It’s hard to grow a small business. Most NWSL clubs are basically that - small businesses trying to create something from the ground up. The Boston Breakers have a little more of a foundation than some thanks to their long history in women’s soccer, dating back to WUSA, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t facing the exact same conditions: an imperfect economy, tight budgets, and a general lack of awareness around women’s sports. President of business operations Mark Thomas checked in with The Bent Musket now that we’re over halfway through the season, his first in the position.
This comes on the heels of yet another sponsor announcement from Boston, this time that they would be partnering with JetBlue. The announcement follows on from their other big sponsor get of the season, Dunkin Donuts, although those are only the two most prominent names. Thomas said that the team has made deals with “a couple of major law firms” and several other local companies, and they still have long-running jersey sponsor Steward, who in their new contract, which runs until 2019, have increased their financial buy-in over their previous contract with the team. But JetBlue and Dunkin are nationally-recognized brands that help lend the team legitimacy beyond the obvious financial benefits.
Thomas reached out to Dunkin early on, but said it was hard going at first. At least twice, Dunkin representatives passed on the Breakers. But their Back the Breakers program, which partners with local small businesses, caught the interest of a regional franchisee, which got them a meeting to present to the Dunkin marketing team.
“They were just very excited to be associated with women’s sport at the professional level so it just took off from there,” said Thomas. “For me it’s been a case of getting to the right person and educating them... Then once people actually listen to us, there’s a genuine interest nine times out of 10.”
Thomas says one of their main selling points from a marketing standpoint is that the Breakers are one of very few fully professional women’s teams in the area. “An association with us, especially with the female angle, is what a lot of brands are actually looking for,” he said.
Both Dunkin Donuts and JetBlue have signed on for three-year deals, including the 2017 season. As part of their deal, Dunkin has provided the Breakers with cards that they can use for camps or giveaways, as well as personalized player cards that they publicize on social media when used. JetBlue is perhaps an even better deal, providing the team with flight vouchers, which helps with their travel budget. The team also has two flight vouchers to give away at each home game.
Then there’s the partnership with Southern New Hampshire University. Thomas gave a little more detail on what SNHU offers players, using Kylie Strom as an example. Though Strom was waived by Boston, she played enough to qualify for a heavy discount, over half the cost, on online courses for a master’s degree through SNHU. Thomas also said that the league itself may be speaking to SNHU to expand the deal, giving more players discounted access to advanced degrees through online courses.
Still, for all the success they’ve had with sponsors, there are at least two areas that will prevent the team from operating at breakeven in 2017. First, the increased costs of raising the league standard after they partnered with Lifetime. “Standards like training facilities and things like you must have a sports scientist,” said Thomas. “You must have a trainer full-time - luckily we have that anyway - but the cost of running the club has gone up more than we envisaged because of the standards that have been put in place, which isn’t a bad thing in terms of the quality of the soccer, but it is bad for us in terms of the economic aspects.”
And second, attendance. Average attendance is significantly down this year. In 2016, the first seven home games had an average attendance of 3,782. In 2017, the first seven home games averaged 2,629. It used to be Boston could be regularly counted on to break 3,000 a game. Now they’ve only gone over 3,000 in two games so far this season. But average attendance is down across the league as a whole. Over the first 13 weeks of NWSL in 2016, average attendance was 5,418. Over the first 13 weeks of 2017, average attendance is now 5,013.
“To be perfectly open with you, it’s something that has confused us a lot as a club,” said Thomas. “When you talk to our marketing team, our social media team, we’re actually doing above and beyond what we did last year in terms of marketing spend. I’m sure you’ve seen us on the [MBTA] Red Line, in the Boston Herald, we were on CBS Radio; so it really spent more marketing dollars than we intended to but unfortunately as it stands at the moment the attendance has been a little bit of a struggle.”
At the moment Thomas isn’t sure if it’s simply because this isn’t a World Cup or an Olympic year that has attendance in a trough, although he doesn’t discount it. But he also points to scheduling issues as affecting things, such as having consecutive home weekends. “When you have that, the novelty fans that would come out maybe once every two or three weeks, they’re not going to come out every week,” he said. “They’re not like…our season ticket holders that would come to nearly every game. We can’t do anything about the availability of the field or the fixtures that the league give us, which is very frustrating. To stretch out a little bit further we’ve had a lot of internal calls with other teams in the league and they’ve found the same thing as well, that there needs to be a better balance of the spread of the schedule over the season.”
Thomas also thinks the league still needs big-name players consistently associated with its image. “When you don’t have Carli Lloyd or you don’t have Alex Morgan associated with the league for the first half of the season, the exposure that it receives in the general press has dropped, which I think is a crazy notion but that’s how it works,” he said.
But if Boston hasn’t been catching the walk-up crowd, the core audience seems to be growing, as the number of season ticket holders has increased over last season. And then there’s group sales, which means town soccer programs, club soccer, adult leagues, and schools. Thomas also wants to start working with local women’s sports teams like the Boston Pride and the Boston Renegades for things like reciprocal deals where Breakers season ticket holders can get discounts on other teams’ tickets and merchandise.
But one area where Thomas isn’t satisfied is livestreaming, which he says has started to affect relationships with sponsors, who are paying to get their brand in front as many eyes as possible. “The standard of the streaming needs to radically improve,” he said. “We’ve had [viewing parties] where you don’t get the game for the first 20 minutes and that’s just not good enough, especially with a company like Verizon who are supposedly number one in that field.... I’ve had a few calls from sponsors saying what’s going on and it doesn’t really good look for us.” Thomas did note that A+E and the league seem to have acknowledged the problem and have taken steps to deal with it; fans have felt it in the form of all games currently being accessible on NWSLSoccer.com instead of having to go through go90 in the United States.
Overall, Thomas seems okay with the team’s progress. “I think all in all I would say we’re sort of like a B-minus,” he said. “It’s not outstanding; I wouldn’t be jumping from the roof saying we’ve made it, but we’re not terrible either. So if you’d have said to me we’d be where we are when we first talked, I would’ve taken it definitely.”
What Thomas really wants is better media coverage. “We’ve actually reached out to a lot of newspapers, TV stations, just to cover us a little bit,” he said, but the team hasn’t gotten a lot of traction. And he wants better market awareness of the league through its broadcast partner. “The publicity of the Verizon go90 games needs to improve,” he said. “Don’t think there’s enough marketing or information around them. We’re only appealing to the people that already know about us. Not just us as a club, but as a league, we need to expand from the people that follow women’s soccer anyway. It needs to be bigger to gravitate to new people, otherwise the league’s only ever going to stay at this level.”
Thomas hinted at other plans, things the team would probably only be able to announce at the end of the season, and mentioned a possible logo redesign that probably won’t happen until after 2017. But the Breakers don’t appear to be stagnating on the business end. Hopefully the upward movement will continue both on and off the pitch, ensuring the team is here to stay.