The New England Revolution: Planning for an Agile 2011

The theme of 2011 planning continues, building off the idea of Agility that I mentioned in the last post.

And no, I’m not suggesting that team sign up for advanced calisthenics, Bikram Yoga classes or take ballet. (Though, after last season’s struggles, I’m necessarily against any of the above either.)

Instead, as I sat in those 2011 marketing planning meetings last week I was reminded of a key theme that pervades our corporate marketing direction – the idea of becoming more agile. This is not an abstract idea of agility, but rather a reasonably well accepted marketing adaptation of agile development process.

There are plenty of places for you to get information on agile marketing principles, but here is a nice summary. Instead of recreating the depth of that article there are a few key tenets… frequent status checks and communications built on trusted relationships, around simple repeatable topics, that can deliver measurable increases in key metrics. Oh, and expect… no… welcome (!) changes to your plan, as it represents new, better information on which to make decisions.

The good news for our New England Revolution marketing department is that it seems to have adopted some of these key themes. Perhaps by accident, perhaps by design, but either way, it’s probably a good thing. The positive potential within the new blogging outreach program ties nicely to the themes of building trusted relationships and getting repetitive conversations and themes to market. It has potential; we’ll see how it works.

Dealing with change in marketing is one thing, but it got me thinking about something quite a bit different: the Revolution’s claimed hunt for a Designated Player (DP.)

For a while now, fans have heard the Revolution management suggest that a designated payer should provide a very particular-sounding mix of local fit, on-field production, fan support, as well as a direct impact to ticket sales. In fact, Mike Burns, when answering questions from fans, specifically said “Any Designated Player would have to be someone whom our coaching staff feels gives a competitive advantage on the field, and someone whom our ownership and front office felt would give us a boost off the field in the community, through marketing, and by drawing additional fans, as well.”

For the record, I generally agree with Revolution management that a designated player, who makes that makes much more than the current MLS salary cap allows, should indeed bring special qualities to the table. This is doubly important in my view since I’ve always felt team balance is more important for a successful MLS season than one or two stars. Achieving a team balance in MLS means walking a very careful line relative to the restrictive salary cap, which does not necessarily square well with the idea of one or two highly paid stars. Oddly, as shown before the Revolution already have a pretty badly skewed roster from a salary perspective –without ever having used the DP option.

With the salary cap being such a central concern for any MLS team that is building a roster an April 2010 Boston Globe article had caught my attention and increased my frustration. In the article, team owner/operator Jonathan Kraft states “We actually have money allocated at the league and we’d love to put it to work … We’ve been trying to do it, because the money just sits there. But we’re going to be true to the intent of what it was meant to be.”

Not only have they been trying, but Mr. Burns said in that earlier blog that the team has “pursued and made offers to a couple” impact players. Some moves were made last year Perovic (good!) and Stolica (hard to judge in 2010, but not usually game changing) but with the departure of Taylor Twellman and Edgaras Jankauskas there is certainly room to work in the salary structure.

If we are to take Mr. Burns and Mr. Kraft at face value – and I see no reason not to – it would seem to me that the Revolution either a) have created such an unrealistic view of what player they can/should attract to New England (and at what cost) that they are not able to find many candidates, or b) they have realistic expectations of DP candidates for New England and are inept in deal making.

I suspect the struggle has been more about the players being pursued, especially since Mr. Burns had gone in that blog on to say: “I think the perception is that there are more of these players out there than do actually exist.”

This is where I start to question the Revolution logic, and where the ability to plan, make a reasoned decision – and change direction – ties back in. I am not convinced we, the soccer focused New Englanders, really know what impact any particular player can have directly on the “community” and the gate, mostly because the team has recently stayed away from bringing someone with a recognizable international name into the team.

And this is where agility comes back in.

There comes a time when you try what you think is right, even when the view forward is foggy. You sign a player you think can be an impact player and someone who may draw extra fans. You monitor the situation, and based on how things go, you change direction. Some of these attempts will fail, just as some of the team’s lower-priced signings will fail.

Most Designated Player contracts are not extremely long in duration, generally leverage “option years” to get the deal done and appear to have multiple “outs”. Mista? Denilson? These players did not make an impact for their respective teams and most like them get pushed back out of MLS reasonably quickly. (Perhaps too quickly, some might say.) So while player contracts are not the best place to practice agile processes that require frequent progress checks and course corrections, there are ways to limit the damage of bad decisions.

The teams who have tried such moves were showing their respective fan bases (and rosters) that action was being taken to make the teams significantly better. As the 2010 season showed, a combination of amazing luck and skill with drafting league-leaders like Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst cannot be counted on as being the answer every year.  If you have noticed the fan angst around Foxboro, you know that this is not an insignificant matter for a team neither generating enough positive energy or ticket sales.  A more proactive, if imperfect, direction is needed in MLS these days – on the field and in the mind of fans.

Which brings us to today. The worst Revolution season in years has management thinking differently. On ESPNBoston.com in October, Revolution Chief Operating Officer Brian Bilello said “… we are going to be looking bring in a Designated Player this off season.”

If it is time to act, monitor and react… We will soon see if the Revolution have learned enough from prior failures to identify and sign the right player. Or maybe more importantly, a near-right, player?  Being agile means you realize that at times, that waiting for perfect move can kill off a number of would-be good moves.

So either the team will act, monitor and – if needed – react to some early decisions. Or it should revisit it’s own capability to change and act there, by reviewing how it is structured for player acquisition.  Perhaps the team needs some new “designated players” on that management team as well.

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4 thoughts on “The New England Revolution: Planning for an Agile 2011

  1. Good blog. Hopefully they do bring in a DP this off season. It is difficult to predict if a particular player will be great for the Revs both on and off the field – as there aren’t a ton of Beckham quality players (or at least that widely known) that we could get for a reasonable price. Nonetheless they need to make a move to prove to us, the fans, that they care. Reaching out to the blogging community is a small step, now let’s keep walking.

  2. It should be noted that the October statement by Bilello coincided with the Rev’s season ticket renewal campaign. Sadly, similar noises in prior years have yielded little come the following Spring.

    • Good (and sad) point. Also interestingly timed with soccer-specific-stadium commentary. Here’s hoping this holiday season brings us something new.

      Thanks for reading/commenting.

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