Barclay’s Premier League | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

As Their NASL Season Two Begins, Can “Brand Cosmos” Keep Growing?

The past few weeks the legendary Pele has made the rounds of book stores and media venues hyping his new book, while fans around the world stay glued to TV’s and mobile devices watching Champions League, news of coming World Cup, and final races for all the elite leagues across Europe. In North America, Major League Soccer continues to expand its footing as its franchises ramp up their marketing push and the league itself readies for expansion with new clubs in Orlando and New York and the continued buzz of a potential David Beckham-led franchise in Miami and new announcements in markets like Atlanta and potentially cities like Austin. As a brand, soccer continues to find its place in North America being more solid than ever.

So where does that leave the North America Soccer League and its flagship brand, the New York Cosmos? Tough to say for the long term. The Cosmos, as iconic a name in soccer as there ever was, came roaring back to life last summer on Long Island, amidst the fanfare of a title and several solid crowds at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium. Talk of global tours elite players and a massive stadium in Queens were all the rage.

 Now? With several NASL cities that have done well appearing to get MLS, the league remains a bit of a question mark for its long term stability as the competition for professional soccer visibility rises, while the “brand” Cosmos can only sell so much. Factor in a Red Bulls team in its state of the art facility that has considerably expanded its marketing efforts in recent months…doing viewing parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn now as well as in the Garden State, and the fact that Manchester City and the Yankees are riding into the market with a club in a to-be-determined location, and the Cosmos are going to have their work cut out for them to find an effective and profitable niche.

However the club still has a few things in its favor. Since 1977, many of those New York areas kids have been involved in the Cosmos brand because of the highly successful camps that former team executive Pepe Pinton continued to run at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Thousands of kids continued to know of the Cosmos without ever seeing a match, and those kids, and the camps’ ample data base, provide a very nice marketing push that any expansion club in any sport would die for. The club also has the name, which holds up well in any global soccer conversation, albeit the brand and those playing for the brand now are not on equal par just yet.  They also have the ability to market, and draw in brands, without many of the encumbrances of a well marketed national league. The team grabbed Emirates Airways as a jersey sponsor for example, because NASL has no current airline partner, and many of those categories are left wide open for the sales force to secure without having to share large chunks of revenue. They have also found other partners to come on board and do a good job of marketing the elite stars of their past to keep the brand relevant in a crowded marketplace as they open their title defense. They have also take the brand on the road in the offseason to soccer hotbeds, making sure that the team name, if not the current players, still is resonating. A new TV contract should also help bring more visibility as the battle for brand relevance for both the league and the team keeps moving along.

 Most importantly, while the club looks west to Madison Avenue for recognition, they should also look east for a solid example on how to market and expand a largely independent sports brand amongst the millions of people who live on Long Island. The Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic Baseball League, have done a tremendous job of building, maintaining and expanding a year-round fan base while bringing in media exposure and sponsor dollars not usually seen in independent baseball. They fill their field in Suffolk County and have become a fabric of a community that may never cross a bridge into Manhattan, and those Long Island-savvy fans will embrace a quality product that markets to them more than anyone who looks to just pull from areas in the New York City or even New Jersey or nearby Connecticut.

 The NHL Islanders were beloved on Long Island for years at Nassau Coliseum before the ugly fight over the aging building drove fans and brands away. Many may return as the team improves and they look west to their new Barclays Center home in Brooklyn, but  there remain thousands of fans looking for affordable, fun entertainment who could embrace a Cosmos brand for years if the team puts itself in a position to do so.

 Now maybe Hofstra’s former football field is not the long-term play, but maybe the oft-talked about stadium at Belmont Park isn’t the answer either. Maybe there is a play further east, even towards the open space that Stony Brook University has built a quality athletics complex on, that could make more sense. Most think that the Cosmos ownership is looking globally more than locally, but that global look takes big bucks and certainly won’t happen overnight, and it probably won’t happen in the NASL. Would a European group..The Barclays Premier League or some form of a global champions league…put down roots in two East Coast cities and make the Cosmos one of their tentpoles? That’s a long shot as well, and the MLS inclusion, barring some far-fetched merger with NYCFC, won’t work at all. The Red Bulls advanced push has also shrunk the market a bit, so maybe, at least for now, the major play is to grow its fan friendly…dare we say it…minor league approach of fun events with competitive soccer as the Cosmos become kings of NASL again, and then go from there. It may not fill Met Life Stadium or even Red Bull Arena or in every case 14,000 seats at Hofstra, but it certainly would make sense to grow slowly, manage expectations and take the established name and insert it consistently back into the conversation  not just for buzz, but for sales and quality world class play as well.

 It was a good start for the Cosmos last summer, but the real test is in the offing to see if a world class brand can be a world class business in all aspects on and off the field, with a potential audience of millions right in their eastern backyard. 

MLS Kicks Off, Is Their Next Stage of Brand Arrival Here?

For years Major League Soccer screamed and kicked as a brand to get noticed as a growing property. Expansion, grassroots growth, television deals, celebrity owners, recognizable mainstream athletes, integration in broadcast television, brand partnerships with companies engaging in sport for first time, wide-ranging multicultural marketing, unique team names, embracing of social media and aggressive and continued calls to action on every level were part of the mix. Now as their 19th season kicks off, some question whether MLS has arrived, and what is next, no longer as the newer kid on the block, but as a viable sports business property mentioned in the same breath in the American landscape with the four traditional “team” sports; NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB; as well as probably NASCAR and in some cases even the PGA.  Has MLS arrived to be a regular partner in that space, from a business perspective?

In most ways it would be hard to say that at least “brand soccer” has not entered into the mix.  The massive expansion of broadcast and digital coverage of the world’s elite clubs, as well as an increased marketing push into the United States, makes it just as easy to see young kids wearing a Real Madrid jersey in most major cities as it does to see a Yankees or Cubs jersey. Elite clubs continue to target their offseason…the late spring and early summer…for “friendlies” in cities across North America, matches used as much as marketing tools as shows of high level of play. More American sports businessmen than ever are involved in ownership positions in clubs big and small across Europe, giving a duality to the marketing of clubs on both sides of the Atlantic than ever before. A host of clubs, from Chelsea to Bayern Munich to Boca Juniors, have also set up either full scale or satellite offices designed to market their clubs in the U.S., and several are developing “academies” not just to sell apparel, create broadcast product and better ingrain their brands into American sport but to develop youth talent for export overseas when the time comes, with their system of training already intact.   With the Brazil World Cup now in full view for June, the marketing of “soccer” in the United States has never been more prominent.

So where does this leave MLS as the season kicks off this weekend? The issues of a failed effort with Chivas USA and the struggles of some clubs to fill distressed seats is offset by the successful launches of clubs in the Pacific Northwest and the growing excitement of new clubs in Orlando and New York (which will be the interesting experiment to see how two mega-brands, the Yankees and Manchester City FC, combine to build a successful MLS team on and off the pitch). A new stadium in San Jose and the continued innovation by clubs like Sporting Kansas City make more noise than the issue of a referees strike to open the season. David Beckham’s interest in ownership in South Florida creates more casual buzz than DC United’s struggles to find a proper home in the soccer-crazed Capitol District. Chipoltle coming on board with their grandest sports activation platform to date gets more interest than Volkswagen’s exit, and all hopes for “arrival” of MLS can be hinged to World Cup, not just in the success of the U.S. Men’s National team, but in the proper leverage of the excitement of all things soccer back to MLS clubs once the World Cup winner is crowned.  It is a similar challenge/opportunity that the NHL has faced coming off the 2014 Sochi Olympics; how to bring all that casual interest back to the arenas when the regular season starts again. The buzz was about the game as much as the individuals, and that is what MLS needs to grab on to and maximize in the lead up and then through the season that ends in the fall. Pivoting off that success on every level is going to be key, and then maintaining that success with stars not yet known for future growth will be a massive challenge.

In many ways MLS has used its relatively blank canvas as a best case scenario for innovation. Leagues with long legacies and “traditions” have habits good and bad that are hard to break. Creating new ticketing and activation patterns in the NFL is not easy with owners are used to doing things successfully for decades. Getting million dollar players to buy in to challenging marketing programs is not that simple in the NBA or MLB all the time. For MLS, a sport hungry for growth, the barriers for change are much lower, and because of that, more projects can be tested. Some fail and are forgotten, but the triumphs are trumpeted to a large degree, such as jersey sponsorship or marketing to a devout Latino population. Broadcast ratings, a staple for support in almost every sport, are downplayed in favor of grassroots and digital integration and “forward thinking” programs for brands.  Would larger TV numbers for MLS be welcomed in a heartbeat? Sure. However with numbers not really there, the experience of MLS is what is trumpeted, all leading again to world Cup and the global celebration of soccer.

Is MLS, as some critics say, more sizzle than steak or is it ready to take a bold next step in the sports conversation in the U.S.? There is steady growth, innovation and a constant beating of the drum by all involved that the path taken is the right one. These past few weeks, from the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference to South by Southwest, you will not find a group gathering of sports, tech or business leaders in the country where an MLS leader is not present, talking about their brand and what is coming. Winning hearts and minds as well as dollars and eyeballs is really key for this year and beyond for the brand, and the league is leaving no stone unturned when looking for ways to tell its story to influencers, fans and innovators.  In reality, if there was an alternative way to build a professional sports league  in the 21st century in North America, no one has presented it.  Many other sports; spring football, lacrosse, bowling, basketball, rugby, cricket and on and on; have tried or are about to try, to find a secret sauce for brand launch and have struggled to get traction in any way. MLS is the only one that seems to have not just cracked the code, but has redefined it. 

Is there a big enough market in the States for MLS to continue to grow? What about the push of the NASL? Is there some mix of a global city by city franchise of elite clubs that could be in the offing in the future? Would an elite and established  European league try and pout roots down in the States offering a best in class lineup that MLS is still striving to offer to fans? Is the real appetite for soccer one which watches the world’s current elite clubs on TV and in digital and then gets to see them in person during the offseason?  One thing is for sure, soccer, from a talent level, from a grassroots level and from an awareness level, has never been more visible in North America than it is today.  MLS has positioned itself to be the brand of choice for fans wishing to engage in every level year-round, and now has the global excitement of World Cup to leverage off of. Will it be successful in its boldest stage of growth as a brand? The pieces are in place, now we watch and see what the marketplace has to say.  

MLS Provides A Well-Timed Visit To Kick Off The Media Season

It certainly isn’t easy to cut through a cluttered February landscape that includes NBA All-Star, the Olympics and USA Hockey’s dramatic weekend, the peak of college basketball season, the coming NFL Combine, pitchers and catchers reporting and the Daytona 500, but Major League Soccer went on a strategic quest to find its preseason niche this past week, bringing their stars to the media at a time of year when even local MLS media are off doing other things as teams train in warmer climates in preparation for the start of the season. Much like what MLB is does in Arizona (bringing the Cactus League managers together in one location to better serve the media upon their arrival in Phoenix), MLS took a diverse group of players to the media in what was a combination immediate media coverage, brand building, awareness seeding exercise which was wide ranging and generated some solid awareness, especially among casual fans, of MLS when their thoughts were probably elsewhere prior.

The players  MLS’ took on the two day junket included Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Michael Bradley and Tim Cahill, a group that has both domestic and international appeal, services many markets and can talk to the big picture about many topics in and around soccer and the coming MLS season and the World Cup.  They were racially and geographically diverse with some local ties (two being New York Red Bulls, one from New Jersey) and understood the reasons and value of leaving training and other commitments to promote the game that has given them so much.

The visit was actually very well timed despite the busy calendar. With a holiday in place many outlets might be looking for a softer side of coverage, and the lack of any other regular season games to cover (perhaps only the second time that a weekend had no regular season NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA games in at least 25 years) combined with a bit of a respite in the Olympics provided a manageable window to engage on platforms that on a busier time might have passed on MLS.

During the two days, the group made stops at the predictable (ESPN, Univision, SI),  and the trendy (GQ), but also dropped in for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Time Magazine, CNN, Bloomberg TV and FS1’s “Crowd Goes Wild.”  The players also found the time in the schedule to do the grassroots as well, hosting a soccer clinic in Harlem at the Children’s Aid Society, before ending up at a photo shoot and at the Empire State Building.

Was the two day two the massive junket that a film would do, replete with Late Show and screaming throngs of fans? No, but that was not the ultimate goal. It was to shake the relevant media outlets, plant seeds for future coverage and continue a conversation that will become more and more relevant as the MLS season starts, and more importantly for soccer and its partners, for when World Cup kicks in to engage casual fans globally in the late spring. The Tour was not done with athletes fresh off Olympic glory or a world championship; it was done in advance of future success, and ironically did not include anyone from last year’s MLS Cup Championship between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake. It included relevant, recognizable faces with stories that appealed to the market, and in the end building that ubiquitous appeal was key for MLS to start cutting through the clutter and becoming more top of mind for media outlets hence forth in what will be a key year for on-field growth and awareness, with a year of expansion on the docket for 2015.

Timing Is Everything; Beckham Boosts American Soccer Again…

The past week after the Super Bowl, the Today Show, in the midst of its Olympic buzz, welcomed a global star to its air. It wasn’t Russell Wilson and his freshly minted NFL title; it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin, headed for Sochi and the homestanding Russian team; it wasn’t Lindsay Vonn, readying for her on-air role for Sochi. It was David Beckham and he was talking not Barclays Premier League or World Cup, he wasn’t talking Super Bowl underwear ads. He was talking Major League Soccer, on a dreary morning where most of the Northeast was longing for pitchers and catchers in sports and most MLS teams were off in some warm clients training for a season still to come in most home markets.

The timing was great, and the announcement was simple; the global star was bringing his brand back to help the league jump once again in another warm weather location, this time Miami, as the new “owner” of the latest MLS expansion franchise. They don’t have financing or a stadium, the announcement was  to let the world know Beckham had exercised his expiring option to own a team, and that choice would be Miami, a city where if you aren’t the Heat on a title run you have a tough time filling seats and capturing the attention of sports fans. Regardless of the obstacles, the day was a great one for MLS, which used the Beckham celebrity to inject itself into the global sports and business conversation at a time where they were a distant afterthought even in the soccer world which past midseason across Europe and is starting to ramp up for Brazil World Cup later this year.

The announcement was full of what MLS sells best; future hope combined with lots of buzz as it continues to build the quality of its play and the value of its franchises.  It had all the right trappings; mentions of celebrity owners coming in, a call to action for the Latino audience dominant in South Florida to embrace a professional soccer franchise, a that an elite former player was now focused on creating a new legacy off the field in the game he loves, and a that a market where MLS had died years ago was now mature and ready to grow again, not unlike cities like Washington have done with baseball and Sacramento in some ways is going through with basketball. Miami is now a welcomed and potential great success story for soccer in America.

Now when the sizzle clears there is lots to be done and many questions to be raised; where does the money come from, who builds the stadium, can Beckham, with no managerial experience and lots of business initiatives, spend the time and hire all the right people to make the franchise a success as a business and as a soccer club, and even if he does, will the fickle Miami audience turn out?  While a big announcement for sure, others questioned why the next franchise wouldn’t be in a more mature soccer city like Atlanta, San Antonio or Austin, vs. the risky move back to South Beach. However for today, having Beckham back in the fold was great news for MLS, and helps jump start a series of events for 2014 that can continue to propel the business of soccer in the States forward. It follows the popular partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City Football Club to add an expansion franchise to New York, and the string announcement to bring Central Florida, a very solid soccer market already, a club in Orlando all of which sounded good and brought buzz and like Miami, are still off in the distance as to what level of actual success can be achieved with such high expectations.

We all know in sport nothing is easy, and when dealing with real life drama on and off the field even the best plans and biggest dreams can go awry. However for MLS to cut through a cluttered February landscape already filled with Olympics, the Super Bowl business hangover, the coming NBA All-Star game and more than enough exciting college sports (not to mention Daytona for NASCAR and Pebble Beach in golf), was a huge score for soccer, and a move which has set the tone once again for what can be an exciting, and definitely intriguing sports business landscape not just for 2014 but for the next few years to come as these new franchises look to emulate the success of places like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver with lots of sizzle, and hopefully a steak to go with it, the latest one in the hands of one of the world’s most recognizable faces, now settling in in South Florida.  

NFL Brings More “There” Over There…But Why? Some Thoughts…

The NFL continues to amp up its marketing agenda both domestically and abroad from mandating elite teams participate in “Hard Knocks” to expanding the number of games in London going forward, and making sure that elite teams like the Dallas Cowboys (next year) help augment the sometimes iffy matchups served up by longtime stakeholder the Jacksonville Jaguars and others. Strong record or not, the Cowboys presence abroad draws interest, much like other elite global brands like the New York Giants would.

It is all a smart amplification of NFL business, putting the pedal to the medal while things are going well as opposed to riding out the good years and hoping no bad comes about that can’t be overcome.  The look to become more “global” as a sport makes great sense from a brand standpoint vs. an actual permanent team boots on the ground position, as the digital world shrinks boundaries of the way casual fans can engage either consistently or from time to time with the gridiron.

So does all this London play really mean a franchise is going to go across the pond permanently? Not necessarily. The cost of putting just one franchise in Europe, or anywhere outside North America is a huge challenge, especially for a sport like American football that does not have huge grassroots ties abroad. American expats, casual followers, brands looking to engage in American sport. Sure. But football is not basketball or soccer or even hockey, with thousands of club teams and youth programs already engaged. It’s not even baseball, who has made some stronger forays into not just Latin America and Asia but into Europe (countries like Italy, Germany and the Netherlands) and will now have a larger test in Australia to start 2014. But it is just a test, and a brand activation platform, much like the London games are really for the NFL. Now sure the NFL, like soccer, has a distinct advantage over other team sports in that the games are once a week and an argument could be made that travel is no worse these days than a cross country flight from Miami to Seattle for a weekend.  Still the tax implications, differing workman’s compensation rules, the extra few hours of broadcast time all play against a solo franchise abroad.

Where is the benefit? Branding for one. The NFL and its merchandise and licensees are global and a steady foothold to point to every year in London gives a destination to market around every year, much like brands do with the US Open in the States. Knowing the time and location every year makes for great long-term planning.

Another key move is the introduction of new brands to the NFL and American sports culture. By having a more steady presence abroad, there are a host of brands from across the world who can safely sample the American sports landscape in their own back yard before dipping in whole hog. Want to touch and feel American football in a great setting before travelling across the world, then the NFL London stop, in a regular season game, is the place to give it a shot.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose owner Shahid Khan now also owns Fulham of the Barclays Premier League, the consistent presence in London each year is both a fan cultivation and business cross-pollination tool. Jacksonville is not a major market with tons of major brands, even in successful years for the team. Exposure not just to London, but to other business on the continent, can help out ancillary income short and long term into the Jags coffers, in addition to boosting all sales of the NFL.  Sharing healthy best practices between EPL teams looking to market more aggressively, and the masters of marketing in the US at the NFL, and with the new Jags front office, also makes great sense. It beats struggling to fill an eighth home game in North Florida.

There is also another unspoken but interesting opportunity that will come more into focus as a revenue stream in the coming years, and that is the testing of sports wagering on the NFL. While taboo still to be looked at in the States, gambling rules the roost in the UK. Could the NFL strike some bookmaker deals for solid revenue for games being played in the UK to test the waters for when gambling becomes legal on sport at some point in the US? It would make for a very good litmus test to see the level of interest, and revenue, that would be brought to the table.

There are also other brand tests that could occur for brand NFL beyond the shores of North America.  Could the NFL London games test a uniform patch for a new exclusive partner, could those games also test on field advertising of elite brands to see what will and won’t work.  Are there broadcasters…a Netflix, an Al Jazeera, a Google…who would take the Europe games as their first foray as a live sports partner maybe not as a US broadcaster but as a digital or non-US test?

All the London activity also doesn’t mean that American football is the must-see for sports fans across the continent. You don’t see Cologne, which had one of the stronger entries in NFL Europe, rising up for a franchise, or Barcelona, or The Hague or even Berlin.  What NFL London has become is a very strong business beachhead with great possibilities as a destination for all partners and fans. When it was one preseason game it was a curiosity, when it was a regular season game it became a branding event, when the Jags threw consistency in it became a consistent business play, now with multiple games it becomes a series with economies of scale and consistency for the fall. All of which makes great sense and has nothing but a solid business upside.

In the end, will there be NFL teams in Europe? The reality is that the best chance of global clubs still rests with soccer, which could have elite clubs…at least two in the U.S., which is now a more mature soccer market than ever before. Its schedule lends to it and the culture of soccer, at least for elite clubs, now exists in the States where the NFL does not have that solid culture abroad.

Can NFL every week work across The Atlantic? Tough to say, but it’s not really needed if the brand business proposition as it is now structured continues to grow. Football in Europe is still all things soccer, and changing that culture or finding a stranglehold on a critical mass around soccer or even rugby and cricket, is a huge mountain to climb. Does it have to be climbed to be a success? No. It’s just a matter of defining the role and expanding the niche incrementally, and that’s what the NFL has done.

Smart business by some of the smartest in the game.  

As Sport Becomes More Global, Sponsor Issues Arise…

This past week an issue arose in Australian cricket that is one worth watching as the American professional sports landscape, and its fans become more comfortable and engaged with the issue of uniform commercial branding…namely, putting sponsors on jerseys.

The talk for the last several years is that the U.S. professional sports will join MLS, the WNBA and most of the rest of the world with a measured and very lucrative campaign at some point in the next few years. The NHL, the NBA and the NFL now allow a patch on practice uniforms with little push-back, and MLS’ sponsor program has proved that there is acceptance from a fan base in the States. More importantly, the global push of soccer brands to market in the States has not been met with any resistance, and you would be hard pressed to walk through any park in a major market and not see a Chelsea or Manchester United or Real Madrid or FC Barcelona or AS Roma kit on a young person, all adorned with the key sponsor at the time of purchase.  Sponsors have also been well accepted in NASCAR, and in some controlled levels in golf and tennis for years, so the progression is continuing.

However as sport become more global, and lucrative areas like spirits and gambling become more acceptable as brand partners, there is a bit of a cautionary tale to consider. Fawad Ahmed,  one of two Australian Muslims to play on the ”VB Tour of England”… a man who fled Pakistan in 2009, sought asylum in Australia in 2010 and gained citizenship in July…was granted dispensation from wearing an alcohol brand on his uniform because of his religious beliefs. It is an isolated but not singular case, as Papiss Cisse, a Muslim, recently refused on religious grounds to wear his Newcastle team shirt featuring a sponsor, whose business is to offer short-term loans and South African cricketer Hashim Amla, also a Muslim, was exempted from wearing a beer brand logo on his shirt.

The issue of objections to brands on religious or even social reasons could become messy in the States and is something that will have to be taken in account as the jersey sponsor comes to reality. Several WNBA teams have casinos for example…could a player object who is against gambling? What if a devout Mormon objects to wearing Coca-Cola or Pepsi, some prime national jersey sponsors, because his religion forbids the use of caffeine?  Could a player who has had a drinking problem in the past turn his back on Budweiser? Would it come down to dollars and how would the brand that is spending millions for a large scale opportunity react? There were no provisions in cricketers’ contracts for objections to sponsors’ logos, and the club and the federation made the decision to allow the no logo shirt as a one-off without penalty and they consulted with the sponsor. Would every brand be as understanding? While most would not want a public fight with a high level athlete over an issue of faith, it is something that will need to be addressed.

In women’s tennis, the large scale patch program has been fraught with problems for years. Players who have a Nike or adidas deal have been grandfathered into not wearing patches of sponsors and have done other programs to support the Tour’s marketing efforts, like community or digital programs. However there really haven’t been many objections on religious or social grounds, because most Tour sponsors have been in areas like technology, not gambling or beer or spirits. The difference between team and individual sports is that the decisions on brand support are left to the player much more than the league or the circuit. For example, Rafael Nadal wears a gambling-sponsored patch even in markets where online gambling is not yet legal. The patch fits the requirements of the ATP, so it is allowed for him. Should that deal be set with the ATP or the PGA or the WTA as a whole, it could be very lucrative but would probably be met with a great deal of push-back by players who object to gambling or don’t want to be associated with online gambling commercially.  The individual has much more say than if he or she was part of a team sport.

Like gambling and spirits, and even other aggressive platforms like e-cigarettes and condoms, leagues and teams will have large scale financial decisions to make on what is acceptable and what is not, and as sport becomes more global, a wide range of factors like religious and social beliefs may have to be factored in more and more. The cricket case is an interesting one, and one that bears considerable thought as discretionary dollars become more competitive and the sport world becomes more as one.

Certainly a case to follow.

For Brand Success, Cosmos May Have To Look More East Than West…

This past Saturday, as the first place Red Bulls battled Sporting Kansas City in a key Major League Soccer matchup in the Midwest,  a packed house at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium on Long Island, NY helped the New York Cosmos usher in a new era, in a league that has the same name as their last one, the North American Soccer League, but in a business and soccer environment that is far from the one that one of the world’s most revered but dormant brands left when the NASL folded its indoor and outdoor leagues in the early 1980’s.

 The U.S. soccer market on all levels is far more mature than many anticipated it could be, led by the steady growth of Major League Soccer on the professional level, and as important, the steady adoption of the game by  millions of kids the last 25 years. Add in a steady influx of soccer-savvy immigrant populations and the ever-growing global marketing campaigns of some of the world’s biggest soccer clubs, as well as the continued rising popularity of the World Cup, and the reborn Cosmos enter a climate much more soccer-friendly and soccer-savvy than the one they exited.

 So what now Cosmos? The NASL is several rungs below the more mature MLS in terms of soccer level of overall quality, and the league remains a bit of a question mark for its long term stability as the competition for professional soccer visibility rises, while the “brand” Cosmos can only sell so much. Factor in a Red Bulls team in its state of the art facility that has considerably expanded its marketing efforts in recent months…doing viewing parties in Manhattan and Brooklyn now as well as in the Garden State, and the fact that Manchester City and the Yankees are riding into the market with a club in a to-be-determined location, and the Cosmos are going to have their work cut out for them to find an effective and profitable niche.

 However the club does have a few things in its favor. Since 1977, many of those New York areas kids have been involved in the Cosmos brand because of the highly successful camps that former team executive Pepe Pinton continued to run at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Thousands of kids continued to know of the Cosmos without ever seeing a match, and those kids, and the camps’ ample data base, provide a very nice marketing push that any expansion club in any sport would die for. The club also has the name, which holds up well in any global soccer conversation, albeit the brand and those playing for the brand now are not on equal par just yet.  They also have the ability to market, and draw in brands, without many of the encumbrances of a well marketed national league. The team grabbed Emirates Airways as a jersey sponsor for example, because NASL has no current airline partner, and many of those categories are left wide open for the sales force to secure without having to share large chunks of revenue.

 Most importantly, while the club looks west to Madison Avenue for recognition, they should also look east for a solid example on how to market and expand a largely independent sports brand amongst the millions of people who live on Long island. The Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic Baseball League, have done a tremendous job of building, maintaining and expanding a year-round fan base while bringing in media exposure and sponsor dollars not usually seen in independent baseball. They fill their field in Suffolk County and have become a fabric of a community that may never cross a bridge into Manhattan, and those Long Island-savvy fans will embrace a quality product that markets to them more than anyone who looks to just pull from areas in the New York City or even New Jersey or nearby Connecticut.

 The NHL Islanders were beloved on Long Island for years at Nassau Coliseum before the ugly fight over the aging building drove fans and brands away. Many may return as the team improves and they look west to their new Barclays Center home in Brooklyn, but   there remain thousands of fans looking for affordable, fun entertainment who could embrace a Cosmos brand for years if the team puts itself in a position to do so.

 Now maybe Hofstra’s former football field is not the long-term play, but maybe the oft-talked about stadium at Belmont Park isn’t the answer either. Maybe there is a play further east, even towards the open space that Stony Brook University has built a quality athletics complex on, that could make more sense. Most think that the Cosmos ownership is looking globally more than locally, but that global look takes big bucks and certainly won’t happen overnight, and it probably won’t happen in the NASL. Would a European group..The Barclays Premier League…put down roots in two East Coast cities and make the Cosmos one of their tentpoles? That’s a long shot as well, and the MLS inclusion, barring some far-fetched merger with the incoming group, won’t work at all. The Red Bulls advanced push has also shrunk the market a bit, so maybe, at least for now, the major play is to grow its fan friendly…dare we say it…minor league approach of fun events with competitive soccer as the Cosmos become kings of NASL again, and then go from there. It may not fill Met Life Stadium or even Red Bull Arena or in every case 14,000 seats at Hofstra, but it certainly would make sense to grow slowly, manage expectations and take the established name and insert it consistently back into the conversation  not just for buzz, but for sales and quality world class play as well.

 It was a good start for the Cosmos, but the real test is in the offing to see if a world class brand can be a world class business in all aspects on and off the field, with a potential audience of millions right in their eastern backyard.  

The Last New York Team Startup Gets A Good Start…

Timing, as we all know, is essential to success in sport. A millisecond layer and a home run becomes a pop up, a blink too soon and a NASCAR driver ends up being entangled with a rival just in front of him, a small flinch and an birdie ends up being just par. So it also is in “The Beautiful Game,” where a perfectly timed pass can become the difference between score and shutout.

This week that timing was on full display off the pitch, as Manchester City, Major League Soccer and the New York Yankees announced a long rumored deal to bring the 20th MLS franchise to New York City. The deal pushed soccer to the front pages of every newspaper and broadcast outlet, created buzz and excitement in the New York City area that hasn’t been seen for soccer really since the original Cosmos…the ones that played games vs. the brand out there now as a marketing machine to start play in the lower tier NASL later this summer…last took the turf at Giants Stadium.

Part of the excitement was that interesting mix of timing…the announcement fell miraculously at a point on the sports calendar where hoops was finished with the Knicks exit from the playoffs over the weekend, the Jets and Giants in a lull before offseason workouts begin, the Yankees on the road, two of the three NHL teams done and the Rangers coming close to ending the season, and no extraordinary other sports events, not even wrestling this week in Grand Central Station or a mega WWE show to contend with. The Red Bulls were even quiet, having played a marquee matchup with the LA Galaxy over the weekend, and even fans of global soccer were waiting for this weekend’s Champions League matchup. It was a rare spot where crickets could be heard through the usual noise of a spring sports week in Gotham, and fit well with Man City’s exhibition which is to be played Saturday against rival Chelsea at Yankee Stadium already on the calendar. A better stage could not have been set from a timing perspective.

 So what does all this mean for brand soccer and for sport both in America and in New York? Lots potentially. First, unless someone has a few billion and yet another new ballpark, New York City Football Club will probably be the last major sports franchise startup in new York, the world’s biggest marketplace. With nine professional teams already, it would be hard to see where a new one will come from, unless a sport like cricket or rugby rise up in the future.

 NYCFC will also benefit from the pluses and minuses of several of the most successful sports startups in recent years, all of whom have occurred in Major League Soccer. Borrowing a bit from Seattle and Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, the New York franchise from a business perspective can build a support base, a technology strategy, a sales platform, and a community and education initiative that could raise awareness and make the club a part of the community well before the first ball is struck on the pitch.  Brands limited in their exposure to soccer in the tri-state can get a chance to engage with a growing soccer audience, and perhaps the influence of a club associated with Man City can even bring in a few new global brands looking to engage in American sport as well.

 The club will also benefit from the insiders of New York sport business, from the Yankees led by Randy Levine, and partner Legends Hospitality, led by Dave Checketts, on what buttons to push, what hands to shake, what backs to slap and what protocol to be followed when navigating the treacherous waters of both politics and Madison Avenue. They also will have the support and focus of Manchester City, a club which has expanded their brand well beyond where the club was founded over 100 years ago and is now continuing to raise as one of the elite global sports properties. The brand extensions Barclays Premier League clubs are now outing into a soccer-savvy North American market go way beyond TV rights and kit sales. They include training events, regular tours, social media experiments, and in the case of Manchester City, the opening of schools in select cities which combine soccer with education and life skills to not only form a young fan base, but solid community citizens as well.  The combination of insiders who know the market and outsiders who know enough to work with insiders, all with deep pockets, and a long term global vision, make the matchup pretty intriguing.

 Are there going to be challenges? You bet. The buzz that was generated this week was a great blessing, but also ratcheted up expectations way beyond what was probably originally planned, at least at the start. Manchester City plays in the world’s most elite league, MLS, even with all its growth, is by the admission of Commissioner Don Garber, still on a plan to make the league one of the most elite sometimes in the next 10 years. In a world where fans and brands want ROI in 10 minutes and expect the best on and off the pitch, that is a challenge, but one that MLS has managed well to this point in their history.

 The marketplace itself has great opportunity, but also great risk. There are thousands of young people playing the game, especially east of Manhattan, whose exposure to professional soccer is still only on television. The Red Bulls, even with a gleaming facility and the deep pockets of their owners, have built a solid core fan base mostly in New Jersey but still have not embraced the casual fan across the Hudson or even further away. They also have not solved the issue of bringing global fans to their Harrison home on a consistent basis. That grassroots outreach on a daily basis from the schools to the pubs, will be essential for NYCFC to score before they get started playing matches, and even with that core embraced, they will have to compete in the most crowded and most expensive marketplace for sport on the planet. Battle the Red Bulls and maybe the Cosmos a bit for fans and media attention? Sure. But try battling the Knicks and the Mets and the Yankees and the Nets and the Rangers etc etc…in the spring, and then the Jets and the Giants in the fall. It won’t be easy, but by seeding the market continually with looks behind the scenes, and keeping buzz surrounding the building of the club and the community, NYCFC has a chance to embrace and create momentum regardless of on field results. Ironically two examples of sport clubs doing just that in the area are not that far away. The Cosmos, who have yet to play a game, stole lots of marketing thunder from the established Red Bulls by constantly creating business noise this past year, while the Nets, in their move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, used a barrage of communications to always keep the franchise top of mind with the media. Those two, along with best practices of their MLS startup bretheran and some to be planned specific publicity stunts, would be essential for bringing the brand into the limelight as launch date approaches.

 Then where to play? Having the blessing of an outgoing Mayor and the support of the Yankees business team and others on the inside of New York will be a big help, but funding the right spot to draw young people as well as a melting pot of fans who love the game, and doing it at an affordable price, will be very intriguing, and one of the biggest battles to fight.

 Even with those mountains to climb, the idea of a New York startup with a global entity…several in Man City and the Yankees…is really interesting for all involved in sport and sport business. City made a few nice first steps this week, hiring a local soccer hero who has seen success on both sides of the pond in Claudio Reyna. They showed their commitment to youth by doing the announcement at the Harlem school they have embraced. They put forth a multi-ethnic front by doing interviews in the English and Spanish, they sent players far and wide for interviews, and even dropped in on the regular tenants of Yankee Stadium for their game Tuesday night for a first pitch and another round of media interviews. By the way the Yankees opponent that night? The Toronto Blue Jays, another fortuitous bounce in the international sports world, to have the only non-American team in MLB also in the house at a time when such a mega-international announcement was being made.

 This is surely not the first intercontinental marriage between U.S, brands and soccer. It’s not even the first for the Yankees, who had a short-lived partnership with Manchester United several years ago. From the Glazers to Fenway Sports Group to others, American business has invested in global soccer of the highest quality. It is however, the first time the investment has really come back across the pond.

 The first match also will not be played tomorrow, it is still a few years off, and that amount of time will also play in the favor of a successful launch for the brand now that the announcement is done. However the clock is now ticking, and to be the elite brand launch, the happening, the spectacle that this needs to be, every second will be needed.

 It is fun to think of the possibilities and where this could lead in global sports. There was even the story of the Yankees taking baseball to England, although that type of brand expansion is more of a sidebar than the focus of expanding the soccer audience in the States, which becomes more passionate every day.

 Yes there are lots of details to be worked out, but timing in sport is everything, and if this week was an example, then the newest addition to the sports landscape in America, and maybe the last in the New York area, has hit a first pitch homer, or scored an early first half goal, like few before it. Welcome NYCFC, we will be watching more for the success to be innovative as a business at first than for wins, draws and losses on the field .

 

A New Taste of Sports Branding…

In the last few years venue operators have looked to find more and more ways to attract high end clientele to their facilities…many of which are now in inner cities vs. isolated in the suburbs…well away from game days. Much like casinos, sports facilities realize that the “experience” at such a high ticket prices could not include just beer and hot dogs any more…it had to include something for every palate, and it had to be a go-to place year round, not just when an event was going on. The stadium and arena needed to be part of the fabric of the community, not just a place for special events.

Along the same lines, restaurants and marketers saw great value in importing their specialty brands into arenas, giving those attendees on game nights a little more flavor of the city, albeit at a slightly inflated price. Food kiosks were no longer generic, they were branded, and they had extensions that left the arena…coupons to use in other parts of the area where other franchises or the actual restaurant were located, and promotions at other franchises tied directly to the in-arena experience. It fit very well and the arena, the consumer food and beverage business and the local brands all benefited both at arena and in market.

Lopped on top of that were the athletes themselves.  Teams make huge investments into training their highly paid performers and will shower them with every amenity possible. So bringing in nutritionists to help set the training table as a natural fit. Could there be a fit that would pull all those pieces together?

The latest answer appears to have been formed not in the US but in London, with the partnership announced this week between Manchester City of the Barclays Premier League, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts and US-based Legends Hospitality. The joint venture will be branded as Fabulous Fan Fare when it takes over catering and hospitality operations at the Premier League club in August, and covers all hospitality and catering services including public concessions, hospitality areas and the City Square fan zone as well as non-match event catering. Legends, which has headquarters, are in New York, operates at two of the largest sports venues in the industry: Cowboys and Yankee Stadiums and has found a host of ways to bring year-round interest to those two projects as well as others around the US.  The ties also extend to the players training table, where the teams have their own elite catering and nutrition advisors to make sure not only fans have the right choices, but the players are getting tailored meals as well.

So why is a Jamie Oliver partnership even different? First, Oliver as a celebrity chef now becomes a stakeholder in one of the world’s largest sporting brands, AND now has an entrée (no pun intended) into two other global brands in MLB and the NFL through Legends. He is also a global crusader for healthy eating and philanthropy, and using Man City as a living breathing litmus test for effective and healthy eating habits with both fans and elite athletes will be an interest experiment.   The move also is a continued shift in the fan experience outside the United States. Success on the soccer pitch for elite clubs now means brand expansion outside the matches to find revenue streams to compete. That means an increase in elite experiences away from the matches that can be held in the lavish clubs of a stadium, much like the way arenas in the States have become destinations. Oliver brings credibility and a cache that might bring dining fans to Etihad Stadium who are NOT fans of the club. They are fans of food and are followers of Oliver. The more people experience the Man City brand the better chance they may engage in other products that will help define brand excellence. That will hold up not just in the UK but anywhere a Man City associated brand can pop up, from London to Beijing.

Now sure celebrity chefs have been involved with sports teams before. Wolfgang Puck around the LA Lakers or Drew Nieporent around the New York Knicks and Rangers are great examples. However many times those are licensing deals, not a position where the chef and his company have a large vested interest. The Man City/Oliver partnership is a departure from the normal deal, and one which can have far reaching effects as the world of dining, venues, training  and even nutrition branding grow the fan experience.

Global Soccer’s USA Brand Play Makes Great Sense…

This past Friday amongst all the chaos around the tragedy in Connecticut came a story from Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick that Manchester City could become the founding partner/owner of a new Major League Soccer franchise, the one that will be based in New York City.  While those on the fringe may raise some eyebrows as to why this would be a good idea, the plan, if it does to fruition, makes great sense not just for MLS and Man City  or whatever club it would be, but for global sports business and the growth of soccer specifically .

Here are some thoughts as to why.mls

1-Brand soccer continues to be one of the hottest opportunities in North America. There is perhaps no sport that has benefitted more from global media than soccer in the United States. While basketball is rock solid in the States and continues to push outward into emerging countries, soccer’s global success is finally coming to roost in North America. This past summer the friendly tours by some of the biggest clubs in the world drew not just large crowds, but great brand recognition across the continent. Matches didn’t just fill stadia in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago; they drew fans to Kansas City and Dallas, Boston and Columbus. Those seats were not just filled by die-hards of national teams or prominent clubs like Chelsea or AS Roma, they were also filled by elite club teams from Poland and Ireland and Mexico.

With those matches came apparel sales, social media projects and grassroots programs that created a tremendous halo effect for the sport not just for this past summer, but for whatever comes next. Those fans who engaged now are following more regular season matches for the Barclays Premier League or Serie A than ever before, both on television outlets and in digital and social media. The global clubs of soccer have found a home in the States. There is no better example of that home than the current ESPN commercial which features not fans of the Mets or Yankees or Steelers or Cowboys but one each from Man U and Man City talking about their loyalty and devotion. The most amazing thing is that never does the spot mention who they are rooting for. You know its soccer, but it’s assumed you know the clubs and there is no way that spot could have ever worked in an environment where global soccer is not now mainstream.

2- MLS has welcomed and embraced the growth. While some may say that the global clubs presence has put Major League Soccer on the backburner, the opposite is probably truer. A rising tide of soccer lifts the MLS ship as well, ad by working with elite cubs when they come to the States, MLS gets a benefit. Clubs find casual fans coming to their stadia and seeing the work they have done to create a fun and innovative fan environment, and MLS provides a quality and affordable way for those fans of global soccer to take in a match when their favorite club is playing elsewhere in the world. Those running MLS and USA Soccer have done a tremendous job in also building “brand soccer” from the grassroots which now has created a core group who not only play but engage in following all forms of the professional game. As the quality of MLS continue to improve, those with a love for the most elite clubs will also assimilate more to professional soccer here as well. By welcoming the global push into the States, MLS has found willing and interested partners who see the growing market and now can work proactively to get new pieces of a pie that wasn’t anywhere near baked five years ago.

3- More and more global brands are looking to engage the US consumer, and the combination of soccer and sport is the perfect entrée. The US marketplace is not the easiest to crack for brands looking to engage, but sports are still the most intriguing entry port. Emirates Airways, through its tennis and horse racing sponsorships, has done a great job of finding ways to reach the right consumer, and soccer as it becomes more and more mainstream, is a natural next step. Does  Etihad, Abu Dhabi’s national airline which sponsors Man City, want to start a US marketing push? If so, how about through the auspices of American sport, and if that’s true why not ride the wave through a club building ties in the US. That back and forth has also not been lost on many American brands which are using elite soccer clubs to bring their message outside the States as well. The ability to bring that brand message direct to American consumers through sport has never been bigger.

4- With the millions invested, elite clubs realize they have to engage a wider audience than ever existed before. Even with the mania that exists around soccer across Europe, there is a revenue ceiling that will be hit, so elite clubs know that the time is now to find ways to engage and grow their brands globally. The tours this summer really drove home the engagement ability in the marketplace, with Chelsea for example running a massive digital campaign aimed at consumers in the States. It identified and rewarded fans of the club for their loyalty…a loyalty not based on trips to the UK but on how much their fandom resonated in the States. In order to keep those pockets growing, friendlies will not be enough. There needs to be a way to touch fans continuously in market to supplement what they can do in the digital space, so finding a way to do that with an actual club not just in the US, but in places like Asia is a way to remove the ceiling and enhance the brand growth.

5- If the idea of cross-Atlantic play will someday be possible, it is good to invest now. This concept has been talked about for years…will an NBA franchise land in Europe, can the Jacksonville jaguars investment in London pay off with a permanent home, could rugby or cricket find places to have global franchises in the States, could hockey through system work the KHL and the NHL together for the regular season etc. etc. Thus far it has been lots of talk but no real logistical solution. The sport that would make the most sense to do such a global investment in play would be soccer though. Why? Matches are spread out enough that travel back and forth would not be as big an issue as it would be for hockey or hoops, who have a more rigorous schedule and need multiple games and opponents in market. The NFL does play once a week, but American football still does not have the playing footprint elsewhere that soccer has. So could the Barclays Premier League drop two franchises in the States somewhere down the line?  Not yet, as the market still has to flesh itself out, and there are many, many issues with work rules and taxes and ownership that would have to be worked through. However as a trial balloon, a club-owned MLS franchise playing in MLS makes for an interesting test.

Now let’s be clear that this is not all rosy. There are some big financial and brand hurdles that need to be clear before the idea comes to fruition. The cost of both a stadium and running a franchise in New York is very, very high. There is a risk of brand damage because the franchise will not be Man City itself, it will be an MLS club under the Man City (or whomever else it is) brand. So diehard fans of the club and its level of play could be turned off. The marketplace is also very crowded and the homesteading Red Bulls have done well, but not great in bringing MLS success (many feel that MLS has succeeded in spite of the New York franchise). All those could be stumbling blocks to making the idea a reality.

What is real is that soccer is growing and that the current immigrant into the US loves the game. The interest in brands looking to engage this audience is very high and elite clubs see the opportunity with a savvy and engaged fan of the sport who wants more. MLS has been very smart in leveraging the sport for growth, and with a World Cup again on the horizon and brand marketers at clubs willing to make a leap, the timing may be right for all concerned. Who that party will be remains to be seen, but the opportunity of linking soccer 24/7 from sea to sea seems to be closer than ever, and if so, what a grand opportunity it will be.