What’s Next In The U.S., “Brand Soccer”?

It’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition for team sports. As the four biggest American leagues all look to be more global, Major League Soccer looks to continue to better establish a global game in the United States, and their leverage continues to increase daily as not just the U.S. Men’s National Team continues its good work, but casual fans become more attuned to the ebb and flow of the global game of soccer through the World Cup.

Leveraging a global phenomenon in sports is certainly not new; women’s soccer tried with their success in the women’s World Cup, and Olympians big and small do the same to various degrees of success every two years, and other sports like Formula 1, Indy Car, America’s Cup even Beach Volleyball and now rugby and even cricket, try to take those unique windows where the consumer is entranced and stretch that window as wide as possible. Usually it ebbs and flows away, with few long term consistent results. Sometimes the telegenic break through; Michael Phelps, Brandi Chastain, Alex Morgan, Lolo Jones,  Keri Walsh; but often times it’s here today and on to the next thing tomorrow.

Soccer obviously is different for many reasons. It has built from the ground up over a long period of time for sport. It has had the unique opportunity to have its biggest global clubs infiltrate the US media market with brand activation and fan education platforms (which will continue this summer) and now it has success in front of an audience that is more primed for the game and more educated than ever before. It also has the benefit for the most part of being the sport of choice for the new immigrant, all of which helps rise the tide.

So when the sun sets on the American World Cup, or if the US goes through an improbable but still possible run through the knockout round now in Brazil, what’s next?  Sometimes athletes, sports, brands build to the moment or the key event, the event comes, and that is the pinnacle of exposure. For soccer in the US, the next step is even more important than the ones in the past or the ones now, and that’s where MLS seems to be best set up.

The league can certainly take a page from the NHL and its partners, who rode post-Olympic notoriety to solid numbers and brand exposure again this past winter. Stars were built, global stars, as they went back to their markets and all of hockey benefitted. Brands got more engaged, teams used social platforms to expand their reach, and NBC’s investment across all platforms made hockey overall more relevant in the casual sports landscape than it has ever been before.

Soccer, and MLS in particular, has used this quiet league time to be great ambassadors for the sport. Instead of spending all his time in Brazil, Commissioner Don Garber beat the media bushes here in the States, talking growth, partnerships and business with everyone who would listen. Bring scarves to Morning Joe? There was the comish. A late night talk? The comish was there. Leveraging ESPN (even though it is their last World Cup they are still invested in the game with partners) to the hilt, MLS officials are there. All smart ways to make sure the conversation is driven back to what could happen and what people will look to when the World Cup ends and discretionary dollars get allocated again. A lull in an MLS season did not mean a lull in brand activity; it has been just the opposite.

So coming out of Brazil, how does MLS keep the buzz going? Well it has the league and all its partner cities to make sure the flavor and the pageantry of what was seen by casual fans can be amplified to some extent. It has friendlies with some of the biggest clubs in the world coming to selected markets to again amplify the soccer experience and bring global soccer back to the US in some form. It has VERY eager brand partners to activate with who now see the engagement possibilities, and it has new potential partners who looked at World Cup and see potential in the States they may not have seen before.

Are there challenges? Absolutely. Hockey had the advantage of having most Olympic stars coming back to North America to play in the NHL. MLS does not have that, as even many of the most recognizable Americans re still pulling in big bucks abroad. That is changing, but it is a challenge. It is still very much an experiential sport and a sport of tradition vs a sport that is consistently strong in broadcast numbers in the US, but like hockey, the overall engagement across all platforms, especially for a younger soccer fan in the States, is more important than a Nielsen number. There is also the continuing challenge of converting the global fan of soccer to a fan of the American game and its MLS teams. That is a slow but evolving process, and one which the popularity of this World Cup will not change.

So while all about World Cup has been great for American partners in soccer, the biggest evolution and step is yet to come. The challenges exist, but the opportunity is great, and the MLS leadership, and the leadership of USA Soccer, looks from their actions ready to keep the buzz going and the brand building once the sun sets in Brazil, and rises to a bold “what’s next” back in the States.

Bayern and Boca; Soccer Marketing In The States Grows…

There is little doubt that soccer, from the grassroots through the World Cup, continues to have a growing presence in the mindset of the casual sports fan in the United States. While still not as embedded on the professional side as it is in the rest of the world, the sport is more buzzworthy and brandworthy than it has ever been in the States, and the scramble is on from Major League Soccer and its partners at Soccer United Marketing to many of the world’s elite clubs and brands to best figure out how to enhance and embrace this new love affair while the opportunity exists, and make sure that the right brands are associated with the consumer on all levels of soccer engagement.

We have seen recently how companies like Mondelez International have taken soccer partnerships to a new level with their consumer activation, and now a growing number of elite clubs and their partners are looking to step up even more to find their way into the marketplace, by taking up shop in and around Madison Avenue. For several years, clubs like Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Manchester City (now with their co-ownership of NYCFC) have operated satellite offices and programs in and around New York’s business and marketing centers, finding ways to embrace both the grassroots (with youth programs) and the consumer (enhancing summer tours and exploring multi-level partnerships with American brands both in and out of season). Those efforts continue to pay off as soccer grows its footprint in the States and traditional American brands look to partner and activate on both sides of the Atlantic with established properties who have a true passionate  global following.

While to this point most of the clubs that have put down a stake in the US have been Barclays Premier League clubs, the best efforts are expanding. AS Roma and its American ownership group have made very big strides in creating a brand presence in the US, and both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have looked to capitalize on their massive audience to create momentum with brands in the States as well. The latest additions to the mix are also intriguing and may signal an even bigger push to follow the other elite clubs with their own presence.  Boca Juniors, arguably one of the biggest and most successful South American clubs, has started grassroots work in and around the States and has begun their own field marketing efforts to find new partners to activate both in the States and in Argentina, and Bayern Munich has now started to take their mega-brand and its partners to the US marketplace in advance of this summer’s Tour in America.

While Boca Juniors play is more on the grassroots side, establishing an Academy and growing a footprint from the ground up, Bayern is looking to establish itself in the commercial world through the Bundesliga’s new broadcast contract on American TV and by activating around the solid brand partnerships it already has with brands like Adidas, Allianz and tour title sponsor Audi. There is a long list of best practice activations the club has done in Germany that can be expanded into the US market, making the Bayern push much more than just a startup idea.

The club itself will make its first trip to the U.S. in 10 years this summer after having won its record 24th Bundesliga title and will take on Mexican club Club Deportivo Guadalajara at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., on July 31 before flying to the West Coast to play in the MLS All-Star Game in Portland on Aug. 6. That bicoastal presence will serve as a key launch point for the Bayern brand with soccer fans, and can help push long-term efforts forward. The club also has a nice historical boost with the American fan, with legend  (and ex- New York Cosmos star) Franz Beckenbauer as its international ambassador (valuable despite his recent issues with FIFA) and the presence of rising American Julian Green on its roster.

The push for Boca and Bayern into the U.S. is smart but won’t be easy or an overnight success.  Neither club has a track record of marketing or branding success in the States, and the largest broadcast marketing platforms for soccer are stacked with Premier League efforts and the clubs that have been marketing here for several years. There is a bit of a language barrier for both, although both are embracing English-language sites and marketing efforts to assist in their work, and despite their local strength, neither club plays in a league which has made an aggressive push into the US as a whole to date.  While clubs like Arsenal and even Fulham have expanded their supporter club programs across the United States to build fan following, the build for others like Bayern and Borussia Dortmund has been much slower and will take some time to build awareness amongst fans that are more than casual followers. That build is going to be very important for brands looking to activate, and for the club itself as it becomes more aggressive in competing in the marketplace with other clubs looking to do the same thing.

The great opportunity for a club like Bayern is that they are first to market in the States for a Bundesliga club, and they certainly have the name recognition amongst casual and ardent soccer followers, an audience that is growing. Their success in building partnerships in arguably the healthiest economy in Europe is also a great selling point, and their story, although kind of understood by soccer supporters, is still an untold one in the US sports business landscape. American brands love new combined with successful stories, and the club appears to have all that, along with its strong history of success on the pitch.

As World Cup fever in the States builds the next few weeks, brands will be looking for a “what’s next” as a way to capitalize on all the excitement and buzz and translate that excitement into a long term viable strategy. Certainly MLS presents a great and expanding option. However for some brands looking more global, the elite clubs of the world now marketing in the States are also very interesting, and now it appears that one of not two, of those elite names are presenting a unique and sustainable new option in the mix.

The business of “The Beautiful Game” in the States keeps getting more interesting.

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.  

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.  

Red Bulls Get A Chance To Ride A Wave…Again

Last week the sports world was all abuzz with soccer talk. Trouble is, it was not the talk about the current first place team in MLS, the only team currently playing a full schedule in the area, the Red Bulls. It was about Manchester City and Chelsea, the Champions League Final, even the pesky still to play an NASL match Cosmos tried to find some ink with a late Friday announcement of a kit deal with Nike. The Red Bulls on the brand side? Silence, other than the calls of some in the media and some politicians to have the club drop “New York” from their name and fully embrace their New Jersey home, like the Devils have.

Now on the pitch, the club has enjoyed a string start, holding down first place with a mix of solid scoring and balanced defense. It is one of their best starts in years, and brings a welcomed stability to the club that they can build on. Off the field?

The club has a solid fan base of loyal supporters who turn out every game. There also remains a group of casual soccer fans and youth groups who will make the trek to Red Bull Arena a few times a season, as well as a mix of multicultural fans who enjoy the game and will look to get a fix of live soccer time and again. However to embrace the larger audience, more widely tell the stories of their players and staff, and get more fans actively involved in the Red Bull soccer brand as they are the Red Bull lifestyle in other areas of sport and entertainment, the click is now ticking.

While some may say that the Yankees/MCFC partnership will crush the chance for the Red Bulls to embrace a larger community, especially one across the Hudson which has never taken to the gleaming stadium in Harrison, New Jersey that remains to be seen. Red Bull is not a brand that backs down easily from a challenge, even one as potentially large as another franchise in their back yard. The excitement generated by the announcement, as well as a full slate of friendlies in the area this summer, should be a big opportunity for the resident MLS club to hit the marketplace strong at the grassroots level and capture an audience interested in the game more than they have. It is a chance to blanket market not just parts of New Jersey but the entire region like never before. Players should be out more in force, clinics should abound, media opportunities should be more prevalent, celebrities can be imported and built, fan stories told more, not just through traditional media which can be fickle, but through controlled and digital media. NBC Sports net, MSG Networks and radio, yes radio, needs to be blanketed consistently to build market share, but as a one off experiment. The red Bulls remain the only professional or major college team in the area with no live audio of their game on broadcast or a digital platform. That is a big miss for the casual fan out and about on spring and summer weekends. We may know Thierry Henry, but who else resonates with the casual fan in the region? Time to tell the stories and embrace the rising tide of soccer.

Now there are many that say that is not the Red Bull marketing way. It is an immersive, interactive brand with lots of sizzle that works with their highly successful platforms. However this is a different type of animal, this soccer Red Bull. It is one that has to be brought to casual fans with lots of choices, not one that can be drawn in large numbers just with the allure of the brand. People know the name, know the product, but don’t know the makeup of the club…and that’s what team sports is in this country. It is much more the personality than the club.

For now, the Red Bulls have the benefit of a winning team, some engaging stars, a gleaming state of the art facility, a growing fan base of their sport, a league that is aggressive and forward thinking in its approach, and a great deal of excitement created by a new presence in the area somewhere off in the distance, a presence which in just a week swept up great excitement and lots and lots of buzz. They also have the benefit of time, and the opportunity to have fans come now and embrace all things soccer.

It’s a great chance to grow the brand, the team and the marketplace, and really grease the skids for what could be a wonderful rivalry for all somewhere down the road. Will they take advantage? We shall see.  The opportunity is there, yet again for the club. The time to take advantage is now, not just fr the team but for the visibility of the league as well.

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 .


“Feeling Thorny” A Great Marketing Try…

Professional Women’s Soccer needs every break it can get in its third go-round. Two well-funded previous attempts to create a pro league have come and gone, and now a third version funded in large part by USA Soccer and some others with a stake in the game is going to give it another try.

This version will have eight teams based in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Western New York, New Jersey, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.  and will have heavy cost control and marketing spends to try and make it moderately successful.

One of those teams will be the Portland Thorns, who have the savvy and skill of the MLS Timbers, one of the best success stories in North American startups in the past 30 years, to draw from. The Timbers know how to sell the soccer experience, and with it, the stories, athleticism and the professionalism of the female athlete as well. It won’t be easy getting exposure, but this past week the Thorns created a good amount of buzz before even giving anyone a chance to talk soccer.

The team started to market a program to draw attention to the squad, with the slogan “Feeling Thorny,” as an off color play on words. In a progressive town like Portland, with a young, vibrant and active community, the shorts sold like wildfire.  Team head Mike Golub, one of the smartest marketers in sport, and someone who knows the marketplace, said that last week   half of the sales at the Adidas Timbers store in Jeld-Wen Field were of the T-shirt, giving the team a nice lift and showing most importantly, that the organization was not afraid to take a chance to expose the franchise to a casual audience. It was not a big spend, with billboards and TV ads with suggestive poses…it was a controlled test to see what the market would bear to help get the franchise off the ground in an unconventional way.

It appeared to be working. The slogan was vetted with a wide group of supporters and was even created by a female employee who did not see the short as offensive.

That’s when the PC world started to chime in. A Facebook page went up and the social world started reacting, positively and negatively to a slogan which some people found offensive and sexist to a family audience. The team, seeing that the simple slogan could cause more damage than it’s worth and could be a distraction to a franchise that is going to struggle to hit its margins, quickly recanted and pulled the shirts. End of story.

While it is probably the right thing to do for a franchise in need of every ounce of support as a startup, it is a shame that the Timbers organization, one which has taken every positive step to make sure it is part of the fabric of the community in Portland, had to recant on a slogan which was clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and did not offend the core fan or the women who were playing for the team. It had a great viral effect, and probably really hit home with a Portland community that loves a bit of an edge and can be all about counter culture.

Can “Feeling Thorny” make it back? Doubtful in the mainstream. Can those t-shorts find a niche home and help the team grow, even if they are not “official”? You betcha. The slogan and the shirts struck a chord with casual fans, and even by pulling them, the organization sent a message that the game is supposed to be all about having fun and enjoying the communal experience of sport.

The next promotion probably won’t be as edgy, but for sure the Thorns brain trust as created a demand for a product, and by testing the waters has given a nice look into their marketing prowess as they attempt to help a league, and a sport, finally turn a corner.

Nice try Timbers/Thorns, keep shaking the tree.

Red Bulls Brand Looks For Another Boost

It was quite a few months for Red Bull around the world. From crashing snow mobiles to free falling from space, the thrill seeking brand continues to find ways to engage with an audience that loves action and adrenalin. Even their most prominent local athlete, the Brooklyn Nets Deron Williams, has had a sold season leading the transplanted team back to playoff and division contention in the NBA. Now if all that mojo could wear off on the area’s MLS team.
The Red Bulls soccer brand was full of action in the offseason for sure. They promoted from within, giving longtime assistant Mike Petke the coaching reigns and elevating longtime area soccer legend John Wolyniec as reserve team coach and player development coordinator.  They added Juninho to go alongside international stars like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill and they talk of playing a more exciting and up-tempo style that could maybe produce more on field success than the club has ever had.
Off the field, the Red Bulls were the first MLS team to start a new tradition of jersey unveils all part of a wall to wall media day this past  week in Manhattan.  It is the latest step in what the club should hope will draw more fans from across the river and will in turn increase their brand value in marketplace that is still talking about another franchise to the east in Queens, while the deep pocketed but yet to start New York Cosmos of the lower level North American Soccer League make lots of off-field noise of their own.
Now maybe the Cosmos noise is just that…loud tricks designed to entice some marketing eyes as they wait for their now delayed first season to begin later this summer on Long Island. However that noise should serve as a brand wakeup call for the Red Bulls, who have made steady but not overwhelming progress in winning over casual fans and a younger demo that MLS does so well in other markets. Some years the club has come loud, with media plans and banners around Manhattan. Other years they have gone quiet, looking to the suburbs to draw fans to the brand and into Red Bull Arena. In truth, the club really needs to do both to be successful in the marketplace, one that they still have to themselves, at least for now.
The club has a solid fan base of loyal supporters and thousands of soccer-happy families on both sides of the river to embrace. They have an ardent ethnic community just minutes away who love all things soccer. They have marketable stars and now a home grown American coach. They also have the benefit of a brand that likes to engage in all forms of media, and is big on the viral nature of fandom.  Now there is what looks to be a very strong NHL and NBA run this spring to occupy the winter sports fans, and the Mets and Yankees got off to an early spring training start due to the World Baseball Classic, but it appears the New York area will not have much March Madness to attract fans, and the ever-growing popularity in the digital space and in the broadcast world of European soccer has kept the game close to top of mind all winter for fans. Now they get to see their local team return to the pitch, and stop watching the game from faraway stadia for a while.
Will it work? We shall see. Like any club, the Red Bulls are full of stories that need to be told to a wider audience. They speak to many languages and traditions. They have strong broadcast partners and will now add Spanish language radio on the former home of ESPN Radio in New York (1050). While it would be great to have an English language radio broadcast, even one that is streamed on their ever-changing website, the Red Bulls have another chance to make a dent in the marketplace. It is one that needs to be made now, with a combination of the loud outreach to Manhattan and corporate America combined with the grassroots embrace. If it’s not made now the marketplace is going to become crowded, with more than one choice for the casual soccer fan and the eyes of Gotham looking potentially east for their brand soccer fix, not west as they will need to look now. Whether that competition comes in the form of an upstart with a brand name or a fledgling franchise with a gleaming new still to be built franchise, one that can use other MLS expansion game plans for a model for success, remains to be seen.
For now it’s the Red Bulls town for the taking from every aspect. They have a solid stadium in a good location, a brand people know, lots of grassroots support and marketable and personable stars. It should be a blue print for success that builds and hopefully is amplified with a winning product on the field.   Whether all that equity crystallizes into brand success and penetration this season is up to the powers that be. Soccer has made great strides as a brand in the U.S, and in the New York market in recent years, sometimes in spite of the issues the local franchise has had on and off the field.  It is spring, and we all know that no one likes new starts more than a sports franchise. It is an annual do-over few business or brands ever get. The Red Bulls, like all clubs, start out not just even on the field but ahead as a brand in a one team market for soccer fans.  They get another chance, whether they take advantage of it from all aspects this year will be interesting.
The market won’t be theirs only for much longer, but they can own it now.

MLS Casts A New York Net To Capture The Media…

It has been tried before, bringing the bringing the mountain to Muhammad idea, sports business version. NASCAR, LPGA, INDY CAR, USOC have all done it, finding a strategic time in the calendar to bring their elite athletes, the stories, their personalities to New York as a group, sometimes tied to a mega-sponsored promotion, to drum up casual interest, especially TV and brand awareness, in advance of a big event or the start of a season or even a season-ending championship race or event. Sometimes it works really well; sometimes it becomes a cash drain and a law of diminishing returns that goes away after a time. After all, most of the sports that take the caravan idea to New York do it because they never play or engage fans in the area…lack of courses, lack of tracks, lack of opportunities…so coming to New York as the one off event gives them, it is thought, ample face time to remind people they are viable media sources worthy of coverage. Another reason is the massive tours come and go with the medium we live in today…hyper local, highly digital engagement, where that “personal” touch can be offset in the minds of many by Skype, video streaming, and any other way to have a virtual tour or relationship with decision makers. Many groups also have massive pressure from promoters and media who need to access to hype their events locally and regionally as well, so the governing body needs to decide…worth bringing everyone to Gotham or is it better to do one off events where an almost immediate ROI can be felt in ticket sales and promotion for the next tour stop?

One thing is for sure, when decisions on budgets and time are being made on the business at hand today vs. the long term, taking the local road is safer than the less traveled national one which runs own Madison Avenue.

However now you have Major League Soccer, and the sport itself. There is little question that the sport from the grassroots to the highest levels of play, has taken hold with fans in the States. MLS has had its own steady growth as well, and with a World Cup now on the horizon should get an even bigger halo effect than it ever as before in terms of visibility and market viability. Still for all the growth of the sport, the greatest global names, even some of the most visible American stars, play elsewhere for most of the year, coming to the States for “friendlies” or for USA National matches. They are not here every day. That does not mean MLS does not have its share of vibrant personalities and good stories, they just sometimes get lost in the shuffle on the elite team sport mix in the States. That has changed in recent years, with more TV coverage, greater sponsor involvement and a stronger marketing push by clubs, but it still has a ways to go. Part of the answer for this year? Bring the guys here now.

This week MLS brought a trove of its talent from its teams, from young faces to veterans, to New York for two days of diverse media coverage, brand building and storytelling. They will engage with fans from New Jersey to Long Island, they will spend time playing video games and chatting up interested parties, some may cross paths in Fashion Week, however they can be, visibility to what they seek.  It will be the first of a series of loud statements MLS is going to make far and wide in the next few weeks, from player appearances to new jersey rollouts, to try and up the ante for a season less than a month away…a start which usually gets lost amongst the start of baseball,  March Madness, the climax of the NBA and NHL seasons and even the roar of Daytona. There is never an easy place to break through, but MLS sometimes has the hardest start because of the loud voices of others during March.

So why is this massive blitz of New York different or better than other leagues? Well better is hard to say, as it doesn’t have the roar of engines travelling around Times Square, or the frolicking of bulls or even beach volleyball players for people to stop and take notice of. It’s cold in New York this week, and even with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue unveiling (maybe there will be an MLS face or two there as well!) getting any sports fan to stop and take notice will have its issues amidst the slush.

This is different for the reason that MLS plays in the area…just across the river in New Jersey at Red Bull Arena, as easy a place to reach by public transportation or to watch an event as there is in the area. Media won’t have to travel to far outposts on busy weekends to follow up on the players they meet during the tour…they just need to check the schedules an head over…the MLS schedule is also not the daunting game every night of say, baseball…there is some down time for follow-up interaction. While other sports come here for their tour because they don’t  play here, MLS has a distinct advantage, and it’s one that should bring the athletes back top of mind once the season starts.

Is it a game changer overnight? No way. It will take time still to keep growing the affinity with the players, the teams and the markets. It is a great and a smart next step for the league and for the sport, and is hopefully one which those around today will see value in, and those marketing the game as we move closer to another world stage in 2014 and beyond will get to see as a must have, even when the league grows beyond the audience of loyal followers and casual fans it has today.


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.