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

A year ago this coming week the New York soccer world was all abuzz with the announcement of the latest entry into Major League Soccer, and arguably the last startup sports team New York will ever see in New York City Football Club.  Manchester City, Major League Soccer and the New York Yankees announced a long rumored deal to bring the 20th MLS franchise to New York City. The deal pushed soccer to the front pages of every newspaper and broadcast outlet, created buzz and excitement in the New York City area that hasn’t been seen for soccer really since the original Cosmos…the ones that played games vs. the team out there now in the lower tier NASL later this summer…last took the turf at Giants Stadium.

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

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.

Hockey Poised For An Olympic-Sized Run After The Games…

While Sochi 2014 continues to march on into its second week, its stars, especially the American stars, are coming into focus in some of the larger platform events that casual fans love. The misses of Shani Davis and Shaun White continue to leave new openings for bobsled, figure skating and perhaps even more than ever before, for hockey.

The drama, some expected, some surprising, that Team USA has provided fans with as they enter the Quarterfinals this week has been terrific and has given at least short justification for the NHL shutting down their business for two weeks. Would hockey even on its best regular season Sunday that wasn’t in outdoors stadiums have generated enough buzz and interest when going against the NBA All-Star game, the run-up for Daytona, and pitchers and catchers reporting? Would regular season NHL have even been able to out-draw interest in an Olympics which the elite players were not participating in? Probably not.

For all the short-term issues created by a schedule stoppage, hockey can still be the big winner coming out of Sochi, with new stars, well rested players and the prime time drama which has the potential to be played out this week.  The biggest opportunity hockey will have going forward is something that no other Olympic medalist or team will have in the months coming; its own pre-set city by city night by night tour, called the NHL regular season and playoffs. The biggest bobsledders, the greatest figure skaters, the most dynamic downhill skiers who can all claim gold this week will not have the massive pre-planned platform that hockey will have when it returns to action. Every night casual fans will tune in to see their local teams, but they will also see some newly minted Olympic heroes from countries far and wide returning home to play not just once, but time and again. There will be multiple chances for U.S. and Canadian fans to see their returning heroes and re-live the memories already forged and those still to come, an opportunity which local marketers and community programs should be jumping on, and something which any other sport will have to concoct at breakneck pace once the games are concluded.

While going into the Games the NHL and NBC had a set list of stars to promote, the early run by Team USA has brought yet two new names to the forefront in St. Louis Blues hero T.J. Oshie and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, both solid names in their own markets who now have national buzz for casual fans who until this past weekend may have never heard of them. While youth…and that’s important…youth shirts for USA Hockey with Oshie’s and Kessel’s names have been flying out the door and off sites like Fanatics.com, the more important element will how these new faces to most of the audience can be pushed forward through the rest of the winter and into the spring, when their teams are on the road, and how they can be partnered with the existing stars as the hockey tournament plays out.

Now several key places are already in the mix for “brand hockey” in the States. The grassroots push of “Hockey Weekend In America” is already set for the week following the Games, with a host of local celebrations in communities big and small to help bring the Olympic experience to many communities. College and high school games, along with the elite NHL and minor leagues, can now invest in social media sharing and re-living of Olympic moments that can be played out through on a large scale through the deep resources of the NHL-NBC relationship. Brands in various locales can also indirectly ride the Olympic crest of interest by partnering with teams and even former Olympians to help retell the stories of glory past and present, all of which can be revisited time and time again as hockey moves into the spring on various levels.

Now does all this mean that suddenly, as happened in 1980, there will be thousands of kids who never played hockey before suddenly rushing to rinks? Probably not. What it does mean is that hockey, and the NHL, have perhaps one of their best brand awareness platforms now in place to really bring in new ticketholders and consumers, and probably some additional sponsor partners. While some may say that Oshie’s success is limited in helping the Blues, it really lifts the overall hockey platform, and that rising tide can benefit everyone in the game from the grassroots to the NHL.

There will still be many skeptics as to the value of a league shutdown for several weeks, and a league like Major League Soccer is certainly watching closely how much the Olympics benefited the NHL as they go through a similar situation in some respects with World Cup this summer. Will the benefit to the NHL, which is perhaps even bigger than what the league went through following the Vancouver Olympics, be amplifies enough to  continue the partnership in 2018? Is there enough that is built for the NHL to try and do its own World Championships in the fall, like MLB has tried to do with the World Baseball Classic and soccer does with World Cup? Hard to say if that Olympic buzz would translate to a non-Olympic event away from the buzz of the Games.

What is pretty clear is that hockey is structured for a very unique test of brand growth in the coming weeks after the Games, one which any Olympic sport would love to have to keep the flames fanned for casual and brand interest, and one which could help propel interest and engagement in the game to new heights of casual interest and brand development in markets large and small.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 .

 

A New Spirit In Women’s Soccer

Sometimes a little positive spirit can go a long way in enhancing a fledgling business model. In sport, an intriguing model this spring is Women’s Professional Soccer. Now with a third try, the skeptical can look at the venture, which is being run not by outside entities or deep pocketed business executives with an eye on sports glory, but by  The US Soccer Federation. The positive will look at this cost controlled, tightly managed startup as either being a case of “Third time is a charm,” or “three strikes and you’re out”  out as women’s soccer tries to find a viable business plan in North America.

This first to tries at a professional league followed the glory of major international success, especially at the Women’s World Cup level. Investors rushed in with deep pockets and big plans hoping to make a big splash, and in both cases what splashed were millions of dollars down the tube.  Despite some good ideas at marketing; cities, times, stadia and the marketplace wasn’t really understood, and the best effort of core fans, supporters and athletes left the ventures in tatters.

This latest venture, The National Women’s Soccer League is more about the buildup to World Cup in 2015 in Canada and Rio 2016 than trying to capture past glory. It is cost controlled, limited national exposure and big on all things grassroots. There is no bluster about being the best and most exciting sports league, men or women, it is all about managing expectations and taking little steps.

Some clubs like the Portland Thorns have helped draw from the marketing success of their MLS partners. That has resulted in some added exposure as the league launched, with an expertise in selling and marketing the game of soccer itself that wasn’t as proficient in other iterations. Other teams, like Sky Blue FC in New Jersey, are almost operating in a vacuum between MLS franchises in New York and Philadelphia, and are hoping to carve their own slow and steady growth with minimal support.

However a great example of finding its spot appears to be hanging in suburban Maryland, where the Washington Spirit, with minimal sponsors and even less media support, are using old fashioned door to door sales and branding techniques, combined with some effective digital tools, to find a platform to grow from.

To date, the club has had some great success with clubs and leagues having special “nights” as a group. Youth leagues have hosted “sportsmanship award nights,” where the leagues pay for the tickets for coach/players of the team in each age group and division that wins the sportsmanship award (least red/yellow card cautions in the season).  “Youth Experiences” have also been simple and every effective for the Spirit as well as capitalizing on the fan base that followed and successfully engaged with women’s soccer in its prior successful stops in the area.

A lot of this is a carbon copy of what many MLS sales teams have been doing for years, including D.C. United, to much success. The difference, according to The Spirit, is there are MORE girls playing youth soccer than boys, but they don’t go out to see MLS in near the numbers as boy’s teams.  So cultivating that audience and getting them to engage has been key.

More importantly, the club has carved out a blueprint of tangible programs which brands and fans can actually see when they come to an event. There is no guesswork, what there is is some proven success and best practices in everything from social activation to potential brand partnerships. This approach with minimal cost outlay, combined with the fact that the women’s league can legitimately claim they have the best players in the world, has resulted in larger projected crowds to date, almost 4,000 per game, in their intimate Maryland home.

The next and biggest challenge will come not in the short term, but in the long term. And this success with minimal outlay be replicated in every market, and can the Spirit take their ideas and turn them into ROI. The best thing they have going for them that their predecessors did not have is time and the lack of…money. Lean budgets will help extend the window for potential success, as the burn rate is very much lower than at any point before in women’s pro soccer history in North America.

Now all that DC success this far doesn’t mean this will work. The amount of startup sports that have been successful in the US for the long term in in the past 20 years us exactly…one. MLS, with maybe the WNBA a second to some degree. No money for marketing means big challenges, and those challenges include getting enough fans out for break even.

Still with those issues, it appears that on the franchise level the latest iteration of women’s pro soccer is looking forward for its wins, not back, and that is a positive step worth watching.

“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.