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Volume 21 No. 2
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Overseas soccer clubs look to build from U.S. offices

The reach of international soccer clubs in the U.S. has increased drastically in the last few years, thanks to summer friendly matches and more regular-season TV appearances. Now more clubs are looking to plant roots in America through efforts led by commercial offices in the country. Three of them — FC Barcelona of Spain’s La Liga, Bayern Munich of Germany’s Bundesliga and Kashima Antlers of the Japanese J1 League — have set up permanent spaces in New York, Bayern three years ago and the others more recently. SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Ian Thomas sat down with the executives leading their U.S. efforts to discuss what they’re hoping to accomplish in the U.S. and what their clubs can learn from leagues and teams here. Responses were condensed and edited for clarity.

ON ESTABLISHING OFFICES IN NEW YORK

Hideki Suzuki, Kashima Antlers executive officer and commercial director (speaking through interpreters): In December 2016, we played in the Club World Cup [in Japan], where we faced Real Madrid [in the final]. While we lost, that gave us global exposure, and we saw a great surge of interest in the club around the world. Now, we feel it’s time for us to step up and expose the club to a global audience. We want people to know our club so we can tell our story, and while we’re not as well-known as some of the other European clubs that are already here in the U.S., this is the start of it for us.

Arno Trabesinger, FC Barcelona managing director of Americas: We only opened our office about nine months ago, but our link to this country and its sports scene is much longer than that: Our most important commercial partner, Nike, is a U.S.-based company. We have five other U.S.-based commercial brands that work with us on a global scale as well. For us, it’s a strategic decision to come to the U.S. because this is the most important market in the world in terms of sports business and entertainment.

Rudolf Vidal, Bayern Munich president of the Americas: We knew when we came here that we would face a very competitive market, probably the most competitive market in the world. For us it was very important to learn a lot from teams and the leagues. We also saw that there are a lot of people passionate about football, and passionate about our team. This was one of our main goals in the beginning, to come here and discover those fans, build our brand and then look for mutually beneficial partnerships. This is something that has been our main focus.

Rudolf Vidal, Bayern Munich president of the Americas, speaks with fellow soccer execs.
Photos by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY

ON BRINGING BACK LESSONS TO THEIR CLUBS

Trabesinger: The reason for us to be here is to learn, especially from the big leagues in this country because the way they understand the entertainment around sports is something completely new to us. It’s literally a different ballgame. Especially as we open our new stadium, we want to learn about fan experience and engagement on match day, because match day is so important for the big U.S. leagues.

Vidal: The way that sponsors stage their partnerships is very interesting to see in the U.S., and how they activate around the teams. There is a level of commitment that I don’t think you see anywhere else. But it’s not just around the teams, but for sporting events as well. There is a level of excitement and immersion around something like [tennis’] U.S. Open that is just incredible to see.

Suzuki: In the U.S., there has been an incredible evolution in sports marketing and fan development. We are still at a very early stage as we just set up our New York office this year, but one reason why we came out here is that we have to see and speak to people ourselves to have the full grasp of that.

We also want to make sure we are reaching out to the millennial generation in Japan, which is something that I think U.S. leagues do very well. One of the most successful things that we’ve seen thus far is just how much content a league like MLS produces for smart devices, and how much of their audience consumes it on them — more than 68 percent. We believe they have been positioned very strategically on digital platforms, and that’s part of the reason for their surge in popularity. It’s something that we hope to do as well.

ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THEIR FANS AND U.S. FANS

Vidal: The fan culture is vastly different. You see the way people react when you watch the Champions League. They are all crying because the team lost, and that means they lost. That is how much the match means to them, and that makes it difficult to try to do something during halftime or monetize parts of the game experience that you can here in the U.S.

Trabesinger: You saw a good example of this during the German League Cup Final a few weeks ago in Berlin. Similar to the Super Bowl, they wanted to do a halftime show for the fans in the stadium and those watching on TV, so they had Helene Fischer perform, who is a very famous German singer. The people in the stadium booed during the entire performance. The idea of going to the stadium and being entertained by something that is not the sport is not something that is accepted.

Kashima Antlers’ Hideki Suzuki (above) and FC Barcelona’s Arno Trabesinger. Both clubs have recently opened offices in New York.
Suzuki: Fans here in the U.S. want to be entertained and enjoy the atmosphere; our fans are simply there to win. The result is all they want from us. I think this has a lot to do with the size of the countries as well. The U.S. is so vast and rarely do you see more than a few fans from the opposing team at the other’s home venue for a game, especially in the regular season. If you watch a match in Japan, as well as the other countries, there is much more a mix, which creates this level of tension and atmosphere that makes it a battle for 90 minutes.

ON BUILDING REVENUE AROUND U.S. EFFORTS

Trabesinger: Having five or six sponsors [in the U.S.] for many years, it was always a challenge when it came to activate and do creative things because of the six-hour time difference, the difference in cultures and the difference in how we were communicating. It’s almost like now we are a service center for them in the U.S., and it not only allows us to work more closely but also allows us to build our reach even further, through things like our soccer schools and other initiatives.

Vidal: We will always be the most focused on our core market in Germany, but we knew we had to go internationally to further build our brand and raise brand awareness in order to generate more revenue. The commercial interest is here, whether that is in terms of merchandise, partnerships or just wanting to see the first team when they have friendly matches here.

Suzuki: Football in Japan has only been established for 25 years, and we’re not at a stage to compete with the giants of Europe. In many ways, Japanese clubs are losing out to the foreign clubs and leagues in our own country, as we’re seeing a lot of our domestic companies trying to partner with them instead. We need to catch up, but in order to work with those companies we have to be attractive for them. Right now we’re still limited in our reach, but if we can build our efforts like this in the U.S., that will help us both domestically and internationally.

ON THE DIGITAL CHALLENGE

Trabesinger: It is critical, not only as it relates to the U.S. but to Europe as well, that we develop a new approach to our digital activities, because everyone is trying to find a solution on how you can transform in our case 250 million followers on the big social media platforms into revenue. We could ask everyone to send us one euro, but there has to be other possibilities on commercializing these activities.

Vidal: Especially as foreign clubs, where many of our games during the week are broadcast during times when people are at work, it becomes even more important. I’m very interested to see how the Champions League rights under Turner are used, because this is a company that is very digitally organized. It also shows how important it is to work closely with companies like Bleacher Report to make sure they are provided with relevant content.

Suzuki: For Antlers and the JLeague, the average age of supporters is 45, which is quite high. We need to reach out to the younger generations, and we believe that digital is the way to accomplish that. The league has just signed a new broadcast deal with Perform Group that makes all of the matches available digitally for the first time. As the league moves into the digital era, we must make sure that we are doing that too. The U.S. is much more sophisticated in the way they utilize digital platforms, which is a key thing we want to make sure we learn from them.