raising the dead

Not that I’m telling you anything new, but your average American sports fan’s knowledge of association football is extremely limited. Many, if not most, have literally zero knowledge about soccer.

oooh ahhhh... i'm hoping cantona gives me something else to talk about.

But if they do have just a bit of room in their brain for it after squeezing in as much knowledge about American idol, the gridiron-flavor or whatever Fox News tells them to believe, you would generally be safe in betting your annual income on their knowledge base being limited to one the following six topics:

  • My little sister/brother/cousin/child plays (…and I don’t like it).
  • David Beckham (isn’t that the guy that is married to a spice girl?).
  • Pelé (if they’re over the age of 30).
  • Ronaldo or Ronaldinho. (Wait, there’s a difference between the two? Three!?)
  • Manchester United (“The best team in the world!!!!”)
  • The World Cup is the Super Bowl of soccer (sigh).

As soon as someone who doesn’t follow footie finds out that I’m into the sport, it is without a doubt that one of those topics will be the next thing that comes out of their mouth. This of course immediately gives away their naivety and plunges me into “speak stupidly about soccer” mode, a mode of conversation that I despise using despite the frequency with which I must use it.

But it didn’t used to be that way.there used to be one more item on that list, and it was uniquely American: the New York Cosmos.

Sure, the only reason why Americans even know that there is some dude named Pelé is because of the Cosmos, and vice versa. But it was an American team they knew about none the less, and it’s safe to say that their brand was more pervasive in the American consciousness than that of the L.A. Galaxy or Red Bull New York has ever been.

It always baffled me that when MLS was first started, the league ignored this amazing brand name when placing a franchise in the Big Apple (even more so when they chose to co-brand it as the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars… barf). “Why,” I wondered aloud to a crowd of people existing only in my head, “would MLS turn it’s back on the only globally recognizable soccer brand we’ve ever developed?”

Yes, I get that the league was rightly trying to distance itself from the NASL and the poor stigma still attached to it and its franchises’ names. This aversion to using legacy-franchise names has continued to hang around nearly 15 years after the league’s inception, as evident with the uproar that resulted when the Seattle ownership group tried to use a name other than the Sounders with their franchise.

Luckily, the league and it’s management haven’t remained that stupid.

MLS commisioner Don Garber has long fancied placing a second team in New York, even though the first one has trouble filling it’s magnificent soccer-specific stadium. Despite attendance problems (which are by no means a problem unique to New York in this league), it’s hard to ignore the fact that the city is also one of the most immigrant rich regions in the country. And last time I checked, immigrants tend to have a higher propensity to be football fans than the average American citizen, which ultimately means there is a huge untapped market of potential ticket and kit buyers.

Is there a better way to break into an untapped market than to take advantage of brand name that many immigrants are already likely to be familiar with? I don’t know, but it sure seems like a good place to start.

Though, raising a franchise from a death that occurred over a quarter century ago is no easy feat.

Finally pried away from the steely grip of former owner Peppe Pinton, a new ownership group have revived the Cosmos brand in a way that has at least turned some heads in the footballing world. They’ve brought in the requisite big names (legends Pelé and Eric Cantona to lend sporting legitimacy, former Tottenham Hotspur chairmen Paul Kemsley and former Liverpool chairmen Rick Parry to lend administrative legitimacy), as well as a brilliant marketing plan that is unlike any being used by current MLS clubs.

Described here in greater detail than I care to write about, the revived Cosmos are utilizing a viral marketing campaign that not only appeals to [self-prescribed] snooty soccer “experts” such as myself, but also one that appeals to another untapped market: the hipster crowd, which seems to be overrunning the area surrounding the club’s Soho offices. Since the Cosmos’ branding and name is a retro entity in itself, they’ve managed to tap into a rich vein of American culture that goes beyond sports… fashion. Queue their partnership with Umbro — the masters of bad-ass retro — and the end result is a club that is gaining in popularity despite the complete lack of players or a home ground. Placing your main offices in the city’s “coolest” neighborhood doesn’t hurt either.

The Cosmos are ardently striving to be different than the rest of the MLS clubs they hope to compete with in the near future. A current focus on producing an academy to feed the eventual senior team is a great way to drive interest in the club at a grassroots level. On top of that, utilizing Cantona’s swagger, Pelé’s celebrity, and the business acumen of proven footballing executives to lay a solid foundation for the club will make the Cosmos very difficult to ignore by prospective fans and MLS executives alike. They’ve certainly hooked me with this campaign, as is evidence by numerous posts drooling over their gorgeous Umbro shirt.

Will raising the Cosmos from the dead be enough to raise MLS’ profile on both the national and international sporting scenes? I don’t know the answer to that yet. But if we can just add a seventh topic to that list at the beginning of this post, at least I’ll have something else to talk about with people who know nothing about the sport I love so much.

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