The key to building a loyal fan base is simple, even with a championship winning competitor right next door

In the midst of a team rebuild for my beloved White Sox, I’ve been dreaming about the days when the Sox will be back on top of the division. With a roster and farm system loaded with talent and perennial playoff appearances, I’d get to relive my suburban childhood in the 90s.

As much as it pains me to admit, the North Siders not only have a better team now, but they have also built a larger fan base—one with a DEEP emotional connection to their team and the kind of loyalty that would fill Donald Trump with envy–something that the South Siders just haven’t been able to muster since fizzling out just a few years after their historic World Series winning, post-season run in 2005.

Tell me this, except for a multi-year pennant run, how can the White Sox (or any team) develop the connection that Cubs fans share with their team, and match their attendance without even winning games?

It’s a complicated question for which there isn’t one sexy answer.

If we throw out all of the things that the Sox can’t or won’t do (change their neighborhood, change their ownership, just fucking win against anyone like the Cardinals do each year… etc.) then I think there is only one missing piece to the marketing puzzle that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

But before we get into that, let’s first let’s look at what the Sox, like most MLB teams do to get butts in seats…

How MLB Teams Sell Tickets

DEALS! <Insert heritage> night! Fucking Adam Eaton Star Wars Bobblehead giveaways! (RIP Eats.)

When you’re first learning about marketing (not promotions, those are different) you learn that discounts, freebies, or even perceived discounts do tend to have a positive effect on sales. This leads to every entry-level marketer or amateur night club promoter I’ve ever worked with suggesting 2-for-1 drink nights, free beach towel nights, free sunglasses nights, et al to get customers to show up for what you really have to offer.

The problem with that is, typically they’re going to assign a value to that first event, and if it doesn’t match up with their ever-increasing expectations, then you’re basically guaranteeing that they’ll never come back for the actual product you’re selling.

No matter how many deals, giveaways, and creative ticket pages you come up with, you’ll never achieve a long-term, sustainable audience that shows up when you win, but also shows up when you lose–and in case you were wondering, that is EXACTLY what the Cubs have seemed to have done.

Cubs vs. Sox – A Historical Look

If you look back to 1970, the Cubs and Sox are almost identical when it comes to some key stats:

  • Their win % is within 1.7%
  • Their average position in their respective divisions are close (Sox average being 3rd, Cubs average being 4th)
  • They’ve won exactly the same # of division titles
  • Their average record is within 2 games of each other if you average them out.

It’d be considered a 50/50 race if it were a presidential election, but there are a few major differences in the numbers that do tell a story.

On average, the Sox are within 13 games of the first place finisher in their division, while the Cubs, on average, are only within 16 games of the first place finisher.  Woooo wooooo! Suck on THAT Cubs fans!

Until you look at the numbers that count (if you own a professional sports team that is) and you see that the Cubs not only average more fans per game, but their average yearly total attendance obliterates the Sox’s numbers. Considering that they’re both big market teams, playing basically the same sport, (Don’t get me started on the DH) and as far as their record goes (since 1970) they’re pretty much the same.

The Sox do a ton more in terms of promotions for games, and the Cubs weren’t even trying to contend for a division title for a good 12 years, let alone a World Series. Things were different when I was cheering for both the Sox and the Cubs as a young suburban kid. (That’s changed since Theo Epstein took over) This 12 year period is what cemented me as a Sox fan into my adult years because it always felt like they were at least trying to win–the Cubs only cared about the fact that each game was still a sellout, regardless of the team’s consistent losing record during that period.

It’s amazing that the Cubs still managed to put more butts in seats during that time than the Sox year over year. Even when the Sox had winning seasons, and back-to-back winning seasons where they win their division, the Cubs STILL had better average and total attendance numbers—where they finished in 4th, and 5th place respectively.

So why can’t the White Sox replicate the same thing as the Cubs?

They’ve got a large market to draw from in the 3rd largest city in the country, their ticket prices are far cheaper than the Cubs, there’s no limit to how much they can spend on players, they’ve got more giveaways and ticket deals, and they have a better game day experience than the Cubs have had for years. And this is coming from someone who LOVES Wrigley field, but I’m sorry Cubs fans, I still feel as though the Sox have the edge there (but that’s a whole other post for another day). But even that’s not going to be true for much longer given how much the Ricketts family has invested in improving the area in and around the ballpark in Wrigleyville.

With the exception of simply winning more games and championships, what else could possibly be missing from a franchise that has a massive marketing budget, that utilizes every single marketing channel they can to try to sell more tickets to what is arguably (IMO) a better game day experience for fans?

Who are the White Sox?

To bottle the neck here, and to get to my point, what’s missing from the South Side, (and has been a staple of the North Side for years now) is an identity. A brand identity that transcends generations, tells a a great story, with great characters. Stories that are fun and relatable, and stories that resonate with the emotions of their fans so much that it becomes embedded in their identities.

This type of emotional connection that Cubs fans have is evident in pop culture. [insert back to the future clip, insert anything from Harry Caray, or any other Cubs-celeb related materials] The White Sox need something that hasn’t really been given a name until recently, and it’s the one thing that they can do to help with their identity problem as the second-rate, discounted sports team on the south side. It’s a solution that can help bring back the old fans, and more importantly, to start finding new fans.

That means better reasons to go to the game besides a $7 ticket and a free Hawaiian shirt, or yet another bobblehead giveaway.

The Solution is: great Content

I fully acknowledge that this is not a quick fix–but lucky for the White Sox, there’s a SOLID example of content marketing by another team in town that doesn’t play baseball, and you guessed it, ARE OWNED BY THE SAME FUCKING GUY.

The Chicago Bulls are, and as for as long as I have been alive, been a great brand. Even their mascot puts out quality content on YouTube that eclipses most of the White Sox YouTube content. Benny has more subscribers and numerous videos surpassing a million views.

Really? That’s it, the big thing to FIX the Sox is… content? Let me explain with a recent example of actual great White Sox-related content that wasn’t even produced by them. (But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been)

If you’re not a Sox fan, you likely don’t know that they recently retired the number of one of the greatest pitchers in their history: Mark Buerhle. The Sox had a much higher than average attendance at the game where they retired Buerhle’s number—around 38,000 people. Though not quite a sellout, for a team that averaged just shy of 22,000 fans per game last year (2016), that’s pretty damn good if you ask me.

The Sox did a decent job of promoting the game through the same typical marketing channels that they’ve always used: Email blasts, TV commercials, print ads, Google AdWords, billboards. It’s what you would expect of a big market professional sports team with 269 million in annual revenue. But they missed the big picture: A content strategy.

What Great Content Feels Like

It really didn’t hit me at the time cause I’m so used to getting over-marketed to as a Sox fan between repeated email blasts about ticket deals and every other way they try to sell tickets.

Then I read the awesome article in The Players Tribune that Mark Buerhle wrote, thanking the fans. He reveals untold, behind-the-scenes stories about some of my favorite White Sox teams and players. If you haven’t read it yet, even as a non-Sox fan I think it’s an interesting read. More than a few tears may have been shed on my end. (I’M NOT CRYING YOU’RE CRYING)

It dawned on me that this would have been a great opportunity for the White Sox to start putting out stories and content like this regularly. Players’ numbers are always retired in a big way. Pre-game ceremonies receive weeks, if not months of planning and work, but it only pulls people in for one game. The payoff ends there.

It doesn’t pull in more, or new fans. These ceremonies don’t grow the fanbase because they only speak to existing Sox fans.  Fanbase-building stories like these seem to be coming from other outlets that have mastered online content, like The Players Tribune and even the White Sox subreddit, of which I’ve been a casual lurker for some time now.

The issue is that the White Sox lack any sort of official online content outlet.

Of all the Sox-related promotional materials I’ve ever received, I don’t think I have ever shared any of it publicly or sent on a ‘ticket deal’ email to any friends. I’d have to scour through hundreds of thousands of emails and posts to determine if that’s true or not. But I can say unequivocally that I have shared the “Cheers to the Southside” article publicly on Facebook to 1000+ people, and emailed it independently to at least 2-3 other people. That’s more than I have ever done with any other piece of marketing material that’s come across my screen from the White Sox organization. And I couldn’t WAIT to send this article to my dad, a lifelong second generation Sox fan, and even several of my lifelong Cubby fan-friends even appreciated the story.

The Players’ Tribune’s “Cheers to the Southside” is a great piece of content because it connects emotionally. I shared it, unprompted, because I knew other people would also appreciate it the way I did. There were stories from within the organization that I’d never heard before. Stories that made me appreciate the Sox more than I already do. It helped me see the team and the players as real people, rather than just figures on a TV screen.

I wish the White Sox did that kind of publishing—producing content as their form of marketing versus blasting me with fucking deals and giveaways every other day.

Promotions don’t generate long-term revenue or new fans. If anything, they make your product a loss leader.

Now before you start criticizing me by saying that between the PR generated from The Players’ Tribune article and all the other promotions the Sox did, worked in getting 38,000 people in the seats—and that that’s all they needed. Perhaps that’s all it took for that specific event.

Promotions notwithstanding, relying on others to produce your content is not a good longterm plan.

I may be *ahem ‘out of my league’ here without knowing if the Sox are even allowed to publish any sort of original online blog or magazine. I don’t know. I have no official relationship with the team. I also don’t have a problem with how the team markets itself online and offline. In fact, the Sox have recently started sending email blasts with different content in them, but it all tends to be specifically crafted for Facebook and other social outlets, and doesn’t actually live in one place as a central hub for sox fans. That’s been left up to fans, other online communities, and the #SoxSocial team. (Who I also think do a pretty good job)

The point is that there are all these great stories to be told! Stories that strengthen the team’s relationship with existing fans, and to draw in a new fanbase. It’s the deep emotional ties to the team, and the players, and sharing those stories (the good ones at least) that makes a fanbase really passionate about their current teams and teams of the past.

Try asking any baseball fan from out-of-town or a loyal Deadspin reader about the last story they heard come out of the South Side that caught national news. It would likely be about Chris Sale throwing a temper tantrum and cutting up jerseys in the locker room, only to be subsequently shipped off as part of the rebuild the very next season.

The Cubs don’t even have to think about this because their fans dug their heels in and put up without even a sniff at a World Series title for 100+ years!

Think about that for a minute. The Sox were back to square one a year after they won the World Series (2005 for those of you who forgot). And to throw salt in the wound, the Cubs still had higher average attendance in 2005, and the year after when they finished in last fucking place.