When it comes to soccer, America has always been the odd one out. While the rest of the world overwhelmingly prefers the sport to any other, Americans have traditionally preferred to watch baseball, basketball or their own brand of football. But that’s changing. Soccer is on the rise in the U.S. as more players and viewers discover the sport. Ready to welcome them is the United Soccer League (USL), which is building a new kind of fan base via digital channels. We talked to USL’s SVP of Digital Emerging Tech and Strategy Lizzie Seedhouse to learn more about how they are approaching the challenge of bringing more Americans into the soccer fold.
Lizzie Seedhouse | Interview
Going from SEO to SVP
I’ve always loved building something from nothing. That’s really what the last 10 years of my career have been about, because although I love sport, it’s really the technology that gets me excited. When I graduated from college, I had no real work experience, so a friend of mine got me an entry level job with an SEO company. That company became an incubator for a startup. I was one of the first 10 employees, and they would essentially put limited resources into multiple new businesses and see which ones got traction.
We did a bunch of different things to drive traffic to projects. We had SEO projects, free-to-play games, a copy agency and a marketing company. I got to learn from all of them. Through this, I was able to grow my project management and operational skills and started figuring out how to take the business from 10 to 50 employees. I was able to take that broad experience to the USL where I am now the SVP of Digital Emerging Tech and Strategy.
Owning the digital footprint of soccer
At the USL, if it’s on the internet, it’s my department. That means I oversee about 20% of the staff at the company. My teams cover Social Media, Creative, Web, Apps and Supporter Intelligence. I am responsible for the content, distribution and the platforms for the leagues as well as supporting our 40+ pro clubs to help them employ best practices. I also work with our COO on long term strategic planning.
How the USL builds the future of soccer
The United Soccer League’s mission is to grow soccer as a sport in the United States. We are a bit like the English Football League, with multiple leagues under one structure, covering men’s soccer from age ten to the professional level. We currently have two professional leagues with over 40 clubs, plus an elite-amateur league that plays through the Summer with 80 clubs, so overall there are around 120 clubs under our umbrella. We’re also building the next generation of players. If you get people to play the sport as a kid, they are more likely to be a fan of the sport throughout their lifetime. We now run a youth league that has between ten and twelve thousand kids playing and in May 2021, we are rolling out an Academy League system to help capture and develop talent.
Digital transformation on and off the pitch
A focus on digital really kicked up in 2016 and it’s grown fast. My team has rapidly grown from three to fifteen people. When I joined, we were focusing on building a national footprint and running just three websites – one for each league – but that needed to change. We wanted a unified presence to get a minimum standard to help create a baseline experience and grow the brand. We work with professional sports teams and their digital presence needed to match their level of professionalism as organizations. Finding the best digital tools to support this level of professionalism are also an important way for us to get to engage and build relationship with our fans.
Our digital strategy is based on putting the right tools in our club’s hands to deliver the best experience for the fans while still meeting the needs of the business. There were three key stages:
- Creating a unified web presence
To date, we have a website network of 80 websites on a centralised platform to give all of our teams the power of a professional web presence that we could also use for ad serving. To manage this we used SportsEngine, a trusted partner in sports technology.
- Collecting and analysing the right data
Data is a key tool to understand our fans. We currently have over 500,000 fan records in our database with 14.5 million data attributes. The U.S. is vast, and results in disparities because our fan bases – the fan in Las Vegas engages with their club very differently from the fan in south Florida.
We started ingesting more data over the last 18 months, including ticketing, eCommerce and CRM information. By bringing all that into one place, we’re looking to get a better understanding of our fan base. We also wanted to give our teams these insights. This helps us with growing USL’s reach, and the sport of soccer, by learning how to serve fans better.
- Leveraging mobile apps
Our goal is to build connections via our apps, which can function as a news source, a wallet, a GPS and a line of communication to the club. Part of that is using our scale to help teams get the tools that provide the functionality they need to operate successfully. So far, we’ve deployed 20 club apps through our partner FanThreeSixty. These apps then play into our larger data strategy to get to know our fans. Our apps have really helped us keep our current fans interested and find new ones. The next phase is to build on top of the existing app infrastructure to increase the utility of our mobile apps and further the fan’s experience.
Now that we have a lot of the foundational tools in place, we have to look to the future. What will our clubs need to know and understand about our fans 5 years from now? How will fan’s needs and expectations change in that time? What’s the next best opportunity in our tech stack to build on? One challenge is working with existing systems to unify a club and league digital strategy. But it’s a great challenge to have. Harmonizing data and thinking strategically about ticketing systems, stadium technology or the point of sales will push us to deliver great experiences to soccer fans across America.
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