.

The fact of the matter is, the Marquette game was heavily marketed to students. That was expected, because it’s a big deal. I’m more interested in what we’re going to do to sustain that level of commitment from the fan base – what are we going to do to make sure we get 3,000 out for every game?

It’s not out of the question. This is done at schools like ours across the country, in men’s soccer to boot. Akron, SIU-Edwardsville, UC Santa Barbara, Cal Poly, and elsewhere.

A lot of people on this campus think pessimistically when it comes to things like this. We’re UWM. We’re a commuter school, a safety school. Soccer isn’t a big sport in America yet, especially at the college level. UWM students are fickle.  To them, I say this:

Everything has to start somewhere.

The Green Bay Packers started by playing in front of handfuls of people. The WWE is playing in front of 20,000 people multiple times a week, but in the 1950’s they were in bingo halls. The Brewers aren’t too far removed from having crowds like 12,000 on Friday nights. Wisconsin basketball averaged less than 5,000 for most of its existence.  Hell, 25 years ago our basketball team’s fans could be counted on ten fingers.

Things change. Fan bases grow. But they need to be shepherded to grow. Soccer may not be the gung-ho fall sport that football is. But football’s pinnacle is probably behind us – concussions will kill that sport down the road. Soccer grows exponentially  every year in this country. It’s the World’s Game, to be sure, but every year attendance at MLS and NASL matches go up, salaries go up. The average soccer career is 10 years compared to 3 1/2 for football. How long before young kids in the inner city figure out that they’ll be doing themselves a lot more favors by playing soccer than football?

This is about being ahead of the curve. When Marquette added lacrosse, it wasn’t about making money in 2013. It was about getting ahead of the curve, to be ready when lacrosse – already popular on the east coast – makes its swing westward.

We don’t have space in the budget to add a sport. For years I railed on the school to add football, or hockey, or lacrosse. But the real growth sport is the one that we already have, the one that we have a long and storied history playing. It’s time to realize what we have and run with it.

That’s why it’s important to take the ball and run with it this week; fans are going to show up whenever we play Marquette. What matters is can you get them to come out for Drake and Bowling Green?

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