As Phoenix Rising FC’s VP of Marketing & Sales , Sam Doerr has helped transform the club into one of the flagships of the USL Championship through building a strong local and national brand. | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC
PHOENIX – At the time, it might have seemed like an interesting detour, but when Sam Doerr arrived at South Dakota State University five years ago to become an Assistant Athletic Director charged with marketing the Jackrabbits to the on-campus community, it proved a transformational moment in his young professional career.
“I really had to learn how to connect with students and millennials,” Doerr said recently. “I know it’s a buzzword, but [SDSU] is where I really learned how to get students and millennials – who have a thousand different things going on – to come out to a sporting event. It’s really where I learned some of those strategies and learned how to connect with that group.”
The lessons Doerr learned there, and in the two stints with Spurs Sports & Entertainment that surrounded his sojourn to Brookings, S.D., has helped Phoenix Rising FC quickly become one of the most visible USL Championship clubs both in its local market and on a national level.
Doerr arrived in Arizona to become Rising FC’s VP of Marketing & Sales almost two years ago having previously helped establish fellow Championship club San Antonio FC’s place in the Alamo City as an expansion side in 2016. In Phoenix, instead of having a blank slate to work with, Doerr arrived at a club that had three-and-a-half seasons of history, but that was working to gain traction in market after the launch of its Rising FC brand the previous offseason.
“It was a club that was already up and running, but it was one that was going over a makeover I guess is the best word to say,” said Doerr. “So, we really had to build this club up, not from nothing, but we had to get it to a point where we were relevant in the market, and in the league.”
The offseason rebrand and marketing campaign had brought some much-needed sizzle to Rising FC’s new image, but it was then Doerr’s job to organically build a fanbase that had a strong central base but needed to attract more casual fans to buoy attendance at its new venue, now named Casino Arizona Field. From smart gameday promotions to partnerships that have put the Rising FC brand front and center on products ranging from eggs and hot sauce to brand names like El Jimador and Jack Daniels in the local marketplace, it’s safe to say the goal of making sure consumers in the Phoenix market see the Rising FC logo on a daily basis is being accomplished.
And living in a market that also includes teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, Rising FC’s ability to create a different atmosphere around its image has made it a high-value alternative for local businesses that share the club’s vision for future growth.
“We have a lot of energy, and we are going to challenge the norm,” said Doerr. “We want to partner with somebody that’s not afraid to push the envelope, not afraid to grow, that’s not afraid to set high standards and goals and then try to surpass them. You know, it’s what we look for in the players we are signing, and it’s what we look for from a partnership side of things. I’d say that’s the key, that a partnership has to be with somebody who is eager to grow, eager to succeed and isn’t afraid to kind of to push the envelope and take on some challenges.”
Rising FC is now averaging attendance that sits above capacity at Casino Arizona Field as the club enters this Friday night’s clash with Tulsa Roughnecks FC. The club’s play on the field hasn’t hurt that – not only did the side win the Championship’s Western Conference title last season, but did so with its leading players reeling off highlight-reel material consistently throughout the campaign – but as important as the club’s on-field success has been, the connection the club has made with its growing fanbase has been just as key.
Jamaican international Kevon Lambert celebrates with fans after Rising FC's victory against Rio Grande Valley FC on May 10 at Casino Arizona Field. | Photo courtesy Michael Rincon / Phoenix Rising FC
While it’s still pitching itself as the thing to do in a crowded entertainment marketplace on a Friday or Saturday night, Rising FC has taken care to make sure that its work remains authentic to its fans and that the experience will keep people coming back game after game.
“To me, you’ve got to have a nice balance of doing what you think is right as a club, and doing things that are going to move the club forward, but also you’ve got to strongly listen and engage with your fanbase because at the end of the day your revenue streams all start with your fans,” said Doerr “The companies that are partnering with you are doing it because of your fanbase and their engagement, so to me, it’s having fans feel like they are empowered and have a voice. I think we are doing a nice job of that, and the vision of our fans is on our priority list every single day.”
That culture is one that has taken hold at other clubs around the league, especially some of the more recent newcomers that Doerr has helped provide guidance to as a guest speaker at previous editions of the USL Winter Summit. He’s also enjoying his new role as a Board Member for Arizona State University’s Sports Advisory Board, where he able to bring the real-life experiences from his career to those who hope to follow in his footsteps one day.
“When I look back to my college experience there was very little that applied to what I do on a day to day basis,” said Doerr. “To me, it’s a great chance to interact with the future work force. We’ve hired a lot of students to be quite frank – my last two or three hires have been from the school of business at ASU – because I’ve had a chance to interact with some of the students, but also it’s a chance for me to pass on some of my experience and make sure they are prepared as they can be when they are ready to graduate.”
And the environment those future graduates will be coming into is one that will be ripe with opportunity. From the future growth of the Championship and USL League One to the arrival of the FIFA World Cup to the United States, Mexico and Canada in 2026, there has never been a more exciting time to be working in professional soccer.
“We are still in our formative stages as a club, as a league, as a sport,” said Doerr. “I think it’s going to continue to grow, and I think in five years if we are having this conversation, there’s going to be a lot of exciting things that we in Phoenix, and we in the USL and as a sport in general, will have contributed to the American sports landscape.”