6 Credit Unions That Sponsor Pro Soccer
Is professional soccer finally becoming a popular sport in the U.S.?
The rising popularity among Americans of the world’s No. 1 sport seems to be driven primarily by young adults who were reared by the so-called soccer moms of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We are creating generational fans that are growing up with us for the first time,” said Tim Hinchey, president of the Major League Soccer team, the Colorado Rapids. “When you look at the grass roots participation of all of the boys and girls playing soccer, the average age of Major League Soccer fans, (34), the new ($720 million) MLS television deals with ESPN, FOX and Univision, we are the sport to drive with now.”
Agreeing with Hinchey’s assessment are a handful of credit unions that have signed partnership deals with professional soccer teams as a new marketing avenue to help drive the new generation of consumers to their cooperatives.
In addition to seeing the huge number of kids playing soccer in their communities, credit unions are witnessing the growing fan base of MLS teams in their cities. Twenty-one clubs play in 19 U.S. cities and there are two teams in Canada.
Heading into the league’s break for the FIFA World Cup, MLS saw a 6% year-over-year average attendance increase with clubs averaging 18,497 fans per match, according to Sports Business Daily. Four years ago before the MLS break for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the league was averaging 16,472 fans per game.
And speaking of the FIFA World Cup, the June 22 USA-Portugal game became the most viewed soccer match ever in the U.S. ESPN reported its telecast averages totaled 18.2 million viewers, which peaked at 22.9 million viewers. And that viewership record may be surpassed when Team USA plays Germany on Thursday.
CU Times looks at how six credit unions are leveraging the rising popularity of soccer to reach young prospective members.
First up: Westerra and the Colorado Rapids …
Westerra Credit Union-Colorado Rapids
The $1.2 billion Westerra Credit Union changed its name from Denver Public Schools in 2006. Though the new name reflected its deep Western roots, nobody knew what Westerra was, much to the frustration of the credit union’s executives.
While Westerra CU President/CEO C. Alan Peppers was searching for a solution, he heard about the growing, rabid fans of the MLS Colorado Rapids team. But he wasn’t sure if it could help the credit union solve its identity issue.
(At left, fans stock up on Westerra-branded swag at the credit union's tent.)
“After meeting with the team, we found there was an incredible opportunity to get (media) impressions for our new name at an exponential rate compared to other traditional (media) means that we had done,” Peppers recalled. “We estimated that we improved the number of (media) impressions in year one of the partnership to almost 200 million impressions, which allowed us to accelerate our branding initiative.”
That was in 2010 when the credit union became a “season presenter sponsor” of the Colorado Rapids. That meant in every marketing and communications promotion the MLS team made in print, on the web, social media, radio and TV, Westerra CU’s name also was publicized.
In a third-party consumer survey conducted at the end of 2011, Westerra CU went from nothing to No. 3 in name and brand recognition among the dozens of financial institutions in the Denver area.
At the team’s venue, the 17,424-seat Dick’s Sporting Good Park in Commerce City, Westerra CU’s name and brand is plastered on the park’s box office, increasing its visibility among soccer fans.
The credit union opens about 1,000 new accounts every month, up from 500 new monthly accounts five years ago. Peppers said the marketing partnership with the team is part of the reason.
“Our largest source of new members is referrals, but our partnership with the Colorado Rapids is the largest potential portal for new members,” he said “When you see all of the kids kicking a soccer ball, it is a portal for growth that we are very excited about.”
And now, Affinity Federal Credit Union and the New York Red Bulls …
Affinity Federal Credit Union-New York Red Bulls
The $2.2 billion Affinity FCU in Basking Ridge, N.J., almost inked a deal with the New York Jets.
But Jean-Albert Maisonneuve, Affinity’s vice president of marketing and e-commerce, had second thoughts.
(At left, Affinity affiliated with Major League Soccer instead of the NFL. Giveaways are popular.)
Taking out a sponsorship with an NFL team seemed to be a typical commercial bank thing to do, he thought. Before working at Affinity FCU, Maisonneuve coordinated sports sponsorships with major league sports teams in New York for JP Morgan Chase.
“The Red Bulls team was a perfect fit for us because Major League Soccer is still considered an alternative sport and the Red Bulls brand is an alternative brand that are both gaining in popularity,” he explained. “And I feel that is what the credit union industry is as well. We are an alternative brand that is gaining in popularity.”
The Basking Ridge, N.J.-based credit union signed a three-year deal with the Red Bulls last year to become the team’s first official credit union.
The cooperative doesn’t push products at the 25,000-seat Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, N.J. Instead, it rents a European-style arena suite to entertain business and commercial members as we well as prospects, who get to meet the professional players on the field. The credit union also holds social media contests that enable members to win game tickets.
“It’s a lot of exposure for our brand to be associated with the Red Bulls brand and it’s a lot of fun,” Maisonneuve said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the business and commercial relationships as well as the member relationships that the sports sponsorship helps us build.”
The team draws on average 17,850 fans to the home matches. That number is up from an average game-day attendance of 15,517 last season, according to Sports Business Daily.
That attendance is pretty good when you consider the Red Bulls rarely get any attention from major New York or New Jersey media outlets, Maisonneuve said.
Next up: Mountain America and Real Salt Lake …
Mountain America Credit Union-Real Salt Lake
The $3.8 billion Mountain America CU in in West Jordan, Utah, manages dozens of professional, college and high school sports partnerships.
So when Real Salt Lake moved into its new 20,213-seat Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy in 2008, just four years after the team was founded, MACU was impressed with Real Salt Lake’s fan growth.
(At left, Mountain America's logo on the scoreboard at Real Salt Lake's stadium.)
What’s more, among the professional sport teams in Utah, MLS’s Real Salt Lake has the highest number of season ticket holders, even higher than the NBA’s Utah Jazz, said Marshall Paepke, EVP and chief administrative officer at MACU.
Paepke was even more impressed with the fans’ passion.
“The fans bang drums and do various constant chants throughout the entire game,” he said. “It’s a passion we don’t generally see with other sports, and that is something that resonated with us.”
Real Salt Lake packed in an average attendance of 20,137 at matches held so far this year, which is up 9.5%, or an average attendance of 19,385 from last season, according to Sports Business Daily.
Because of all of the sports partnerships MACU has managed over the years, it’s fair to say the cooperative knows a thing or two about what makes them work.
Specifically, what has worked for MACU is “owning an element of the game” that is important to the community and speaks positively about the brand.
One of the elements that MACU owns at the Real Salt Lake matches is the pre-game ceremony. Players of a local youth soccer team walk out from the stadium’s tunnel at the side of Real Salt Lake players and players from the opposing team. The kids also receive free tickets to watch the match.
“There’s a little pageantry involved and it’s a big deal,” Paepke said. “The kids are just in heaven.”
The credit union also owns the “corner kick,” one of the popular elements of the game that gives teams a higher chance to score goals.
Read more: IMCU and the Indy Eleven …
Indiana Members Credit Union-Indy Eleven
Indianapolis is a great sports town.
The Hoosier state’s capital consistently ranks at the top of every list of best sports cities published by magazines and websites.
So when Indiana’s new professional soccer club came rolling into town to launch its inaugural season in April, the $1.4 billion Indiana Members Credit Union was one of the first to sign a marketing partnership agreement with the North American Soccer League club. The team was named after the state’s 11th Infantry Regiment that served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
(At left, IMCU is a sponsor of the new Indy Eleven profession soccer team in sports-crazy Indianapolis.)
“The city got behind the team with a huge wave of fan support that went along with it,” said Thorpe Miller, assistant vice president for sales and marketing for the Indianapolis-based IMCU. “We wanted to be a part of that and be able to capitalize on it.”
Indiana already has a strong base of young soccer fans. Indiana University’s men’s soccer team is one of the best programs in the nation, having won eight national championships.
“I think there is no question that one of the goals of this partnership is to connect with the younger generation that is coming into their professional careers and financial needs,” Miller said. “The young fans are very passionate about the team and they tend to want to support the companies and organizations that are supporting their team.”
Just three weeks after IMCU introduced its Indy Eleven debit card, more than 60 people signed up for the accounts and 25% were new members.
“I think we are on the cusp of something new as far as marketing to young prospective members,” Miller said. “The key thing of this partnership is to have that interaction with the fans and to activate new memberships. It’s hard to measure how successful that sign is at the stadium or that ad in the program guide or the ad that runs on the web, TV and radio. But when you are at the event talking with people and engaging them with a debit card or other product, you can track that pretty successfully.”
Read more: Kicking it in Kansas City …
R-G FCU-FC Kansas City
The $71 million R-G FCU may be one of the first, if not the first credit union to form a partnership with a professional women’s soccer team, FC Kansas City of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Through a merger, the Raymore, Mo.-based R-G FCU expanded its field of members in Jackson County, the largest county in the state.
(At left, FC Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhardt at work in front of the R-G FCU logo.)
“The main reason for wanting to sponsor the team was really to get a foothold in that county, increase our brand awareness and pick up new members,” Steve Deere, said R-G FCU chief technology and finance officer.
FC Kansas City plays its home games at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Durwood Soccer Stadium in Jackson County. The team began play in front of nearly 7,000 fans on April 13, 2013, the first game in NWSL history. Four FC Kansas City players are also members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, including Becky Sauerbrunn, who was born and raised in St. Louis.
The credit union’s executives also pursued a partnership because they’ve been impressed with the huge number of kids playing in youth soccer leagues.
“There are more kids playing soccer in the Kansas City Metro area than any other sport,” said Shawn Beltz, R-G FCU’s chief lending officer. “At one large sports complex, there are no less than 1,000 kids playing soccer there every weekend, and that is just at one complex.”
R-G FCU’s goal through its partnership with the soccer team is to reach those young soccer families.
In addition to giving out branded freebies to soccer fans at the stadium and running promotional ads during halftime, the credit union sponsors a pre-game show, “Walk of Champions,” which features youth soccer players walking out on the field with R-G FCU players.
“We are not only pitching our brand to everyone at the game, but we’re also giving kids the opportunity to participate in the game’s opening ceremonies,” Beltz said. “The kids and their parents really get a kick out of that.”
FC Kansas City draws an average crowd of about 6,800 per match.
Last but not least: Guardian and the Milwaukee Wave …
Guardian Credit Union-Milwaukee Wave
The Milwaukee Wave, the longest running indoor professional soccer team in North America, holds a special place in the heart of the Brew City community.
The Wave has given its fans a lot of to cheer about and a lot of thrills having won not one, not two, not three, but six national championships.
(At left, Tenzin Rampa is a midfielder/forward for the Milwaukee Wave.)
“Guardian Credit Union has always had a big focus on the local community,” said Heidi Bontempo, the credit union’s marketing manager. “We wanted to partner with an organization that we would feel highly visual, while at the same time helping support a beloved sports franchise within the community. We’ve have had members stop into the branch to thank us for supporting the Milwaukee Wave.”
The $243 million Guardian in West Milwaukee signed a marketing partnership with the Wave two years ago to increase its brand awareness among young families with children.
“Our goal is to educate this demographic about the importance of youth savings accounts and teach children financial responsibility at a young age,” Bontempo said. The credit union also sponsors 20 soccer camps throughout the Milwaukee area.
While Bontempo acknowledges a brand awareness campaign is difficult to track, she believes this type of marketing will help the credit union stay “on top of mind” among Milwaukee Wave consumers when they have loan needs.
In addition to the credit union’s brand name on dasher boards on the field at every game and a booth to provide fans freebies and promote products during the match, Guardian CU’s logo is on the back of the Milwaukee Wave goalkeeper’s jersey.
The Milwaukee Wave draws a crowd of about 5,000 fans per game. Bontempo noted the cost of the partnership is reasonable compared to the cost of partnerships with major league teams.