January 21, MLS executive vice-president Dan Courtemanche spoke with me about Soccer United Marketing’s relationship with MLS and the League’s initiatives for 2011. Yesterday, MLS and SUM appointed their first-ever chief marketing officer J. Russell Findlay, formerly of Pepsico, to oversee all marketing, branding and consumer understanding initiatives. In our conversation, Courtemanche explained why Findlay is the right person for the job, the new and continuing MLS initiatives in marketing and game presentation, why SUM is becoming more powerful, and why SuperLiga might not feature in 2011.
Part 1 [Read Part 2 here]
LE: Where is MLS marketing headed in 2011?
Courtemanche: A couple key things that MLS will continue to focus on are authenticity and the Hispanic audience. By authenticity, I mean the core soccer fan in the 18-34 year-old age group and that fits with our tagline or communications platform that we’ve had for multiple years now, and that’s “Football, Futbol, Soccer.” No matter where the game is played, it’s still the same game whether it’s MLS, the Mexican Primera Division, the Bundesliga or English Premier League. That’s our focus and continues our “Game First” initiative that we instituted a number of years ago.
In the early years, a lot of our clubs and the League, to a degree, focused a lot of its marketing efforts on the suburban family audience, the youth soccer players, etc. We still want them to come to our games, but the core focus of our marketing effort will be on young adults and the authentic aspects of the world’s greatest sport. The light-hearted way of saying that, is, we focus on 18-34 year-olds because those of us who are over 34 – that would be me – still want to be 18-34 and those who are younger than 18-34, kids, all want to be adults. So, it’s interesting when you focus on that core demographic of an 18-34 young adult because it certainly resonates with that group, but it also resonates with the other groups.
LE: Per authenticity, sometimes in MLS at half time, there are a lot of varied entertainments on the field. Does MLS have any particular take on those activities?
Courtemanche: It’s interesting that you mention that, as one of the new initiatives that we’re going to have is in game operations and presentation. We’re actually in the process of conducting a search to hire an expert in that area. It’s not something we’ve had in the past. That person will report to Nelson Rodriguez, who oversees competition aspects and is our liaison with referees and coaches and also oversees the MLS operations group. Our goal is to find an individual who understands the soccer culture, but also is an expert on professional sports game presentation. It doesn’t mean you’re going to see Frisbee dogs at half time or Laker girls in all of our markets or the Dynamo girls, for that instance. In some cities that works, in select cities, as long as it’s done in a tasteful fashion.
While we from a League perspective offer best practices and recommendations to our clubs, clearly, when MLS has 18 clubs in two very, very large countries, there’s going to be different local experiences and that’s based on the demand and tastes of the local fans. In other words, your market in New England, they might have different expectations than Los Angeles or Vancouver or Toronto or Chicago. There’s that local flair that we want our clubs to incorporate while maintaining very professional standards.
LE: What influence will this new game presentation expert have over regional markets, say if a club wants to put clowns on the field at half time?
Courtemanche: Fortunately, I don’t think any of our clubs are looking to put clowns on the field at half time, but exactly. What this individual will do is provide case studies of best practices from all of our clubs and also strong recommendations of things that are successful and then examples of things that have not been successful, that we probably do not want to revisit. Like any business, we all make mistakes from time to time and we look to improve our business and eliminate those mistakes and that includes game presentation. Really, when we talk about game presentation, what occurs on the field during the 90 minutes is top priority.
However, what we see as game presentation is really from when the fans drive into the stadium – even some of the access roads around the stadium, as much as we can control. That’s public domain and local government officials manage the roadways, but once you drive into Gillette Stadium in Foxboro or Home Depot Center or Red Bull Arena or you get off the PATH train at Red Bull Arena, that’s where our clubs can control and manage the game day experience, whether it’s parking or getting into the stadium through the ticket turn styles or the concession stands or the restrooms or the seats. You name it, from A-Z we’re always looking to improve that game day experience and certainly our technical staff and coaches and ultimately the players want to provide an entertaining experience for us, the fans.
LE: Yesterday, MLS and SUM appointed a new chief marketing officer, J. Russell Findlay. That search has been going on for well over a year, yes?
Courtemanche: We have, and it’s been an extensive search. We’re fortunate we found a gentleman in Russ Findlay who has a very technical brand marketing background, but he combines that with a passionate knowledge of the soccer culture. As an active player, he continues to play in an over-thirty men’s league and works as a referee. I joked with him the other day, saying to him, “You really are someone who knows the ins and outs of arguably the most thankless job in the world, and that’s a professional sports referee.” He said, “Yeah, tell me about it, it’s tough. I don’t venture too far out of my region but I certainly understand what a referee goes through.” He generally referees men’s games in Connecticut and Westchester County in New York.
So, we’re fortunate we have someone with experience with big brands. He also managed sponsorships when he was working with Pepsi, including the Sierra Mist brand when they were a sponsor of the Sierra Mist All-Star Game, so he understands that aspect. But he’s also a guy who really understands the sport of soccer. It was hard to find someone who had that type of background and we’re fortunate we have Russ.
Click here to continue reading Part 2 of my interview with MLS EVP Dan Courtemanche on SUM and marketing MLS in 2011.
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