A targeted, organized comms game plan, including star players' willing participation, helped event organizer ChampionsWorld sell out stadiums in the US for world-class soccer matches.It may be the dead of winter, but ChampionsWorld, an 11-person operation in Moonachie, NJ that specializes in organizing soccer events in the US, is hard at work preparing for the return of the boys of summer. No, not those boys. Last July, Manchester United Football Club (Man U), one of the wealthiest and most popular sports franchises in the world (financially, the club dwarfs the New York Yankees), landed on US shores for a preseason tour that will be repeated this summer. "The fact that we're coming back again [this] summer says a lot about how enthusiastic we are about growing our fan base in the US and how positive the last tour was," says Paddy Harverson, communications director of Man U (who, as of February 1, will start his new job as press secretary for the Prince of Wales). Among other matches in the 2003 ChampionsWorld Series, Man U played soccer giants Glasgow Celtic, FC Barcelona, Mexico's Club America, and Italy's Juventus in packed stadiums in Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, respectively. The tour's success was due in large part to carefully crafted communications. It's a massive undertaking to bring over major professional sports teams from several different countries at once, move them from venue to venue, promote their matches, and manage the media circus that surrounds the games and the players themselves - which is the reason ChampionsWorld (CW) is working as if summer is just around the corner. But if the 2003 tour is an indication, CW is more than equal to the task. Never mind that the company's CEO Charles Stillitano was the executive venue director for Giants Stadium during the 1994 World Cup, he was also the first president and GM of Major League Soccer's NY/NJ MetroStars. Working alongside him are several other soccer veterans, among them director of communications Rich Schneider and CW senior advisor/communications Jim Trecker. "The individual challenges are sometimes unique to the different teams," says Schneider. "Different countries and their teams have different cultures, and you deal with them in various ways. You have to understand the different cultures and the way they do business." For example, where Man U supplied CW months in advance with all its players' passport numbers, dietary and lodging requirements, lists of travelling media, and minute-by-minute itineraries, other teams just sort of rolled with the flow, says Schneider. "You're not always dealing with the same parameters with each club and each country's practices," he says. Adjusting on the fly One of those practices that's foreign to American sports is the sale of players in lieu of trades. And leading up to the tour, Man U sold star midfielder David Beckham to Real Madrid just after the player's US profile had risen, due in part to the box-office success of Bend It Like Beckham. "We had to adjust our plans a bit and work to bring out some of the personalities of the other players," says Schneider. Man U striker Ruud van Nistelrooy emerged as the obvious choice. "He was a good target because we knew he loved America and had been here several times," Schneider explains. "He was willing and well-spoken. He's Dutch, but speaks perfect English. We shifted the focus from 'this is going to be the David Beckham show,' to 'this is going to be the Manchester United show featuring Ruud van Nistelrooy.'" CW was also fortunate in that a new story angle developed amidst the tour, when New Jersey native Tim Howard signed on to be Man U's starting goalkeeper, and debuted at Giants Stadium before his hometown fans. Still, focusing on van Nistelrooy turned out to be the right move. Not only did he help on the grassroots front, making a surprise visit to an Asheville, NC soccer facility for a pickup match with a women's amateur team ("It's sort of like Alex Rodriguez walking onto a field in rural Japan and talking his way into a sandlot match-up," wrote AP reporter Ronald Blum), but he scored a goal in each match, including a spectacular strike against Juventus at sold-out Giants Stadium. "It's incredible that the games did sell out, considering that we didn't do much of a marketing push before the games went on sale," Schneider recalls. But what little marketing CW did was to the right audiences. The buzz started building a year before the tour itself. "Charlie [Stillitano] called me, and said, '[Man U CEO] Peter Kenyon is going to be in town. Do you want to come along?'" recalls veteran New York Times soccer reporter Jack Bell. "It wasn't much, but [the story] was the first in the US with the dates and who they were going to play. Jim [Trecker] and I have talked about this a lot, and Charlie understands that people like me don't want to be told there's a press conference on Tuesday with a big announcement, and then [find] 500 people there. I want it before anyone else." After Bell's story broke and CW made the official announcement, "we reached out to very specific groups: the supporters groups of the individual clubs and state youth soccer associations," recalls Schneider. "We targeted them to make sure they knew when tickets went on sale, how to get them, and how they could get information." The only Man U game that didn't sell out in a little over an hour was that against Club America, which took place in the giant LA Coliseum. A different media landscape As the tour approached, however, CW was ready to switch gears, as the media frenzy was in full swing once the teams arrived in the US. As far as local media was concerned, "we were always trying to advance the story ahead of the city we were going to next," says Schneider. Such efforts paid off handsomely, perhaps most of all in Seattle, where the Post-Intelligencer ran a game-day pull-out featuring the history between Celtic and Man U. "They embraced it in all its facets," Schneider notes. "Not just a game, but the histories of two great teams coming together." But a greater challenge lay in the fact that reporters from all over the world were covering the tour. So CW had to prepare the teams and reporters alike for a media landscape on which few of them had worked before. "One of the biggest challenges we had with the teams was dealing with the American sports media, and how they're used to dealing with players and managers. It's absolutely inconceivable to the Brits and Scots that journalists can go into the locker room after the game and talk with the players," Schneider notes. "They were really blown away by the fact that the American reporters have rights that they don't have over there." CW started by briefing the teams' management and players, and fortunately, they were ready. "We knew instinctively that there were different levels of expectations among the US media when it comes to access to players from what it is in the UK," says Harverson. "The media environments in the US and UK are so different." That in mind, CW set up junket-style media days in each city Man U visited. But British reporters, for example, rarely get the opportunity for face-to-face interviews with the players outside the locker room, much less anywhere else. "We tried to do 15-minute intervals with two players at each station, then move them to the next station, but they wouldn't let the players go," says Schneider. Every word the players uttered was written down and filed away for future stories because the reporters will likely never get to sit down with players of this caliber ever again. "We'll definitely build on that" for the next tour, Schneider promises. The 2004 tour will be somewhat abbreviated, what with most of the top teams' players taking part in the 2004 European Championships in June and July in Portugal (Ruud van Nistelrooy will likely be playing for the Dutch national team). But "what last summer showed was that the real appetite that American soccer fans have is seeing the big stars of the world game," says Harverson. "So the best chance to see them is for the big clubs to come to America." ----- PR contacts Director of communications Rich Schneider Senior advisor/communications Jim Trecker
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