It is a very interesting question in today's world where “brand” sometimes takes precedence over the substance behind it. The biggest brand names in an industry are constantly looking to measure up against what they stand for, how to control quality and to make sure that the brand is consistent in their messaging. As the late Joe Kennedy used to say “You Are Who You Say You Are,” and brand messaging is all about backing that line up. You want quality, you want consistency, and you want to be able to explain to your constituents both new and old exactly who you are. In an all access environment sometimes that is not easily done.
That consistency of brand is even tougher in sports because for the most part your brand relies on the day to day happening of living beings…athletes, coaches, who are not as easy to manage, have faults and great days like everyone else, and their success is played out in front of millions every time they step on the field, court, ice or pitch. You have to usually build along parallel paths, managing the consumer side of the business (tickets, advertising, sponsorships, media, digital, community and government relations) while still relying on events that are usually out of the control of a core business (wins and losses, injuries etc.) to maintain that quality of brand. Sometimes billions are invested in the team on the business side, and a mediocre result doesn’t yield the best return. Sometimes the business is not run smoothly, the team does really well, and the results from a bottom line standpoint are still not there. It is a very tough balance to strike, and with a startup or an expansion, it can be even tougher.
With all that in mind, let's look at a very unique opportunity emerging on the horizon, the rebirth of the New York Cosmos. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl had a great q and a with the “team”'s newest member, Terry Byrne, online this week. There is no question that the Cosmos of old were one of the defining brands not just in sport, but in the culture of sport, the world over. They helped usher in a new era of glamor, hipness, and popular culture through the dollars of Warner Communications in the late 1970's. Unfortunately the team itself was way ahead of its time in spending, marketing, branding and even interest in soccer in the United States, and it slipped below the horizon with the demise of the North American Soccer League. The return and steady rise of Major League Soccer in the past decade has been calculating and successful…cultivate the grassroots, infuse professional and cost efficient standards and grow the sport organically. Factor in smart marketing and activation partnerships and the result is a viable professional league that still has its best days ahead. All of that growing took place while the sports mega brand, the Cosmos, was slumbering in suburban New Jersey. The pieces of the brand were held by Pepe Pinton, who ran a very successful Cosmos sports camp and held the brand at arms length from anyone in soccer who would come by and try to use it to besmirch its image with a subpar product. that was until last year, when Pau. Kemsley, the chairman and CEO, a former vice chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, came along and bought all the pieces of the brand from Pinton.
So here the Cosmos sit today, as Major League Soccer holds its Superdraft in Baltimore. An established, iconic, sleeping brand, with no players, no stadium, no league but lots of mystique. They have brought in a team of advisors and marketers to help with academies and get exposure, they have even signed sponsors like Umbro (which they probably could not to if they were actually playing in a professional league since there are restrictions on apparel sponsors) who are intrigued by the possibility of what the Cosmos as a lifestyle brand could become again. The fun question will come when the “brand” actually has to start playing games, whether they are friendlies or at some point in a league. What happens when you take a high level, elite brand and mix it into the expansion world of sport. MLS’ one big question in the international world still revolves around quality of play. It has improved greatly, but global soccer fans still consider it a notch below the world's elite clubs for the most part. Could the Cosmos brand suffer damage being an expansion MLS tea.? That is the great question. MLS's biggest successes have been in reviving some old brands in cities like Seattle and now Vancouver. They built a quality business with the old NASL name and then infused quality soccer. However even that quality soccer was not of the mega-elite level that the Cosmos were known for. Will fans follow the brand if the soccer is not world class, with world class name. How much value does “Cosmos” have as just a lifestyle brand once the games begi. If the club does end up across the river from the New York Red Bulls and engages the soccer crazy communities in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island can both clubs sustain, especially with the Red Bulls also looking to use their marketing power to draw big names to fill their stadiu. Is there another, bigger play involved outside of MLS that can really help take professional soccer to a new level in the United State. Will Cosmos as a brand be able to flourish within the steady growth system MLS has built for all, or will its mercurial owners try and push the system to grow and adapt to them in a very challenging economic environmen. It will all be very interesting to watch.
One thing is for sure. The Cosmos as a brand revived have been fun to watch in the abstract thus far. The plans have been strategically unveiled piece by piece, with just enough kept behind the curtain to keep people intrigued and guessing. They have the strong brand part down. If they get the on-field part in place, it could be very interesting for sport and pop culture indeed.