MLS | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

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.

#PassTheLove Starts To Score With Consumers…

Last fall Mondelez International and Soccer United Marketing announced a wide ranging partnership across some of the biggest brands in the consumer space, which, the goal (no pun intended), was to bring soccer touch points to almost anyone cruising an aisle in a food store.  The Mondelez brands, which include Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies, Ritz and Wheat Thins crackers, Trident and Stride gums, and Sour Patch Kids and Cadbury candies, aligned with the U.S, men’s and women’s soccer teams and some of its biggest personalities (Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders, Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Alex Morgan, an Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League) as well as with MLS clubs and Club Deportivo Guadalajara, and sponsor of all Chivas occasional matches the team plays in the United States. It made  the brands the official snacks of the women’s and men’s United States national soccer teams.

Because of the timing, the rare cross-gender professional athlete partnership,  the outreach on Multi-cultural, and the wide digital components, as well as the traditional spends, the program could be a game changer for soccer.

With World Cup now here, the program is ready to get started much more formally.

A ceremony at NASDAQ  a few weeks ago  was just the latest way the Official Snacks of U.S. Soccer (iconic brands like OREO, Ritz, Trident, Honey Maid and Sour Patch Kids) have rallied attention around soccer. This summer, they kick off a campaign called #PassTheLove, which inspires fans everywhere to share the spirit of soccer as the U.S. prepared for Brazil. It’s the largest multi-brand program for the company to date.

The Coast to coast retail presence now includes 40 million specially marked packs and 17,000 displays. A nationwide, socially powered promotion appearing on more than 40 million custom designed packs inviting consumers to share why they love soccer using #PassTheLove in exchange for the chance to win a “Game of Your Life” soccer experience that captures the excitement of a major competition, or other instant win giveaways.

There is a new mobile game, Free Kick Fury, which is an instant messaging-based online soccer experience which gives users the chance to test their soccer skills with penalty kicks while connecting with an online community. Perhaps the biggest win can come in the multicultural space, where Mondelez will speak directly to a core Hispanic audience who may love soccer bit not follow MLS or the Women’s National team yet. The program will better introduce those stars, as well as the elite players with Hispanic ties, to a casual audience as well, all at retail and in Spanish.

The battle for brand awareness for soccer in the United States has been a long one, with little wins building along the way. Sometimes it’s not massive and flashy but it has been effective, and the World Cup now provides a huge stage for the sport, and hopefully for American soccer. However what’s most important, win or lose, is that soccer continue to leverage its position in the marketplace well after the games in Brazil are done. This partnership with Mondelez, now with tangible results, may be one of the biggest, and brightest touch points for “Brand Soccer” with all levels of consumers going forward. It scores on multiple layers, and will build momentum and awareness for what should be another great bump in the States for “The Beautiful Game.”

Rugby 7′s Makes Its Case…

Last weekend I was invited to PPL Park in Chester, Pa. to take a look at a test event for a sport that has a big grassroots following in the US, has been played in some form on the college and high school level for ages, and is a massive sport in its more traditional form throughout the world. It is fast paced, has great athletic skill, is TV friendly, and has great star power and backstories. It wasn’t lacrosse, or Ultimate Frisbee, or Water Polo, it was the fast-paced game of Rugby 7’s, and the event was the Collegiate Rugby Championships, eventually won by the University of California. Probably over 20,000 enthusiastic, passionate followers attended the event, with rooting sections from Michigan to Navy, Kutztown to Life University of Georgia, all supporting their schools just like they would on any fall football weekend. The result of the weekend from a brand standpoint showed that for many reason’s Rugby 7’s has a prime opportunity for growth in North America for many years to come.

The business changes made to the sport to speed it up, simplify it, and even remove some of the violence of “American football without pads” has certainly helped mainstream the game, and the participation of NBC in helping push the Olympic-style game of Rugby 7’s, while also televising the World Cup, has certainly been a huge pop for a sport that for years has been a great club sport on college and high school campuses. The Olympic acceptance for the game was also a huge boost in both awareness and potential funding for a team sport that was an afterthought in this country for many years.

The sport has embraced digital and social media as a key way to grow the personalities of the game around the world, and the business opportunities for sponsorship and brand engagement amongst a young and active audience increased greatly with Olympic acceptance.

But do we need another professional sport in the crowded U.S. landscape? While it is true that lacrosse has been clamoring for years to get its professional side growing to a level of the college game in interest, it has not happened. Popular Olympic sports like beach volleyball have struggled on the professional side as well. So why Rugby 7’s?

First, the Olympic involvement gives the game a leg up on niche sports that miss that cache, and that funding and that four year opportunity to capture the casual fan. The grassroots support, and now the added television exposure of a college and national team competition give the sport a consistent presence that some Olympic sports don’t get, so rugby now has the best of both worlds. Now any effort on a professional level in the States would have to be gradual. MLS’ took over years to build from the grassroots up to make itself a solid professional entity, and a rush to pro rugby would be foolhardy. Cost control could work. So also could a match with football fans clamoring for a spring sport that is definitely football-like, and in Rugby 7?s and the more streamlined and TV friendly version of the traditional game is more action and easier to follow. While the lack of equipment may lead to more injury from time to time, the unencumbered look of athletes will also have a plus in growing personalities from all walks of life. It is also a game that most of the world plays and understands, so the new immigrant to the country can assimilate pretty easily. Can you grow quality talent to fill the league, and then build that talent level up to world-class quality? Time will tell, but that’s where elite training, and taking from other sports, can come in.

There was also the cost-effective use of the sport by the colleges. The game is co-ed, and is not expensive to play from an equipment standpoint. You do not need a massive amount of players to fill and train a team. The instance of concussion, long-worried by college football critics, is minimalized with rugby as well. Another interesting aspect is college recruitment. As Universities seek to grow their student body globally, rugby 7’s is being used as a key tool to bring in a diverse student body as evidenced by the effort made by schools like Kutztown University and Life, two schools whose presidents have seen the cost-efficient value rugby 7’s can bring to campus. The growth of a sport from a club level is also very intriguing, as clubs can recruit and self-fund before they make their case for varsity acceptance. Michigan and other schools have done this very successfully to grow lacrosse in the Midwest, and the same case can be made for rugby 7’s.

Now will all this enthusiasm work to make rugby the new sport of choice, like soccer has been for almost 20 years and lacrosse has claimed to be? Hard to say.

It certainly won’t happen overnight, but suddenly the interest in rugby in the States seems to be taking hold and growing, from a grassroots, television and sponsor perspective. Making the jump to a new level of engagement is a big one, but one which today seems more plausible than ever before, and one certainly worth watching as we head into another Olympic cycle.

Rugby 7’s; a sport to watch going forward.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Sponsored Logo Game: The Battle of Consistency vs. Risky Dollars…

In the last few years sports teams in North America, from college through the pros, have forgone consistency of brand in their look for the sake of selling more diverse, quirky, unique and even outlandish jerseys, kits and other uniform pieces to an audience who want different, at least to have in their closets. With few exceptions…The New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Penn State football, the Montreal Canadiens, the Los Angeles Lakers…teams if every size and shape have taken to Day-Glo, faux flags, selfie encrusted, camo-filled looks as a way to gain attention, sell more merch and sometimes raise funds for charity, especially when apparel companies like Under Armour and Nike are always looking to engage a younger audience not thrilled with consistency and big on expressive and outlandish. Sometimes it works, sometimes it looks silly, but usually it draws attention and many times ancillary revenue.

That revenue challenge on the professional side, and maybe at some point on the college side, will soon be amplified when the four major sports leagues allow brands to advertise on uniforms at some point in the next few years. The logo’ed jerseys have long passed the sniff test in MLS, the CFL and the WNBA and on practice apparel with the NBA and the NFL, and brands on kits are the norm in sports like rugby cricket and soccer in the rest of the world, so it becomes a question of when and who, not if, the brand of choice will appear on many clubs uniforms in North America. Some still may forgo the selling of space on uniforms for the sake of purity and value of their look, but most will surely give it a try and reap the dollars.

However with the logo’ed jersey comes a unique problem, one which has arisen again with MLS as clubs like DC United switch kit sponsors; the availability of old inventory licensed out to commercial partners through television and digital still photography. Sponsors, especially new ones, will pay a high price for the ability to be seen everywhere associated with clubs, but archival footage sold and licensed, especially in transition years, could continue to show up with old and dated uniforms bearing brands that are long gone. A Volkswagen logo on a United kit for example, could continue to show up in a licensed video game or commercial or billboard or photo campaign for several years after a team makes a change, which can create problems both for the club and for the new brand, depending on how wide the usage is. Now in the still photographic world, the digitizing of shots can help alleviate that problem; lift a logo out and drop a new one in to share; but in video and even in many licensed products the logo change may be slow, which can potentially damage the brand for the short term. The problem is not a new one for clubs that have chosen to flip-flop uniforms or do specialized or throwback uniforms several times a season; you run the risk of those unfamiliar or “specialized” day glo or bright orange uniforms ending up in places where you would want your traditional and consistent look to be. Some cherish the thought of the specialized uni’s ending up in campaigns as great exposure, some go to great lengths to limit the accessibility of shots and video from special nights so the brand can stay consistent for the long term. However with a branded uniform work for the long term, that issue of inconsistency rises dramatically. The goal is to overachieve for a brand partner, especially one that is new or one that has plunked down millions for an affiliation, so consistency, and consistent policing of what footage is going where, is going to become even more critical when logos start appearing in prime time for the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB at some point.

Now brands who chose to forgo the branded bucks for their clean look may run the risk of less upfront sponsor dollars than those who chose to bring a sponsor in; but they run much less of a risk in achieving ROI for that sponsor by simply saying no to jersey signage. In many ways, their clean look is exposure for the team unto itself; it is what they are known for in the sports marketplace. However for most, the dollars to earn by dropping a carefully placed and sized logo will be too much to pass up.

So who wins and loses in the new sponsored logo world? The leagues and teams for the most part will see a win, as will many specialty sales spots who can offer up the new looks, much like they do with the “specialized” jerseys being done ad nauseum today in college and the pros. Brick and mortar apparel sales shops, who have to take the risk on dated material with old logos will have the same issue they have when a marquee player gets traded these days, getting stuck with inventory now deemed for the scrap heap, but online e-tailers who have less inventory and can shift quickly to a new look will also benefit.

For sure none of this is being done in a vacuum at the highest level. The risks and rewards and issues are being played out time and again in the elite leagues, each watching as minor league sports and others take the first steps. However once the step is made for logo’ed apparel, consistency and control may have an even bigger premium. It is one thing to have a special jersey from a few years ago showing up in an ad campaign or in printed material by a third party; it is something else when the ad contains a brand whose contract has long since expired. That can do damage not just to the authenticity of the ad, it can hurt the new sponsor relationship with the team and with the league itself.

Consistency of brand is something which seems to be a little less valuable these days, with new and flashy looks taking the place of the safe and simple. For sure there are dollars to be made with the changing times, the question remains is the risk worth the reward for the long term?  That remains to be seen, as sponsors enter the uniform game for most sports sometime soon.

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.  

“Truck Day” Grows As A Promo…

It is a tradition that has been quietly happening for years, but thanks to some opportunistic marketing folks is steadily turning into a hot stove event that could actually transcend baseball and into other sports. It is “Truck Day,” the day when MLB clubs in cold weather cities literally load up their 18 wheelers with team equipment for the long drive south or west for the start of spring training. Really energized by the folks in and around the red Sox, the day is quickly becoming another offseason call to action for baseball to remind fans of the good times ahead.

From mascots in Detroit and New York helping send off the truck to players in cities like Arlington turning out for a little more media push. At Fenway Park it has become more of a fan event, with the truck adorned outside in baseball markings and even Jet Blue signing on as a sponsor on the truck, to compliment the amazing work they are doing around the Red Sox spring training facility. It’s all really nice, but the potential for “Truck Day” becoming a bigger call to action event is even more intriguing.

The large volume of social media can give the fans the ability to track the truck, complete with photos and some surprise visits as it makes its way south or west. Video can capture the entire trip for a travel log, and maybe an enterprising intern with a mascot head goes along for the ride with some additional splash. While some moves are on weekdays right now, having select fans turn out via a contest on a Saturday or Sunday pre-trip to help load the truck, even ceremonially, could make for news and buzz, and there are probably legions of truckers who would love some small involvement in the trip. How about guessing what’s in the truck for fans, or fans on the other end helping welcome and unload the truck with a message back home. You could even name the truck, and make the truck into a season-long promotional tool, or even another sponsorable giveaway. The list is endless, and is not really confined to just Major League Baseball.

Although many NFL teams are not traveling away for training camp these days, those who do can also make “Truck Day” a tradition, as can some NHL and NBA teams. The guess is that MLS probably also does the same, since many of their training camps are in warm weather cities this time of year. Regardless whether the load is a full series of semi’s or even a small van, the idea of loading and packing and unpacking is a necessity and something which any fan can relate to. It also has great wheels for sponsors, and can even be tied into charity programs…maybe with some kids helping select some items. Social and digital media make it promotable and scalable and cost efficient, with maybe even a national sponsor sitting out there to grab hold.  It appeals to kids, collectors and traditional fans, and with some bells and whistles can pull in a casual audience as well. Once again what is a necessity can now become a revenue and media opportunity.

Are there some issues with liability? Maybe but they can be overcome. Is it a mega-promotion that every team may want to or need to do? No. But for an economy of scale, it seems like “Truck Day” is an easy one that can keep growing, another little slice of promotion that a smart marketer grabbed on to in Beantown and other places, and should continue to grow for years to come. Pitchers and catchers await.