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.

Majoring In The Minors: “Pay As You Go” Night A Smart Idea

Minor league hockey usually doesn’t get the credit for being innovative and effective promoters much like their baseball brethren are. Occasionally a crazy jersey promotion pops up, or something edgy around a controversial celebrity, but by and large they probably don’t get the credit they probably deserve. Maybe it’s because there are too many things going on in the winter, hockey at the lower levels isn’t as galvanized under the NHL umbrella as baseball and MLB are, or the fact that small town hockey is not as much a rite of passage as a summer night outdoors with baseball is in the U.S., bit hockey does probably have more than its share of great promos and stories and leadership as baseball does.

Here is a great example from this past week, a promo pulled off by the Central Hockey League’s Missouri Mavericks designed to help those less fortunate and probably engage some new fans down the line. Although it was billed as a “first ever,” some fashion may have been tried by other sports in recent years. Regardless it was well done, well-orchestrated and hopefully well supported on Thanksgiving Eve.

The promo was called “Pay As You Go.”  And it was aimed at providing less fortunate fans and their families, the opportunity to attend a professional hockey game.  The club teamed up with Community Services League, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, and the Independence School District to offer low cost tickets to members of the community who have never have the opportunity to attend a game.

The grabbed a local sponsor, Firehouse Subs, to donate a FREE sub voucher to all fans that purchase a full price ticket, or pay above the regular ticket cost.  Fans that “pay it forward” by donating or paying more than the regular ticket price are helping to cover the cost of tickets for those unable to purchase full price tickets, and ensuring the future of this event in years to come.

The promotion is the latest in a series of Kansas City-based moves by clubs like Sporting Kansas City of MLS and the Kansas City Royals to be leaders in sport. Now while one can’t probably expect MLB or even NHL teams to try this on a large scale, it is an intriguing way for a college or a team with distressed inventory in seating to enhance a brand partnership, do some solid philanthropic work, and get some buzz especially in an era when affordable ticket prices for most sports events are beyond the reach of the hardworking fan on a consistent basis. It would also be interesting to see all of the CHL do a designated weekend with such a night, tied to a community service initiative that really brings impact. Yes teams will always do the usual coat drives, toy drives, food drives etc., but “Pay As You Go” brings people out for a night to forget about their issues and enjoy a fun family event. Are there chances for abuse of a system like this, or for some fans to complain who had paid in advance? Maybe. But brands like Honest-T have tried such an idea at pop up stores, where people pay for a drink in the heat of the summer at whatever price they can afford, and it has been a very solid success. It is not something you can do every night of course, but a once a year, well timed promotion could have some great effects for teams looking to become more embedded in the community and to find some new fans. Maybe there is a section an MLB team could do for one night to test it…maybe a charitable partner like the Salvation Army or a CPG brand or a regional sub shop steps up with vouchers to reward those to help support, like Firehouse did for the Mavericks.

Regardless, the “Pay As You Go” night is one to watch, and a great example of minor league hockey doing major league promotions, especially going into the holidays.

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.  

Ivy Sports Symposium Unlike No Other…

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

This year’s event was held at Columbia University for the first time, after a one year stop at the University of Pennsylvania and five years at Princeton University, and the over 100 speakers and 600 attendees were treated to a day of open conversation, leadership ideals, networking and sharing of best practices from areas ranging from social responsibility to new media to finance to team and league governance. While much of the details can be found on the Symposium website, some of the more frank and positive discussions came from the leadership groups of teams from various leagues and global sports brands. The teams included the Brooklyn Nets (GM Billy King), the Minnesota Vikings (GM Rick Spielman), The Arizona Diamondbacks (President Derrick Hall), Sporting Kansas City (CEO Robb Heineman), and the Boston Celtics (President Rich Gotham) among others. While their thoughts on success varied, they had a commonality amongst their bottom line goal…treat the franchise with consistency and respect…earn the respect of all in the organization…constantly be learning about those who follow you…and understand and communicate across all areas of business. While all may be successful on the field to different degrees, the place where the groups all sided was that leadership and a clear vision has to be communicated for a franchise to be successful.

Now obviously the daily functions, the markets, and the day to day work for each franchise and sport varies widely. Gotham talked openly about rebuilding the pride in a Celtics team that had lost its core mission during previous ownership, and how the organization of today relied more on “communication more than process” to get the business of the team accomplished. He talked of how the Celtics instilled in their staff on every level an understanding that everything contributes to winning, from ticket sales to maintenance to how coaches and players prepare for a game. It is a sense of Celtic pride and understanding that keeps the business moving forward and striving for a title.  

Hall, the likeable and highly popular D-Backs leader, talked much more about the personal connections to all those working for the team, and the sense of inclusion employees feel and the pride they take in being associated with the business, a big reason why the club has been named the best place to work in Arizona seven years in a row. Heineman talked openly about all the little things that go into the club’s success, from the way employees are treated (mandatory off day and $50 on your birthday) to the sense of inclusion (a junior staffer came up with their logo) to their look to the non-traditional to grow their brand (Livestrong Park’s focus on technology and cutting edge fan-friendly features) as key reasons for their club’s success in a market where the NFL Chiefs and MLB Royals are still top dog.

King and Speilman, as the leaders more of the on-field side of sport vs. the business side, were also surprisingly frank about the need for learning, communication and inclusion into the making of winning franchises. King spoke openly about the lessons learned from when he ran the 76ers that he picked up from Flyers owner Ed Snider about how to run a team and make decisions, despite the fact the the Hall of Fame owner eventually fired King from his position in Philly. Still those lessons, along with the leadership he studied and witnessed first hand at Duke University, dominate his work in building an open and healthy franchise now in Brooklyn.  Like so many of the other business leaders during the day, Speilman talked about a sense of learning and inclusion in the decision-making process when looking at how to build a team correctly, and never working in a vacuum. It is about using all input…social, physical, community…in determining if anyone…staff member, coach or player…fits into the positive culture of the organization.

There were similar thoughts from other leaders like Mets GM Sandy Alderson and AS Roma head Mark Panus, but in the end the core values were the same. In order to have a successful business you have to have a consistent and clear culture, be inclusive and understanding of all your employees, convey a strong vision to your fans and brand partners, and never stop learning and improving on your business goals. They all were frank about failure and overcoming failure and conveyed a wisdom that inspired all, as did the dozens of other speakers through out the event. In a business where the jaded can easily lose focus and passion, the overall day was a healthy dose of positive energy, especially conveyed through the vision of some of the businesses most open and candid leadership.

A great day, great best practices conveyed and a bar set very high for success for other similar events going forward. Congrats to all involved.

Of Soccer, Meatballs, and Overtime…

As we reach Selection Sunday and heading to daylight savings, some thoughts on a few innovative ideas that have come about…

New York Life Goes OT: A few years ago the Foxwoods Casino and Resort came up with an innovative takeover of Knicks games, sponsoring the last five minutes of the fourth quarter with extra signage, promotions, giveaways etc. It was a smart, unowned territory which ironically has not really been copied or even expanded with a social media component yet. So along those lines kudos to New York Life, who, with their partner IMG, grabbed the overtime sponsorship of The Big East Tournament wall to wall. Now of course its a risk (someone should still grab rain delays in baseball and NASCAR and golf as well) but the risk turned to reward with three games heading to an extra session, and cameras and fans laser focused on the drama as it unfolded. Great way to get into a major event that works only if something unique, like an OT, happens.

Great Idea, Wrong Day: Friday was National Meatball Day, as fun a promo for brands that sell the product as there can be. Few people don’t like meatballs and everyone knows what they are, whether you are fans of Swedish or traditional Italian. Only one problem, the promoters picked a Friday in Lent, when Catholics, and some other Christian faiths, abstain from eating meat. While some who don’t observer may think it is nitpicky, it alienated a portion of those who could celebrate, which, if you are trying to drum up niche support, isn’t smart. Move to another day next time guys, support may be even bigger.

Soccer Kicks Off: This weekend MLS begins its regular season with much hype, goodwill, positive energy and a new TV deal across the board with NBC Sports. A new franchise in Montreal will look to broaden the appeal of the league and replicate the startup success in places like Portland, Philly, Vancouver and Seattle, while Sporting Kansas City’s state of the art stadium with all its tech innovations will continue to be the model for which other stadia will look to. However the deal with NBC could be crucial for the league as it grows beyond its current fan base. Like the NHL, MLS took a bit of a risk going with NBC over its former partners, but now with the rebranded VERSUS, the Olympics and the cross-marketing oppts. NBC offers its partners, the exposure and upside for brand MLS could be maximized much more. MLS also has the chance to be more of a center stage priority on NBC, who does not have the NBA and MLB this spring, a time when MLS got lost in the mix sometimes with ESPN. It will be interesting to watch as MLS puts another pedal to the floor and looks to keep all the positive going in a crowded marketplace. A worthwhile and fun brand hoping to take its next big step.

What’s In A Stadium Name? More Than Dollars….

A few years ago the new owners of the Miami Dolphins were met with a skeptical eye when they effectively came up with a creative and short term naming rights solution for their oft-confused stadium. Land Shark Stadium, part inspired by a minority investor (Jimmy Buffett) became the temporary name of the home of the Dolphins and the Marlins. Those in the business community wondered if the short term fix for cash and publicity would become the standard and effectively devalue the naming rights deals around the country and around the world. After all, the naming rights business, like the economy, had taken a heavy hit in recent years, with corporations thinking twice and three times about spending millions to slap a name on a buildings, and owners thinking even more about the investment in branding only to have a company be sold and change its name. The always skeptical media also had their own issues, trying to figure out what to call a building once a name changes, and how far the corporate rights went into editorial.

Since the Land Shark deal, there hasn’t been a flurry of short term deals coming to the table. What we have seen is the retention of team names in lieu of short term, and then some creative naming deals that look to other assets to play with in addition to just the building names. In Kansas City the value of the newly opened and recently named Livestrong Sporting Park (profiled in SBJ this week) is not in a dollar for naming rights, it is in a community branding partnership that will make the team (Sporting Kansas City) more of a public trust than just a brand that plays in the area. That feeling of public trust, which makes the players, the logo, the coaches, a part of the community year-round was felt to be more valuable than the dollars a local company may have invested as a good buy. It is a co-investment designed to grow the Livestrong brand and the MLS franchise, while at the same time finding other like-minded paying partnerships that could capitalize on the relationship. Risky? Yes. Was there an alternative? Perhaps. Can it work? TBD.

Then there is the deal that Rutgers University cut this week to sell its football naming rights to New Jersey-based High Point Solutions
. Critics say that the deal sullies tradition and further corporatizes college sports. Proponents see it as a way for Rutgers to keep funding and growing their athletic programs without dipping into the public til, which is strapped in New Jersey for anything education related, let alone sports related. What the deal essentially does is help Rutgers, and grow a New Jersey based company’s awareness and visibility at no loss to the taxpayer. Rutgers becomes only a handful of colleges to effectively sell its naming rights at a price that the market dictated. Is Rutgers the last University to do so? No. it probably set a new standard for such deals. Those who worry about “tradition” at the birthplace of college football should be more encouraged about a new tradition that Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti, and those who helped broker the deal at Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, created. One where a local or state-owned rising corporation can partner to find private sector dollars to fund public projects. An endowment it is not. But an opportunity to tie a technology company to an institute of higher learning is smart and creative and was not done in a vacuum. It is not selling scholarships, it is showing the value that Rutgers football has to the business community in New Jersey, in a way that makes sense for all involved.

Lastly, there is this feeling by some that the selling of such rights and packaging them as large scale partnerships will cheapen team brands or tradition. There are some team brands…Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Fenway Park etc…that transcend the value of corporations. Those brands are multimillion dollar investments on their own and can stand above a flood of alternative dollars. They are however, the exception and not the rule. The cash challenged environment sports works in today has created both challenges and opportunities, and the creative ways to address those concerns are showing up in many places, even in naming rights deals. Maybe in a better economy these deals would not exist. However we are challenged today to fund and grow businesses in non-traditional ways, and these are the latest examples of how to generate interest, offset cost and grow brand in a new way. It’s not easy, it may be a bit controversial, but it certainly is creative.