MLS

Butler: Impact turning supporters into club members

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Noel Butler
7/19/2013 9:20:41 PM
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With the Impact in their worst run of form since they closed out their debut season on the back of a six-game face-planting skid, the last thing Joey Saputo needed to wake up to Monday morning was the rather ludicrous report traced to a Columbian radio station that Marco Schallibaum was about to get his walking papers.

As erroneous as that report was, Saputo is likely aware of the increasingly uneasy feeling that currently prevails around the club.

Saputo's retort was rather candid:

“Are you kidding? Très content avec Schallibaum, aucune raison d'aller chercher un autre entraîneur. Very happy with Marco,” the Impact President tweeted.

Saputo was scheduled to deliver his mid-term report and make a few announcements specific to the 2014 season on Monday. However, in light of the 4-0 drubbing the team took in Harrison, NJ last Saturday night that media event was pushed back 48 hours.

Doing so let the high emotions surrounding the team to dissipate some. It allowed the realization that the team has gone from being the best in the MLS to enduring a month-long winless drought not to take centre stage.

When Saputo did address the media Wednesday, the current form book was put into the context of the season to date.

Sitting three points adrift of the top of the East but with two games in hand, the Impact could quite easily return to the Conference summit.

Each and every Eastern Conference team would likely have offered up all their allocation money to be in the Impact's current situation if it had been proffered prior to start of the season.

Saputo also admitted that a significant number of the current squad would be in Impact uniform come 2014.

Without exception the most significant discussion Wednesday afternoon centred around the concept of turning the supporters into club members.

The lifeblood of any sports team is its fans, especially those season ticket holders.

Manchester United love to claim over 600 million followers globally.

However, you can string up as many green and yellow banners and bunting as you like around your Singapore or Sydney home as you watch the Old Trafford from thousands of miles away, but it's that solitary hooped scarf behind the dugout made most famous by Sir Alex Ferguson that holds sway and gets all the attention.

The Barcelonas and Real Madrids of the world were borne out of the club member concept. But it was one closer to home that piqued the Impact's curiosity.

“It's more like what Seattle is doing,” Impact and Stade Saputo Executive Vice President Richard Legendre disclosed to TSN.ca Thursday. “The policy where they ask their season ticket holders to vote on the GM that was one example we were looking at.”

“The way it originated for us is the fact we wanted to go one step further in the interaction of our season ticket holders,” Legendre added.

While the Saputos are the Impact's undisputed nuclear family, the extended family is made up of all its stakeholders.

Like most families, continued growth is the objective.

“First of all we want to increase the numbers in the family,” Legendre stated. “We realised how important it is for our season ticket holders to be transparent with them, to communicate with them”.

“After our first season we created a new team of service reps on behalf of our season ticket holders. Their job is to be in contact constantly with the season ticket holders.”

“So, then we thought: ‘Where can we go from there? How can we go further?' That's where we thought of more involvement in the decision making. To give them what we call ‘the power of recommendation.”

“It's also a way to choose whom we are going to listen to more,” Legendre succinctly added.

With lines of communication continually live these days and most traditional barriers removed, separating the wheat from the chaff is a difficult ask in soliciting opinions from any fan-base.

The less-is-more principle can get completely drowned out at times; a point that is not lost on Legendre.

“These days with all the social networks [and] all the other methods there is so much noise. So many people that you can easily lose focus on who you really need to listen to and interact with,” he said.

“So by having more interactions with just our season ticket holders it's another way of saying: ‘The ones we are going to listen to first are those that are right behind us in a bigger manner.'”

Although the Impact were entirely inconsistent on the pitch last season and are currently in the midst of a similar slide, the constant in the club's two MLS seasons has been their season ticket base. That base has numbered 8,000 in both their debut season and 2013.

Wednesday the club announced their plan is to increase the base by 25 per cent to 10,000 for 2014.

The desired effect is that on any given match day, half of the stadium's capacity will be comprised of club members.

How's that for an influential voice?

In a season where the Impact have performed well above where any rational person would have predicted and have played an exciting brand of football, stagnating season ticket numbers from year-to-year would have to ring the alarm bells with the front office.

Legendre is aware that a lot of hard work lays ahead for the franchise. It's not as if there is one solitary explanation of why the Impact currently lags many MLS clubs in the season ticket stakes.

“I think it is difficult to identify only one,” Legendre said. “If I had to identify only one, I would say it's still a very young [MLS] product which might sound a little surprising as we are celebrating our 20th anniversary. But in a way I really get a strong feeling and we hear it that a lot from different people that we are just starting something.”

“It is our second year only in MLS,” Legendre continued. “When we compare ourselves to the other two major professional teams in Montreal - the Alouettes and the Canadiens - the Alouettes [have] 62 years in the major leagues and for the Canadiens it's over a hundred years.”

“We're very young, and we're even younger in the big leagues. So I think in terms of the notoriety of the league, there is actually a lot of work that has to be done.”

Legendre went on to divulge certain contents of a supporter-based survey the club recently commissioned.

“When we asked people in Montreal: ‘Do you know the Impact?' 95 per cent [of respondents] said yes. Then, when we asked them the names of the players, 88 per cent [could name none]… When we asked them: ‘Do you know MLS?' 91 per cent said ‘No.'”

“So it seems like there is a bit of a contradiction there, but it clearly shows we still have a lot of work to make our product known, to give the opportunity for people to taste the product.”

The numbers are remarkable but whichever way you cut it there is substantial room for growth.

Another factor is a dearth of support from local area businesses.

“We need more businesses to get involved in buying season tickets,” Legendre stated.

“In our own survey when people are buying season tickets they say they are buying it for personal reasons much, much more than for professional reasons. So I think [with] the quality of the product we have, the pricing, we can develop much more to different businesses.”

The club set out the season with the objective of making the playoffs, and with 16 regular-season games remaining, that playoff place is theirs for the taking.

They will have no one to blame but themselves if they are not playing soccer in November down Stade Saputo way.

Turning the season around could well start Saturday in what could be billed as the “battle of the slumps”. A month or so ago FC Dallas rode resplendently atop the west. However, they now take a seven-game winless skid into Saputo Stadium.

Coincidentally both FC Dallas and the Impact last recorded a win against the same opponent, the Houston Dynamo.

On June 19, the Impact were mighty impressive in recording the 2-0 shutout victory.

In attendance that night - and enjoying himself immensely as he took in all the Stade Saputo sights and sounds - was none other than Canadiens President and CEO Geoff Molson.

Wonder if he's signed up yet as a member of club Montreal Impact FC?

You can reach and follow Noel Butler at:

Noel.Butler@BellMedia.ca

@TheSoccerNoel

Montreal Impact v FC Dallas - Live on TSN Radio 690 Saturday at 6:45pm et/3:45pm pt

Impact supporters (Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
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