In Limbo: Rapid Decline
|by Tim Froh|
I tend to pick my battles when it comes to MLS issues. I didn't complain about the introduction of advertisements onto MLS jerseys, I ushered it in as a source of new money that may or may not work in the long run. Nevertheless, something recently has bothered me, and no, it's not the boring-as-hell new logo and color scheme designed for the Colorado Rapids but the thinking that went into making such a change. It's evidence of a marketing groupthink that has plagued MLS franchises for several years now, leading to steadily declining attendance and a continuing erosion of trust between fans and front offices.
That the Colorado Rapids changed their logo and color scheme should not come as a surprise to anyone. All the signs had been there for months. The lack of advertising. The small crowds in the big stadium. The rumors of a rebranding. A new stadium being built conveniently at a site called the "Rocky Mountain Arsenal." We'd seen many of these same signs before when FC Dallas was playing at the Cotton Bowl and looking forward to playing in its new stadium. For whatever reason, Lamar Hunt pulled out all the advertisements, the team's on-the-field performance was mediocre, the Cotton Bowl was left relatively sparse (save for those still following the team after the Dragon Stadium debacle), and the team had one of the worst names and identities in MLS (Dallas Burn?).
Nevertheless, what's still puzzling about the Colorado rebranding is that it was entirely unnecessary. Here was a team that only four years ago had a clear enough identity. Every fan in the league could recognize Carlos Valderamma's wildly flowing hair, the green jerseys, and the endearing name (although admittedly the logo did need work). Yet a few years ago, for reasons still unclear to this writer, the team changed its colors, logo, but thankfully not its name. Valderamma, the team's most recognizable player was gone. The front office tried to craft an image of toughness, marketing its most famous player, hard-nosed Defender/Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and their new black-and-blue color scheme. The efforts to actually market the team at all paid dividends with some increased attendance, but when numbers dropped, the front office was once again left scratching its head.
What these MLS front office types don't realize is that marketing, especially marketing coupled with an exciting, winning team, gets results. San Jose had results and played exciting soccer, but there was no marketing. In New York, there was marketing but the team was terrible. The Rapids front office, by continuing its contract with former head coach Tim Hankinson, was sending the message to fans and potential fans that it didn't care about quality on the pitch but with its pocketbook. This kind of thinking has been emulated particularly by franchises in the process of constructing new stadia: Chicago and Dallas to name two recent culprits. Drop the marketing and hope for the best once the new stadium is built.
This tactic, so obviously done with the intent of saving money, is completely counter-intuitive to that very notion. By pinching pennies now, the owners only shoot themselves in the foot when their brand new stadia opens to less than capacity crowds. How can you ever hope to pack a new stadium when you don't have a sizable fan base to begin with? And the only way to build such a fan base is by spending your money on marketing, even if it means losing money in the short term. Sensibly, the ownership groups know that even non sell-out crowds will eventually turn them a profit when they control all the revenue. Nevertheless, why make less when you can make more?
What angers me about this move is that it reaks of desperation; of an MLS franchise that knows it has dropped the ball and now wants desperately to win back fans and crowds. With their third color and logo change (but thankfully not name change) in only twelve years, the Rapids will have a difficult time convincing these fans that they're a real professional outfit. In the stort run, the crowds probably won't be there and naturally, Kroenke and his cronies will be confused and angry once again. They should not be pondering the question: What's in a name? But rather, what kind of effect a stable franchise with history and tradition can have on attendance? This is the important question, and one that owners should ponder the next time they decide to fire a fan-friendly general manager, or change their team's color, logo, or team name.
Note: A special note this week goes out to the family of former Rapids coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick, who suddenly passed away from a heart attack early this week. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.