The comments section of just about every Dynamo blog or Reddit post out there is full of loyal fans giving their 2-cents about how to "fix" the Dynamo. Most of them are player/personnel related fixes that, for many reasons (salary cap, mainly), cannot and will not happen until the offseason at the soonest. Some are about new ownership; another important discussion point, but one that is not 100% in our control or even the Dynamo Front Office’s control. However, there are some things that the Dynamo organization and Dynamo-related organizations, namely Supporters Groups, can and should be working on right now to improve our team and the fan experience and prepare the organization for success if when we make it through this drought stocked with new talent and quality DP’s.
Up until now, the Dynamo organization has thrived in our city by putting a great product on the pitch and hardware in the trophy display case despite the many budget/ownership challenges along the way. Would we have BBVA Compass Stadium without 2 stars above our crest? That’s debatable, and I would lean on the side of "yes, but probably not in downtown". These great accomplishments satisfy the fans of Houston and give the Dynamo the credit needed to say they are the best professional sports franchise in town. But… what happens when the Dynamo experience a miserable repeat of the 2010 season (I’m not saying 2014, yet)? Or, even worse, back-to-back miserable seasons?
The Houston sports fan is a notoriously flaky beast. Just look at the Dynamo’s own Facebook comments to see the flood of people threatening to forego renewal of season tickets next year unless the entire roster is purged immediately and somehow the Dynamo magically pull a playoff-quality roster right out of their ass all willing to play for payment in the form of hotdogs and hugs. Personally, I could care less if these people renew or not. They’re probably the same people who remain seated during corner kicks and complain that I’m blocking the view. In no way am I advocating for satisfying these folks with the memory retention of a goldfish. Unfortunately this is the other side of the coin when your team has only missed the playoffs once. We would all be better off if these folks quietly waited at home for the Astros to improve so they can ride the bandwagon on over to the Juice Box.
The Dynamo need quality fans as much as it needs quality players and ownership, and this is something that can be worked on right now.
Quality fans are an insurance policy against less-than-stellar seasons on the pitch.
Quality fans are the people who show up no matter what, know the players’ names, and have an emotional stake in the success or failure of the club. I’m not ashamed to admit that I get visibly upset when the Dynamo lose and my wife knows before I get home that I probably want a beer and to be left alone for a little while as I call into Glen Davis’s postgame show to rant about what went wrong.
What the Dynamo front office should be working on right now is laying the foundation for better, more loyal, more quality fans and it starts with the Game Day Experience.
The Game Day Experience, what happens off the pitch before, during, and after a match, is what sets MLS franchises apart from any other professional league. It has been the leading factor in MLS’s careful, strategic, crafted growth following the retraction years. MLS stopped focusing on Joe-Six-Pack-NFL-fan and started focusing on a younger generation of Americans who grew up playing the sport and now had something resembling an expendable income. I’ll spare the details because there are literally hundreds of articles out there chronicling the strategies behind slow rise of MLS (in a nutshell: not pulling an NASL). Some franchises have had better success at crafting fanbases, namely Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City. If you can momentarily get past your burning hatred of KC, those same clubs are the ones with noticeably better Game Day Experiences. If I had to personally rate the fanbase and Game Day Experience of the Houston Dynamo on a scale of 1 – 10, I’d give it a 7 and trending ever-so-slightly downward. This trajectory will leave our club behind in, what many MLS writers are dubbing, MLS 3.0.
The Dynamo organization should focus their energy on picking up those handful of fans here and there on a personal level and not so much via mass media advertising. I’d argue the Dynamo will get more bang-for-their-buck in the long term because these methods attract a fan that isn’t going to flee at the first sign of a winless streak. I became a Dynamo supporter not by a radio ad or billboard, but rather the sight of the travelling contingency of Dynamo supporters at an FC Dallas match (I lived in Frisco for 5 years and made my glorious return home in 2010).
Improving Game Day Experience must begin with the Supporters Groups. They are far-and-away the most visible aspect of the stadium experience. Their members are primarily the ones preaching the gospel of our Club to friends, family, and coworkers and tend to be the ones travelling on road trips into enemy territory. I know there are histories and politics involved with Dynamo SG’s. I get it. However, I do not believe the Game Day Experience can improve without first working with those groups to improve membership, visibility, and tradition. The Dynamo front office needs to re-engage the leaders of these groups and make whole-hearted inroads to implement these improvements, and that can start today.
Secondly, I believe the Dynamo need to spend their advertising money on a different medium than sports talk radio. I believe this budget expenditure is akin to setting fire to money. The audience they appeal to are the same people with an irrational hatred of soccer. Not everyone, of course, I listen to sports talk radio a lot. Listening to the shows during and after the World Cup probably shaved a few years off my life expectancy. On ESPN 97.5FM you can literally hear a pundit trash talk soccer and then offer tickets to an upcoming Dynamo game to caller number 10. I’ve heard it.
My last suggestion would be to seriously explore nixing corporate season ticket holders with tickets that go chronically unused. I hear the Dynamo work with these companies to see how they can improve attendance, but "working with" is very different than "getting results". Surviving on "tickets sold" is good enough for MLS 2.0, but it does nothing to enhance the Game Day Experience; a vital component of the emerging new MLS. On the Houston Dynamo sub-Reddit following the World Cup, there were a handful of new fans wishing to experience a Dynamo match but reported finding zero good seats; only seats up high and in the sun. I cringe knowing that I will inevitably be one of only 7 or 8 people on my row of 25 seats right smack in the middle of the stadium. Sure, the Dynamo are getting money for those empty seats, but I believe those seats could easily be filled game-by-game by new fans. If there will indeed be an offseason roster purge followed by the signing of a big-name Designated Player or two, the Dynamo SHOULD expel these absentee ticket holders because the game-by-game ticket sales would easily fill them in and actually make more money since they aren’t discounted tickets.
In the interest of throwing crazy thoughts out there… I’ll go out on a limb with an idea: Why not sell Standing Room Only tickets with an additional $5 - $10 option for the ticket holder to move into an empty seat after 20 minutes has passed. The tickets can be assigned to individual sections, with the less desirable sections going for $5 and the better sections for $10, that way you don’t have a flood of people rushing in to Section 106. I don’t know… just a thought.
I’m interested to hear other insane ideas below. I know many in the Dynamo organization read these blogs among other social media outlets and if they read this and discuss at least one idea in their meetings, I have done my part. The mission of the Dynamo should not only be to place a superior product on the pitch, it should also be to provide a superior fan/stadium/game day experience. Now is the time to work on these experiences while their hands are tied with the salary cap.