SBJ/March 21 - 27, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Selling soccer

Kevin Ross, the man who heads up soccer in America for German-based sports apparel company Adidas, is neither German nor American. He’s Scottish. And his accent lets you know it.

In fact, if you close your eyes when you are talking to him, you almost picture William Wallace rounding up his soldiers for an epic battle against the English in the movie “Braveheart.” But instead of swords and blades, Ross’ life is defined by cleats and soccer balls. Everything he does, from work to play, is soccer.

Ross grew up in Scotland playing the sport that now consumes his professional life. He moved to the United States in his early 20s and he’s now soccer unit business manager for Adidas America, which last year signed the biggest sponsorship deal in Major League Soccer’s nine-year history, a reported 10-year, $150 million partnership.

Despite soccer skills that he describes as “rubbish,” Ross played in Scotland’s equivalent of the minor leagues and did extensive traveling with his team when he was only 15 years old. Of all the places Ross went, he took a liking to life in America, and especially to Florida.

So in 1990, Ross picked up his belongings, left his family behind and moved to Florida, where he enrolled at Jacksonville University. A soccer scholarship paid for schooling, and in 1994 he received a degree in finance.

“When I came to the States, it was really more for the education than it was to play,” Ross said. “I was just fortunate to get a soccer scholarship.”

Ross made the most of that opportunity. And the next.

While getting his master’s degree in sports administration at the University of Tennessee, Ross worked in the women’s athletic department, where he got to work closely with basketball coach Pat Summitt, who emphasized the importance of surrounding yourself with good people. It’s advice that Ross took to heart.

Before leaving Knoxville, Ross landed a job with Adidas as a soccer rep in Denver. For two years he called on small accounts in the Colorado, Wyoming and Utah region before moving within the company to Seattle to be a footwear rep. From Seattle, Ross became a key account rep in Indianapolis, then relocated to company headquarters in Portland to be a sales manager. Ross eventually became unit manager for America, and has headed the American soccer division for the company since January 2004.

Alan Kissell, director of specialty sales for Adidas America, originally hired Ross back in 1998. He credits Ross’ quick climb through the ranks to hard work and determination, traits that shone through when Ross was making full-day trips in his beat-up station wagon, filled with Adidas apparel and equipment, to remote destinations from his base in Denver.

Kissell said most reps made the trips in upscale SUVs, casually arriving back at the office the next day. Ross, with a rental trailer attached to his station wagon, would leave before dawn so he could return before dark to call on other small accounts.

“We used to kid that at that rate, he was going to be the president of the company in less than a year,” Kissell said.

Ross isn’t president. But he isn’t complaining. He is, in fact, sometimes amazed at where he has come in fewer than 15 years — from a village in Scotland to a prominent position with one of the largest companies in the world. “If you don’t make it as a soccer player,” he said, “definitely working for Adidas is the next best step.”

And Ross does still gets to play, in pickup games held twice each week on a field atop the company’s parking deck. A scrappy player who is slowed down by a surgically placed plate in his knee, Ross enjoys getting out and competing.

Those soccer lunches might be tougher to come by, though, as the company begins its first year of a long-term relationship with MLS. That partnership and the added responsibility that will go along with it will consume most of Ross’ time.

With Adidas, Ross has the opportunity to lace up the cleats and play a friendly soccer game with some of his co-workers. The company provides a soccer field atop a parking deck.
Starting this season, Adidas will become the official athletic sponsor and licensed product supplier to MLS. Adidas has sponsored D.C. United, the Columbus Crew and the Kansas City Wizards since the league’s inception in 1996 and will add the rest of the clubs this year, except for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire and MetroStars, who have contracts with Adidas rivals.

In 2006, though, Adidas will have all 12 teams, and will provide the official league ball. Adidas will also become the only athletic brand with advertising rights for all MLS games, as well as the 2006 World Cup telecasts on ABC and ESPN.

Ross understands the magnitude of the deal for his career and for the company as a whole. “As far as involvement, the Major League Soccer deal is the biggest one for me,” Ross said. “It’s probably one of the biggest for the entire company in the last three or four years, at least in the U.S.”

Adidas’ portfolio in the U.S. prior to the soccer deal was highlighted by a brief licensing deal with the NFL, player investments, endorsements and a partnership with the New York Yankees, so a deal that gives the company the rights to an entire league and all of its teams is significant.

Ross’ goal this year is to use the company to grow the MLS brand above and beyond where it has been in the first nine years.

“I don’t think anyone has helped communicate the whole MLS story,” Ross said. “Nobody has really got behind MLS and kind of put them over the top.”

A lot of Ross’ time this year will be spent making sure the logistics of developing uniforms and marketing plans runs smoothly and on time. From a marketing standpoint, Ross said Adidas will look to build the MLS brand and popularize soccer through various media outlets.

“It is up to us to elevate MLS as a brand,” Ross said. “We will go on TV, we will be in print and we’ll make significant investments in market.”

Activation plans are not yet final, but Ross did say that the company in year one will run three soccer campaigns, the first of which is set to launch on ABC on April 2 during the season’s first game between Chivas USA and D.C. United. That brand spot will be MLS-specific.

Ross said his confidence in the wisdom of the MLS deal is centered on the league’s high-profile leaders and investors. “If you are going to make a leap of faith, you make it with some pretty good business people,” he said, remembering Summitt’s advice.

Ross described Adidas’ lifelong connection to the U.S. consumer, from its association with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association to MLS, as “cradle to grave,” a phrase that could be used to characterize his love affair with the sport itself.

“We are the only company involved from when you are 5 years old to when you are 55 years old,” Ross said. “We are going to touch you at every point.”

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