Five things theater can learn from the World Cup.

Well, it took twenty years, but “football” has finally tipped in the US. I remember when my female cousin from Norway had to fight for a chance to try out for our high school soccer team.  They didn’t even have a women’s team!  (BTW, not only did she make the team, but she made the starting line-up, and scored more times than Tiger Woods at a “Golfers Who Love To Text Strippers” convention.)

Times have changed, and the number of people in New York City wearing soccer jerseys these days certainly proves it.  We’ve all got World Cup fever.

Now, how can we make that fever contagious and help spread a similar fanaticism about theater?  Here are five things theater can learn from the World Cup.

1.  NEW AUDIENCES CAN BE FOUND

People said soccer/football would never be big in this country.  It took time, but a whole bunch of people who have never watched competitive soccer are watching now.  And I guarantee they’ll watch more in the future.  While we will always need to satisfy our core audience first, we can’t ignore outreach efforts for new audiences.  They are out there.  We have to be persistent.  We have to be creative.  And we have to be accessible.

2.  PARTICIPATION IS THE KEY TO LONG-TERM GROWTH

Do you think it’s a coincidence that 25 years ago there was no girls’ team in my hometown, and no one gave a crap that Argentina beat Germany in a 3-2 squeaker?  Soccer became a bigger part of American life just a couple of decades ago . . . and now those kids are grown up, and are loving watching what they participated in.  The arts are no different.  If it were mandatory that every kid out there performed in at least one play during their high school career (and I’m not saying that it should be), Broadway would have a bigger fan base.  Today’s participants are tomorrow’s audience.

3.  GIVE ‘EM SOMEBODY TO ROOT FOR

A friend of mine is 1/4 Spanish, but you’d never know it.  If you saw him coming down the street, you’d think he was cut out of a Gap ad, the guy is so ‘American’ looking.  But somewhere along his genetic journey, he got a little Spanish blood in his system.  Well, ever since Spain started making a run at the Cup, he’s been touting that Spanish blood like he’s a direct descendant of Don Quixote!  He bought jerseys, set up viewing parties, and more.  And he doesn’t even speak the language or like the food!  When publicizing your shows, make sure you take advantage of where your cast, crew, and creatives are from, and what they do. Give the audience a way to feel connected to each person involved with your production, and they’ll passionately support your product.

4.  LESS OFTEN IS MORE EXCITING

There’s nothing like a little scarcity to make people more excited when your event rolls around.  The World Cup is only every four years.  It’s so special that people are giving up many other entertainment opportunities to make sure they don’t miss each GOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLL!  In fact, this may be the first year the World Cup has had a negative effect on Broadway ticket sales.  (We slump during other major sporting events like the Super Bowl – you don’t think this took a bite out of some biz this year?)  So maybe your show doesn’t have to do 8 shows a week.  Maybe scheduling is like a good juicy steak:  the more rare it is, the more your audience will be drooling for it.

5.  EVERYONE LOVES A COMPETITION

We’ve been watching competitions since the beginning of time.  I bet even Adam and Eve bet on the snake races.  There’s something about watching one team go up against another.  It’s why competitive sports, board games (and war), bring out such enthusiasm and pride with both players and audiences.  Shows don’t go head-to-head in the same way that sports teams do (no one has taken me up on this idea yet) but there has to be a way to make it seem like we do.  Ask yourself what would make your audience paint their face for you.

I’m no Pollyanna.  I don’t believe theater will ever compete with major competitive sports (except maybe Championship Chess Boxing or Wife Carrying).  But there is something we can learn from how they have increased their dominance on the attention span of the world.

And maybe, just maybe, 25 years from now, my kid will say, “remember when high schools didn’t have a Broadway team?”

Guess what? The Tonys aren’t about reaching new audiences.

The Tony Awards ratings dropped a disappointing 8% this year, despite one of our most celebrity-studded presentations ever.  We had Green Day and a NY Jet and more Hollywood stars than the Betty Ford clinic.

So why didn’t tons of new viewers tune in and get hooked on showtunes?

Because it’s still a three-hour presentation about the very nichey subject of theater.  And if you’re not a theater fan, most likely you are not tuning in, I don’t care who you dress up in a gown and teach an R&H song to.

Are my football-loving and Budweiser-drinking friends from suburban Massachusetts all of a sudden going to give up three hours of their lives because a NY Jet has a 45-second intro to a musical?

Is the JetBlue pilot who flew me from Tampa to JFK but lives in Houston and has never seen a show in his life gonna feel so compelled to turn on the Tonys just because he loved Sean Hayes’s character from Will & Grace?

Or is my Brooklyn-based little brother, who works as a sound engineer mostly in the hip-hop scene (although he has worked a few sessions of Broadway musicals), gonna take time out from mixing beats to watch the number from Fela?

The answer is no, no, and whatever the word for ‘No’ is in Nigerian.

But don’t be depressed.  They were never the audience.  Sure, we’d all love it if millions of viewers turned on CBS just to catch a glimpse of Denzel in a tux, but that’s just not what happens.  Do a few more folks tune in because we’ve got a couple of folks from Glee?  Probably . . . but it’s not enough to make any noticeable difference.

And that fact has never been more noticeable than this year, with the almost double-digit drop in ratings.

But don’t be depressed, because IMHO, our mission with the Tony Awards isn’t about reaching new audiences (especially since it’s not working anyway).

Our marketing mission of the Tony Awards, should be energizing our core audience, the ones that tune in year after year, and to try to excite them so much that they . . .

  • See one more show per year than they usually do.
  • Bring a friend to a show who would not have gone on their own.

Pareto’s Principle states that 80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes. Rather than focusing on trying to reach past our 20%, we should focus our efforts (and our awards shows) on that 20%, the faithful who are tuning in.  The show should whip them up into such a Broadway frenzy, that they go out and preach its importance as entertainment louder than the year before.

Because here’s what we know:

  • Word of Mouth is what sells everything.
  • People fall in love with the theater after being introduced to it by someone else.

New audiences don’t buy Broadway because they see a clip or a star on a Tony Award show.  They fall for what we do because they are dragged to it by someone else.  I didn’t have any clue what I was going to see when my Mom dragged me to Les Miz when I was 16, and I had been involved in the theater since I was 5.  But that performance changed my life.

I had never seen a Tony Awards before then.

And I’ve never missed one since.

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