Tigers vs. Watermelons

So while a whole list of things have happened in the time since I last posted, the one that I choose to start writing about is the other – other – football: the CFL.

Tonight is the 101st Grey Cup, the Canadian Superbowl of mounties, bilingual anthems, and roughly 80 Americans running around trying to win a game for the two smallest-market teams in a small-market league: Hamilton vs Saskatchewan. Now I like the Grey Cup, I’ve got my boys into it by bribing them with chicken wings, potato chips and pop, but it is distinctly Canadian in its spectacle. The week prior to the game involves multiple parties for all of the eight teams in the league, a parade, pancake breakfasts, horses being taken into bars for a drink, and finally a game, but knowing that the hosts would also be playing in the game this year made it that much more special. Regina is a city that loves its team, but also with generations of people from Saskatchewan moving elsewhere in the country (the demographics only recently reversed) it seems that the rest of the country also loves the Roughriders (apparently they sell more merchandise than the rest of the league combined!). Going to a ‘Riders game means that they are the home team just about wherever they play. Fans hollow out watermelons to wear as makeshift helmets and the stadium tonight is a sea of green. So here it is. This is success for a small market team, they have become the biggest thing in the league by being the smallest.

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

The lesson here is transferable to soccer. One of the stories I have been following over the last few months is the drama of Hull City AFC and the changes being made to the team by their owner Assem Allam. He has taken the small team and with some big investments managed to lift them into the premier league, but the cost to the club is the name and the sense of ownership by the local fans. While he hasn’t messed with the colours  or personnel the way that the owner of Cardiff has, Mr. Allam has decided that the name that the team has had since the beginning of time will not help him in building Hull City’s global brand. Hull City AFC will henceforth be known as Hull Tigers. The change has been explained by Allam as one that is necessary to distinguish the team at a global level: he says that nobody understands the AFC, or Athletic Football Club, so that is gone. Next up, the ‘City’ in the name is nothing special and kind of redundant, so that’s gone too. That leaves lots of space for the mascots, the Tigers. Now changing a name and making it sound like an American franchise team was bound to go over like a lead balloon with some of the fans, and many have protested the changes. I should note that the change from Hull City to Hull Tigers is not official, as it will not be approved by the Premier League prior to April. In the meantime, there will be a fair bit of noise from the fans that don’t approve of the change: at the weekend match against Crystal Palace stewards scuffled with fans who unfurled a “We are Hull City” banner across the front of the seats.

So the motivations are that Allam wants a financially stable team, one that can stand on its own and that can compete on a world stage. Now I haven’t seen the Hull financials, but judging by the fact that they’ve been around for over 100 years I’d say they’d been fairly stable prior to Allam’s involvement. Jumping them up to the Premier League took a significant investment by Allam, and the sort of funds that many a team could only dream about having access to, but then the stability becomes reliant on the largess of their benefactor. And that’s where things so often fall apart, Allam expecting that football is somehow an investment strategy. Yes clubs are raking it in off the fans that pass the turnstyles every week, but don’t get into club ownership because it’s a place to make a quick buck. I had sailing described to me as standing in a cold shower and throwing money down the drain, football is not so different: you still get wet and your money drains away. I don’t think many owners do look at it as investment, they see it as an ego thing (Abramovich at Chelsea being a classic example), rarest of all is the one that does it just for the love of it all, I’m thinking Dave Whelan at Wigan. Whelan was so excited at the FA Cup, he looked like a kid, but then he was a player and seems to value the importance of stability in a team, even if it means a relegation. Allam clearly got involved for ego, and now wants a financially stable ego, but at a level he finds more appropriate to his needs and unfortunately for Hull that means the EPL.

But in trying to sell the Hull Tigers to the world, Allam is forgetting that perhaps it is the first word in that name that hurts the marketing the most: Hull. It takes years, even decades to build a fanbase of the sort that Allam wants and is no instant sell based on cute stuffed animals that will available in the gift shop. Hull just isn’t the global draw that Allam wants it to be, yes they are the 2015 City of Culture (or is that Tiger of Culture?), but it’s not London, Manchester, or Liverpool – cities that mean something around the world. In the globalized world Hull is a distinctly second or even third tier city, without the global punch that those other cities have. He can change as much as he wants but without the major trophies – a League title minimum, or success in Europe. Hull will just be one of those other teams that people are aware of but don’t really back.

Marketing the team this way goes against the whole marketing program of the Premier League this season. What happened to #youarefootball if one of the owners can come along and rip the heart out of the team? Or was that whole #youarefootball just some way to get some of the more uppity fans off the league’s back? Never mind, I think I know that answer. For a league that markets itself on the importance of fans and the supporter culture, Hull City (and Cardiff City) are doing a great job of alienating those fans that they say are so important. Fans also crave authenticity and belonging, and if Allam has just kicked many of the most passionate Hull fans to the curb, how does that create the atmosphere needed to draw in others?

Meanwhile in Canada, a team that has always been about small is actually quite big because they haven’t tried to become the Dallas Cowboys. Oh, and by the way, the team is publicly owned – tell me you weren’t surprised.

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Call and Response

When I returned from my fieldwork at the end of May I wrote about the simmering fan resentment of English football fans. Now, two weeks into the season, we’ve seen the Premier League respond in some clever ways: directly to the supporters groups, and more broadly to the public at large.

The direct response to the supporters groups is a win for the #footballwithoutfansisnothing movement that held its protest at the EPL HQ on June 19. Back on Aug. 22, the Premier League confirmed to the supporters that a pool of £4 million (£200,000 per team) had been set aside for the express purpose of assisting supporters with away travel. Some clubs have already begun using this to subsidize the away ticket prices for fans purchasing through the club, or through booking supporters coaches and trains. Of course flush with a bit of success, that doesn’t mean the #footballwithoutfansisnothing is just going to pack up and go to the game, I think they’ll be around for a while and continue to press for more from the EPL.

Barclays Premier League

From the new EPL campaign

That of course means that the EPL has to keep working on pleasing its fans beyond just chipping in for train fare. So if you’ve watched any of the games in the first two weeks you’ll have noticed #youarefootball (advantage EPL for the shorter hashtag) ads flashing periodically on the electronic hoardings. Check out the ad that they are trying to direct you to, a real tear jerker. Notice that in the entire ad there is not one image of a player or a pitch and it only through some of the cues (scarves, jerseys or background) that you can even pick out what team the fans are cheering for. Brilliant. This is exactly what I was talking about last time and what the Chicago Fire seemed to not get with their blog. The #youarefootball ad gives you such a warm fuzzy feeling that it’s difficult to hate that super rich club of billionaires that jack up prices every season. Without the fans, football (or soccer) is nothing.

Chicago Fire burns its fans

The job title Communications Director implies someone with a good understanding of how to communicate with others. At a soccer club that of course means communicating with fans and supporters. I’m sure it can be a tough job at times, having to promote your team in such a way that you don’t come across as just a corporate shill. There has to be a rapport with a wide range of fans from the hard core supporters to the casuals that may just check in from time to time. Keep a friendly, yet professional tone would be a good rule.

Yesterday, Chicago Fire’s Communication Director Dan Lobring posted a fabulous rant on the Fire’s website that was the verbal equivalent of throwing gasoline on the smoldering Fire fanbase. In it he recounts how he was openly questioned as a ‘shitty hire’ from his first day, and how he was never given a chance because – as he freely admits – he had no soccer experience and is more of a Detroit Lions fan (sigh). He then chastises the fans for their behaviour following their Aug. 7 loss to DC United in the US Open Cup. While admitting they have the right to boo and express their disapproval, he takes the fans to task for unspecified “personal attacks, threats, accusations” and “shouting obscenities to staff, our owner and his family, or other supporters attending games with their families”.

Reaction among the MLS-following twittersphere (#cf97) was swift with many considering it either some form of “I quit” or that Lobring would be fired shortly. Yet club executives quickly rushed to his defense with the COO saying that the blog went by him before it went out. While I won’t say that Lobring had no right to say what he did, but how he did so and how it was received shows that it is an absolute failure of communication – which supposedly is his job.

Communication is about clarity. That some of his complaints, while necessarily not directed at specific individuals, are then easily generalized to the entirety of Fire supporters is his first failure. It is one thing to point out that poor behaviour occurred, but it is another to place that, in a negative tone, across a broad group of supporters. Nothing will alienate you from a group faster than labelling them all as hooligans when not everyone was. The tone of the blog is yes self-depreciating at times, but it also reads as extremely negative to the Fire fans themselves. I can’t say that I’m surprised that some Fire fans have called in saying that they aren’t renewing their season tickets and that the Chicago Fire seem to be taking a lot of heat over this (my worst pun by far today). The front office are so clearly out of step with the supporters that I don’t think they even appreciate what they’ve kicked up here.

Where it isn’t negative, it comes off as slightly condescending – as “the club knows best, you must listen to how WE do things.” Yes I understand that in pure business and property terms the Chicago Fire are owned by Andrew Hauptman, but in a cultural sense the club is owned by its supporters. What is it that teams sell? They sell the opportunity to belong to something, you go to be with others in a communal emotional event – it’s like paying to go to church. That experience is provided only in part by the team on the field, a large part is played by the other paying customers in the stands. Go to any sporting event that is sold out and compare the atmosphere to one in front of an empty stadium and tell me that the experience is the same. A club isn’t selling wins and losses, it is selling a collective sense of belonging. So your customers are not just your customers, they are your product as well. Most fans begrudgingly accept they are to be exploited in some way by their club as part of the marketing experience, but a club would do well to remember how important the fans are to the product they promote.

Which brings up the basic cultural difference between soccer fans and North American sports fans. MLS soccer fans have embraced and tried to copy the fan culture that they see elsewhere in the soccer world. The chants, banners, songs, flares are all something that soccer fans see and want to bring to their game as well. The cultural appropriation of global soccer fan culture grew dramatically following Toronto’s entry in MLS, and carried on in the other new franchises added since (Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Vancouver and Montreal), even some of the older franchises have looked at ways to up the intensity of fans at games. But this is something that has to be fan driven, supporter’s culture is distinctly “authentic” nothing irks the supporters more than something being imposed on them by the club. Most clubs are aware enough to then do this through some sort of negotiation with the supporters group, but the important part is that the fans are recognized as stakeholders in the club – remember the club owns the team and the stadium, the supporters own the culture.

More worrying to me is that this is now the second team to complain about its own fans. Last month NY Red Bull resorted to offering charity bribes if its fans would stop yelling “You suck Asshole” at opponents. The YSA bribe is not going to get anywhere. Yes the clubs want to create a wonderful family environment and YSA is not exactly conducive to that, but have you ever even attended other professional sports in North America? Sadly that is about as creative as the insults get, but YSA is certainly just as common at baseball games (in New York it’s probably common at little league games too). Football, hockey and basketball fans are no shrinking violets either.

Communication: you have to be able to say the good and the bad, but you have to make sure you say it in the right way. Dan Lobring and the Chicago Fire (for supporting him) have given us all a wonderful “what not to do” message that I think we all understood more clearly than they did themselves.

This is Anfield? (Well, no, not really…)

As the silly season (the off-season and transfer window, where there is nothing to do but follow up rumors and speculation) continues, many of the big teams have embarked on their pre-season friendly tours scattered across the globe. These tours give the new squad a chance to play together, young prospects to stand out, and everyone to shake off the rust of a whole month off from the game. The popularity of these games leads to speculation that the EPL is still looking at a 39th game – extending the season by a week and having the teams play a game overseas that might actually mean something. Judging by the amount of money these pre-season tours can pull in for some teams, it’s not surprising that fans in England are worried. Consider the £1,000,000 fee that Liverpool missed out on in May because a potential friendly in Cape Town conflicted with South African league rules. And here in Toronto, the terrible TFC team that seems too exhausted to play a full 90 minutes most weeks is now stuck playing a mid-week friendly vs AS Roma (Aug. 7).

Beyond the financial and player management reasons for doing these tours, most of the teams that spend the pre-season travelling do so to expand their fan base (yes, there are financial reasons for that too). These tours may provide overseas fans their only chance to see their team in action – even if most of the first team gets subbed off after 45 minutes. Which then plays in to that old divide of who are the “authentic” fans: those that are from said team’s home town and live and breathe that team, or those fans that despite the distance separating them from their team, still find themselves connected to that distant team?

In a simple world people would all be fans of local teams, but of course the world is not that simple. People become fans of teams around the world for various reasons:

  • the fan originates from the distant team’s city (I cheer for the Calgary Flames – even if I haven’t lived in Alberta for 30 years).;
  • the fan’s family has connections to the team’s city;
  • the fan follows a specific player (how many Messi jerseys are sold on that basis alone);
  • the fan actually enjoys the way a team plays (I originally started following Arsenal for this reason);
  • the fan can have any number of other reasons, but the above are just a few that occurred to me.
Anfield Down Under

Anfield Down Under

Regardless of the reason, once hooked on a team the individual becomes a fan, often in a way similar to how Nick Hornby describes it at the beginning of Fever Pitch, “suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” If you’ve seen the tears of a young boy as his team (Barcelona) gets thumped by Bayern Munich, you’ll understand the suffering can be there even in the most distant fans. In fact, there is something more desperate to the distant fan, as they have been given multiple chances to turn aside, cheer for a closer team, watch a different sport, but they have chosen to stick with their far away team. They will sacrifice a Saturday morning sleep-in to get to the pub for the 7:30 AM kickoff. And if their team should happen to come to town, well, that could just be the moment of their life.

So it is no surprise that one of the videos that keeps popping up over the last few days is from Liverpool’s stop in Melbourne to play the Melbourne Victory. As I expected, the Victory were not the home team, just as Toronto FC was not the home team at Rogers Centre last year. Instead, the stadium was filled to its 95,000 seat capacity with the red of Liverpool – Liverpool was also playing in their “home” red kit. The Melbourne Cricket Ground became Anfield for the day. And no Liverpool performance would be complete without the anthem, perhaps the largest single crowd to ever sing You’ll Never Walk Alone – at least since the terraces disappeared, as the 95,000 capacity is more than double the size of Anfield. Local hotels reported 100% occupancy, an audience of 1 million Aussies watched the game, and the visit generated about $10 million AUD for the local economy.

While the experience of the game and its uniqueness for locals has the fans back in England worried, I doubt the 39th game will come to pass. The current system where the teams can use it as their pre-season  tour is an ideal way to generate money for the team and to shake the squad out with minimal personnel risk (these are friendlies, and rarely do the big stars play the full game – and sometimes they don’t even suit up). With familiarity breeds if not contempt, at least indifference. How do you decide where to play the 39th? Who becomes the home team? Do they play there every season? How many foreign fans will pay to watch Crystal Palace vs Hull? The massive appeal of the EPL is actually concentrated in just a handful of teams, meaning that for every raucous rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, you’ll get a confused and silent crowd as Z Cars plays.

I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt

This Sunday is Beckham’s Grand Finale to his five year stint in MLS. In his time he’s marketed the league to a new group of fans who had at least heard of him – even in the USA where football means something altogether different. He’s also successfully marketed the league to aging European stars as a place to play out their last few years: Henry, Ljungberg, Keane, and Frings are probably here in part because of him.

It’s like Superman swooping down from the sky building up the league and then declaring, “my work here is done.” So Sporty Spice once again leaves his team/league in a better place than when he found it (the exception to the Beckham effect is Milan, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Wherever he’s gone, prosperity and success have followed. He started at ManU, was an important part of the treble winning 98/99 side – which is even more amazing considering that he began that season as the most hated Englishman for his sending off in the World Cup. Later he went to Real Madrid, only a club known as the Galacticos could possibly be big enough for Beckham, and again he left after hardship (put to reserves by future England manager Capello) followed by triumph: back on the first side and winning La Liga. So it was off next to America where he could not only take a team, but an entire league to new heights.

The North American adventure followed the traditional script, he sold a bunch of jerseys and then met with some problem, now it was injuries to the no longer youthful Beckham. Yet even injured, he managed to lift attendance and put the whole MLS on more solid footing. I always thought that the Beckham in America project was about his wife (and I still think that is part of it), but I’ve also grown to realize that he does see himself as much a football ambassador as a style ambassador. His loan to AC Milan perhaps undermined some of his commitment to the MLS project, but his faithful return and his play over the last two seasons have made up for that. The Milan loan also broke his string of bettering the teams he joined, as AC Milan was arguably at its peak at that moment and thanks to the trials of its owner Silvio Berlusconi has fallen far.

I was lucky enough to see him this spring during the Champions League match between Toronto and LA, and I have no doubt that TFC was able to get 43,000 fans into Rogers Centre due to the presence of Beckham. He was the star of the show, yes I got to throw a balloon and streamers at him on a corner in the first half (second row seats are fun), but the moment that sticks out is when he complained about the beer can that the far corner tossed at him just before taking the corner that tied the game for the Galaxy. He fights hard and gets mean when he needs to, he’s less posh than I thought. The fans cheered for Toronto, but came to see him.

And so once again Beckham is headed out, likely on a high note with the Galaxy in their second straight MLS final, but as he removes his jersey on Sunday (in full view of the crowd naturally), what jersey will he put on next? The success of the team is not Beckham’s criteria, it is the style of his arrival and playing that matters to the Beckham story. He began in Manchester, which has its own sort of cool, but wasn’t the fashion capital like say: London. His next moves have been to Madrid, LA, Milan – he lives the good life and he lives it in style. He also has a family to think about. So in the various rumors offered up so far we can see the potential moves for Beckham.

  • Australia is out. Beyond the no already stated, Australia serves no purpose in the Beckham project. It neither advances soccer in that country or the world, and it is too remote from the fashion world to serve as a typical launching pad of Beckham style.
  • Glasgow Celtic is out. Even if Snoop Dogg were to buy a stake in the team – don’t hurt yourself jumping on that bandwagon Snoop (you might make Rod Stewart cry). Glasgow again lacks the style requirement for Beckham.
  • Paris-St. Germain has apparently offered once again to take him. While you can’t argue against Paris for style, and he has lived in France before, the other consideration for Beckham is that his aging body requires a league that he can still look good in: Ligue 1 yes he can do it, Champions League no he’s lost that pace.
  • That leaves three intriguing options that all represent the same goal. As a soccer ambassador, and fashion-forward mannequin, I can think of no better place for him than Asia. By this I mean China, Japan, or Korea. The parallels to MLS are important, he would come as the conquering hero of global soccer he already has legions of fans in those countries, and the risk to his brand by setting up there is negligible. Didier Drogba’s move to China this summer only increased the likelihood that Asian teams would try to land known superstars in the future.

Forget Gangnam style. They’ll be bending it like Beckham after the January transfer window.

 

Vend it Like Beckham

If there is one player who has blurred the line between being a player and being a commodity, it is David Beckham. He is a poster for soccer, but also a billboard for advertisers to hang their products off of. He was a good player (we’ll talk in past tense as his languishing in MLS is really a form of easing into retirement), but never that amazing superstar that was clearly the best player of his time. Yet he turned his ability to take a wicked free kick into a marketer’s dream. I mean he had a movie named after him where he only had a cameo.

Even more amazingly, he has maintained that marketing allure long after his most productive on-field days are behind him. His move to North America served as a marketing tool both to attract MLS fans (how many LA Galaxy jerseys had you seen before he signed?), but also worked to market the league to aging European stars as a place to play out their golden years without the hassle of being  recognized everywhere they went.

Beyond the soccer though, he has always been a mannequin to put new hairstyles, clothes, and men’s care products on. He is synonymous with metrosexuality, and that will be his career once he finally hangs up his cleats. Now he literally is a mannequin – or at least represented in a larger than life statue that has adorned H&M stores around North America (and dare I say worldwide?). We first met silver Becks while on vacation in New York in August, I read that he would be promoting his new line of clothing with these statues at H&M’s midtown Manhattan stores, so since we were in town…

I love the pose, the picture of him in the background smoldering, and the idea that this is all to sell some undies. So I though of course New York would get these statues, but not little old Canada. Oh how wrong I was…

Silver Beck’s Canadian Tour

So now the global brand is hawking his (under)wears in Canada, or at least the larger than life silver version of him is.

P.S. – I will give him credit for some comfortable underwear.