Fan Experience, Late Season Surges and Quality Branding: Jonathan Wardlaw of Little Rock Rangers, Part 2
"I’d love to have a way around the "pay to play” here."
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It's been an interesting week AP readers. Rumors are swirling, leagues are changing, teams are moving. Depending on your perspective, this is either really exciting or incredibly depressing. Either way, there is still lots to discover in lower level American Soccer.
In October of last year, I interviewed Jonathan Wardlaw as Little Rock Rangers were gearing up for their first season. You can read that interview here. Online there was a lot of resistance to the idea of a team in Arkansas, but Rangers proved them wrong, averaging 3,000 fans a game and almost making the playoffs. To preface, in the pictures below, the stadium will actually look fairly empty, since it's the home of Arkansas College Football. But the interesting thing to note is that each section of seating holds 1,800 people. Put that into perspective, and it's really an exciting thing to see how those could be completely full next season. Keep an eye on Little Rock, big things are coming. Check it out.
You've got season one officially in the books. Started off a little slow, but the team came together and almost made it into the playoffs. How do you feel season one went. success or failure?
I honestly was just focusing on exposure and getting butts in seats for year one. I always said for the first season I wanted to be competitive and just not have lopsided games. If we made the playoffs that would just be icing on the cake. We were one point from the playoffs and I’ll take that. I couldn’t have been more proud of our guys too. We knew we were basically eliminated from the playoffs when we went on a 4 game road trip to end the season. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t think about us going 0-4 on that trip. Well we didn’t we went 4-0! Hopefully the 2017 season will start where we left off.
There was crap getting thrown around about Rangers online before the season started about even having a team in Arkansas and then the teams struggle through the first few games. But you've proved them wrong, and even managed to average 3,000 fans a game. What did you do to get the community that involved and get several thousand people out to your matches?
Well I’m not surprised and honestly don’t blame the skeptics. There have been a few minor league football (American), hockey and basketball teams that have come and gone. The only thing that has stuck around is our minor league baseball team. We are in SEC football country and we aren’t really known for being a juggernaut in producing soccer talent. However, that was my main purpose in starting this team. I want to make it better here. I’m passionate about the sport and we have passionate fans in the area, a lot are just unfamiliar with soccer.
Arkansas has no professional sports franchises; the Arkansas Razorbacks are basically our pro sports team. My hope was to produce a product that was as professional as I could make it on a 4th tier budget, and hopefully Little Rock would latch on to it and embrace it. For the most part it worked! I (secretly) wanted 1500 at our first game and we had over 3700. Man it was awesome. We were all in complete shock and running around like crazy. I honestly hardly remember who I saw and spoke to because I was getting pulled in all different directions.
Our stadium also helps our cause as well. It seats around 50k people, serves beer, is centrally located and has plenty of parking. The stadium management basically gave us the keys to the place and said “ make it (the soccer team) work.” We had food trucks and beer gardens that would arrive 2 hours before our games. there’s huge community of craft beer lovers and food truck lovers here in Little Rock. I hoped if I could get them to my “tailgate parties,” they would then turn around and stay for the games. They stayed!
The Razorbacks have always played at least one game a year here, but there is a rumor that they are pulling out within the next couple years. Our stadium is called War Memorial Stadium and that’s exactly what it is, a memorial but an expensive one. There are many that are concerned of what will happen to it when the revenue from the Razorbacks is gone. They don’t want it to end up as another parking lot for the nearby hospitals and businesses, so they embraced and support us! So many people have come up and said they knew nothing about soccer, but they actually enjoyed the games and thanked me for introducing them to the sport. Now that’s pretty cool.
What are two things, now that you can look back on season one, that you would have done differently?
Oh wow that’s a tough one. I guess first off I would have planned for travel a little better. I just assumed we would rent vans for the shorter trips and then maybe do a charter bus for the longer ones. Well apparently there was some sort of van recall this past summer and all of the rental vans in our area were out of commission for the entire summer. We had to charter buses for all games and that was very expensive.
Second I would have gotten a head start on planning for the season so I could personally enjoy the games more. But hindsight is 20/20 and I just had no clue of what to expect. This year we will be so much more organized and staffed and hopefully we can provide an even better experience for our fans and players.
Do you think taking the time to come up with a quality crest has really helped legitimize the team in any way? It seems like the teams that take the time to really figure out a quality, professionally done crest seem to do much better in terms of overall awareness and even attendance.
Thanks! My wife and I actually designed it at our kitchen table one Saturday morning. I have a Landscape Architecture degree so I’ve had plenty of design courses in my life. I also still have all the software to produce designs. My first goal was to create a brand that people not just in Little Rock can relate to, but people in all of Arkansas can. I wanted something that the non soccer fan would look at and think “I have no clue about soccer but I can relate to that crest in one way or another, so yeah I’d wear that shirt or hat.” It’s all about branding and keeping it local. Don’t run out there and copy the crest and colors from your favorite team in Europe, instead make something that appeals and relates to your community.
Since you've gotten the team established in the Little Rock sports landscape, what's the plan to build on the first season success to draw in more people and turn them into fans?
Well one thing we are doing is starting a WPSL team next season. I was amazed this past year at how many people asked when I was doing a women’s team.
I still want to reach and educate the non-soccer fans here in Little Rock. One of my biggest focusses is just getting people to the stadium, so I will continue to improve on the pregame tailgate. I feel that if I can make the atmosphere attractive enough before the game even starts most people will stick around and root us on.
What are two things you learned for success you had in season 1?
I’m kind of repeating myself but I feel that it is so important to develop a good, classic brand that appeals to your community. You want to create a product that fans are proud to wear. We sold a ton of merchandise at our games, so plan to have plenty on hand.
Second thing I learned is to have plenty of volunteers/interns. You can never have enough. Think about “stations” at games when planning for your season, i.e. who do you want working your merch stand, ticket sales, locker room managers. Plan to have someone in your press box just to be a runner for refreshments for your volunteers in there.
Any goals for the Rangers in season 2, other than the playoffs?
I had a goal last year to have 1500 at our first game. This year I want 5000.
Are there any tips you can share about connecting with the local community to make sure people come to the games and support the team?
Social media is just so huge; stay on it and keep fans engaged with news about the club. Another thing, buy tons of stickers and hand them out at every opportunity. People love stickers. Look into participating in community parades and having some players attend end of the year field days at local schools. Also have plenty of Sharpies on hand. The kids love autographs.
Now that it looks like Rangers can become a long term institution in Little Rock, how has that changed your planning, if it has at all, about where you'd like to see the team in 5 years?
I’d love to have a youth academy soon. More specifically I’d love to have a way around the "pay to play” here. I want to get the lower income kids into the sport. When going outside to play, I want to see them grab a soccer ball every now and then rather than any other ball...
How important is it for you to get an academy of the ground, not just for making soccer accessible, but for ensuring the team has a strong and lasting future?
It’s so important. Our kids are behind technically and we need to focus more on player development. When I watch our kids play it’s concerning and exciting at the same time. We have some great athletes and minds out there on the fields, but they just aren’t very technical and some don’t seem comfortable on the ball. The simple things like first touch and using both feet need to be improved. I hope we can create a model and some middle ground that all the youth clubs in the area can agree on. It’s fine to compete against each other on the field and on the business side I guess, but there seems to be such a divide and competitiveness among the clubs on coaching as well. Too many egos. We need to all get together and make a unified curriculum.
Also I think more focus needs to be on the little kids and academy age groups. It seems most of these programs are just afterthoughts and coached by dads and most of the time completely chaotic. This age is where I hear most of the complaints from parents. I think these are the kids (and parents) we need to nurture and bend over backwards for. These are the kids (and parents) that are the future of the sport and one’s we could lose to other sports. Maybe this is something the LR Rangers could help the youth clubs with somehow.
With the first season in the books, who do you think wound up being your biggest rival?
Oh wow that’s a tough one. That might be a better question for the players and coaches. I can say I was very happy to beat Memphis City FC for a couple reasons, one being that it was our very first game and another that our youth clubs play each other quite often and there's a little bit of a rivalry there on the Little Rock side at least.
What should fans be looking to expect from Rangers in season two?
Much more organization (both on and off the field). Other than that I hope they see a lot of the same from last season, with the exception of converting some of those close losses to wins. From everything I’ve heard all of our players really enjoyed their experience playing for us and all want to come back. We are still going to keep focusing on a more possession based, build out of the back style of play as well. I think it is so important for our youth to watch and learn this type of play. Yeah we might score more goals by banging it out of the back and running on to it, but I just don’t feel that is the way real soccer should be played.