Interview with KC VP of Communications: Rob Thomson

Last year, Kansas City Wizards VP of Communications Rob Thomson was kind enough to share a few words about marketing efforts in Kansas City.  Since that initial interview in April, 2009, much has changed in Kansas City, with a new stadium going up quickly, Manchester United coming to town and a slew of international signings and transfer rumors.  Mr. Thomson was kind enough to update us on some of the new marketing going on in Kansas City post World Cup and to share his thoughts about the impact of the new stadium and more.

Mr. Thomson is in his second stint with Wizards after starting with the franchise as an intern in 1997.  He quickly moved up the ladder in the team’s P.R. department until 2001 when he left to  complete his graduate work at the University of Kansas.  After finishing at the University of Kansas he became a professor and coach at Jewell College before returning to the P.R. world for the Brigade of the Arena Football League.  He returned to the Wizards after they were purchased by OnGoal.

Thanks to Mr. Thomson.

Footiebusiness.com: Soccer has seemingly reached new heights of popularity this Summer in the United States.  What steps are the Wizards taking to capitalize on that popularity in marketing the team?

Rob Thomson:  The Kansas City Wizards have focused a lot this summer on marketing the team and the sport of soccer jointly around events like the World Cup, our game versus Manchester United, the construction of our $160+ million stadium and more. We had television advertisements of the Wizards run during every World Cup match and hosted watch parties for all 64 games downtown in the entertainment district. It was so well-attended that ABC/ESPN sent Pedro Gomez to Kansas City to run live updates nationally for the U.S. versus Ghana match, which attracted over 12,000 fans. One major way we capitalized, however, was through earned media; the soccer coverage in Kansas City was phenomenal through June and July in TV, radio and print. We are a finalist to be a host city if the United States gets the World Cup in 2018 or 2022, which has also spurned a lot of excitement.

FB: The Wizards are moving quickly towards the opening of a new stadium.  How does the new stadium opening impact your marketing strategies?  Will there be a stadium naming rights sponsor?  How will the new location impact your fanbase?

RT: The new stadium certainly is a game-changer in so many ways. For 12 years we played at Arrowhead Stadium, which had over 77,000 seats, while the last 2 1/2 years we have been at a temporary venue which holds 10,385. We have always been somewhat at the mercy of others in regards to field usage, promotions, events, etc. Building the first authentic North American soccer stadium with a seating capacity of 18,000, providing unique and memorable experiences for our supporters, is a dream come true for many, many people. We have unbelievably talented designers and architects, who are attentive to every detail. Our President, Robb Heineman, also held a stadium summit for the first 50 fans who signed up via Facebook and they offered their suggestions and input. We will be able to do so much more at the games with our gigantic scoreboard, acoustics, clubs at the stadium, concessions, giveaways, technology and more.

We are in discussions for stadium naming rights and jersey sponsor, which is going well. The value of our club increases every year in every sector and our partners continue to increase as well, especially now with our new stadium.

The location is only about 1/4 mile away from our temporary venue, but the area (Kansas City, Kansas) is growing quickly and is becoming a great entertainment destination with Nebraska Furniture Mart, Kansas Speedway, Schlitterbahn Water Park, Legends Shopping Center, a new casino and much more. It has great highway access and in Kansas City the traffic is never bad and since it is a commuter town nobody has any problem with a 15-20 minute drive.

FB: Kansas City is one of the more aggressive franchises with respect to fan outreach.  Front Office personnel post on message boards, give interviews and provide substantive information to the fans about player acquisition.  How do you feel that those efforts raise the profile of the club and keep/attract fans?

RT: Being a transparent organization makes people feel more included to what we are doing on and off the field. Again, having our Owner/President Robb Heineman so actively involved in social media and direct communication with our supporters makes my job great. All five of our owners are from Kansas City, which is rare in sports now, but they all have great interest in providing Kansas Citians a great experience. We have seen perpetual growth in our Facebook, Twitter, etc. followers because I believe our organization is genuinely interesting, forthright, personable and inclusive. This also spans what we do in community outreach programs, our stadium, and many other things off the playing field. Our fans have had the opportunity to design their own T-shirts for prizes via social media contests, our blog is one of the best in soccer and overall interest has never been higher.

FB: The Wizards are one of the franchises in MLS that have not secured a jersey sponsorship.  Is that a goal of the club?  What are the challenges in securing such a sponsorship?

RT: It is a goal, but the jersey sponsor has to be the right fit as well. Any MLS club can secure a jersey sponsor, but a lot of thought needs to go into it. How does it mesh with our organization, the longevity, etc. are all pertinent questions to ask. We continue to have many positive meetings around our jersey and stadium rights.

FB: Finally, Manchester United is coming to play the Wizards. What is the team doing off the field to capture some of the soccer fans who are coming to see Man U, but haven’t embraced the Wizards?  What steps will the Wizards take on the day of the game to bring those types of fans back to the Wizards?

RT: Having an association with the leading sports brand in the world is something our fans, soccer fans in the Midwest, sports fans and people who like big events should be proud of. We realize that some people enjoy the EPL more than MLS, but a lot of times it is a matter of exposing them to our product. Major League Soccer plays a distinct style, much faster and more physical than other leagues around the globe. The MLS brand has grown considerably over the last 4-6 years and is continuing to garner more fans each and every year. This game will attract people from a large radius, as the nearest professional teams to us are Dallas, Colorado and Chicago; all over eight-hour drives away. Games like this will certainly help with getting more fans, but our new stadium will help even more. To watch professional soccer in the best venue in North America, while supporting your domestic club with other passionate fans can not compare to much else.

Thanks again to Mr. Thomson.

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Soccer Business Bits: MLS Ratings Flat, Busy Soccer Week & More

In a year in which MLS attendance is showing almost an 8% year over year increase, the Sports Business Journal is reporting that ESPN2 ratings this season are down 1.6% over last year.  In pure numbers, this represents a decline from 255,000 per match to 251,000 viewers per match.  SBJ is also reporting that FSC is averaging just over 50k per game in the final year of their 11 year $2.2 per year deal.  The league’s Spanish language broadcasts are averaging just under 200k viewers per game.  These ratings are disappointing, but could benefit from media coverage of the World Cup and the arrival of Thierry Henry. The first game after the World Cup on ESPN2 drew almost 400k viewers.

Elsewhere, MLS is gearing up for a busy week of national exposure, with MLS featuring in primetime on Wednesday night in Philly and Thursday night in New York.  Manchester United will match up with expansion Philadelphia on Wednesday while Thierry Henry makes his much anticipated debut on Thursday night against Tottenham.  Also on Thursday, ESPN2 will televise the Galaxy against San Jose providing ESPN another opportunity to  showcase Landon Donovan.  As it stands now, ESPN and FSC each have couple of games where they can feature Henry and Donovan including a Friday night matchup between LA and NY in September.

Finally, RSL is offering an intriguing 3 game pack that includes two club games and tickets to one CONCACAF Champions League match.  It will be interesting to see how the CCL is greeted in markets such as Salt Lake City and Seattle which haven’t had the opportunity to host these typically poorly attended events. It is good to see teams encouraging non season ticket holders to attend these games.

The Monday After: Weekend Recap

As we do every Monday, here are our quick thoughts from a weekend of soccer in the United States.  We’ll start in East Hartford, where a disappointing crowd of under 6k saw the United States hold off Sweden in a Womens’ friendly.  The game was interrupted by lighting and the teams were directed to clear the field.  Kudos to FS C for sticking with the game after the delay, although their programming during the delay failed to provide any information about the weather and left viewers tuning in late clueless as to why the game wasn’t on television. Local coverage of the match was solid, with the Hartford Courant leading with the story on their Sports Front Page.  Local television coverage was somewhat lower than anticipated, but the weather and smallish crowd may have played a roll.  The USSF did a good job for television by only populating the “tv side” of the stadium, but it appears that the 40k seat stadium is too large for such a match.  The stadium is operated by AEG, which is the likely reason for using the venue.

ESPN was able to squeeze in its broadcast of Tottenham v. San Jose despite a long running British Open. The soccer was scheduled to start at 4:00 and ESPN ran a scroll at the bottom of the screen indicating the soccer would kick off at 4:20.  However, these notifications didn’t begin until 4:00; advance notice would have been appreciated.  It was a strange attendance weekend for MLS, with teams hosting international friendlies (45k+ in Seattle), SuperLiga matches (16k in Chicago for a doubleheader) and regular season matches (13k in Colorado and 11k in Dallas).  However, television coverage remains excellent with ESPN and FSC combining to showcase 3 matches involving MLS teams from Thursday-Sunday.

Around the league, the transfer market is generating significant attention with additions of Nery Castillo in Chicago and Omar Bravo in Kansas City.  The weekend also saw the debut of Blaise N’Kufo in Seattle.  Coverage of potential transfers has definitely heated up Twitter and America’s prominent soccer writers (now back from South Africa) are aggressively covering the rumor mill.  With the new DP rules, this is the most active transfer market in MLS history and an interesting test of how American soccer medial will cover the silly season.

US Women Come to Hartford

For the second time in 2010, the United States National Team will play host to European competition in East Hartford, Connecticut.  Last time, it was the Men hosting the Czechs, today it is the Women hosting Sweden.  It will be the second game of a two game series against the Swedes (the teams played to a 1-1 draw earlier in the week) and will be televised on FSC at 7:30.  After the team trained no Friday, we got a chance to speak with a couple of players about some business issues.

We spoke with recently first time capped Sarah Huffman and defender Ali Krieger following practice.  Both are “Nike athletes” with Huffman playing for the Washington Freedom of the WPS and Krieger playing for Frankfurt in the Women’s Bundesliga.  Both player spoke glowingly about the travel accommodations provided by the USSF with Huffman indicating that the accommodations are  “the best that it could be” and Krieger indicating that USSF travel is “more luxurious…they take good care of us”.  Both described the differences between club/college travel and USSF travel with the most notable difference being the willingness of the USSF to travel to a location earlier than the day before a match.  Because both athletes are sponsored by Nike, there is little transition when to the National Team because of the USSF’s Nike sponsorship.  Other players may have to make a change, but are allowed to keep their cleats.

We also asked whether the players are cognizant of media coverage, marketing and attendance at their matches.  Krieger indicate that Womens’ Soccer gets “way more advertising” in Germany…”billboards and things are always up around the cities, so I think there is more coverage there”.   She continued, “I think it is a huge deal, because the more people that come out and get interested in the game they are going to tell their friends and family to come out and enjoy the game.   There are different age groups that you have to target and I don’t know if we are targeting every one of them. We need more advertising and commercials to get different age groups out…right now we are targeting the younger age groups and their parents…In Germany you have older guys and their dogs coming to the game as well.”    Krieger also stated that the ready availability of WPS matches on television is a distinct difference from Frankfurt and Germany, where the games are typically available online.

We were actually surprised at the limited number of media in attendance, especially with local product Kristine Lilly such a headliner.  However, it may be that the local media is suffering soccer fatigue after the tune up match,  World Cup and Thierry Henry.  The field was in great shape (a thought echoed by the players), and advertising for the game was not yet up in the stadium.  It was horrendously hot on the field and the practice was fairly quick. Although the stadium typically hosts UCONN football, the only reference to the Huskies were some bowl banners at the top of the stadium.  After the practice, USSF p.r. staff was exceptionally helpful in arranging player interviews and providing logistics for the rest of the scheduled events.Thanks to Ali Krieger,  Sarah Huffman and the USSF.  The game against Sweden is tonight at 7:30 on FSC.  We will offer some post game business thoughts as well. 

Soccer Business Bits: Henry Rolls Out, ESPN Gears Up & More

The biggest story in MLS remains the introduction of Theirry Henry to American sports fans and mainstream media.  In addition to the official press conference, Henry made appearances on the Univision morning show, “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, and “Late Night” on NBC.  He also provided a print interview to the AP.  Henry’s ability to speak in French, Spanish and English makes him an extremely marketable commodity and he impressed in the interview.  The signing generated headlines, even here in Hartford where the local radio news program commented on Henry during AM drive. At the same time, many of the New York area sportscasts studiously ignored the signing. Sportsradio WFAN paid little mind to Henry and SNY (the home of the Mets) followed suit. Despite pushing some great marketing buttons (that included some fun guerrilla marketing both on the ground and online), the Red Bulls couldn’t push Henry into the mainstream in the New York area.

ESPN’s impressive commitment to soccer (did anyone notice Landon Donovan’s John Skipper reference at the ESPYs?), continues with broadcasts of multiple friendlies over the next few weeks.  Games involving MLS teams and world powers like Tottenham, Manchester United and Celtic are part of those broadcasts, as is the MLS All Star game and the USA/Brazil match in August.  In combination with their usual MLS broadcasts and the start of the European club season, it will continue to be an exciting Summer of Soccer on the Worldwide leader.

Some quick hits…In Kansas City, the Wizards are aggressively selling tickets for their May 25 match against Manchester United.  According to this interview, ticket sales are near 60,000.  Most of the remaining available tickets range from $40-60.  Elsewhere, Commissioner Garber gave some strong statements indicating that MLS is not entertaining transfer offers for Landon Donovan.  At the same time, there are more rumblings about the possibility of MLS expanding to New York City.

Superliga Begins

On a day that saw the formal announcement of Thierry Henry’s signing with New York and the start of the annual Summer friendlies between MLS teams and world renown clubs, MLS and Mexican clubs started their Superliga tournament. The 8 team event features 4 teams from MLS and 4 teams from Mexico’s Primera Division.  Placed into groups of four (consisting of two MLS teams and two Mexican teams), the teams play one game against each team in their group before a semi-final and final. In addition to declaring a US/Mexican champion, Superliga provides a unique marketing opportunity for both MLS and its Mexican counterpart.  The Mexican teams get an opportunity to play meaningful games in the U.S. before Mexican ex-pats, while MLS gets to showcase its teams before a Latino fan-base still warming to American Soccer.

Despite lukewarm attendance, the tournament continues to draw significant sponsors.  Companies such as Toyota, Sprint, Degree and GEICO sponsor the Spanish language broadcasts.  Other companies such American Airlines, State Farm and Lowes spend money on board advertisements.  As with previous years, the matches are only televised in Spanish.

Coming mid-season, the event is a bit controversial as it forces teams to take a break from League play.  MLS teams are then forced to make up games with some additional mid-week games during the rest of the season.  In addition, SuperLiga does detract from the Champions League that also pits teams from MLS, Mexico and other CONCACAF countries. However, as a business model, SuperLiga is a fantastic idea.  We have repeatedly discussed how there are enumerable soccer fans in the United States, many of whom do not pay attention to MLS.  Many of these fans are far more interested in Mexican Soccer and Superliga does serve as an entre to MLS.  Ultimately, we view the tournament as neither a fierce competition or a waste of time, but a golden business opportunity. With the World Cup fading into the rear view mirror, the tourament provides an opportunity to keep a form of international competition in front of fans.

Enter Henry: What Does it Mean?

Perhaps the worst keep secret in American soccer circles is the imminent arrival of Thierry Henry to the New York Red Bulls.  The all time leading French national team scorer, Henry is a gifted player and a recognizable name.  The question for the Red Bulls and MLS, is what his signing will mean for the team and league. In the first year in their new stadium with attendance solid, but underwhelming, Henry may provide the boost needed to fill Red Arena and drive New York’s soccer team to a championship.  It has long been accepted wisdom that a successful New York franchise is one of the keys to a successful MLS (although listening to sports radio in New York would suggest otherwise).

We think that there will be a marked increase in road attendance with Henry in the league for matches in which Henry plays.  MLS teams will likely market Henry much as they marketed Beckham. .  He is a recognizable star to most soccer fans and with each MLS team getting only one visit from the Red Bulls per year, he will be a major attraction.  He may also become attractive to sponsors in the United States (he already has a relationship with Gillette). It will be interesting to see how Henry’s image is used by league sponsors to market their products.  Will he become a household name to mainstream sports fans?   This is an exciting time for the league and one that will provide an array of fascinating business issues over the next few months.

The new DP rules represent a turning point in MLS.  Teams can now take bigger gambles, with bigger players and bigger dollars.  Over the next few weeks a number of “big name” players will enter the league, raising the level of play and the profile of MLS.  Henry is the start, and we think, an important piece of the MLS puzzle.