Posts Tagged ‘sport management’

Drew Carey plays better soccer than David Beckham

Friday, August 21st, 2009

As a diehard soccer fan who’s lived in the US for more than thirty years, I’ve been frustrated by the futile attempts of professional soccer leagues to establish the sport by hiring aging European or Latin American stars. When the LA Galaxy recruited David Beckham two seasons ago, I thought this was another example of a major league team not understanding that they should be co-creating a fan experience around the team, not packaging a product. Beckham has lived up to my nihilistic expectations by being injured most of his first season with the Galaxy, then in the second season treating his Galaxy commitment as summer recreation compared to his more serious AC Milan engagement. He was recently taken to task for his tourist-like behavior by Landon Donovan, a lightning-fast teammate at the Galaxy (the two have reputedly made up since then). Some Galaxy fans have booed Beckham during home games, producing startled comments by journalists that fans would care enough about soccer to go to that trouble…
I have nothing against David Beckham the person. He seems a nice enough chap and was a great soccer player. But I strongly object to David Beckham the brand when that is considered the future of US soccer. To discover a more authentic model, I suggest going a thousand miles north to see what the Seattle Sounders have been able to accomplish. A recent article in the Boston Globe describes how the team, in its very first season, draws more than 30,000 people on average for home games, doing better than the long-established Seattle Mariners baseball team and doubling the average attendance for Major League Soccer games.
The model is pure co-creation with fans. Fans picked the name of the team. They came up with the concept of a colorful march to the stadium behind drums before every game. Season-ticket holders get to sit with like-minded fans, i.e., they choose to be in a section where people cheer loudly or conversely want a less exuberant experience. Fans get to oust the general manager every four years, a governance structure copied from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid – although Seattle fans do not get to elect the new one like in Spain (instead, the owners do). Speaking of owners, the Sounders have come up with a uniquely American “mixed model” of ownership. The team has four traditional “rich guy” owners – including the actor Drew Carey, who is credited with coming up with the fan-centric model after a trip to Spain, a Hollywood producer, and the ubiquitous Paul Allen – but their influence is leavened by the fans’ participation. Somehow, this enlightened team of owners has figured out that engaging the fans is the way to go.
While the success of the Seattle Sounders warms my heart, it caused me to lose a bet. I figured the male-dominated Major League Soccer would never figure out the fan thing. My money was always on US women’s soccer to invent the new model. I hope the new women’s soccer league in the US gets to do that anyway, for the world needs a successful women’s soccer league. In the guys’ department, though, it’s Drew Carey 1, David Beckham 0.

The power of fan democracy

Sunday, July 26th, 2009


The true test of a man’s allegiance is when he watches a soccer game opposing his country of birth (France in my case) to his country of adoption (the US). The pragmatist in me knows France is more likely to win because of its gloried soccer history. But my heart as an educator goes to the US because I love coaching kids around Boston soccer fields on week-ends on the use of the offside trap or other arcane details of the beautiful game. In the end, none of my France vs. US dilemma matters, though. I just wish I were Spanish.

Spanish soccer rules the world. FC Barcelona just won the (European) Champions League in May. The Spanish national soccer team claimed the European championship last year. The squad just went through 35 undefeated games (the US, of all nations, beat them at the Confederation Cup in South Africa last month), and is a favorite for the World Cup next year. The gravitational pull of Spanish soccer toward talent is exemplified by the recent transfer of Christiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese star, from Manchester United to Real Madrid for $ 130 million, and the signing-up of Brazilian star Kaka from AC Milan by the same Real Madrid for a paltry $ 92 million. Of course, the old rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid is partly responsible for the financial madness (think Yankees vs. Red Sox, with a dictatorship thrown in at some point). But the secret weapon of Spanish football (to call it by its real name) is in the way Spanish clubs engage their fans. More specifically, it lies in the participative governance the leading Spanish clubs have established.

FC Barcelona, for example, is run as a member-share club with over 150,000 members. The fan-elected Board of Directors meets regularly with the Social Commission and Supporters Clubs Advisory Council (34 delegates from various Supporter’s Clubs) to propagate the club’s history and social commitments. FC Barcelona has a deep relationship of the club with the Catalan region (this is also why they have no logos on their jerseys). It is not allowed to be sold. The motto is “more than a club”. Real Madrid has a similar governance structure, with periodic challenges mounted by fans toward management. This transparency of governance is what produces fan engagement which, in turn, fosters success on the pitch.

The Anglo-Saxon model of US and UK sports clubs relies on private ownership by rich people. It turns out these people know how to spend money, but are less adept at engaging fans (why would they share their toy?). They generally have a product-centric view of sport where the star is the product (think Kobe Brian in basketball or Derek Jeeter in Baseball), and the experience of the fan secondary. The productization of the NBA, for example, is unmistakable, with the tight control it exerts on its brand, logo, and merchandising (you rapidly get sued if you interfere with any of them). This is a last century view of marketing. Sports management should be about kids trying to emulate their favorite players and becoming involved, not about packaging stars for consumption at the All-Star game. Finding a way to involve fans will be the major challenge facing sports leagues in these trying times. The future of sports management lies in co-creation with fans.

There are a few enlightened exceptions to this general failure to engage fans in the US, such as the community-owned Greenbay Packers in football (that “other” football). There are emerging signs in the UK of a move toward co-creation-friendly forms of governance, such as the fan-based initiative proposing an alternative structure for Liverpool FC.

There is even an entirely co-created club in the English minor league (Ebbsfleet). But by and large, UK fans get to sing, while Spanish fans get to vote.

O.K., I’ve got to go now. My kid’s soccer team is playing this afternoon and the coach doesn’t give him enough playing time. It’s time to vote the bum out of office.