By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 25, 2020) US Soccer Players - Branding a soccer club in the modern American soccer landscape is an unenviable task. Getting it right might mean a huge wave of interest and the kind of viral marketing success that can turn soccer from after-thought in a market to the "it" team everyone wants to support. Getting it wrong means missing out on a potential group of new fans while alienating the ones already in the fold.
There is a difference between "branding" and "rebranding." Starting fresh usually comes with a blank slate and the opportunity to establish a well-thought-out identity without the burden of pre-existing attitudes. Branding is easier if only because the audience doesn't have to reconcile a new look or name with an old one.
Rebranding is a much tougher challenge. How does a club change its identifiers without losing a connection to its history? Will both old and new fans alike accept the change? How can an American soccer team find the line between the usual American-style nickname, which may turn off more traditional, Euro-focused soccer fans, and leaning too hard in the European direction?
Time is a factor that's hard to plan around. The initial backlash against a name or logo might fade with time as fans become accustomed to it. It's almost impossible to quantify how much a club might miss in terms of fans, revenue, attention, and so on.
Expansion teams brought branding to the fore in recent years, turning every American soccer fan into an expert. Reaction online to a branding choice can be swift and merciless. for examples, look no farther than the reaction to the new logos of the Chicago Fire and Louisville City. That throws into question the choice to make a change.
A decade ago, Major League Soccer's Kansas City franchise executed a rebrand that remains the exemplar for the process. The Kansas City Wizards were practically dead-in-the-water in their market, with little attention from the sports-obsessed populace of the metro region. After years playing in a massively oversized NFL venue to paltry crowds, the Wizards spent a few depressing years calling a minor baseball venue home. There was no real reason to think that the franchise would ever matter in Kansas City or beyond. Then, a stadium happened.
More properly put, the ownership of the club led by Cliff Illig struck a deal to build a venue near Kansas Speedway following a frustrating process that saw another plan approved, then canceled. In conjunction with the stadium opening, the ownership of the club decided to reboot the team's image.
"I give our owners a lot of credit because I think patience was really important through the process," said Jake Reid, Sporting's president, and CEO. "When they purchased the club from The Hunt Family in 2006, they could have easily had a quick knee jerk reaction to rebrand. But I think they had a great vision. They wanted a stadium of their own, which we got as well eventually. But they also wanted to tie that to the rebrand. It took over four years to figure out exactly what they wanted to do and the vision for the brand."
It's impossible to separate Sporting's successful rebrand from the stadium opening. Without the new stadium, it's unlikely the Sporting name would have worked so well so quickly. The club's ownership reset not just the image of the team, but the experience of attending a game.
If there's one team most primed to follow Sporting's lead more than a decade later, it's the New England Revolution. Every one of the league's original franchises other than the Revs have executed some sort of brand shift. As the quest continues to find a place to build a stadium in the immediate area of Boston continues, New England's owners have made nods in the direction of rebranding. They might not wait.
"We've always thought about doing the rebrand when we built a new stadium, but I would say at this point that we probably updated our thinking a little bit regarding timing," Revolution President Brian Bilello told The Athletic in December. "We're going through the process of evaluating the potential to do that sooner rather than later."
The Revolution would be wise to think carefully about moving forward on a rebrand without a stadium. If the club does decide that a new look and name is necessary, there are other lessons in Sporting's adept turn.
The Kansas City team's original concept was a "sporting club" in the mold of European outlets like Barcelona and Real Madrid. That plan didn't happen the way they imagined (nine years later, Sporting is still just the soccer team), but the name resolved into a unique identifier in the American soccer market.
With so many "FCs" and "United" across added in recent years, Sporting's choice stands out. Whether it's through a high-minded notion of a multi-sport operation or just a thoughtful process, that's the bar any team executing a rebrand needs to clear. If the Revs want to matter in Boston and wider New England, they can't fumble their chance at a new image.
As Reid said about the process in Kansas City, getting right is paramount because there won't be another chance for a long time.
"We wanted something that could sustain the long term because we don't want to be rebranding again in another decade," he said "You might tweak the logo here and there as your team evolved over the years as, as a lot of clubs do. But ultimately we wanted to make sure that we got it right. And so there was a lot of thought process put into in the future, what do we want it to be? And then how do we try to lay the foundation for that now?"
This is deliberate thinking, a mode that can be antithetical to the rush-it-to-market attitudes that pervade in 2020. Even when the best intentions are in place and club leadership thinks they have a sure thing on their hands, the fan base can reject something new. The balance between old fans and new fans has led more than one club astray.
American soccer is still correcting for the mistakes made back in the 90s when MLS began. Every original MLS franchise but New England has rebranded because the original brands aged so poorly. No one wants to make decisions now that will need fixing in another 10 or 20 years.
If Sporting's success teaches any lessons, it's that a good rebrand can happen by thinking through the name and identity of a soccer club with longevity in mind combined with a seminal event in a club's history. Sporting isn't the Wizards, except in the ways that the club chooses to connect with its pre-rebrand past.
Sporting is new and better without being too contrived. It's cool enough for soccer fans in Kansas City to claim while not being so pretentious it smacks of desperation. It's unique enough to stand out without being too weird for the traditionalists. They made it look easy in Kansas City, but looks can be deceiving.
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Logo courtesy of Sporting KC