CAMPAIGNS: MLS enlists its fans and players to kick off Iraqi Aid project

PR Team: Major League Soccer (New York) Campaign: Iraqi Aid Time Frame: May 2003 - ongoing Budget: Under $3,000

PR Team: Major League Soccer (New York) Campaign: Iraqi Aid Time Frame: May 2003 - ongoing Budget: Under $3,000

American GIs racing across Western Europe in World War II made countless friends for the US by handing out chocolate bars to otherwise food-deprived children across the continent. As the US toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, American officials were searching for similar gestures that would show the US' goodwill toward the people of Iraq. Don Eberly, serving as interim minister of youth and sports for Iraq, knew that the country's children were soccer fans, so he turned to the American soccer establishment with an idea for help. More than half the Iraqi population is under 19 years old, and more than 15 million are under 24. Eberly contacted Phil Anschutz, whose AEG Soccer controls six teams in Major League Soccer (MLS), asking how US soccer could help. Strategy A decision was made for MLS to launch a major drive to collect soccer balls, shoes, and other equipment that could be sent to the children of Iraq. The league needed to quickly get the word out to its teams and fans about the plan - and get their help. Tactics Fans around the country were encouraged to bring soccer balls to MLS games over a two-week period in early May. Those weeks would mark the start of an ongoing campaign called Iraqi Aid. MLS' four-person internal PR staff prepared and distributed a press release outlining the national donation program. An internal conference call was set up with MLS team operations directors, asking them to mount grassroots PR efforts in their local markets. Media relations staffers reached out to various community groups and local soccer organizations. Even team ticket-sales operations publicized the donation opportunities scheduled for the weekends of May 10-11 and May 17-18. "It really was a very familial effort," says Trey Fitz-Gerald, senior director of communications with MLS. A media event was scheduled for May 30 in Washington's RFK stadium, home of DC United, where donated balls were brought to the stadium to be shipped to Iraq. FedEx was brought into the picture to make the shipments. MLS worked with the USA Freedom Corps to arrange the shipments and distribution in Iraq. "This is something we needed to turn around quickly," says Fitz-Gerald. "There was a sense of urgency to get the balls into Iraq as soon as possible." Results More than 3,000 balls were collected in Chicago, Columbus, New York, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, San Jose, and Washington, DC, says Fitz-Gerald. In total, MLS hopes to send 60,000 balls to Iraq, and has begun getting donations from equipment makers such as Nike, which will ship balls directly from its plants in Pakistan, he adds. The May 30 event at RFK Stadium drew coverage from AP, the Washington papers, and several radio and TV news outlets, Fitz-Gerald says. The Washington event "gave it a tangible feel. It really allowed people to touch and feel the program," says Fitz-Gerald. Future MLS' efforts to gather more equipment are continuing. The US Soccer Foundation, established in 1993 to fund soccer programs across the country, has joined with MLS to create a fund to allow people to donate to the Iraqi Aid program. The campaign is being publicized on both the foundation's website and on the MLS site. President Bush taped a message of thanks for soccer fans that was scheduled to be shown at MLS games the weekends of June 7 and June 14. "Soccer is new to him, but I think he understands this is a common language for the people of Iraq and of the US," Fitz-Gerald says. MLS plans to continue reaching out to community groups and soccer organizations, such as the various youth soccer groups around the country, and expand the campaign into cities without MLS franchises. "From a PR standpoint, this will continue to grow," says Fitz-Gerald.

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