The Resurrection

I’ve not written a thing on this blog in over a year.  But I’ve clearly got plenty to blog about.

It’s a game day for the US Men’s National Team. Landon Donovan.  And heck, my two <10 year olds got their first “cap” last week.

IMG_6393

We’re on the cusp of a Brazilian World Cup and stars are dropping like flies in pre World Cup tune up matches. My adopted 2nd nation of Colombia has finally realized it has lost Falcao, but has a chance to advance nonetheless.

Falcao Goes Down

My first visit to Old Tafford came not long ago. Cool.

And heck, the 2014 New England Revolution are, well, thoroughly watchable.

Diego Fagundez

I have more than enough reason to rejoin the >140 character world of self-expression with relevant, meaningful and heartfelt ideas about soccer, the meaning it has on life, love and the world around us.

So what topic came to me in the shower the other day that finally tipped the scales for me to sit down and clack away at the keys?

It’s not any of those wonderful topics.

It’s hardly even a relevant topic at this juncture.

In fact, it’s the US Soccer’s third-rail.

I’m almost serving up a troll’s paradise for my own ridicule and clear soccer illiteracy just by going here.

It’s Freddy.

Freddy Adu

I know, I know. But, bear with me, I think I’ve got an interesting twist on this one.

You see, this article is NOT about Freddy being a washed up player who should pack it in.

Nor is it about his incredible skill and the fact that just some bad contracts and unlucky breaks lead him to his current, club-less position.

Clearly, neither of those are completely true. At least not to me.

And I’ll go on the record and say that I’ve written more on Soccer Soap Box about Freddy in the past than is probably warranted or logical given his frustrating flirtations with the US National Team, confusing MLS tenure and unsuccessful stays abroad.

The most obvious of this vintage was “Much Adu About Something?” which gives you plenty to throw stones at, as a perspective from December 2009, but there are others.

So, it’s clear.  I have a curiosity and interest in Freddy’s career.  Probably more than justified.  So be it.

But the other day, with thoughts whipping around about Julian Green being included, and Landon Donovan being discarded, from the US team, I began thinking of other young talents that need to be watched. New England’s own Diego Fagundez central to those thoughts.

It brought me back to Freddy, and the tale of what went wrong and what could have been. If you don’t believe he can play, stop reading. Because, while none of what follows is an argument on why he is “the saviour”, it is built upon the idea that Freddy can play.

My evidence? You don’t get to the Olympics, National Team, MLS, Benfica contracts, etc. on marketing alone.  Argue if you’d like, but check out these quick clips to remind us of Freddy with the USMNT.

Flip to 2 minutes and 52 seconds of this one.

He was (is?) a good bit better than terrible.

Freddy, has a one-liner on his gone-pretty-quiet Twitter account that popped into my mind. “Never put a period where God put a comma.”  And I suppose he’s praying that’s true.

Capture

OK, religion is not my specialty, but it got me thinking, how on earth do you turn that period in Freddy’s career into a comma.

Most MLS coaches are probably not interested in the headache created by his return.

He’s probably too proud to play in a lower-level US Club.

He doesn’t have the best international track record.

So now what? Is there a way out?

Then, it hit me.  Why not leverage the machines that made (and ruined?) him to resurrect him.

Forget miracles, think ‘Murica: Marketing and money.

Imagine these ingredients, if you will:

  • A club team that wants to get some “noise” generated about it, but cannot be seen as being desperate.
  • A club that has a sister/mother club where a player can prove himself in some harsher-than-MLS conditions. Or at least interest-generating conditions.
  • A motivated Freddy Adu interested in a) regaining some former glory, b) playing the sport he loves, c) cashing in one last time, just in case.  Or, D) all of the above.
  • A creative agent and an even more creative contract, built largely on future performance.
  • Sponsor logos and product placements, lots of them.
  • And now imagine, cameras. Lots of cameras.

Huh?

Freddy Adu signs with MLS “Team X” (we’ll get back to that) on short-term “All Star Trial” contract. With lots of options that follow the trial period.

Included in the contract is an agreement for a “The Freddy Experiment” (or whatever it would be named), a reality show based on Freddy’s “trial period.”  Imagine the cameras tracking Freddy’s good days, and bad.  Playing and living. Confessionals. Girl troubles.  Whatever.  The whole sickening reality TV gambit.

At the end of the trial period, decision time on the options.

One is a “big” contract. The other is a hand-shake and a goodbye. (And yes, more quietly, lots of intermediate options are probably included.)

The contract meetings include the league, the team, the player and agent and two few key others: representatives from the companies MLS just signed a big TV deal with, Soccer United Marketing, and interested league sponsors.

Sponsors could be integrated into the show the way Spanish television has done for years.  He drinks Gatorade. He plays EA Sports games on his Panasonic TV to relax. Wears Adidas.  Uses a Visa card to pay for life’s needs. Calls home with AT&T.

Heck, you can even build in (raising the sum you’d need to pay Freddy up front), some “goodwill” or prove yourself events as part of the trial/show.  Go use Makita tools from the Home Depot to build a house and help the poor via an MLS Works project.

It’s almost sells itself.

So, where? What team?

Reality is, as we all know, MLS owns player contacts, so it could run the show and decide later.  The end contract could be provided to a club at a reduced cost and a lottery.  This way MLS gets the maximum sponsorship control and flexibility.

But, unless some odd exceptions are made, that probably breaks plenty of MLS/team player distribution rules.  And you lose the idea of a team gaining its own publicity, which is probably a major selling point.

So where then?

The best option is probably Chivas USA.

Of course, that is if the club has a real future, a concern at this point. But why such a great fit?

  1. It’s hard to think of a team more in need of “buzz” than Chivas USA.
  2. The trial period could be with Chivas Guadalajara, a perfect environment for a story line of “prove yourself” in another world.
  3. You could probably craft both English and Spanish versions of the show.  Call it “Sueño Adu” or something to build off of the very Latino-market focused “Sueño MLS” which is already in place.  MLS could leverage an Americanized name in the USA for the show, and get both Univision and one of the American networks onboard.
  4. If it actually works out, he could fit within a more Latin-style playing scheme the team should be leveraging.

Other options exist, of course…

  • BeckhamFC: Whatever this team will be called, it has time to build this story and campaign. It has David’s connections to get a trial situation set up. And c’mon, David could cameo on the show and be part of the story line to build interest.  Maybe he’s the Donald Trump of the decision meeting?
  • NYFC: One more way to leverage the media and marketing capability of the New York market.  No commitment.  Build Buzz.  Imagine rainy scenes from a Manchester City reserve practice showing if Freddy has the commitment… compelling, no?
  • Red Bull USA: Take the above, and turn Manchester into Salzburg, Austria. It works. Us this as a way to keep headlines while NYFC starts stealing attention.

I sense the Cosmos could weasel their way into this discussion somehow, because, credit where credit is due, they seem to be a creative bunch even if not at the top-level of US professional soccer.

Ironically, I don’t see a terrific play for my local New England Revolution unless Freddy goes to Patriot’s Training Camp. Though… given Mr. Kraft’s interests and portfolio, anything’s possible.

And why shouldn’t we, the global-we, try to make this work?

Because whether you like him, dislike him or wish never to think about this again, this our our journey as US soccer fans.

The spirit of the recent US Soccer match (and maybe the controversial captured soldier recovery in Afghanistan?) reminded me “We are the US, might *mighty* US.”

And we don’t leave a man behind.

Nor do we miss a marketing opportunity.  And maybe that’s more important here.

So maybe it’s true what Freddy says.

It’s God that puts in commas.  Freddy’s career needs a miracle and some prayers. But I’d be glad to see something work.

Is this the route to his resurrection?

What say you?

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#Revs Ridiculousness and Real Fandom

Well, it’s back. It only takes a single tweet to ignite a debate in #Revs land about the hashtag #Revs.

(Let me note right up front, there’s thread here that I do agree with, which goes something like this “For goodness sake it’s only Twitter.”  True.  If you are firmly in that camp, please, just move on or you’ll be driven – even more – crazy.)

So back to the fire burning on Twitter, where you’ll note I was not a fire-starter.  I’ve seen the apathy or lack of understanding and (had) decided 140 character debates weren’t worth it. But, as a fan who thinks logic might help the team, a silly self-promoter and someone interested in the topic of Twitter use for marketing, etc. I do jump in when baited.  I’m more gasoline than match, I suppose.

So since 140 character sound-bites feel good, but explain little, I’ve again resorted to a blog post.  Again. I’ve just re-read my original post called #Revs Delusions Of Twitter Grandeur and I still stand by the logic and reasoning.  If you want to spar on Twitter or wherever – please read that first.  I won’t repeat all the points again – but they are valid and foundational.

But I figured I’d comment on activity I’ve watched pass by on Twitter recently and add a few other comments.  BUT PLEASE READ THE LAST ARTICLE TO UNDERSTAND HOW MY VIEW IS FORMED. Some of the quotes here are from my good friends, terrific, well-intentioned people – who are just wrong.

When I think about this, do I think about it as a Revolution fan or as a Revolution-watcher with an interest in marketing and social-media strategy?  The latter.  As a fan, I understand the “don’t surrender” mentality, but as a thoughtful watcher I giggle at its uselessness.

The entire crux of the issue can be summed up with two simple questions.  What do we think the reasons of having, and having the team promote, the #Revs hashtag are?  Do you think the current environment surrounding the hashtag would be viewed as successful if balanced against those goals?

If you think the goals are about positive promotion, engaged fans, increased and balanced news and conversation – I’d say the results, while not zero,  are a far cry from where they would be without all the “noise” associated with #Revs.  The team promoting the “noisy” hashtag makes it look that much worse.  If it was “just” the fans, so be it.

Now onto the Twitter logic fantasies…

“It’s OUR hashtag.”  My previous post already discusses the absurdity on claiming something is ours in a social-media world.  It “feels good” to defend the un-defendable, but look where it gets you. It gets you to “I’m WASTED.” in one tweet, and season-ending surgery for a player in the next.  Show me the trade-mark, I’ll show you what’s yours.

“Our #Revs will outlive their bar.”  Really? What if the Revolution Bar chain becomes the TGIF of the UK?  What if the Revolution are rebranded when Santander gives cheap funding for a Soccer Specific Stadium? (Ha.)  What is the obsession with these stupid letters?  Pride over logic.

Various forms exist in the idea that “We’ll flood it with our own content until they submit to our awesomeness.”  The first article covers this as well, but 1) they don’t use Twitter like we do, 2) they don’t care, and most telling – wouldn’t we see THEM bitching on the how we are abusing what they think is “theirs” just the way we do?  THEY DON’T CARE, SO WE CANNOT WIN IN THAT WAY.

A popular, and understandable concern is “What message would it send?” First, what message does it send now?  What does it say to an on-the-fence Revolution fan? It says: bush league.  Every AM we are filled with wasted youth and ridiculous statements.  Is that a better statement?

NOTE THIS: my original article was written in FEBRUARY.  What would this discussion be if we made a logical change then?  Dead. We’d have been annoyed for a few weeks, but it would have been over.

(Sure naysayers, it’s possible – though extremely unlikely – that we could run into this problem with whatever else we choose.  A) probably not.  B) they’d need to be similarly bizarre users to our current UK friends to not care about all the noise.)

Another refrain: “#Revs is fine when there’s news.”  Great.  And when the Brits are sleeping during our PR cycle.  And the moon is in the right phase and the tides are in. C’mon. The positive halo effects of those rare wins for us are very short lived.  And then we’re back to the same ridiculousness.

And lastly, there’s the concern that if we all – or at times me in particular – stopped talking about it and just invented (my word) things to discuss about our lagging team, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Fine.  I realize my version of fandom isn’t everyone’s.  I’ll get painted as the ultimate advocate for surrender.  Admittedly, as I’ve written about, I’m not a card-carrying #NTID guy, per se.

But I very much want soccer and the Revolution to survive and thrive.  I’ve been a season ticket holder.  I’ve bought the merch.  I’ve dragged the kids.  I’ve stood in RFK to watch the lose that heartbreaking final.  Thriving , to me that means we need both die-hard, bleed for the team fans as much as we need logic and good decision-making.

So yes, sometimes I am slow to jump on the positivity and find it easier to critique. Sometimes calling a lemon a lemon (which is what we’ve been given) is indeed easier than trying to make lemonade.  It’s not my job as an outside onlooker to be the beacon of positivity and promotion or chief lemonade maker.  Serve me some though, and I’ll drink. It happens from time to time because I’m ALSO a fan.

But we cannot simultaneously claim that nobody holds the Revolution to task in the media, and then also harass the independents – even as obscure as I – for calling out a failing.  And the Twitter strategy (strategy used lightly) is failing.

I cannot wait to read to commentary from on the real fans on #Revs, amongst the high-heels, sleazy boys, proclamations of drunkenness and vodka related noise.

Introducing The Revolution’s Love Doctor

I don’t much like Mark Willis.

It makes no difference to me that his New England Revolution rebranding effort and his recent post about “The Revs in the Age of Mutual Love” are good. Really good. (Though, just in case, perhaps you should go check them out.)

Now, please don’t misunderstand, I’ve not met him or spoken to him and only recently found his work online. And he’s done no obvious wrong to me. But that “Mutual Love” post was, well, an assault on my blogger dignity and identity. So something had to be said.

You see, way back in my first post for 2012, I acknowledged a lingering, unfinished blog entry about what the New England Revolution could be doing differently. That post never really came together, and I ended up taking bits and pieces of it and using them in other posts.

All fine, except the crux of where I was in many ways similar to the excellent “Mutual Love” post by Mr. Willis, rendering me and my meandering thoughts all but obsolete. So no, I don’t much like him and his massive exploitation of my habits of procrastination, even if done in a compelling, thoughtful and clever way.

Yet, as I re-read his interesting article, I found a glimmer of hope. A question, in fact, that Mr. Willis asked, but maybe didn’t fully answer. A poignant, “that’s exactly it” type question.

“Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?”

You see, my never-published diatribe was started just after the Revolution announced its “sweeping” (ahem) organizational changes. But I longed for more. Yes, we could argue the validity of who was promoted and to what position, but the time for that has long passed.

What I was found missing was a net-new position. One that would have essentially answered the question – especially as it relates to both fan interaction, and the team’s marketing success (or lack thereof) – “who’s in charge of thinking like a fan?”

I imagined a role that would sound a lot like: VP of Marketing and Fan Engagement. In my mind, this person would lead all marketing, communications and fan engagement efforts, and assume responsibility for the current marketing and communications staff. I see this person as a new hire from outside the organization offering an injection of new blood, new thinking and new enthusiasm. I see this person as living, breathing and promoting the Revolution experience.

This position wasn’t announced, of course, and there are any number of reasons why it won’t be any time soon. Cost might be one. Others could be that the Revolution might be a bit too smart, and loyal, for its own good.

For instance, Brian Bilello is clearly a very smart guy and he may be thinking he can offer hands-on marketing leadership on his own. And maybe he can. But, given the challenges that surround the team on and off the field after what was a dreadful 2011, I’d hope he’d reconsider. There’s much to do elsewhere to right this ship, and he best not spread himself too thin.

So another person would be needed, and some of this new hire’s long task list would be somewhat obvious, things like:

  • Develop a consistent, repeatable and compelling vision for the team that translates “Front Office Speak” into something fans (and the media) can rally behind. Train every staff member on it.
  • Review all advertising, marketing and branding efforts for consistency, passion and relevance in today’s MLS world, and beyond. (Saying that the team is spending money (3rd highest in league?) can no longer be seen as a positive without corresponding results.)
  • Define and initiate co-marketing efforts with team sponsor United Healthcare. This could be both in-kind collaborations or specific net-new investments that drive toward both organizations’ goals, and would go a long way to increasing the Revolution brand credibility.
  • Construct media engagement efforts, potentially finding inventive ways to pivot off of the Patriots’ ridiculous leverage in the local market.
  • Etc., Etc., Etc.

This new person needs to have the desire to quickly become credible to the soccer community. However, I have the unpopular opinion that a long-history in the game is beneficial, but not mandatory. What’s mandatory is the ability to properly market the product of New England Revolution soccer. Yes, having the ability to speak to the soccer cognoscenti would be nice, but comes second to having proven marketing chops. Besides, what those soccer lovers will find credible are marketing efforts that prove their love of the team is being reciprocated, not placated.

Just as important, given the organization currently in place, would be augmenting the marketing skills with an engaging personality. This team needs someone who can credibly empathize, energize and relate to fans. Today, many of the most die-hard Revolution fans today feel talked-at, marketed-at and nearly scoffed-at from the smarter-than-thou team management. And having met much of the team leadership at one point or another, I’m not at all convinced that the Front Office actually feels this way or intends to send this message. But it is often the message that is accidentaly delivered.

Media too needs this empathy and enthusiasm. Most local media struggle to differentiate a free kick from a penalty kick, and might hide under a desk if they needed to describe the passive-offside rule or MLS roster restrictions while live on camera. This person needs to be a trusted advocate and advisor to these potential media allies.

This personality requirement is a hard qualification to quantify. It doesn’t necessarily show up on a resume. Like has been said about pornography, this is a quality that in the “I know it when I see it” genre. There’s a fairly fine line between being an engaging, inspiring and empathetic marketing leader and coming off as an overly-slick salesperson. But it’s a line that the team best not cross.

But skilled, yet aloof marketers – no matter how smart – are not what this team needs right now.

The team also doesn’t need a timid personality, because for this role to be successful, glass would need to be broken, assumptions challenged and a certain free reign promised, in order to try new ideas. Not all of which will be stunning successes. That creative leeway will be important, because this new person would also quickly become the VP of Tough Love.

What types of tough love?

First, he/she should insist on media/presentation training for Mike Burns, Brian Bilello and Jay Heaps, and be the one true voice of the front office until comfortable that the others are ready. Those three team leaders offer very different skills, but are all critical to getting an improved team image out to market.

Mike Burns may have the perfect qualifications for his role and have one of the best soccer brains in MLS. (Hey, it’s possible.) But his media and fan interactions have not portrayed him as a sympathetic figure and have not delivered a sense of his competence nor a consistently cogent view of where the team is headed. If success doesn’t come quick and his reputation is not shored up, he will continue to be an easy target for frustrated fans.

Brian Bilello does better with fans, but needs to realize that business as usual won’t work in terms of cryptic sharing and the inability to answer questions about the team’s style, goals and direction. Sure, player commentary needs to be closely guarded, but it’s time for some risk taking there as well. At the risk of giving too much away, the team needs to share as much information as they can to better show its level of activity (scouting) and some insight into the rationale for decisions that seem odd for us mere mortals (Perovic?, etc.) to comprehend.

An increased amount of Twitter correspondence has been a better start in 2012 for Bilello (though it has notably slowed after a strong start), but old habits die hard. For example, waiting weeks to mention that José Moreno’s contract wasn’t effective until March 1st, after fans had almost completely turned against the player, continues a streak of under-sharing with this key audience.

Jay Heaps is a bit of a media mystery at this point. He speaks well, is a fan favorite and people seem to genuinely hope for his success. That said, he’s also vastly inexperienced and in the honeymoon period of his appointment. The team should leverage him now, but ensure he’s prepared for communications when things aren’t so easy.

More tough love needs to be delivered to ownership.

This marketing leader needs to also tell his boss (presumptively Bilello) that the Krafts need to be seen as educated, active and visible owners – now. (Hopefully they are all of those things, but either way, appearances matter.) They need to be able to field questions about the team, its strategy and the choices that are being made. The conversation needs to be deeper than “we are planning for a Soccer Specific Stadium.”  One way to start, is to be visible at games in the stadium that the team does have. It’s not that hard really.

Frankly, the fact that the immensely successful Kraft family has been turned into anything but an asset for a New England team either speaks to their absolute disinterest or a dismal marketing failure. And personally, despite the relative lack of engagement and failings, I still struggle to believe they simply don’t care.

Is the team ready for someone to come in and tell management and ownership that they are part of the “product” and need to shape up? I would hope so.

And while not tough-love, there is some love to show the fans.

Better (extreme?) engagement on social media? The appearance of over-sharing (even if carefully orchestrated behind the scenes) about team plans? Worth a shot.

Why not involve the most vocal fans in “crowdsourcing” new promotional ideas. The best way to get the negativity out of the fan-base is to engage them in the marketing turnaround. Make them part of the solution. It’s hard to go on social media and half-wittedly slam something you are working to help create.

Heck, why not involve them in picking the new social media hashtag to replace #Revs? A contest anyone? (Sorry dear readers, that #Revs allusion could not be avoided…)

I could see this new VP pouring beers alongside the players at the newly announced Pub Tour, or drinking a pint with the fans – while jotting down their ideas. In fact, couldn’t there be a place for this person in The Fort? If it’s mutual love that’s needed, there are ways or providing it.

Yes, there’s work to be done and some ideas will be better than others.  But the team should get a person, leverage the new energy, give them some autonomy and power to say what needs to be said and promote this product.  Sure, new stadiums and new Designated Players could help.  But this product is marketable as-is.

So I guess I don’t need to detest this Mark Willis character after all. He may have “stolen” (yes, I am delusional) my completely stagnant, dust-laden, and largely under-developed idea in his extremely clever and thoughtful article, but he left me a crumb to dine on. And so I did.

Question: “Who’s in Charge of Thinking Like a Fan?”

Answer: The new VP of Market and Fan Engagement that the team should go find.

And in his discussion of Mutual Love that the fans so desperately deserve, he could also have wondered who would deliver the tough love the team so obviously needs.

The answer would be the same.

MLS Marketing and the New England Revolution

I’ve talked before about being a marketer by trade, so my intrigue about a number of recent MLS marketing related news items should come of no real surprise.   What was a bit more surprising was my inability to immediately tie them into a neat and tidy theme, with the exception of the inevitable thoughs about how these items affect, or compare to, our local New England Revolution.

What prompted these thoughts was L.E. Eisenmenger‘s interview with MLS EVP Dan Courtemanche on the marketing of MLS (if any of this is interesting to you, go read Part One and Part Two) which included a number of interesting tidbits, only a few of which I’ll cover here.

Courtemanche made it clear that the MLS marketing is targeting the “core soccer fan in the 18-34 year-old age group,” and his belief that marketing messages to that core group will resonate reasonably well with older and younger audiences who all seek to emulate that group anyway.   Key to winning over this group will be a focus on “authenticity and the Hispanic audience.”   (I’ll cover some thoughts on attracting the Hispanic audience in my next post.)

The interview spent a fair amount of time focused on “game presentation,” which I agree is not a trivial topic, though Mr. Courtemanche rightly called out that “what occurs on the field during the 90 minutes is top priority.”  I heartily concur.

I was hoping to hear more about how to better communicate an ever-improving soccer product in MLS via marketing, but talk centered more on how not to distract from the game than promote its continuing improvement.  I think there are opportunities to do both, and hope and expect that MLS brass agrees.

And, while I agree that the demographic of core soccer fans between 18-34 is an obvious target… it is also more competitive to win their soccer mindshare in a crowded international soccer market.   By more competitive, I presume that the targeted  demographic is quite likely much more knowledgeable about and interested in John Henry’s purchase of Liverpool, and are significantly more likely to be at a pub (or in front of their TV) watching the English Premier League than the local mom and dad looking to bring their kids to their local professional sporting event.

The competitive bar is raised for winning the “core soccer fan’s” attention, exceeding their expectations of on field quality and being seen as a Tier One sports offering.  Soccer Moms (and Dads) may have a lesser bar to leap and shouldn’t be ignored.

To that end, there is a largely unexploited “value” message the Revolution (and MLS generally) could be better promoting to families, who have to spend literally hundreds of dollars on a memorable day at most other local top tier professional sporting events – and likely far less on a similar excursion to see the Revolution.  (Unless they linger too long at Patriot’s Place…)   I think this value message might resonate less, though would not be irrelevant, for the current target market who probably buy tickets for smaller sized parties at any one time.

There should be room for more than one marketing strategy in today’s market.   That will be an interesting thought for a Chief Marketing Officer to figure out – and luckily MLS just hired one.   J. Russell Findlay has assumed the CMO role of both the MLS and Soccer United Marketing, and (not surprisingly) has extensive brand management experience and has worked with MLS and SUM from a sponsor’s perspective.   Good luck Sir.

It will be interesting to see if  the Revolution marketing leadership, like the seemingly well liked Cathal Conlon (who I’ve never met), has the marketing pedigree that is up to par for what MLS, it’s new CMO and a more sophisticated consumer demands.   Time will tell.

Another key theme that discussed in the interview and which resonated strongly with me, was the focus on the fan experience “from when the fans drive into the stadium” and that everything from “parking or getting into the stadium through the ticket turn styles or the concession stands or the restrooms or the seats” can affect that experience.

Given his focus on this, I’d love to see Mr. Courtemanche provide a Report Card for the various teams in MLS on how their game day experience is representing MLS the way he and Don Garber would expect.   I would bet the grades varied wildly across the league.

I’ve not yet been to nearly as many MLS stadiums as I’d like, but have attended many at both Gillette/Foxboro and Giants Stadium and a couple games at Qwest Stadium in Seattle.  (I’m excluding the MLS Cup final in RFK Stadium, since that was very much a one-off special event, not a regular season game.)  Looking at those games and stadiums, there are both significant similarities (all are NFL-first stadiums) and vast differences.

Giants Stadium was clearly an NFL home where the MetroStars/Red Bulls were a rent paying tenant that was clearly playing second fiddle.   However, the Red Bulls have now moved to their own, world-class, soccer facility.   “Experience” problem fixed.

When I first attended a Seattle Sounders game I was astounded by (among other things) how the details in and around the stadium were transformed into Sounders and MLS branding, with few Seahawks/NFL remnants jumping out.  Large soccer themed tarps covered unoccupied areas, Sounders gear shared space with NFL selections in the Pro Shop without feeling as if it was was being overwhelmed and expensive looking Sounders logos adorned doors and entryways around the stadium.  The Sounders may be a second class citizen at Qwest, but it sure doesn’t feel that way on game day.

There is still much work to be done at Gillette Stadium.  Now, some of this is out of the hands of the team staff, but it’s not out unfixable when the team owner owns both tenant teams and the stadium itself.   It isn’t necessary for the Revolution to gain parity with their more storied and successful Kraft-family team, but much more could be done to ensure the Revolution doesn’t feel like alien being invading Patriots territory.

I will be interesting to watch MLS efforts to better target key demographics and improve game day experiences.  I’ll also be intrigued as to how these changes make their way, if at all, to the New England Revolution.

From this outsider’s perspective the team has made improvements in engaging the community via social media and communications and seemingly has been working more closely with supporter’s groups to energize the base.

It’s time to see how far the pendulum will swing toward more aggressive, proactive marketing and then, most importantly, if the on-field product going to make the marketers’ lives a bit easier by winning some games and playing some attractive soccer.

“MLS Team America” Could It Work?

Yanks-Abroad is a great site.  I read it near religiously.   You should too.

The name alone, however, suggests its latent bias – one toward a preference for US players that are playing abroad, and a (general) disinterest in MLS.    That made Brent Latham’s new Yanks Abroad piece “PHILLY..GO AMERICAN!” such a peculiar and interesting one.  It is a worthy read, so I won’t recap it here, but needless to say he makes an interesting argument that the Philadelphia Union has a unique opportunity to go 100% American with its roster – and that it might actually be a good idea.

A thought provoking idea, for sure, but I am struggling with some of the surrounding analysis. Here are some themes or points Brent made that trouble me a bit.

The fact that more US players leading the scoring charts would “…fight a trend that threatens to make it less relevant on the international soccer scene.” 

This depends on how you define international soccer “relevance.”    I could see a few ways to build “relevance”:

A) MLS clubs start beating International club teams from top leagues in something that matters,

B) MLS clubs compete for, or sign, players who are respected/desired by European clubs, or

C) MLS provides talent to International clubs that succeed in the best leagues.

MLS Clubs do not do “A” very frequently.  Superliga – though entertaining – is a weak competition in terms of international respect – at least outside of Mexico.  Well, perhaps within Mexico too…

The MLS All Star Game?  Good fun.  But not “real” by any stretch of the imagination.

I would say that “B” almost REQUIRES the player to be an International, since any American player “coming home” provides a built-in excuse for the Euro’s to say he’s headed to MLS for “non-sporting reasons.”     And for relevance, to me it is hard to name four bigger things MLS has done lately than the additions of David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and perhaps Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Blanco might only add Mexican respect, and GBS may only add South American credibility, but still… )  These players came, played hard but they were not able to dominate the league.

The “C” option is likely where we have more chance and history of “relevance” in the international soccer community.  Providing talent to European or other top-tier international teams.  However, I think it matters little to the “international soccer scene” if the players we are growing, showcasing and/or selling come from the USA, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago or anywhere else.

MLS will be relevant if it is successful as a feeder system to them, not for where those players come from.   There is a difference between US Soccer relevance and MLS relevance.

Another general theme is: while Europe is probably the best place for a young American creative talent to develop, they might be well served with more options in the USA.

I generally agree – the more options for American players, the better.   I think the evidence is out on if/when there is a right time to jump to Europe – especially for “creative” players.  So many of our promising US Players end up floundering post transfer (Eddie Johnson, Freddy Adu are easy examples.)  Would Landon Donovan be better if he stayed in (or went back to) to Europe?  Maybe.

The interesting thing I struggle with here though, isn’t that more MLS options for creative/offensive American players in MLS is a bad thing – surely not – but the suggestion that including international players alongside them stunts their growth.   Yes, there are only so many positions on the field, thus limiting overall chances when there’s an experienced foreign international player.

However, I’d be curious to measure (impossible, of course) what difference Carlos Valderamma made on Steve Ralston’s game.   Or what effect Guillermo Barros Schelotto is having on Eddie Gaven or Robbie Rodgers?  Etc.  Etc.

Hey, there are other successful clubs that do this, why not in Philly?

Examples of Chivas Guadalajara and Athletic Bilbao are given to prove that an “all local” team can survive or even thrive.  The problem I see is that – that both Chivas and Athletic have a terrific feeder system and development capability (or at least, I suspect so) by which they can source (grow? groom?) local talent.   (Especially Athletic, since Chivas can “buy” good Mexican talent more easily than Athletic can “buy” good Basque talent.)    MLS clubs development and youth programs are nascent, to be kind, and far from reliable.   This presents a significant hurdle since one American-only club will have trouble out-bidding others for American talent in MLS.

So I’m against this “All American Team” thing, right?

No, not at all.  In fact, in “What is a ‘Chivas’ anyway?” I suggested that – in a very different direction than the go-America theme – maybe Chivas USA blew it when they gave up their ambitious All-Latino goal.   Why not have a themed team?

Brent rightly calls out some risks – but leans heavily on the “marketing value” associated with “Team USA” as a saving grace.   That however, might be the biggest risk.  Do US fans still need some convincing that American players are the headliners?   David Beckham isn’t here just because he hits good crosses and free-kicks, now is he?

Marketability – as well as capability – would be key to building such a team.   I suspect Freddy Adu (“Wunderkind comes Home”) is looking for playing time.     Maybe Jermaine Jones (“Loves the USA so much he dumped Germany!”) is interested?

Looking at the USL Through US Soccer Glasses

I’ve read through a number of articles, blogs and responses to them (both the inane and quite good) about the looming sale of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and what impact that would have on MLS.   Most sources claimed that MLS has also put a bid in for USL, though one generally agreed to be much lower than what is required.  However, MLS officials themselves were quoted as saying they decided not to bid at all.

For those clueless a bout the USL, it is a collection of related leagues generally seen as lower divisions of US (Men’s and Women’s) professional soccer in North America (north of Mexico, anyway.)  There is no direct linkage (managerial or otherwise) with Major League Soccer, though it is generally agreed that MLS is the “first division” of soccer in the United States (and Canada, for all intents and purposes.)   There are also developmental leagues and the W-League, the second divison on Women’s soccer n the US, as part of USL.

Nike owns the USL (acquired with Umbro, who was league owner) and has decided that running a sports league is not in the interest of a sporting goods and sneaker company.   (Some NY/NJ fans are more worried about beverage companies owning teams, but that’s a different story.)

Now a series of mystery bidders are in the mix to purchase the league.  Most people agree that the majority of USL teams are not profitable.   The most profitable are joining MLS already (Seattle has joined, Vancouver and Portland will join soon) and while I cannot prove the rest are unprofitable, it seems like a safe bet.   Makes for an odd investment…

What I find most intriguing about this whole discussion is the relationship – or lack thereof – between the leagues, the role of US Soccer here, and the potential for USL to “go rogue” and compete with MLS for first-tier attention/status.

While I’m trying to educate myself further on this, here are a few ideas that I find self-evident, at least until I learn enough to disprove any of them.

  • The US needs a structure greater than MLS to get to smaller tier markets, help evangelize the game and  spread player development out in a professional (or semi-professional) manner.  (College soccer is NOT the answer without major changes to NCAA rules.)
  • Having a new owner of the USL try to challenge MLS for “First Division” status in the USA would be at best a nuisance and a failure and at worst disastrous to any momentum MLS is developing.
  • People need to stop talking about promotion and relegation in the US at the highest divisions.  (I love promotion/relegation, elsewhere.)   We have neither the markets, the distributed infrastructure, the marketing investments, etc. to even consider this.  I’m not of the mind we ever will, sadly.

Many USL fans were disgusted by the prospect of MLS owning the USL.    I was not in that club, though I suspected it was not an option based on a business decision.   (And to be fair, I enter with an MLS-bias.)   There were risks, but having a single umbrella under which there would me maximum return on decisions, investments, sponsorhips and bargaining power seemed intriguing to me.

Some were disgusted by the idea that USL’s First Division would become MLS-2 (so to speak), and a turn into a “bunch of farm teams” for MLS.   I see the concern, but don’t really share it.   If local teams were established and helped promote the brands of MLS clubs, might that not be a bad thing?   Fans don’t seem to reject as illegitimate the Providence Bruins or Pawtucket Red Sox around New England . . .

Here’s a thought for you . . .  Presuming that the league is not a money maker.  (Safe bet.)   Presuming that it is required to have these divisions survive for soccer to thrive.  (I submit it is.)   Presuming we don’t want a battle for the “real” First Division in the US.  (We shouldn’t.)

Who then would want to run a league with the primary purpose being an investment in the development of the game, rather than a likely-to-be-profitable enterprise?

US Soccer.

Yeah, there are some issues . . . (like a small smattering of non-US teams, probably some potential conflicts of interest I’m sure) . . . but it would make for an interesting model.

(Kudos to the many blogs, writers and commenters that educated, angered, amused and confused the heck out of me on this topic.  The 24th MinuteGoal.comInside Minnesota Soccer.  Major League Soccer Talk.   New York Times.)

Summertime and The Blogging Ain’t Easy

Vacation is upon me and the urge to write (and think) any more than is required has fallen by the wayside.   However, I have stumbled upon a few must-read articles that are worth sharing.   Whether you are a die-hard soccer fan or are perplexed how anyone could be, the first two are worth a look.  (The third is more for the interested soccer fan, I must admit – but has some cool footage linked in it of fans that anyone can appreciate.)

The first two relate to the recent US vs. Mexico game that I touched on in “USA Dispossessed of Azteca Dream.”   Bill Simmons of ESPN wrote the first, which is called “Sporting emotions at the highest pitch.”  Simmons is not a soccer-mad writer by any stretch, and even described soccer as “a sport I have never totally liked and even actively hated at times.”   However, his descriptions of the experience in Mexico City, in Azteca and as a pseudo-US Soccer fan are astounding.  He also makes Soccer comparisons to US Sports that, well, I could never make since SportsCenter doesn’t usually bump Fox Soccer Report  off my TV.    Simmons describes a key moment in the game by writing: “It was one of those sports moments when you wish they could have stopped the proceedings right there for 20 minutes, just so we could soak in what happened and dream about all the possibilities.”   It’s a wonderful read.

The second that relates to the US v Mexico game (and is linked to from within the ESPN report) is a report by photo-journalist Douglas Zimmerman.   The pictures and descriptions of his time at Azteca Stadium add a depth of understanding of the magnitude, fervor and pure passion that exists in a game of this nature.

The last article worth mentioning is one that appears to be calling my mistress ugly.  (See Major League (Soccer) Mistress.)   Basically, this excellent blog posting looks at a local Seattle Sounders Portland Timbers comparison.    Portland looks to join MLS in 2011 along with the runaway success that is Seattle this year this blog focuses on the clubs’ shared histories, different success rates (Seattle on the field, Portland in the stands prior this the Sounders break out year) and home-grown (Portland) versus “club-sponsored” (Seattle) supporters.   A few interesting points to walk away from this article with . . . the passion that the Pacific North West seems to have for this sport, the rivalry that will hopefully bring added passion to MLS soon and some background on what has made Seattle’s entrance to MLS so impressive (great marketing.)  The question that one needs to ponder after reading this though: what is the value of home-grown support versus a club-sponsored (marketing?) approach when you are in the big leagues?