The New York Cosmos Hire Eric Cantona as Ambitious MLS Bid Takes Flight
Selling a product that doesn't exist is mighty hard work.
By that time, the British media already was in a lather over the late-night announcement that the company/logo had hired former Manchester United forward, Nike pitchman, occasional actor and dime-store philosopher Eric Cantona as director of soccer.
He'll have "overall responsibility for all soccer-related matters, which will include the proposed first team," the Cosmos said in a press release that featured a photo of "King Cantona" reclining in a green leather chair (below).
Every significant UK outlet had a story. The Cosmos said Cantona was featured on the back page of The Sun on Wednesday morning. That's prime real estate.
Speaking of nice real estate, Cantona's most recent work in the sport has been oceanfront. He coached the French national beach soccer team for a few years in the latter part of the last decade -- a suitable setting for a legend enjoying his retirement.
But now he's coming out of it. Maybe. What, exactly, does the director of soccer for a literal dream team like the Cosmos do each day? Is this a full-time job or a photo-op?
The man himself said the Cosmos "are very strong, beautifully made, with a great past. It's kind of a mix between football and art," while chairman Paul Kemsley said his new hire "is a further endorsement to the tremendous global attraction and power that the New York Cosmos carries."
A lot of style there, and not much substance.
But a Cosmos staffer told FanHouse that their Web site was getting 800 hits per minute on Wednesday morning. And on Wednesday afternoon, a huge video billboard was scheduled to go live in Times Square reading "We're Back" and featuring Cantona wearing Cosmos gear (photo, top).
The Cantona announcement, preceded by last week's news that Los Angeles Galaxy lifer Cobi Jones was leaving the club to take a job in the Cosmos front office, is a brilliant piece of marketing. Cantona may never make a decision that actually impacts an MLS team on the field, but a Cosmos representative told FanHouse on Wednesday that calls were coming in from major media organizations from all over the world.
How many American soccer teams are featured in publications from the United Arab Emirates? How many make it onto CNN, the BBC, and are profiled in The Huffington Post?
One. Or none. Depending on whether you consider the Cosmos an actual team.
And that's what seems to have so many American soccer fans so disgruntled.
There's a league in this country with real clubs and flesh-and-blood players, and the notion that a lot of very high-profile media outlets (along with nostalgia freaks, hipsters and New Yorkers who can't be bothered with the Red Bulls) are being seduced into paying attention to the Cosmos' glitzy PR campaign is insulting to those who've poured genuine sweat and tears into the sport.
No. That sentiment reeks of envy and is misguided.
The Cosmos are not anti-MLS, and supporting the Cosmos' effort is not anti-MLS. Far from it. In fact, Kemsley and Co. are dropping millions of dollars to get into MLS. The Cosmos' commitment is, if anything, a validation of how far MLS has come.
They want to be part of the league so badly that they're hiring Eric Cantona and buying billboards in Times Square.
"I'm under no illusions that we're the only gig in town. I think there'll be two or three options at that time," vice chairman Terry Byrne told ESPN in November regarding competition to own the second MLS franchise in New York.
MLS commissioner Don Garber confirmed to several reporters, including FanHouse, during last week's draft in Baltimore that there are indeed other interested parties in New York.
Kemsley is doing his part to build enough interest, enough excitement and enough brand recognition so that the league's board of governors will find it impossible to say "no" when they award the franchise.
MLS has said repeatedly that it is committed to putting its 20th team in the New York area. The Cosmos hope to begin play in 2013.
That's not exactly around the corner. The hype generated by the billboard, by Cantona and by Cobi will die out long before then. How many retired stars can they hire to keep the momentum building? How many people will buy an "authentic" Cosmos jersey before they demand to see a real player wearing one?
At some point, there's going to have to be more substance than the youth setup currently running in New York and Los Angeles. A stadium plan, for example. But until then, rather than bash the Cosmos for being nothing but a logo, people who care about the future of American soccer should ask why so many other MLS clubs have so little resonance. Many struggle for coverage even in their own markets.
The Cosmos have set a standard.
We're not saying that the Chicago Fire should go hire Diego Maradona as equipment manager. But the Cosmos' ambitious advertising, their proactive social media efforts (the club follows more than 2,200 people on Twitter, more than 14 of the 18 MLS clubs) and their interest in engaging the press (they sent Christmas presents to writers and bloggers -- some teams still haven't figured out how to send a press release) represents something worthy of respect. They are trying to create and engage an audience.
Whether or not there's a team yet, that's something with which many in MLS are still struggling. There has always been buzz in Los Angeles, and there was a significant aura around D.C. United back when it was winning titles. It certainly exists in Seattle and in the expansion cities of Portland and Vancouver. Kansas City has created some interest with its rebrand and gorgeous new stadium.
And of course, the New York Red Bulls have made a few headlines over the past year, setting up what promises to be a riveting rivalry.
But most clubs in MLS would be more than happy to generate as much conversation as the Cosmos.
To the Cosmos, being a part of MLS and American soccer is worth millions. That's something to celebrate and support. If only to see Eric Cantona manning the phones during the 2013 SuperDraft.