Review of the Sport Business & Soccer Panel at St. Louis University

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Today’s guest blog comes from Ben Goss, an associate professor in the entertainment management program in the College of Business Administration at Missouri State University. A full description of Goss can be found at the bottom of the blog.

Soccer Business

Before a crowd of over 200 attendees, on last Thursday, the John Cook School of Business at Saint Louis University hosted a panel called Sport Business & Soccer.

The panel helped SLU mark 50 years since the inception of its powerhouse men’s collegiate soccer program, 60 years (in 2010) since the historic 1-0 U.S. win over England in the 1950 World Cup (a team that featured five St. Louis natives), and the launching of the school’s sport business certificate academic program in 2010.

Incidentally, the panel was convened the same week that the city’s new North American Soccer League was officially named AC St. Louis.

Tim Hayden, chief marketing officer of AC St. Louis, organized the panel. Hayden will also teach the first sport business course in the new curriculum during the Spring 2010 semester.

    Panelists included:

  • Jeff Cooper, Chair of AC St. Louis
  • Dan Flynn, CEO/General Secretary of U.S. Soccer
  • Bruce Hudson, former head of sport marketing for Anheuser-Busch
  • Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission
  • Mark Santel, executive director of St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club
  • Dan Donigan, head men’s soccer coach at Saint Louis University

ESPN soccer announcer Bill McDermott (also of St. Louis Athletica and the Columbus Crew) emceed the panel, spreading and guiding the discussion across several major topics, which are encapsulated below.

Panel Speakers
From left to right: McDermott, Donigan, Santel, Hudson, Viverito, Flynn, Cooper

Sport of Soccer
Culture was an early common theme among panelists’ answers.
 
Cooper fired a strong early statement almost from the beginning as he called soccer a tribal sport that was unquestionably the biggest element for social change, including religion.

Donigan echoed this sentiment, calling soccer “a cultural enterprise,” as did McDermott, who noted, “Americans are big event people.”

Soccer in the U.S.
Much of the panel discussion was woven around discussion of the state of the sport of soccer within the United States, often soliciting or necessitating answers from Flynn, who noted that the sport of soccer currently lacks relevance in the U.S. 365 days a year.

When asked what forces would be necessary to change that, Flynn replied, “Owners, television, and consumers will make it relevant,” acknowledging that despite widespread grassroots participation, soccer traditionally lags as a good spectator sport. 

In addressing the more problematic aspects of soccer within American culture, Flynn noted that the pay-to-play youth development model is probably the biggest hurdle of development of the sport in the United States.

Another hurdle faced by the sport within the U.S., Flynn opined, was the lack of a uniform national style of play enjoyed by many other nations, which he said varied here because of a diversity of temperature across the American geographic zones.

Flynn also emphasized that, while Americans possessed a great deal of enthusiasm and effort, as a national group, they must improve fundamental technical aspects of their play, citing the crucial nature of instruction for the 6-12 year-old age group.

He also praised the development academy model such as the one planned by AC St. Louis, which he said would likely address that issue over time, a sentiment echoed by Santel.

Flynn also wistfully noted that overzealous parental involvement could be as problematic in soccer as in any other youth sport.

Concerning the advancement of the U.S. Soccer team in its prelude to World Cup competition, Hudson said he believed that the global perception of the U.S. as soccer nation was improving and getting closer to the status of global elite.

Hudson cited the perspectives of several of his England acquaintances, whom he described as “wary” that the American team could be a bit of a force that can upset any of top eight World Cup teams on any given day.

Global Outlook
Due to his extensive business experience abroad before his recent retirement from 27 years of service at Anheuser-Busch, Hudson fielded most questions about global soccer matters.

According to Hudson, the World Cup easily ranks as the most prestigious sporting event because of the high levels of nationalism associated with it: “Even the Olympics don’t compare to world cup globally,” he said.

The sport of soccer allowed Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser brand (a distinctly American one not always well received by beer drinkers in other countries, he said) to develop a strong association with its global consumer.

Hudson said that the World Cup causes Anheuser-Busch distributors to clamor for marketing materials related to it, unlike any other sponsorship, endorsement, or theme the brewery ever utilized.

With InBev’s recent merger with Anheuser-Busch, Hudson said he knew that the Budweiser brand would retain sponsorship of the World Cup through its 2014 rendition in Brazil.

After that, Hudson said he was uncertain of Anheuser-Busch’s World Cup involvement or its long-term commitment to sport marketing as a whole but said he felt the brewery will remain with certain sport properties in highly focused strategies.
 
When discussion turned to future U.S. World Cup event bids for 2018 or 2022, Vivorito stated that the City of St. Louis could not seek to host a better or more important impact event than the World Cup, for which he said the city is ideally suited in many respects.

When asked about the prospects of a successful future World Cup bid by the emerging nation of China in light of their role as hosts of the 2008 Olympic Games, Hudson replied that the cities of China are indeed ready for such hosting such a large-scale event.

Flynn added that while China’s cities and infrastructure were indeed ready to host such an event, its national team probably lacked the standards of readiness for World Cup competition that Chinese officials would like to see before bidding for the event, noting that China seemed currently intent on developing elite athletes for other sports more so than soccer.

Sport Marketing
As might be expected, the broad topic of marketing was widely dispersed throughout the panel discussion, touching many specific aspects from team to league to brand marketing.

When asked about the secrets behind the strong success of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Seattle Sounders franchise, Cooper simply stated, “Seattle did it right from A to Z in building their success, and it was a lesson for everyone [at the team level].”

Flynn echoed Cooper’s thought, noting that the Sounders executed team marketing well right down to the last detail, such as attaching season tickets to a scarf, a traditional staple of the European soccer wardrobe, resulting in a stadium filled with scarf-clad fans.

Flynn also noted the tremendous recent strides of maturity enjoyed by MLS, reminding the audience that, until 2006, MLS bought its own television time, then sold advertising time to sponsors.

When recalling the historical evolution of sport marketing, Hudson said that Anheuser-Busch entered sports because of its competition in the 1970’s marketplace with Miller Brewing, whose extensive marketing research had discovered beer drinkers’ passion for sports, which subsequently became fertile advertising and sponsorship ground.

When asked about what America could offer to the rest of the world concerning the sport of soccer, Cooper noted the country’s current corner market on sport business expertise.

However, Cooper said differences in approaches to sport as a business were beginning to narrow globally as sport managers in other countries also recognized the fundamental need for strategies in selling tickets and sponsorships.

Flynn confirmed this perspective, saying that international sport managers were recognizing that they were essentially consumer product companies and were recognizing the need for refined revenue models, including stadium development, stadium operations, and other sport infrastructures.

Ben Goss is as an associate professor in the entertainment management program in the College of Business Administration at Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. In addition to his teaching in the management curriculum and courses on sport, event, and sponsorship management, Goss has also taught in Missouri State’s program with Liaoning Normal University in Dalian, China.

Goss’ research and teaching focuses on the empowerment of postmodern sports fans, the breakdown of the invisible wall between them and the games, and the evolution of sport business practices as a result.

In 2007, Goss co-founded the Journal of Sport Administration & Supervision, an open-access academic research journal seeking to bridge the gap between academic theory and professional practice in the sport industry. He currently serves as its editor-in-chief.

As a sport industry consultant, he has contributed to various projects, including corporate sponsorship policy development, patron lifestyle and sponsorship analysis, sponsorship development and solicitation, facility feasibility, economic impact, and fan initiatives.

Contact Goss at bengoss@missouristate.edu, and follow him on Twitter @sportMGTweet. Visit the journal at www.jsasonline.org, and follow it on Twitter @jsasonline.

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