“Up For Whatever” Scores Locally…

Last year during Super Bowl,  Bud Light’s “Up for Whatever” campaign scored huge marks for buzz, digital engagement and creativity, and the campaign continued to gain steam and eyeballs, and hopefully sales and brand awareness, throughout the year.

New elements have been introduced throughout the year to give the campaign more steam and re-engage consumers who liked the first go-round, and were interested in seeing what could be next for the characters of “Up For Whatever.”

However with such a buzz-worthy high end national platform, the question existed, could this become hyper-local as well? Could local distributors take the platform and drill it down with their own creative engagement in their local markets. Well if you are in Texas, the answer is yes.

In and around the state, one of the most ultra-competitive beer markets in the country, distributors sought out an idea to take the buzz ad viral awareness of “Up For Whatever” tie it to an efficient and noteworthy micro-campaign of their own; one that would engage their local consumers and keep the beat going through local events. The result was a highly effective digital campaign, manufactured and executed by our friends at Huddle Productions, that brought all sorts of “Up For Whatever” messaging, branding and fun to the people of the Lone Star State.

The group highlighted eight high traffic events tied to sports and music; from the Bud Light Hotel at the Final Four to World Cup events to a Dallas Mavericks game to an MLB game with the Texas Rangers and others, and captured fans enjoying all elements of a Bud Light experience and sharing their thoughts and experiences on “Up For Whatever.” The crews encouraged fans to share videos and photos, drop in celebrity references and surprise appearances, and bring the noise, as well as the fun, of the national “Up for Whatever” campaign back to the local market. They tied it back with all elements of social and digital including the campaigns own microsite for fans to engage and share more content.

The result was impressive, especially for a controlled cost experience. Over 20 million social impressions, thousands of shared photos and videos and hours of good will and brand engagement for Bud Light and their local distributors that set them apart from their competitors and tied in very nicely to the mage-sized national campaign.

While there are scores of examples of brands activating locally around a national campaign, the low cost, high impact benefit that Bud Light got locally for their brand, and the awareness that was generated for a national campaign with a hyper-local effort, was impressive, and certainly worth a few cold ones for the media crew who pulled the effort together and for the execs who saw a unique way to engage locally and exploit a national viral trend.

Well done, well executed and a great best practice for the brand.

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.

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.

Can Sky Blue Find Green?

They have one of the greatest soccer players ever to step on the field, a homegrown Olympian surrounded by lots of other great talent, four of which are from various parts of the state. They now have a consistent home base in a soccer crazy corridor between two major markets. They are perhaps the most competitive, fan friendly, and progressive teams in the region, during a year when casual fans are searching for answers as to what has happened to almost all the male teams in the area, from the Sixers and Eagles to the south and any of the nine teams to the north (eventhough the Nets and Rangers are still going strong in the playoffs). Yet for all their success, fun and goodwill Sky Blue FC continues to make less than a small dent in the consciousness of soccer fans or casual sports fans in the tri-state area. Why?

It would be easy to blame the crowded marketplace. From a financial standpoint, this women’s league looks as if it could have staying power. Each franchise has a budget of about $1 million to $1.5 million, a far cry from the overspending in previous leagues. The teams play in stadiums appropriate for the sizes of their fan bases, not in mega-parks. Each team is anchored by national team players whose salaries are paid by the federation.


The teams that have been succeeding in the latest iteration of women’s professional soccer may be in markets where the competition is not as fierce. The Portland Thorns, for example, have a model where they have fed off the Timbers of MLS’ success, and their front office marketing savvy, to create a product that is working on the field and off.  Sky Blue does not have the support of a club like the Red Bulls, who could help bolster marketing and brand awareness, and they are not Philadelphia or New York based.  Can they succeed?

The good news is that the National Women’s Soccer League has committed to finding ways to keep the professional side of the game afloat at least through the next World Cup in 2015, and the thousands of young boys and girls who have grown up in the last 10-15 years with a passion for the sport have now become more and more consumers of all things soccer. That has been the leverage point MLS has used and it has been key in the growth of global clubs and other national teams coming to the States to engage with their own fans and increase the soccer marketplace in the U.S. The base exists.

The result in New Jersey? Fun product still operating in a vacuum. So what to do next. The first step was to maintain a solid home base, instead of being this vagabond club in Montclair one week and New Brunswick the next. Yurcak Field at Rutgers fits the mold. Second become NEW JERSEY’s team. Sky Blue stands for no one. Not New York, not Philly, not even Piscataway. New Jerseyans welcome their name being used, so use it. The Devils have realized this and have taken great strides in being the team for The Garden State. Sky Blue stands for nothing. Second, tell your story. For all that the Red Bulls have done, they have not embraced the grassroots to the South and West at all. You have a star in Christine Rampone who even casual fans may know. Maya Hayes and Meg Morris are from soccer crazy Montclair, Jill Loyden is from southern Vineland by way of Villanova University. Get the team out and when you do, tell people about it. Challenge with unique low cost promotions. Steven Temares is the CEO of mega-chain Bed, Bath and Beyond. Maybe there won’t be a huge cash investment by the chain, but products and coupons? Some of the best minor league baseball clubs reside within miles of Sky Blue, take a cue from their antics and ramp up the fun. Pull a stunt or two that makes it experiential for the fans, and not as much about the purity of soccer.  Third, embrace the Hispanic culture.  The corridor is ripe with a thriving Latino culture that already understands the game. Find those people and bring the games and your players to them. Fourth, media media media. Now there is of course limited spending on broadcast.  Heck, the Red Bulls don’t even have an English language radio partner in the marketplace. So build the audience yourself. Use the digital space for streaming broadcasts and then get your players, who are very socially savvy, to help drive the interest. Even live streams of audio broadcasts are still novel enough to draw interest. Be different in finding media coverage to amplify the negligible marketing budget the club has.

Sky Blue has proven their competitive side on the field time and again. The tragedy is that the reward for being first on the field is somehow being last in attendance in a league which needs a boost to be successful. Maybe the hands have been thrown up and the market has been determined by the powers that be to be not worthy of success. That would be a tragedy for the league for the sport and for the thousands who play and love the game.  If the whole league goes, so be it. However to have a franchise in the largest market fail because of lack of knowledge that it exists is an even bigger shame than if there was no women’s professional soccer at all. You have succeeded on the field, Sky Blue, here’s hoping you can succeed off it as well.


Brazil Takes Small Step, Speaks Loudly With World Cup Teeshirt Ban…

Last year the newly minted Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League created a stir when their wildly popular launch T-Shirts, “Feeling Thorny?”  were deemed too sexist and were pulled from the shelves, but not before creating buzz for the team and quite a black market cottage industry for the suddenly scarce and more in demand than ever shirts. Some groups claimed the shirts sexist, the team, which had vetted the phrase before selling, considered the play good natured. Nonetheless, the Thorns, like their MLS counterparts The Timbers, fully respectful of all fans, removed the controversy by removing the inventory, but not before generating some national buzz and a little edge.

This week the question of objectionable and probably well intentioned soccer t-shirts again rose up in the news, when World Cup partner adidas on Tuesday agreed to a request from Brazil’s tourism board to stop selling two T-Shirts made in the US for US consumers, that were meant to be good natured but were thought to encourage sexual tourism, something which Brazil is fighting and monitoring very closely.

The two shirts, one showing  a bikini-clad woman with open arms on a sunny Rio de Janeiro beach under the word-play “Looking to Score, ” while the other had an “I love Brazil” heart resembling the upside-down butt of a woman wearing a thong bikini bottom.   Neither obviously were directed at the beauty of World Cup, which starts June 12. They played off a global perception that Brazilians are about sensuality and regularly use bikini clad women on their beaches as a way to promote tourism, not inspire sexual trafficking or exploitation. One would be hard pressed to find a Brazilian tourism which didn’t feature beautiful women on the countries beaches as a matter of fact. In talking to several Brazilians  who heard of the shirts, few found them offensive when first discussed.

However we are now in a world where the global awareness of human trafficking especially in BRIC countries is growing very quickly. It was a huge issue that was addressed during the Olympics and even during the Super Bowl, and nations rightfully so have taken a stance of zero tolerance. There is little doubt adidas, as a great global ambassador for soccer and for its brand and the World Cup, created the shorts in a vacuum. They used the marks of World Cup so there had to be an approval process. Whether that approval was in the US, since the shirts were only sold at this point in the US, and it showed insensitivity by an American audience to the problem in Brazil and elsewhere is up for debate. What was clear on adidas’ side is that there was no room for questioning the issue once it was brought to the attention of the media; they reacted quickly and effectively to fix the situation.  

Some may say this is window dressing by the Brazilian government to take what is a relatively minor incident, one which may have gone unnoticed by most of the world given the few shirts that were in circulation, to make a grandstand play against a global sports brand.  However it was an interesting pre-emptive strike that showed two things: officials are doing their best to watch everything, no matter how small, and that they will not tolerate even those spending huge sums of money in Brazil around World Cup trivializing what is a very serious issue. It also gave the government a platform to state their case at a time when the sports business world, especially in the US, is coming off an Olympic hangover and is more focused on other things than large-scale social issues around Brazil and World Cup.

Did the fervor and attention maybe create a new market for risqué knockoff tees around World Cup now?  Probably. Was it an overreaction by officials? At first blush maybe, especially given the way the country does flaunt its beauty and beaches, but it sent a pretty clear message not just for Word Cup, but for the 2016 Olympics and other events that will occur, that this is a serious topic that won’t be trivialized.  Will the halting of selling two tee shirts in the US mean that human trafficking will not be an issue during World Cup? Of course not, but it gave the government some leverage that it did not have before, and it also sent a message that global brands looking to market around World Cup need to take a string look at what is really acceptable and what is perceived as acceptable when understanding the culture. It is a mistake, especially with American brands, that is made time and again. Slapping “Los” and playing mariachi music does not mean you are marketing to “Latinos,” and serving Chinese food does not mean you are marketing to “Asians.” If you are going to play internationally, you have to understand and integrate unto the culture, something that adidas as a global brand usually does well, but seems to have missed on this time.

From Portland to Rio, small actions can still have global implications, and Brazil took an interesting stance over what some may see as a small, playful marketing ploy which now addressed a bigger issue.

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.  

MLS Cup and World Cup Draw Help Float The North American Soccer Boat…

Say what you want about Major League Soccer and where it sits in the lexicon of professional sports in North America or where it sits as an established and viable entity in the global game, but there is no doubt that progress continues to be made as a brand.

The latest step will take place this weekend,  when MLS Cup will be held in Kansas City after a very long season, timed to follow the great global buzz around Friday’s World Cup draw. The weekend will be symbolic in highlighting what MLS has done best in recent years; growing and cultivating the game in the North America from the grassroots up, and then taking advantage of the key moments globally where soccer is premium and using that wave to raise awareness for the sport in their markets.

The past two weeks of lead up to MLS Cup has been a non-stop promotional tour for Commissioner Don Garber and others, using every form of media to engage and tell the story of the league and the sport overall. From Google hangouts to twitter chats to town hall meetings and visits with Regis Philbin, Garber has been everywhere as the face of the game in the U.S. the past few weeks. Using the consistent messages of growth and business health to spur the sport. The announcement of expansion into the Orlando market, the progress of a new stadium in the Bay Area and the continued rumors, albeit loud ones, of a David Beckham group getting a franchise have helped offset some of the warts on the MLS skin, like league sponsor Volkswagen ending its kit deal with DC United, or the ongoing questions of a future schedule format and the increased potential salary levels of players.  All of the negatives are actually positive signs of a maturing property, along with wherever the league TV contract ends up in future years.

The week, and the weekend, are all about spin positive for MLS and “Brand Soccer” in the States. Despite cold weather, something which will be an interesting factor should the league go to the traditional winter soccer schedule in future years, the league gets to show off one of the most technologically advanced facilities to a world which may not have seen how far ahead Sporting Kansas City is in terms of innovation. MLS has tried to replicate the buildup in the local market that other championship events have done; music events, food tasting, community builds and charitable donations for example; to try and expand the casual scope of the sport in the marketplace.   A host of brand activation projects from MLS national sponsors will also help to round out the goings-on around the Cup.

The timing of the Championship tied to the World Cup draw is also well planned and fortuitous for those pushing soccer in the States on the highest level. With the US and Mexico both qualifying for Brazil in  2014, the buzz around all things soccer, no matter who one roots for, will be high during the weekend, and MLS can slide into that conversation on many levels, especially in social media. Maybe all the talk is not about Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City, but any talk about the game helps raise the awareness of all involved.

Is the format for MLS Cup perfect? No. While rewarding the high seed with to host seems like the best way to build local interest, it limits the amount of advance planning and event management that can be done around MLS Cup. The cold weather scenario for the current schedule also doesn’t help, although that would change if the schedule does flip. Then there is market size and star power for the casual fan. No doubt that Real Salt Like and Sporting KC are solid businesses and quality franchises. But in the growing world of MLS having a major market and its major stars to draw is a big plus, albeit something no one can control. The plus side of emerging markets is that there is a window to tell new stories, expose new fan bases and continue to build for the future. If that future also happened to be located in New York or LA or Toronto or Seattle that too would be great, but one can only play the cards that are dealt on the pitch.

At the end of the day, the weekend is a celebration of all things soccer in North America, and hopefully a look back on the success of coming franchises, large digital exposure and new brand partners. Dwelling on the short term items like TV numbers and cold weather will probably be overshadowed by the continued growth of soccer in North America, and the looking forward to possibilities of what World Cup and new faces will bring to the league will outshine the lesser news cycle. MLS continues to build and grow, and this weekend is a good reflection of where the sport and the league have come and more importantly where they can go in the future.

Ivy Sports Symposium Sends A Clear Message: Opportunity Abounds

We are hiring!

That was the common thread that seemed to continue to pop out during one of the best days on the sports business calendar, the annual Ivy Sports Symposium. From the eclectic panel assembled to discuss sports in Brazil, to Yahoo’s Eric Winter and Talent League’s Tom Richardson to Gillette’s Greg Via the message was very clear…if you can hustle, be willing to take some risk, and bring a unique set of talents to an organization, especially those in the digital space or those needing to ramp up with the mega-global events coming…from World Cup and Olympics…there is a place for you.

Maybe it’s because it is a mix of students and  global sports executives from all areas of business, maybe it’s because the setting is a college campus, maybe it’s because  the combination of those two give the speakers a chance to be a little more loose and free thinking with ideas, but for the eight straight year the Ivy Sports Symposium topped itself as one of the most unique and comprehensive one day gatherings on the sports business calendar.

This year’s event was held at Harvard University for the first time, after one year stops at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University  and five years at Princeton University, and the over 100 speakers and 600 attendees were treated to a day of open conversation, leadership ideals, networking and sharing of best practices from areas ranging from social responsibility to new media to finance to team and league governance. While much of the details can be found on the Symposium website, some of the more frank and positive discussions came from the leadership core of speakers that frankly rarely take such opportunities to address a conference.

The rare voices heard from included MSG President Dave Howard, Excel Sports President Jeff Schwartz, Rio 2016’s Leonardo Gryner, NBA President  Joel Litvin, Sports Illustrated’s Mike McCann and Pete Thamel,  and they mixed and match well with both the students and the industry execs gathered to talk about such a wide range of topics. The audience and the Ivy cache’ clearly helped drive new faces to the event, and mixing those names and voices in with others like Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, the Boston Celtics Rich Gotham,  ESPN fantasy expert Matthew Berry, MLB Security head John Skinner, and Palace Sports and Entertainment head Dennis Mannion among many others really helped create a tension-less and free flowing exchange of ideas and positive thought on a rainy Friday in Cambridge. In the end, it seemed like not just the attendees but the speakers as well who sat in on one another’s panels throughout the day, all seemed to have learned something that had not thought of before.

Now if you were a student or someone in transition or looking for guidance to see what’s next, the messages were pretty clear; if you speak a second language, can express yourself in the written word outside of twitter, have an understanding of finance and sales, are willing to travel and have a feel for the various forms of media available today, then you have a leg up. There were few rambles about wanting to be bold and challenge every aspect of traditional authority or structure. Rather, the discussions were about a mix…understanding the traditional ways business has been done and then adapting to a new global environment. Lawyers and accountants mixed with high school students,  senior team and league executives shared thoughts with graduate students, and for the most part everyone seemed to embrace an old fashioned idea…listen before you speak. While the networking was part of the event, the halls were far less crowded while segments were going on than most conferences, meaning that there was substance being discussed, whether it was in philanthropy or new media or law or sales or athlete representation. Some may say the event is sometimes too wide ranging and not focused, but it always seems to come across as a nice slice of the industry, a look both back and forward of all aspects of the business.

In the end the most encouraging news was the frankness with which senior executives readily admitted that the job market is opening wider and more diverse than ever. There was no hemming and hawing, it was very clear. Of course the openings won’t suit everyone. A workforce that hiring industry executives admit may have as much as 65 percent  of people as consultants by 2020 doesn’t mean that those of a certain age can suddenly take a $60,000 a year position at a startup without benefits, but in a world or re-engineering the skills one has, hearing that employers are willing to listen and look for new ways of engaging talent was a very strong message, and probably the best one that could come out of the day- long conference…a message that probably wasn’t expected by most who have heard about downsizing and doom and gloom for the better part of a decade.

Every year the Ivy Sports Symposium has brought a little more light and discussion to the industry. This year, its biggest message may be the most impactful yet; that those who attended Friday may have had tangible opportunities presented to them as a result of taking the time to make the trek to Harvard, and that’s the type of ROI that everyone; from the most senior execs to those looking to get started down the road, could have ever expected.