15 Years Following Football in America

Le Boss - Is he still the man to lead The Arsenal?

2011 marks my 15th year following Arsenal and the Premier League.  While that may not sound impressive to many of the lifelong faithful from north London, it does mean that my support pre-dates the Wenger regime.

Over those 15 years my love for Arsenal has led me to start Arsenal America, the official U.S.-supporters club, and I’ve been fortunate enough to write for the official Arsenal magazine, be interviewed by the BBC and even player on the impeccable Emirates Stadium pitch as part of one of Arsenal’s supporters’ club tournaments (we lost in the finals).

It was this love of a football club from the other side of the Atlantic that helped change the course of my professional career as well. My love and knowledge of the game were essential in my role as a marketing communications professional. Working on behalf of clients such as MasterCard and Gillette, I was on-site for FIFA World Cups in South Korea / Japan and Germany; the European Championships in Holland and Belgium and the UEFA Champions League finals in Milan.

I’ve worked closely with legends of the game like Lothar Matthaus, Sir Bobby Charlton, newly appointed U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and of course, El Rei, the Brazilian known the world over as Pele.

As the new EPL season kicks off I think about what has changed for a fan of European football here in the States. The change has been quite significant since I first started rooting for the Gunners. The biggest impact of course has been the Internet.  Football fandom here in the States is quite different. Office conversation rarely revolves around the exploits of Wayne Rooney or the latest transfer sagas. U.S. fans often felt isolated, if not ostracized.  But sites like BigSoccer.com and blogs, both for teams or the game in general changed that. Now hopping online became the equivalent of popping down to your local. Suddenly that feeling of community that Gooners in N17 feel naturally could be approximated here in the States. Believe me the passion was there, we just needed the outlet.

The other big change has come on the TV side. It’s now relatively easy to watch the highest levels of world soccer on just about any day of the week in the States. Gol TV, Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN all carry games live from England, Spain, Germany and Italy. Regional sports networks live MSG in New York carry programming from Arsenal TV in addition to showing games. This degree of content was unheard of 15 years ago. As a marketing communications professional I’m excited about the coming convergence of broadcast programming and social media.  The recent Arsenal – Udinese Champions League qualifying match was one of the highest ranked sports events of that week for social media engagement according to Social Guide, a company that looks on content appearing on social networks related to TV-based content.

A final area of interest is of course the numerous pre-season “tours” of America undertaken by European clubs. From the “Champions World Tour” series of nearly 10 years ago, to this summer’s “World Football Championships,” clubs like Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Juventus and the Old Firm have been playing to crowds often in excess of 50,000 people in stadiums all across the U.S. Over the years, I’ve met with several of the top clubs who came to my agency, looking for insight into how to “break into” the U.S. market.  They’ve come with different plans but ultimately I think they’ve all failed to make the impact they were hoping to (remember that ManU-Yankees partnership?).

Why? Many reasons I suppose. Certainly, there is no shortage of sports in America to keep us occupied. We tend to like to root for Americans in “foreign” sports – Mario Andretti is still probably the only F1 driver most Americans can name and the Tour de France only counted when Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong were winning it. But really I think the problem was that these teams expected to come in to the U.S. open up shop and start raking in the dollars. They didn’t realize the work on the ground that was going to be required.

Football in the U.S. will never be football in the U.S. but it continues to grow. Last season I attended a NY Red Bulls match with over 200 other Arsenal fans from around the country. After the

Theirry Henry meets with Arsenal America members after a Red Bulls game.

match, the Red Bulls star striker Thierry Henry,  gave us a private audience, answering questions for nearly 40 minutes. The MLS recently signed a new and improved television deal. The future of football in America may no longer be the future, it’s the present.


This post originally appeared on the SoccerEx Blog. SoccerEx is the Global Leader for the Business of Football.


The Brand You is Dead. Long Live The Brand You Build.

It's not you, or at least it shouldn't be

It's not you, or at least it shouldn't be

In today’s hyper-connected, no-barrier-to-enty, Consumer-generated-content world it’s hard to escape the cult of Personal Branding. Everyone has a website, blog, Twitter account and Facebook page and they aren’t afraid to use them. But it seems to me we’ve reached an inflection point, and what was once smart move now feels self-congratulatory and driven more by ego than producing value.

I think we as marketers, strategists, consultants and social media participants need to re-think what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. What’s the purpose of having 15,000 people following you on Twitter? To help clarify my thoughts on this issue, I went back to article that really launched one of the most influential magazines of the 1990s:

Fast Company, Tom Peters and You!

Back in 1997 Fast Company changed the way business people thought about themselves, business, branding and marketing with the “Brand Called You” cover story by marketing guru Tom Peters. The article is worth reading again, some 12 years later. In going over it again myself I got the feeling that, like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, the original intent had lost some of its clarity.

“Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand.” – David Ogilvy

With the advent of social media platforms like MySpace and YouTube, content sharing sites like Digg and microblogging tools like Twitter, people have taken personal brands to mean “look at me,” and when enough people did, presto!, you had yourself a personal brand. But that’s a gross misrepresentation of what Peters was saying, or at least what he meant. His idea of a personal brand was one that provided value. Unique value that set you apart from others. Yes, you can get 23 million people to hear your pleas on behalf of Britney Spears, but I’m not sure what value (beyond comedic) you’re bringing to the table.

The “Brand Called You”-era is dead.

Should you have personality, a distinct P.O.V. on issues and are qualities like honesty, integrity and hard work still important? Absolutely, in fact those qualities and attributes will always be (and have always been) valuable. But the inward-looking focus on branding yourself is no longer the best way to serve yourself.

Here’s what Geoff Livingston said back in November of 2008:

There is a big difference between reputation and personal brands. Reputation is built upon past experiences — good or bad, a real track record. Personal branding is often an ego-based image based on communications. A personal brand can demonstrate a person is there, but it’s often shallow and can be contrived. It’s just like a sport stripe on a car, nice but no engine, no guts, no substance.

It’s become a lot easier to create a personal brand. Gather up 3,000 Twitter followers (by any means necessary); create a Facebook page and start blogging. In three months you just created your personal brand. But, as Geoff put it, that’s just a racing stripe. Of course the very best of breed, the Seth Godins and Chris Brogans have created very strong personal brands by creating real value for thousands of people every day. Their personal brands are focused on helping others, not on promoting themselves.

The Brand Called Me, Me, Me!

Scott Monty, formerly of Crayon, now bringing his intelligence and expertise on behalf of Ford, also has seen the rise of Personal Branding as a form of egotism:

I’m tired of seeing social media bloggers focusing inward. Whether it’s a laundry list of the latest appearances, self-referential links to previous entries in the blog, or thought leadership that feeds an overinflated ego, their sites become a great monument to…themselves.

That’s the trap of the current ‘Personal Brand’ or “Brand Called You’ thinking. How can I get more attention for myself, my blog, my Twitter feed. There are just very few people who provide value for the eyeballs and minds they are furiously trying to gather. I think most people engaged in conspicuous personal branding are missing another key element: It’s hard for other people to become engaged in your efforts. What’s in it for me when you get your 2,000 Twitter follower? The answer: not much.

Becoming a brand manager by being a… brand manager

Here’s Tom Peters from that Fast Company feature:

To start thinking like your own favorite brand manager, ask yourself the same question the brand managers at Nike, Coke, Pepsi, or the Body Shop ask themselves: What is it that my product or service does that makes it different?

This is something I think a lot of people misinterpreted or maybe just simply missed an opportunity. Today, thinking of yourself as a brand is like swimming in an ocean full of sharks all fighting over the same seal. That’s a blood red ocean. I think there is still an opportunity to have a Blue Ocean Strategy. By creating a brand that lives outside yourself.

Here’s another excerpt:

One key to growing your power is to recognize the simple fact that we now live in a project world. Almost all work today is organized into bite-sized packets called projects. A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand: projects exist around deliverables, they create measurables, and they leave you with braggables. If you’re not spending at least 70% of your time working on projects, creating projects, or organizing your (apparently mundane) tasks into projects, you are sadly living in the past. Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects.

Now that’s an idea I can get behind. But instead of making your personal brand your project, why not make creating an actual brand your project? Rather than trying to impress your boss, colleagues and peers by having an awesome LinkedIn account, why not create something external and tangible. I’ve referenced Seth Godin as someone who has gone about creating a personal brand the right way, but he’s also created things like Squidoo and Triiibes, brands in and of themselves that live without and beyond his participation, yet are unmistably his creation.

Putting My Branding Where My Mouth Is

I’ve put a lot of work into creating Eyecube as my personal brand. I’ve learned a lot, made plenty of mistakes, but overall I think I’ve made a respectable contribution to the greater marketing community. But long before Eyecube I was the founder of Arsenal America, the official supporter’s club of Arsenal FC. From nothing, with no money, I created one of the top U.S.-based supporter’s clubs. Even though I haven’t been actively involved for a couple of years, Arsenal America is still a vibrant brand with members throughout the country, the vast majority of which I’ve never met.

A few months ago I launched Foundtracks, an art project / creative outlet that I’m excited about continuing in 2009. It’s still very early for Foundtracks, but I think it has potential to inspire others to create their own artifcitions.

These projects aren’t money makers, but they demonstrate my ability to promote something other than myself, work with others and compete in the marketplace of ideas. Those sound like the type of attributes an employer or client would be interested in.

I’m certainly not alone in seeing the value of creating external brands. Take a look at this recent New York Times article citing ad agencies that are creating their own brands. Listen to what Ben Jenkins, the strategic director of Zag, a division of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says:

“Advertising is a massively old model based on the 1950s. As media has proliferated, it’s become a lot harder for us to earn enough money off our ideas,” said Ben Jenkins, . “Zag is about creating the properties ourselves from scratch and having 100 percent of it.”

Let’s do a quick rewrite and see if it doesn’t still ring true:

“Personal branding is a massively old model based on the early-2000s. As social media plaforms have proliferated, it’s become a lot harder for us to earn enough money off our blogs. Now it’s about creating the properties ourselves from scratch and having 100 percent of it.”

The Challenge For 2009

So, for 2009 I think I might pull back a little bit on the Facebook Friending Frenzy, or not check my Twitter Follower/Following ratio quite so diligently. It’s not that I think those social media channels are worthless or irrelevant, I think they are very valuable. But I think I could learn a lot more about brand stewardship by creating something that other people can interact with and even contribute to. If I can prove my abilities to create, maintain and grow a real brand – with virtually no resources – then I think I can demonstrate to my company and our clients that I can provide real value to them.

I’ve already got some ideas, but I would love to hear from you, please let me know your thoughts.

A comment on comments

Marketing types, and I’ll generously include myself in this group, like to talk about ‘the conversation’ and ‘the dialogue’ between consumers and brands. I try to read a variety of marketing/branding/PR/Advertising blog and have noticed something: Many of the blogs have very few comments. Here’s a very unscientific survey – I looked at the front page of several blogs, looked at the number of posts and the total number of comments:

PSFK: Posts:36, Comments: 57 (Avg. # comments per post: 1.58)

Brand Autopsy: Posts: 30, Comments: 192 (Avg. # comments per post: 6.4)

Influential Marketing Blog: Posts 10, Comments: 36 (Avg. # comments per post: 3.6)

Murketing: Posts 15, Comments: 7 (Avg. # comments per post: .47)

Grant McCracken: Posts 14, Comments 65 (Avg. # comments per post: 4.64)

Eyecube: Posts 10, Comments 7 (Avg. # comments per post: .7)

Online Marketer Blog: Posts 5, Comments 24 (Avg. # comments per post: 4.8)

Again, this is a rather arbitrary analysis. I think all of the above are super smart people who all have a different approach and style.

Let’s take a look at the Top five blogs on the AdAge Power 150 to see what that looks like under the same litmus test:

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The (Sports Marketing) World Is Flat: The Arsenal Brand

In addition to my job at Taylor, I’m also the founder of Arsenal America, the official supporters club in the U.S. for Arsenal FC. Occasionally I can combine these two passions, and one such occasion was my interview with John and Matt Simmons, lifelong Arsenal fans who together wrote Winning Together: The Story of the Arsenal Brand. This interview, originally published in April 2006 when the book came out, seemed worth reprinting here now that the English Premier League season has got underway:

Up the Arse!

Arsenal: A club with a solid brand heritage

Many people don’t like to talk about the commercial aspects of the game. Like frightened ostriches they shove their heads in the sand, recalling the ‘good old days’ when fans were smashed into pens, blacks weren’t allowed to play and getting piss drunk and in a bust up was considered a good afternoon. Fortunately most Arsenal Americans live in the 21st century and understand the era in which we live and follow the Arsenal. Recently John and Matt Simmons, a father-son Gooner pair wrote a book entitled “Winning together: the story of the Arsenal brand” (you can get it here). It’s an intelligent look at the game today and how Arsenal are ‘playing’ off the field. It reveals that in fact Arsenal supporters have much to be proud of. I recently caught up with John and Matt and they were kind enough to answer my question regarding Arsenal FC, U.S. fans and their book…

Rick Liebling: You talk about Brand Identity in your book, and I think it is a great point. It is something that has been lost here in the States as teams, especially new ones, try to be all things to all people. I think fans play a critical role here – what can fans do to shape the identity of a team (brand), and should a club embrace fans more in this area?

J. & M. Simmons: Brand identity is not something you hear discussed a lot in football, but it has always been there. It goes with obvious things like the team colors and crests, but is more deep-rooted than that as it’s based on our perceptions of what the brand/team stands for. We set out what we believe these values are in the case of the Arsenal, but we argue that the values are based on the reality and tradition that have built up over many years. And those values are the bedrock of the brand identity. They’re not a marketing concoction, although you can use marketing to make them even more powerful. But Jeff Bezos of Amazon says “a brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”, so the brand’s real identity in the case of Arsenal is in the minds of fans.

But fear of loss of identity is a very real one for fans “over here” [the UK]. Identity and location have always been closely linked for most fans – which is why the infamous case of the MK Dons (previously Wimbledon FC) so shocked and scared people. Of course, the MK Dons were following the lead of American sports, where several established franchises have been re-located in more welcoming (or profitable!) cities.

The fear for Arsenal fans was that we would go down this road. We’re sure we would never have relocated to another city altogether (I think even the English FA would have said no to that), but we could easily have found ourselves playing 20 miles outside London in a soul-less new development by the side of a motorway. For us, and many other ‘local’ Arsenal fans, this would have been a massive blow to our sense of identity. It might not have been such a big issue for our foreign fans, or even our many fans from around the rest of the UK.

When it comes to shaping the identity of a club it is the local fans who will inevitably play a larger role, if for no other reason than it is very hard to consistently influence people from thousands of miles away. This said, at a big club like Arsenal it is hard for even local fans to directly influence the club’s identity. Manchester United fans have found this to their cost recently in their losing battle with the Glazers. United fans now have two choices: pay up and shut up (accepting that the club’s identity is no longer their own) or go and support FC United instead (the ‘real’ United, established by fans and currently playing way down the league pyramid).

In this respect fans of small clubs are luckier – with the recent proliferation of supporter’s trusts, many of whom now have a seat on their club’s boards, more and more fans are able to directly engage with their clubs. This is something that should be happening at every club. At the moment it only happens when clubs are in desperate trouble, and need their supporter’s money!

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