Footiebusiness Vault: Interview with Rob Thomson

As power is starting to make its return to the Greater Hartford area, we thought it would make sense to recognize the successful front office in Kansas City.  As we said last week, Sporting is our PR Department of the year.  In 2010, we interviewed Rob Thomson, the team’s VP of Communications.  At the time of that interview, the Wizards were still the KC franchise and Community America was still the team’s home.  MLS was basking in the glow of the US run in the World Cup.

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. 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.