D.C. United brought in just 13,731 fans to its Oct. 27 season closer. The team finished 2013 with the lowest average season attendance in the club’s history. But with just three United wins over 34 games, who could blame fans for staying home? Absent a winning record, the team had to do something to get a few more people into RFK’s stands.
So, in early October, the team’s marketing office began placing calls—pick up, and you might just get a free tour of the stadium.
The program is targeted toward prospective season-ticket holders, which the club identifies through online promotions and grassroots marketing efforts. For fans who like what they hear with the sales pitch, the tours offer a chance to see the usually unseen tunnels of RFK and get an up-close view of the field on nongame days. Then comes the hard sell.
Until last month, the program was led by Doug Hicks. In an interview with City Desk before he was fired at the end of the season, the former chief marketing officer said, “We always find that when we sit down with somebody and we talk about the club—what the atmosphere is like, the passion that our fans have for the team—we’re much more successful.”
Early returns on the tours have been promising, Hicks said last month: “This program has really taken off and helped us move the needle.” Asked last week, the club couldn’t provide full statistics on the program’s impact, but TJ Scholl, United’s communications coordinator, says the team has “had an increased number of ticket sales so far” relative to last year.
The crosstown Nationals aren’t surprised by that success.
The Nats, who inhabited RFK Stadium from 2005 to 2007, have run paid stadium tours ever since their move to D.C., including hard-hat walk-throughs of Nationals Park before its 2006 completion. When the team’s vice president of sales, Chris Gargani, arrived in 2006, however, the Nats began offering free stadium visits as part of their ticket-sales strategy.
Gargani oversaw similar programs as an executive with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. Free tours, he claims, consistently help sell more season tickets. “What we find is that prospective clients are looking for two things: quality time and value, and that’s what we’re trying to provide here,” he says. “Without putting a number on it, it’s just a real high conversion rate when someone comes down.”
A scenic tour with a personal touch, of course, is no replacement for a winning record, and the Nationals’ attendance has mirrored the club’s on-field performance. During the Nats’ last-place 2008 season, the stadium averaged 29,005 fans a game, and the next year that number dropped to 22,715. Attendance remained low until it soared past 30,000 in 2012, when Washington reached its first postseason.
Still, even if D.C. United can’t improve its record, it can still make an emotional pitch to local sports fans who might buy season tickets: With a new soccer stadium at Buzzard Point in the works, time is running out to catch a game at RFK.
In 2015 or 2016, the historic stadium—also the former home of the Pigskins and Senators—might find itself without a tenant for the first time in its history.
“We work in this iconic venue. Why don’t we take people out?” Hicks told City Desk. “Show them the seats, show them something behind the scenes, show them what this club is really about. And we’ll see what happens.”
Photo by Mike Madden
Correction: Due to a reporting error, the post originally described the 2013 D.C. United season as having the lowest average attendance in Major League Soccer history. In fact, the season had the lowest average attendance in the club’s history.