As Sports World Pauses, Forward Madison Goes Digital With Jersey Event

    • USL League One club Forward Madison has emerged as one of the top merchandise-selling clubs in U.S. soccer.
    • Due to the coronavirus, the club has pivoted a live local fan-facing event to YouTube, potentially reaching a global audience.

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On March 14, USL League One club Forward Madison was planning on having more than 400 of its most passionate fans join executives, players, and coaches at a music venue in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, for one of the more exciting moments on a soccer club’s pre-season calendar – the jersey reveal.

This particular reveal was a bit special for the second-year club as well, given that this year’s jersey had been entirely designed by members of its supporters club who also added a unique twist to it – in between the stripes of the jersey are the more than 900 names that make up the club’s season ticket holder base.

It also marked a crucial commercial moment for the club, which has prided itself in not only being one of the most fan engaging clubs in American soccer, but also one of its most fashion-focused, highlighted by its visually arresting pink jerseys.

In the 10-club USL League One, which is the third-tier of U.S. professional soccer, Forward Madison’s uniquely flamboyant jerseys and merchandise not only ranked top across its league in sales but effectively doubled all of the rest of the teams combined. Across the 47 clubs that are under the USL umbrella across the U.S., and Forward Madison ranked in the top five.

But as those reveal plans unraveled due to the coronavirus outbreak, Forward Madison executives quickly pivoted to find a way to celebrate the event with fans still, but in a more digitally focused way.

“For us, we try to make every decision fan-first and fan-friendly as a club; as the situation evolved the last few days with COVID-19, we knew it was not going to be possible to do this event,” said Kuba Krzyzostaniak, Forward Madison director of fan engagement.

So instead of a live event, Forward Madison decided to go digital, hosting all of its celebrations on YouTube in an effort it hopes reaches even more fans across the globe.

“We’ve prided ourselves on our ability to have fans all over the country – in fact, we have a season-ticket holder that lives in Switzerland that comes in for one game a season and donates the rest of the tickets. This gives us a chance to bring those fans into the event,” Krzyzostaniak said. “Soccer is also a sport that many people in the U.S. wake up at 6 a.m. to watch and mostly follow through the digital world.”

During the live stream, several elements of what would have occurred at the in-person event will carry over: players will be featured, there will be a Q&A with the club’s owner and head coach, and the fans who designed the jersey will appear to talk about that process.

There will be a few features that will only happen because of the format – there will be a separate camera on the club’s merchandise manager, who will be fulfilling orders of the new jersey as they come in.

“We might even crack open some beers and have some fun,” Krzyzostaniak said.

While the club has done some live-streaming on YouTube before – Krzyzostaniak said last year it recorded roughly four programs it calls Mingos Worldwide, which looked to connect with its fans across the globe – its not something it has done regularly. The club currently has nearly 600 subscribers on YouTube.

Forward Madison has been promoting the event across its social channels this week, as well as through its newsletter and a note to season-ticket holders. It has not bought any paid social advertising for it, Krzyzostaniak said.

Krzyzostaniak said while the club doesn’t have a viewership goal for the event, Forward Madison does hope the event brings something unique to a sports calendar that is suddenly barren, while also delivering a boost to the club’s commercial efforts amid a season suspension.

“The live stream is low-cost for us, and with games being suspended now, it’s a boost in an uncertain time,” Krzyzostaniak said, noting that when its pink jersey launched last year, it sold out all of its products within 72 hours. “We’re also excited to give people a little bit of a distraction.”