By Mike Sparks
Priorities. Life is all about priorities. Having three kids, a wife, a home, a job, a podcast network, and a love of soccer, I’m constantly faced with decisions about my priorities.
Those of you who’ve listened to the Mon Goals show know that I’m as die hard as any Hounds fan, but when it comes to the Riverhounds I’m faced with the dilemma of balancing those priorities so that I can support the team as best I can. As much as I’d love to be in the stands for every home game, I simply don’t have the time.
But will I become a member of the Steel Army and support what they’re doing, even though I’ve never sat in their section? Absolutely. Will I continue to watch the games online and podcast after my kids are asleep? Without a doubt.
It’s all about establishing your own priorities and identifying the most effective ways that you can reach your goals within those priorities.
Something that keeps rattling around in my head is this question of the Riverhounds priorities. We’ve talked on the show about the lack of broadcasting partnerships and mass marketing to bring in new fans. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, Pittsburgh is a MASSIVE soccer market with TONS of local high school and college players that love the game. Why aren’t we seeing Hounds games on something like Root Sports or their images on the sides of buses? As a Pro team, why wouldn’t you want to make every effort to saturate your market and spread your brand and message to as many people as you can?
It seems cliche at this point, but look no further than our neighbors to the West. Cincinnati, in their first season as a professional team, was able to sell 15,000 more tickets per game than the Hounds did this year. That has very little to do with the product on the field, as Hounds management continues to blame for slumping ticket sales, and has everything to do with the branding and marketing effort to raise awareness and get people to the games.
So again, it comes back to priorities. And this is where we step into murky waters a bit, but I think it’s something worth at least theorizing about. I’m not convinced that the Riverhounds top priority is the Pro team.
I think it’s their development academy.
Exhibit A: Staffing
Looking at the Riverhounds website, and not including owner Tuffy Shallenberger, they list 21 employees as part of their front office staff. Of those… 10 are affiliated with their Academy. Practically half.
In business you create and fill positions where the need is the greatest in order to help your company reach their goals. The fact that nearly half of the Riverhounds staff is dedicated to the Academy tells me that they value their youth development program as being on par with their Pro team.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of youth development. I personally coach two youth teams and sit on the board of my local youth soccer association. This is not an argument about whether systems like this are valuable, it’s about establishing the priorities of the Riverhounds organization. The staffing situation alone makes me think that there are conflicting priorities, but it’s not the only thing…
Exhibit B: Revenue
I’m going to preface this by saying that I’m not working with exact numbers here since the team doesn’t release them. But by pulling data from a number of places I think we can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.
Let’s start by looking at what the Hounds may have brought in via ticket sales last season.
According to Wikipedia (I know, I know, not exactly official but again gives us a ballpark), the total attendance at Highmark Stadium for all games this past season was 37,412.
If we wanted to find an “average ticket price” we could compare all of the single ticket prices (excluding the Club Level VIP tickets because there’s not a lot of those to go around) and come up with an average of $16.80 per ticket.
Combining that average ($16.80) with the total attendance numbers (37,412) we’d end up with $628,521.60 from ticket sales for the Pro team. Again, not official.
Now let’s look at the potential revenue from the Academy.
Their website advertises that “The Riverhounds Academy currently develops about 1,300 players”. So let’s use that as our base number.
To find the average cost that each player may pay to participate, we need to know how much each of the Academy programs costs. Based on the Riverhounds website:
That doesn’t include any additional costs for the Strength and Conditioning Program or their RDA Program.
For the sake of the argument, let’s take the average cost of those four programs and use that number. So $401.
Taking that cost per program ($401), multiplied by the total number of participants (1,300) gives us $521,300. Keeping in mind that’s the potential revenue from the winter programs and that the Hounds also have a summer program, that number could potentially be doubled to $1,042,600.
Again, these aren’t exact numbers, I’m just trying to wrap my head around what’s going on. If someone from the Riverhounds were to disclose the exact numbers then we could end the speculation.
Now if we compare the potential revenue from the Academy program ($1,042,600) to the potential ticket sales from the Pro team ($628,521.60) we see that the Hounds potentially make substantially more from their Academy than they do from their Pro team.
Based on those numbers, from a business standpoint can we really fault them for making the Academy more of a priority? No, but…
Exhibit C: Current Marketing Efforts
Finally, let’s look at The Hounds current marketing efforts. There’s a rule in sales and marketing that says it’s cheaper to sell to your existing clients than it is to find new clients.
Ever notice how many kids and parents are walking around Riverhounds games wearing their Academy kits? If I had to guess I’d say that 20-30% of attendees at most games have some affiliation with the Academy. Why? Because it’s much cheaper for the Hounds organization to sell tickets to families that already know about the organization through the Academy.
The upfront cost required to do something like putting together and implementing a marketing strategy to reach untapped markets is substantial. But we’ve seen plenty of examples of how a good marketing effort can pay off massively, so why not do it?
Priorities. Unless the Hounds decide to splash a lot of money on the pro team or invest in a marketing effort to increase interest in the region, then it’s hard for me to believe that the Academy isn’t their top priority. And what does that mean to us as fans of the Pro team? How do we feel about supporting a team who’s primary focus is to make their Academy more appealing? Can we even consider that a “Pro team” or an advertisement for the Academy?
I’d love to be proven wrong. I wish the team would come out with a plan, highlighting priorities such as putting an emphasis on the Pro team and growing the brand in the region. I WANT to see a Pro team succeed in Pittsburgh.
But until then, we all need to take a long hard look at what we think the priorities of this team are and whether the Pro team should be one of our personal priorities.