2013 Preseason Roundtable: Trying to Bring Fans to Chivas USA

Chelís is helming an on-field makeover - will it match changes off the field? - Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The strategy seems to be pretty clear, but will it be effective?

For this week's preseason roundtable, we stick with the principals, of myself, Matthew Hoffman, and Rachna Kapur. This week, our topic is looking at the strategies (mostly implied) Chivas USA appear to be using to bring in fans this season. What results is a discussion full of frustration, a bit of humor, and differing opinions. Want to weigh in with your perspective? Leave a comment below.

Alicia Rodriguez: Here's the question to get us started: what do you make of the off-field strategy by Chivas USA this season, as far as their implied philosophy? Do you think it will lead to more fans for the club?

Rachna Kapur: As of now, no, I do not think it will yield more fans. I do remember the "What the Flock?!" podcast saying they noticed more fan "groups" at a recent preseason game, which sure, could lead to something. However, I don't think it will bring about consistent fans. The team really made a mark in their statements, and in my opinion, has a lot of work to do in order to get people interested in following the team with a positive perspective. All of us participating in this round table are well aware of the "haters" and the countless amounts of people who don't see this club in a positive light. All of the off field actions so far have just perpetuated the negative views those people have towards us.

As for neutrals, well, I think most of them have stayed fairly neutral. Because of this, I don't see more fans - just more of the same that we've seen over the years. I will say - before I became a fan of this club, I went to a home game against the Houston Dynamo in 2009 specifically to see Stuart Holden play (I'm shameless, I know) and remember there being a great deal of fans in attendance. The endzones were packed, and the midfield side I was sitting on was almost full as well (the other midfield side is the "club" section of the HDC, which, I've only recently seen full at Galaxy games since they started winning so I don't count that as much). I attribute people attending that game, and games that season, to success. The Goats made the playoffs and were a strong team. That is what brings people in. When you have two soccer teams in a city that, frankly, only really supports teams that win, they're going to head towards the better team. It's not worth the effort of getting to the stadium if you're going to watch a team lose. Winning is the most important thing to gaining fans. So, honestly, the off the field "antics" need to stop.

Matthew Hoffman: I realize at some point the roundtable discussions need to have some bitter, sharp disagreement but I can't disagree with anything Rachna stated. In fact I have to say as a happily married man, Stuart Holden is very easy on the eyes.

I get that, with so many obstacles already in place against them, Chivas USA had to do something. No other team in MLS actually shares the same market, let alone the same stadium, as Chivas USA has to with the back-to-back MLS champions LA Galaxy. The team's home record last year was abysmal and Robin Fraser, a smart and competent manager as he is, has neither the experience nor cult of personality that El Chelis possesses.

Warren Buffett's investing strategy, as he explained it, was "to buy what you know." He invested in products he used or at least was familiar with while eschewing, say, Pets.com. Jorge Vergara's experience is with the Mexican game so I understand that emphasis. However it's fielding a winning team --or at least compelling team--is what puts butts in the seats.

To make racial identity so critical to player development is a serious issue. But then to compound it with ludicrously one-sided trades, and releasing players like Rauwshan McKenzie is just wrong. It's the players that capture the fans' attention. To then just chuck players for peanuts (while paying part of the departing player's contract) just isn't a viable long term strategy.

I welcome the team's efforts to build and recruit through its academy but have we seen anything about this team's management that suggests the patience to see the program through to fruition?

It's a different sport but the same basic arrangement: how many years now have the Kansas City Royals had baseball's best farm system? Yet each year the team is consistently already mathematically eliminated from the postseason seemingly by the All-Star break. Eventually the Royals will succeed but even with handwringing cultivation, it's a multi-year process.

If Vergara can demonstrate that 1. his hiring process is not racist and 2. that he has the patience to see this through, I think that would mean a lot. But all we're getting from him is crickets.

Alicia Rodriguez: Obviously, I see where both of you are coming from, but let me offer an alternative outlook. Chivas USA is clearly going for a Latino fanbase, more specifically Mexican-heritage, and perhaps even more specifically, people who follow Chivas de Guadalajara. At last count, LA County is just under 50 percent Latino. So is San Bernardino County. A full third of Orange County's residents are Latino. While by no means are all Latinos in Southern Calfornia of Mexican descent, that ethnicity is by far the largest among the region's Latino population. And Chivas de Guadalajara continues to be the most popular club in Mexico, despite the lack of success through most of Jorge Vergara's tenure as owner.

On one hand, seeking out one group of fans (or perhaps more specifically, customers) to the implicit exclusion of all others sounds like a terrible marketing strategy. Certainly, I can't think of any other professional sports teams in North America that have done that, and it certainly seems anathema to quintessentially American notions of equality and looking beyond race.

But in another realm, one that is also connected to professional sports, entertainment, niche marketing is all the rage. Movie studios target certain genders and age groups when developing films. TV channels tailor their programming to particular groups, ones that potential advertisers want to reach. And businesses, they are becoming more and more sophisticated at niche marketing. Each of us receives very specific and tailored advertising based on our interests, our purported income levels, and yes, our respective races.

Yes, it is pretty cynical to go after a potential audience primarily based on race. And while we know Vergara's track record as far as on-field results has been spotty at best, perhaps he is on the cutting edge in the business side? Maybe Chivas USA is going so far ahead of the pack that all we consider is flat-out racism, instead of a calculated business ploy?

Admittedly, I'm not sure I believe all of that, but I'm willing to mull that possibility. I'd be curious to hear what you both think about this - make sense? Or am I full of baloney?

Matthew Hoffman: Obviously sports is more than what it once was. You can no longer just field a team and fans will just show up. So I certainly think your alternative is a viable point of view, but let's flip that on it's head--how do you think Latinos will feel when they are racially profiled as Chivas USA fans? They might cheer for Chivas, they might root for the Galaxy or they might not like soccer at all. I can really envision that person being drive away.

In fact I think the group that ought to be most offended is the area's Hispanics. This whole idea of "We'll just put a bunch of Mexicans on the field and the Latinos will flock in" is incredibly insensitive to the Latino population.

Rachna Kapur: I have to agree with Matt here. This is where we get into that "not all Mexicans are Chivas fans" territory. Obviously, I think that's where some of Chelis' quotes saying the team also has Salvadorians, Colombians, etc., come into play. Those, to me, seem like a ploy to hit not just Mexican fans, but other Latino fans. And to be quite honest, I don't see that pull working straight off the bat the way Chelis and Vergara seem to think it will.

Alicia, I get what you're saying with targeting niche markets and the like. But here's where I'd say that comparison may not work - when you have the entertainment industry, sure, music, movies, and tv shows are marketed to specific demographics. However, I don't think that those tactics are as blatant as what Chivas USA is doing. None of them start off the bat saying "This product is for this specific group of people." People can consume the product as they see fit and determine whether or not it is for them. However, when you say, before the season even starts, that you're trying to market a team for a certain group of people, many will become offended. Why should they bother if they feel that the team has a sort of exclusionary practice that won't include them?

Alicia Rodriguez: Point taken by both of you. I still think there's merit in targeted marketing, and I still think that is a core component of what Chivas USA is trying to do. But I also understand that it is essentially unprecedented territory when it comes to pro sports franchises (pretty much every team tries to maximize their fan base) and carries with it considerable risks. It also, of course, risks alienating current non-Latino fans of the club. Perhaps they are banking on the fact that those of us who are not Latino will stick with the club anyway, since we've already seen such crappy times, or maybe the club really doesn't care. We will have to see how that develops this year and beyond.

But Rachna, I think you really hit at the core of the dilemma for Chivas USA earlier. LA likes to root for winners. The Galaxy have had a considerable leg up on Chivas the last three seasons in that department, and surely we know some of that team's fans have a fair-weather attitude. If Chivas USA wins, the potential fans will almost certainly come out of the woodwork. If they don't, the situation will probably remain static, and we will need to continue to hear the "jokes" about Chivas USA's lack of fans from the various haters.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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