We Are The World; Global Sports Convergence Grows

Sunday morning thousands of soccer fans in the US will turn on Barclays Premier matches on NBC while others will watch the Ryder Cup live from Scotland. Then later it will be the Dolphins and the Raiders playing…in Wembley Stadium. Across the pond a growing number of fans will be watching NFL games as their day turns into night, and others will be engaging on NBA.com as training camp updates come flooding in. In Latin America baseball fans will be tuning in this afternoon watching Derek Jeter’s last game at Fenway Park.  Not too long ago each of these events would have been news, covered by media as a special happening, an unusual event. Now they are happenstance met with no fanfare at all. The digital world, and the growth of global sponsorship has changed live viewing habits in sport around the world, and has made sport more global than ever before, with Sunday being a great example.

There are many factors that play into why we see sports on a global scale as less unusual than ever before. The growth of soccer in the US, not just MLS but the fact that the new immigrant has taken his club loyalties and brought them here, as well as the marketing efforts of the elite clubs of the world to gain recognition amongst a grassroots following of young people that follow Chelsea or Manchester City on TV and engage on EA’s FIFA2014 as much as other generations would have put their loyalties in the Texas Rangers or Philadelphia Phillies, is a big reason for our global comfort these days. The consistent outward-bound marketing of the professional sports leagues to a more global audience, not just with merchandise but with games that are not just exhibitions (like the NFL in London) but count in the standings (MLB in Australia last spring was another big step forward) is another massive factor. Traditional broadcast media, especially the efforts of ESPN, NBC Sports and FOX to take global sporting events and find windows to broadcast and promote (not just soccer but Formula 1 and soon rugby as well) have changed viewing habits and grown the footprint of casual fans who now follow and watch at off-hours where sports was not normally seen on the east coast and Midwest. Then there is a digital engagement for sport that never existed, where fans anywhere can engage and interact with their clubs or athletes without having to be in stadium or even in country. That timeless involvement has helped bring the world together for sport 24/7, and has grown sports brands and athletes that were once regional into international powerhouses.

Then there are the brands themselves doing promotions. Years ago Emirates Airways or TATA (title sponsor of the NYC Marathon) would have been an outlier partnering with American sport. Same with American brands like Subway or even Chevrolet spending big dollars on European soccer. Now they are happenstance and growing, as non-American companies figure out how to activate with US fans, and American brands use sports and its global reach to engage more and more with fans around the world. Brands understand now more than ever how to think globally but activate locally and fit into the way local fans engage. The missteps of American brands doing a cookie cutter approach to working with fans in Tallahassee the same way as they would in Monaco are gone. It is now a stylized approach that brings ROI to all, using a combination of traditional media (since there are American fans now watching global sport, TV is still king), as well as digital and grassroots activation to make it all work.

So what does it all mean? Does it mean that suddenly somewhere we well have New York playing Moscow in some regular league in basketball or hockey or even rugby or soccer or cricket? Will The Jacksonville Jaguars work in London lead to an NFL team there? Still very hard to say if that will ever work, as time, tax laws, workman’s compensation and other factors still are big challenges. However the days of soccer friendlies in the States being a spectacle are more and more in the rear view mirror, and the same with US football in the UK or even baseball or hoops in the Far reaches of the globe. They are still special events locally, but are more happenstance on a global sports scale. That doesn’t mean they are less important, and there are still parts of the world for sport to still engage as a “first” (who gets India first from an American sport perspective; will Africa play host to baseball down the line are still areas to be explored).

However because of new media, aggressive marketing, and the ways we now engage sport is coming together nicely as a 24/7 live occurrence. We are becoming more one as a business, and that’s good news for all.

We are them, and they are us.

Soccer In New York; The Strategic Battle Builds

In most cases around New York “the battle” for supremacy amongst pro sports rivals is often more fizzle than sizzle. The Nets have never been at peak performance as the same time as the Knicks; few years have the Jets and Giants in the playoffs at the same time; save for 2000, the Mets and Yankees rarely top the standings at the same point. It is only in hockey, where the devils and Rangers have recently produced some memorable matchups where a “subway series” seems to pit two rivals at top time against each other. So early next spring we will have a new battle, this one on the soccer pitch; as the incumbent Red Bulls will meet expansion New York City Soccer Club for the first time. Could this be the rivalry that fuels some fire in and around Gotham?

Right now NYCFC is adding veteran pieces while the Red Bulls make a playoff run, so where the two will stack up in their first meetings at Red Bull Arena or Yankee Stadium remains to be seen. However in the hype and strategy area, NYCFC has certainly taken their pre-play time to find ways to eat into the psyche of the New York casual sports fan, with strategic blitzes, brand building and announcements that have given them more headlines than any team in the market before they take the field for the first time.

NYCFC has used the deep pockets of  Manchester City and the New York Yankees, as well as their two iconic brand names, to bolster support. They have built a strong social campaign and a smart supporter club project to keep fans engaged, have used their time expanding grassroots support with every soccer club that will hear them speak and be part of their launch. They sent clear messages about culture by sending their soccer heads, Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis, to learn the system they will use by embedding themselves in Man City football. They have secured local TV and even radio deals well in advance of their start, and they take every second they can to engage fans on all things football in the digital space. They sell tickets without games, sponsorship without a goal being scored. They are all about inclusion in something special. While most teams would use the power of Manhattan to introduce stars, NYCFC has taken to the streets, creating kids clinics in Brooklyn around the announcement of English star Frank Lampard, and Thursday will bring another solid name, David Villa, to a clinic with kids in the Bronx. Can Staten Island and Queens be far behind with the next announcements? The message is very clear; NYCFC aims to look across the city and east to build its following, areas that the Red Bulls have had limited success in engaging in throughout their history. New Jersey? Who knows.

The real star for NYCFC now is the idea of bring in on the ground floor of something special. Without results, the possibilities for now are endless. Now is the strategy glossing over issues for the long term? Somewhat. There is still no long term announced stadium plan and no entrenched practice facility. Brands for the most part are in the announce stage but there is no doubt that NYCFC has put down roots that are growing and ones that have engaged the casual fan for now. Whether that changes once the product hits the field is also another matter; it is a startup, and while the stories of the team, led by a star in Lampard who has said all the right things about investing in American soccer and wanting to be in New York (while other stars in soccer have come to new York in recent years and shunned the media attention and spotlight).

For their part, the Red Bulls right now are the mature brand taking on the challenger. They have looked to capitalize on the World Cup hype by putting quality on the field, involving some of their World Cu veterans in key promotions. They have invested in more grassroots programs in and around New Jersey and have held supporters meetings into the Manhattan and Brooklyn, albeit without some of the splash and dash that NYCFC’s hype has been lately. Right now they have a team and a brand that is supported in the market; while NYCFC has lots of potential.

Will the two clubs blossom into the rivalry that MLS has seen in places like Seattle and Portland? Tough to say at this point. New York is a fickle market where the brightest shine through, and the jury is still out on the fact that the City, albeit a soccer city, is really an MLS city. Kids in the area are still more apt to don a Manchester United or Real Madrid jersey as they will an MLS shirt, and with elite established clubs like Bayern Munich, AS Roma, Liverpool and Chelsea making marketing inroads on Madison Avenue, the attackers of MLS may be challenged for discretionary dollars. However both NYCFC and the Red Bulls will have something that all the TV dollars and marketing of the world’s elite clubs will not have; consistent match and athlete presence in the market. While we think that TV and digital can fill a void, the fact remains that the live experience is still king, and if the local clubs put on quality performances, they will help fill the seats as well as the hype meters.

Will the mega-busk of their owners and the strategic planning of the management team propel NYCFC to prominence overall in New York sport and ahead of the Red Bulls in the eyes of soccer cognoscenti? We shall see. For now, on the hype and buzz meter, it’s a very good race, without a goal being scored.

It’s Early On A Weekend Morning, And The Peacock Couldn’t Be Prouder…

There is no doubt that the power NBC has in the world of sports broadcasting these days. From the Olympics to Sunday Night Football to golf and the NHL the Peacock has maybe never been prouder for what it stands for in sports and sports business, across both of tis networks and into its digital platforms.

However another area where its niche has grown, and where it continues to push new properties is not in prime time but in the early hours on the weekends. An area once seen as the home of cartoons and talk shows and more than a few infomercials, NBC has looked at the space and seen sports; global sports. Much like they did with the little used time in late, late night, the powers that be have sliced up morning on the east coast to bring you Formula 1 and the Barclays Premier League, and have so far splashed in some tennis like the French Open as well, all live and catering on the network to an audience that is more and more in focus with global sport. In late night, the network found a home for Poker After Dark and several MMA franchises and brought new value to a time that was almost a throwaway. That same formula has been amped up for the weekend mornings, with identifiable global athletes and lots of star power and buzz.

Is it easy to grow a live TV platform early in the morning? Probably not, unless you have the right content, and NBC seems to have found some great critical mass. Soccer, especially the Barclays Premier League, has become a hot property not just with expats and niche club fans, but with some other early risers, kids who because of the digital world they are now in, know as much about Manchester United and Arsenal than they do in some cases about their hometown teams. NBC saw the opportunity and fed the audience, and as a result the audience has grown, and the sponsor value with it. The same with Formula 1, arguably the biggest sport on the planet the US has never fully understood or embraced. Americans love stars, fast cars and big names, and Formula 1, when marketed correctly has all of those. Drop in a race in Texas and potentially another in the States and you have a growth platform that can make its own space on select Sunday mornings.

Now of course none of this happens in a vacuum. There is ample support on NBC Sports Network and marketing across all the Comcast platforms for all of the live programming, assets which didn’t exist years ago if such a thing was tried. There is also more awareness of elite global events than there has ever been before, and all of that awareness builds into seeding a core fan base while also pulling in casual fans for a look-see, many of whom return time and again.

The plan for early morning live sports isn’t fool proof in any way. It still has to stay novel and innovative to keep the casual and compel the die hard to watch. It also has to overcome the wee hours that you get when you venture west on the North American continent. Fans in LA may tune in at eight for live soccer, but at six AM as well? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Still for a way to build a stake in the ground, NBC Sports seems to have found a spot. So what’s next as we head towards the Olympics in 2016 for early morning viewing? Cricket? Rugby (a sport which NBC has invested in)?  NFL overseas? Would some American sports move to a breakfast time occasionally to grab a showcase? College hoops maybe? All to be determined.

However one thing is sure. Like they did in late night, and even with such programming as dog shows, NBC Sports looked  not to the unusual but to the compelling to find ways to grab live content and give it a home on their network. It has worked for soccer and F1, and it may work for others. We get little sleep as it is, so why not watch some sports?

A Year In, A Year Away, NYCFC Keeps Building…

A year ago this coming week the New York soccer world was all abuzz with the announcement of the latest entry into Major League Soccer, and arguably the last startup sports team New York will ever see in New York City Football Club.  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 team out there now 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, 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 that 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 was to be played that Saturday against rival Chelsea at Yankee Stadium already on the calendar. A better stage could not have been set from a timing perspective.

So a year in and less than a year to go before kickoff, how is NYCFC doing? By most  accounts pretty well. The club has the deep pockets of Barclays Premier League champion Manchester City and the New York Yankees, as well as their two iconic brand names, to bolster support. They built a strong social campaign to find a badge created by their interested fans and have used their time expanding grassroots support with every soccer club that will hear them speak and be part of their launch. They sent clear messages about culture by sending their soccer heads, Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis, to learn the system they will use by embedding themselves in Man City football. They have secured local TV and even radio deals well in advance of their start, and they take every second they can to engage fans on all things football in the digital space. They sell tickets without players, sponsorship without star value. The star right now is the idea of bring in on the ground floor of something special. When talk of a training facility in the City of New York fell apart, they looked to the affluent community just to the north of the Bronx and finally found a willing partner in Manhattanville College, where they can cultivate an additional fan base who is used to having the elite call their county home. When plans for a stadium became (and remain) taxing, they returned to their co-owner and devised a glitzy plan to use the Yankees assets, and their stadium for now, to have a home. The announcement came replete with technological talk of keeping the grass new and vibrant and moving the pitchers mound in and out. Even the shining star of Mariano Rivera signed on symbolically for the first few season tickets. Yankees pinstripes lifted the new blue brand in town.

Best of all NYCFC has sold hype, the hype of an event that everyone will want to be part of. Their ads are about the brand, not the coaches. There is a slight mention of Man City and the Yankees (and a lot of their marketing muscle), bit no real allusions that the players from “over there,” some of the biggest names in soccer, will be the ones here all the time. For a visit now and again sure, but this team, right now faceless, will be one that will be home grown, with an identity born of two brands, created into one. Like a good wedding, NYCFC thus far has something old (the tradition of Man City), something new (expansion in NY), something norrowed (Yankee Stadium), and something blue (its colors).

How long will the Honeymoon go on? Well for now it will be quite a while. Viewing parties in the boroughs will probably go on through World Cup, visits of elite celebrities and big name soccer stars will traverse through, and the constant buzz of interest will continue to build. Somewhere down the road there will even be players and uniforms and new brands on board, and eventually a match or two next spring that will have solid numbers in the house. However that’s not what all this buzz is really about, the opening day. It is to build community, build affinity and build loyalty for the days after the opener, the dreary spring nights when fans will question whether to bring their discretionary dollars for another night of MLS action or stay home to watch “Modern Family.” It will be for those days when the spring sports calendar is cluttered with baseball, postseason hockey and hoops and even the NF Draft a time when media will have to cover because of demand and interest rather than the need. That will be the true test of how strong the foundation being built for NYCFC will be.

We all like new, like hype and like being a part of something special. Is that what NYCFC will be? So far, even with their warts, they seem to be playing the role as well as can be expected with the payoff still a year away

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.