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?”