It is a tough business this brand restoration thing. The hope for those purchasing any distressed brand known by the consumer…from Wham-O to Fresca…is that it rekindles nostalgic memories that entice the consumer and then the product is up to date enough to spur new product growth. Sometimes it works, often times it doesn’t. You see this type of grab many times in entertainment as well…The Coasters for example are all dead and buried, but there are many groups now playing their music who are trying to grab on to the consumer who think that at least one may be the original Coasters. Sometimes they satisfy the consumer, sometimes people get ripped off.
So with that background in mind we have the New York Cosmos…again. It was announced this past week that the Cosmos…with another ownership group…is going to enter the North American Soccer League, one of several minor leagues on the continent struggling to find a place with or behind Major League Soccer. This iteration comes on the heels of the very ambitious program launched and failed by previous investors to take the Cosmos brand and make it into a kind of Harlem Globetrotters with a serious spin. Get the best players in the world, play around the globe and then hope that a league…maybe even the Premier League if not MLS…comes calling. They spent millions on marketing, press conferences, lush offices, apparel and played one match with a ragtag group in the UK and then collapsed. Even the presence of former Cosmos greats like Pele and Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer could not spur enough interest to get the franchise going. Why?
Well one reason is that today’s fans have a very short memory. The Cosmos are an iconic brand, one known world over as best in class in soccer from a time gone by. In many parts of the world they may be the only North American club that a casual fan still knows, although the guess is that given MLS’ growth that is probably no longer true, and that most fans will know of the L.A. Galaxy or the marketing machine of the New York Red Bulls at least. Fans want the quality of today and the gratification of engaging today. They are not as concerned with past glory. It may stir some interest, but not enough to resurrect the brand. This has happened several times recently in sport in North America, where smart business people have tried to seize a dormant brand and use it as leverage for big time success. The ABA, dead for years, has tried and not succeeded in coming back as a pro hoops league. In Connecticut, the former NHL Whalers have not one but two groups, both minor league, the Danbury Whalers of the low level Federal league and the Connecticut Whale of the AHL, who have struggled mightily to draw fans and attention. Even the USFL is now out there again, with many of the same names and lots of plans to launch, but by all accounts thus far have yet to pull in the capital to make a viable effort work.The NASL itself has grabbed the names of former clubs like the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies, but these names combined with the Cosmos may not be enough to break through for the long haul. Some things maybe are left buried.
There is also the thought that those who would support these long ago brands come, sample and see the product is less than what it used to be, so they not only go away but they become a negative force. They don’t want to see the name, or their memories, connected to a sub-par or minor league product. This too can also be devastating for those looking for resurrection.
So that’s the negative. What’s the positive? Despite the recent issues, the Cosmos brand is still strong. We have seen effective brand resurrections in soccer by strong organizations in Seattle and Vancouver and Portland on the MLS side. The blueprint is there. The new ownership group is trying a strong PR push to build support, even without a home as of yet. At least they have a league, albeit a minor one in the NASL for now. It could be a good proving ground to see what a club could do. There is a large potential market east of New Jersey, from Queens to Long Island and into southern Connecticut, that has not really been tapped by the Red Bulls. However there is no real soccer-specific stadium to play in, and in a challenged environment that building would have to come with a huge private raise. Long Island on summers weekends is already choked with traffic (that is what helped kill the WUSA, good product at Long Island’s Mitchell Field that few could get to because of weekend traffic), so figuring out a locale that is accessible is going to be huge. The club also has to overcome a very skeptical soccer core which would love to support but has both grown weary of the promises and now has as viable a local product as ever in the Red Bulls of MLS, not to mention all the “friendlies” coming to this country in July and early August.
So what does all this mean from a brand standpoint? At this point it is still unclear. There are huge hurdles to overcome and challenges to be met yet again for those who believe the Cosmos market is there. Ironically it is not that dissimilar from when Steve Ross and Clive Toye and company first launched the Cosmos brand. The difference now is that the consumer here is much more soccer savvy and that the world of sport business is much more global. If I can access Chelsea or Real Madrid and engage with my club every day, or if I can go see the Red Bulls why do I need this version of the Cosmos? Those are questions yet to be answered.
Maybe a new chapter of brand resurrection will arise for the Cosmos brand, it surely won’t be for lack of trying. The buzz again started with the announcement this week. Will it translate into sales? All depends on the quality of the product, not the packaging.