With the first hint of fall you start to hear the bounce in thousands of parks and recreational centers across the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It is the thwack of kids from four to their mid-teens dribbling and passing soccer balls. Like baseball and softball in the spring, fall soccer is a rite of passage more now than ever before amongst young kids. Still even with the grassroots success, the connection to the pro game still lags behind, perhaps in the New York area more than anywhere else in the United States, and it is that disconnect which has continued to slow the growth of MLS in the biggest media market in the world. While MLS has had great success in Washington, great buzz in LA, solid plans built out in Dallas and Columbus and Chicago and New England, the New York market remains a frustrating afterthought.
So is hope on the wa. Perhaps. Last year's run by the Red Bulls put some life in the franchise, but the combination of delays in moving to the new Red Bull Park, a cutback in marketing and branding over previous years (ironically by one of the world's leaders in guerilla brand building, the Red Bull parent company), and a dreadful season have really put a damper on their growth in branding and marketshare in the area. In Southern Jersey, the lure of an expansion MLS franchise with solid support and branding out of the gate should help the growth of the pro side, while the WPS title taken by Sky Blue FC may help a bit on the women's side, although the lack of all traditional branding outlets…a home field, marketing and partnership dollars and television…really slowed any chance of success for the brand in their inaugural year. Even with those problems, the grassroots for soccer, and all the potential branding opportunities to cultivate and then embrace fans of the sport as they go through their developmental years from players to consumers are still here for the taking. Ironically, the soccer brand that continues to have the most name recognition and success at the camp level in the area is a brand that has been gone from the pro game for over 30 years…the Cosmos, and their soccer camps in Rockland and Noethern New Jersey.
So what will it take for the grassroots to transform into professional success in this area. An extended, committed brand marketing campaign aimed at youth is critical. The establishment of stars, both on the field and off, is second. The intimacy of a home field and the use of all means possible in the social and traditional media market is third. Can it be don. Ironically with the opening of Red Bull Park next season that home field, if marketed correctly, can be a big step. The building of stars is not easy, but has been done in other markets even with the restrictions of the MLS cap, but the brand must also invest the dollars around the players developing to be successful. That is an investment each team must decide to make on their own. The last point is the grassroots attachment. These days fleeting attention spans tend to make the youth market very tough to access, but with a weekly captive audience, attaching and building a brand with regular contact, information and messaging can and should happen. Will we see success on the brand side for soccer in New Yor. Tough to say at this point. The potential remains, but the brands must decide what the dollar investment needs to be to get there, and in this challenged economy, that spend may be a very tough one.
Some other good reads…The Bergen Record's Stefan Bondy had a good piece on the surreal season of WPS champ Sky Blue FC…the Washington Post's Liz Clarke had a good profile of Rafael Nadal...the LA Times’ had a good piece on the cash flow issues facing European soccer… the Sporting News had a solid q and a on the Rick Pitino issue and how much damage he has done to his brand…and the Orlando Sentinel had a good look at what college teams are trying to do to limit media and control messaging…