A soccer diary from across the pond

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New York City FC

So there it is. As expected MLS has announced an expansion team in New York City and the Manchester City FC is the primary owner.

I'm not sure exactly how to feel about this. On one hand its nice to see someone ready to spend, that amount of money on soccer in the US, but on the other hand I'm wary about the direct involvement of Manchester City.

Previously the reports focused on Manchester City's owners rather than the club itself, and while it may seem like semantics to some, it would be easier for NYCFC to have its own independent identity had been Sheik Mansour personally owning the club rather than Manchester City. 

Chivas USA has shown all too well how these kinds of brand extensions are extremely difficult in soccer. You reject the people who dislike the mother brand and many of the brand loyals of the mother brand will just see the extension as a cheap knock off.

Manchester City has been doing good things in New York and across the country building soccer fields and supporting talent development, but I fear that New York City FC will fail if this is just an attempt, at creating new Manchester City fans and selling more MCFC shirts.

This is a risky move for MLS as it would reflect very negatively on MLS' image and brand if this experiment fails, something the league doesn't need as it has been going through a very positive development over the last decade.

Breaking through in the New York media landscape would be a major accomplishment for MLS, but the stakes are high.

It will be very fascinating to see what NYCFC does in terms of brand and identity, and what the specific relationship to Manchester City will be.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why the New York Cosmos will likely fail

What makes a brand a good brand? If you boil it down, it is all about the brand promise. You can have a product of sub-par quality, but if what you are promising consumer is a low price, rather than a quality product, you can still have a good brand, as you are giving consumers what they expect.

That is exactly what good branding is about. Defining what your product is, find out, who wants that, tell them that they can get from you, and finally ensuring that what they are receiving is what they expected.

These core principles of branding, are extremely relevant when you talk about the "re-birth" of the NASL and the New York Cosmos. When a brand is reintroduced by new owners, you have to deal with the fact, that you infact do not own the brand fully. The fans of the original NASL and its team, have strong associations of the meanings and connotations of those brand, and the new NASL will have to deal with these expectations.

This is where, it becomes problematic for the NASL 2.0 and Cosmos 2.0. Because what NASL 1.0 stood for was glamour, foreign stars, and a somewhat high standard of play, by virtue of these old, foreign stars. When people think Cosmos they think Pele and Beckenbauer. When you think of the LA Aztecs they think of Johann Cruyff and George Best. Ironically, these are also the players associated with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in addition to Gerd Müller.

So when a fan of the original Strikers go to a Strikers game in 2013, he or she is bound to be disappointed when its a Andy Herron, rather than a Gerd Müller leading the attack.

There are high expectations generally associated with the old NASL names, and by virtue of the money and infrastructure involved the NASL, I have a hard time seeing those expectations being met. Especially when it comes to the Cosmos. They are THE team, that people remember from the original NASL and I am very much curious as to how, they will connect the brand to the product that they will be fielding in the fall.

Some might point to the Cascadian teams and ask why they work, so well in spite of the issues I have put forth, but I see the reason why those brands fit and work well, is that they transcended the NASL and continued in other forms throughout the years and stayed relevant to the community.

When the Cosmos are back and when the suggestion is made that Chivas USA rebrand to the Aztecs, consumers aren't so stupid that they think that this is the old team coming back. There might be some immediate curiosity, but also a strong sense of scepticism, as it is clear that new people and new organizations are trying to capitalize and monetize on an old brand that the consumers held dear, without having a real connection to organization and the community behind the original brand name.

These Cosmos name carry a lot of baggage and it i to be used successfully it will take a huge marketing and community effort by the front office, to tell the fans of the original team, why this new team should be accepted as the Cosmos and why, what will see, will be very different from what they saw then.

If that can be done I will applaud them. Not only for succeeding with such a huge task, but I also think that succeeding with this will be to a benefit for American soccer.

Good luck Cosmos - you'll need it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Wilhelmsson moving to UAE, will stay at Galaxy if DP

Wilhelmsson is moving to the United Arab Emirates to play, according to Swedish website fotbollskanalen.se. Wilhelmsson's agent confirms that the players want to move back to the area as "the soccer, life, and circumstances there are good. So that is the main target right now." The agent adds: "It could even be a continuation in MLS, but only if he becomes a player outside of the salary cap."
In other words, Bruce Arena can keep Wilhelmsson, but I doubt that he and the Galaxy management is ready to use a DP spot on an aging Swede.

Friday, January 11, 2013

On Cascadia Cup and MLS

So there has been a big controversy over the fact, that MLS has tried to trademark the "Cascadia Cup" name. A lot of accusations of stealing has been thrown around, and there hasn't exactly been a public dialogue.

I write the following, obviously without having all information, and should new information come my way I will adapt my stance accordingly.

So, MLS tries to trademark "Cascadia Cup". Whats so wrong with that? If it is indeed true, that they wanted to do it, to protect it from being stolen from someone not related to the soccer environment in Cascadia, thats a fair point. Though the way the went about it was wrong. Everyone knows, that the Cascadians are a proud bunch of people, who make a point out of being there before MLS was around. So rather than discretely filing for the trademark in court, MLS representatives should have contacted the supporters groups and said: "Neither of us is interested in the name being highjacked, how do we best protect it?"

Some have asked why the supporters groups hadn't already trademarked it, and to that I answer: They're soccer fans, not an organized business. They probably never even thought of the necessity, and because MLS didn't take a collaborative approach with the supporters groups, they are perceiving MLS to be exploiting the fact, that they didn't do this.

MLS lives of its fans, and the fans in Cascadia are a source of great PR for the league. MLS should immediately choice a more collaborative approach, and show the sports fans of North America, that MLS is a league that sees the fans as partners, rather than milking cows. For sports leagues and teams, fans are not just consumers, but co-producers. When their actions and communication fail to acknowledge this, they end up looking bad.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Diskerud still open to Norway

So Mikkel Diskerud is part of the January camp. Good he is talented young player, who could be a good player for the US.

However until the qualifiers nothing is certain.

As late as October 2012 Diskerud was asked by a Norwegian newspaper: "Do you want to play for Norway?" To this Diskerud replied: "Yes, I do. But I do not think Drillo (the Norwegian coach) wants me - based on what he said earlier - and I am not sure that I want to play in Drillo's preferred system."

What to make of this? Not sure, but it does show how international soccer is complex, when it comes to young dual citizens. Norway isn't like to change their coach anytime soon and such Diskerud will probably stay with the US. But if I was Klinsmann I'd bring him to Honduras and give him a few minutes if possible, just in case.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The role of unions in North American soccer

Unions can be a highly controversial topic, as it touches upon some of people's basic political opinions. But at the risk of alienating readers I will delve into this topic.

With its single entity structure and its USSF sanctioned status as the only Division I league in America, MLS has a monopoly on top tier league soccer in the US. As is it is employers usually hold bargaining power over the majority of workers as they have more resources available, but when the employer has a monopoly the workers are few alternatives, and the ones they have have big consequences. In this case it would mean a lower level of soccer, or moving to another country, both of which would mean big changes in either the careers, the personal lives or both of the players.

This position has allowed MLS to keep costs down, which not only helped them in the early formative years, but also continues to be a source of pride (source) for the league. As many American and Canadian players have gone to college prior to their career and many seem to have studied business, they might have the a bigger appreciation and understanding of the necessity of this, but as employees with bargaining power that is comparatively smaller than their counterparts in other leagues as they have a harder time pitting the teams against each other for the players' benefit, they need another tool.

This tool is the players' union. It is the union that gave the players the leverage pressure MLS to raise the minimum wage for developmental players from $12.900 to $33.750 as soon the economics of the league allowed it. It is also exactly these players that the players' union should fight for. The top players have the value of their skills to get non-trade clauses, and other extra benefits, but for the young guys, they need the union the ensure that they have proper health care, some level of job security, and other somewhat quite rights. Ensuring these basic rights will also allow the players to focus more on their career and develop as players.

The fact that the MLSPU has focused on job security (guaranteed contracts) and the minimum salary, rather than more grander demands, show that they acknowledge that they are in a completely different situation than the NHL players' association, and that this is responsible representation of player interests, rather than class warfare.

One overlooked issue however, is the position of semi-pro players in the US and Canada. MLSPU only represents MLS players, and Eddie Pope confirmed to me via Twitter, that despite the fact that they can seek advice from MLSPU, there is no union for NASL, USL-Pro CSL players.

I think Eddie Pope and the rest of MLSPU should consider a change, where they go from being a league specific union, to representing the interests of all professional soccer players in the US and Canada. I am certain that the semi-pro players have an even more urgent need for representation to help them. Not so much to increase wages, but more so to ensure the basic things that allow them to improve their quality of life, but also to help them with career advice and career planning, that will help them make choices that are good, not just for their career, but also their lives.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lessons of the Chicago Rhythm

One thing I will recommend is for my reader to subscribe to the Pitch Invasion podcast by Tom Dunmore and Peter Wilt. They get really good interviews and really delve into topics that other parts of the North American bloggosphere doesn't manage to do in the same degree.

On the most recent podcast Peter Wilt talks about the process of starting up the Chicago Fire 15 years ago. How he had to fight against Nike to get the "Fire" name rather than the team name being the "Chicago Rhythm". While some people might dislike the Fire name it is a lot better than the Rhythm. I also like how Wilt made an effort out of going against the trend the late 90ies with cartoonish logos and colours for sports team in North America. This decision seems to have been validated by the fact that most other original MLS teams have rebranded themselves, either with a new logo and colours like the Galaxy and the Rapids or a total change including the name like Sporting KC and FC Dallas.

Some MLS 2.0 fans or Europeans tend to look at the early MLS team names, colours and logos as silly, and while there is merit to this opinion, it is important to understand why. MLS was brand new, wanted to be major league at an instant, and in that situation it can be tempting to just go with current fads and trends, rather than trying to build an identity that can last.

While there have been minor adjustments, the look of the Chicago Fire, D.C. United, and to some extent the Columbus Crew, has been consistant since they joined the league. This shows, that the identity and the symbols to represent it, have been chosen in a manner that has reflected over which community the team is in, and how to resonate with that in the long run.

I think this is a good lesson, no matter if the context in soccer or business in general. Go about your business in a way that reflects your identity. If you let fads and trends control your business plan, you as a business runs the risk of becomming a fad itself.