By L.E. Eisenmenger – BOSTON, MA (Dec 17, 2009) USSoccerPlayers — Connecting American soccer fans to both the United States National Team and Major League Soccer could be one of Soccer United Marketing’s (SUM’s) great challenges. International soccer fans might be disinterested in MLS and MLS fans may be unaware of international rivalries and even of the relationship between MLS and the National Team.
While MLS franchises are responsible for their own marketing, they coordinate with SUM, which markets the US National Team among other soccer properties. Oversight of SUM and MLS is done by commissioner Don Garber, who is also CEO of SUM.
“We’ve had many of the clubs come in and present their business plans for 2010 in the last few weeks,” said Dan Courtemanche, Senior Vice-President Marketing and Communications for MLS/SUM, “and the rest of the clubs will be doing it in January of 2010, so we’re all informed of what the clubs are doing and sharing best practices. Really the only aspect of MLS where our clubs compete is on the field. Off the field, they’re all trying to improve each other’s businesses.”
Lately, the MLS clubs have been spinning an adult fan centered theme, but marketing National Team players and the team itself is more complex. Due to outgoing transfers of National Team players, it’s risky for MLS clubs to invest in promoting players that may move on within months. Also, many MLS fans are unfamiliar with the transitory nature of international soccer and may view the departure of a hotly promoted player as a club failure, which also fights against the club’s incentive to promote their hottest players, their great assets.
Given the low salary cap of MLS, it’s often difficult to convince even educated fans a player transfer abroad is not a knock against the League. At the same time, marketing prime players is necessary to promote their current clubs and the National Team. In essence, what’s missing here is the fan confidence in those clubs to manage the transfers of their national team players, and lost in that is the public understanding of the club vs. country conflict, a concept that has largely evaded Americans due to the internal nature of US team sports.
“People are fans of clubs and fans of players, but like it or not players do come and go,” said Courtemanche. “A player’s career is only so long and ultimately you want people to stay fans of that specific club. The Los Angeles Galaxy, they highlight Landon Donovan in nearly every marketing material they produce because not only was he the Volkswagon MVP of the 2009 MLS season, but he’s also the all-time leading scorer for the Men’s National Team, so clearly that’s marketing 101.”
Brian McBride featured prominently in the 2002 “Strike Force – for Club and Country” marketing campaign along with Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis, DaMarcus Beasley, and Josh Wolff, but after a successful World Cup he transferred to Fulham and the impact of the marketing campaign was affected.
“We work through those challenges each and every day,” said Courtemanche. “We have a player like Stuart Holden with the Houston Dynamo, one of the bright young stars of MLS and the USMNT, and his contract is finishing up this year. He’s somebody that we’re all hopeful that we’ll be able to re-sign and he’ll be playing for the Houston Dynamo next year and beyond. But ultimately that’s a decision between the club, the player and the league and you never know how that’s going to work out.”
So, in the interim period, how do they promote Holden for the USMNT when they’re not sure whether his club is the Dynamo or somewhere abroad? Likewise, SUM faces risk promoting certain National Team players at the start of the season in March when the World Cup team isn’t selected till May.
One way SUM will promote both the league and the World Cup is to showcase national team players from other countries who play in MLS. Although 67% of MLS players are US citizens, 52 different countries are represented within the league.
“We’ll be highlighting the fact that David Beckham, who plays for England’s National Team, is a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy,” said Courtemanche. “There’s a lot of players that we’ll try to link that club and country connection.”
The base of knowledgeable soccer fans in the US has grown considerably since the League’s inception in 1995 and Courtemanche wants to expand it further during the World Cup when he expects soccer to reach an “all-time high in popularity.” The initial match-up between the US and England, featuring Galaxy teammates Donovan and Beckham will highlight the club vs. country conflict, and SUM will use this opportunity to cross-market National Team players and their MLS clubs.