Minnesota United FC has struggled lately on the field, but its performance at the box office has been impeccable. The club sold out all five home games before the summer break, and should see overflow crowds for its three home games this week. Nearly 4,000 season tickets have been sold for the fall — huge growth even from one year ago, when the team sold 1,600 season tickets, and far ahead of the days before Dr. Bill McGuire’s ownership, when 250 season tickets was more the team’s speed.
As the team prepares itself to move to MLS in 2017 or 2018, the front office faces another challenge: turning curious fans into followers, and followers into die-hards. United’s never-say-die Dark Clouds supporters group used to call the club “the team nobody wanted,” owing to a two-year spell when the NASL couldn’t find a buyer for the franchise, but now everyone wants a piece of the team. Going to a Minnesota soccer game used to mean paying $12 to sit in any seat you wanted. Now, a seat in the first row at midfield for Saturday night’s game against Ottawa costs you $50. The team has increased the price of every seat in the stadium, and demand just keeps growing.
Ticket sales aside, now comes the hard part: getting fans to think of themselves as United fans first, and not just as soccer fans slumming it with the local side out of convenience. United director of ticket sales Sean Sittnick notes that many new ticket-buyers are people who are soccer fans, not fans of the wider sports world — and those who’ve been longtime fans of other clubs can be a tough nut to crack. “We can’t compete with Santos Laguna if it’s something that you grew up with, that your father and grandfather were a fan of,” he said. “We don’t have those generations. But people are starting to identify us as their team, as the team they grew up with.”
It’s not just a familial thing, either. Many American soccer fans got their start as a fan of the U.S. national teams, or as a fan of a Premier League or other European team. Sittnick admits that United may not be on that same level, but for those fans, United has one big advantage: proximity. “We’re finding that people love that live experience,” Sittnick said. “If you have enough money to fly to an EPL game, I’d recommend doing that. The nearest MLS team is Chicago, and they’re a five-hour drive away. But going to a soccer match live is a game changer.”
Getting people to the stadium is one thing. United’s greater challenge, as they hope to have a much larger MLS stadium to fill, is to get fans to identify as United fans above all else. That may end up being the most difficult thing of all.