Style over Substance?

Robin Cowan examines the nascent New York Cosmos' marketing campaign, and asks whether a new paradigm is emerging.

The orchestrated crescendo of Parisian boos that greeted Kasabian front man Tom Meighan as he walked onstage at the L'Olympia in the French capital. Adorned in the red of England’s latest away shirt, the stunt on the surface appeared to be little more than a brazen example of jingoistic marketing, designed to appeal to the white-van-driver that lurks deep within every England fan. The viral ad was created to promote the launch of the new Umbro England strip ahead of the World Cup. But rather than just sticking it to the frogs, this was a sophisticated nod to the days of Oasis at Maine Road andThree Lions. The era, which saw football become an indelible component of the marketing phenomenon known asCool Britannia.

The torch carriers of twenty-first century Britpop, Kasabian certainly brought a level of charisma to a kit launch that Theo Walcott or Gareth Barry would struggle to match. The shaky rockumentary-like camera work and sepia tones of Umbro’s Youtube campaign stand out in comparative Technicolour against the modern football club’s ubiquitous catalogue promotion. What virals like Umbro’s show, is that In terms of visual marketing, the rest of football is largely still mixing with a very limited emotional pallet.


“We are back”. Characteristically scowling at the camera, Don Cantona was the man to announce the return of legendary football franchise, the New York Cosmos. Appointed Director of Soccer, King Eric has taken on the challenge of helping to bring arguably the most famous name in U.S Soccer back from the dead. However in order to resurrect a team without a stadium, coaching staff or even any senior players. Cantona has to transcend the need for tangible commodities and convince the MLS that the Cosmos brand alone is strong enough to raise the profile and viability of American association football.


Cantona insists what excites him about the project is “the mix between football and art”. The design of The Cosmos’ website is closer to that of a designer label than a football club. The site opens with sharp-suited, cigar toting Eric reclined in a leather-backed chair. While the Legacy page is complete with archive Cosmos footage set to a soundtrack provided by South Bronx hip hop legend KRS-One and Brooklyn hipsters Matt & Kim. Unsurprisingly, Umbro have got themselves involved as kit manufacturer, with a subtle retro design for the home shirt. The New York Cosmos seem happy to highlight their glory days, in which they were arguably the most glamorous team in world football.


Previously run by record company execs. Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto were among the star names that turned out for the New York Cosmopolitans during the 1970’s and early 80’s. An international team of stars brought from all around the world, turned out to be a perfect allegory for a city that identifies itself so strongly with diversity and immigration. The arrival of Pelé and talisman Giorgio Chinaglia saw attendances for games surge from averaging under five thousand to selling out the 76,000 capacity Giants Stadium.


Negative press from some corners of the establishment print media in the U.S, only seemed to add to the team’s notoriety. The prime targets were Pelé, The Cosmos and football itself, who were derided as interlopers on the territory of traditional American sports. However, such criticism merely served to reinforce the notion that the New York Cosmos were an alternative and exciting people’s movement.

But in the end, the size of their crowds and the number of rock stars that were reported as hanging out in the player’s locker room mattered little. Ultimately spiraling debts and cable TV’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for Soccer ended up being enough to see off The Cosmos. The North American Soccer League folded in 1984, followed shortly after by its member clubs.

Today the MLS has secured football a far more secure footing in North America. However, it’s a league that is regarded in some circles as a glorified retirement home. In interviews given since arriving in New York, Cantona has stressed his target to make The Cosmos the centre of youth development in the United States. While this would make the club invaluable to the nation’s international ambitions, it is also an admission that growing a club’s brand through a short-term policy of buying up aging talent is now passé.


What the name Eric Cantona brings to the table, as opposed to the clumsy and obvious ploy to sell shirts, is his reputation for genuine non-conformity and free thinking; particularly when measured against David Beckham’s preened and carefully managed clean-cut image or the New York Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry and his commercial-friendly sophistication. They are names that denote success, but offer less when it comes to establishing a collective identity; which is vital for any burgeoning football organisation.


The appointment of part-time philosopher, indie film star and political activist Cantona, as opposed to one of the game’s more establishment figures, states that The Cosmos see themselves differently from the rest of the MLS and that there is nothing cooler than being a rebel.


Should this recruitment policy be continued, and if so, who’s next for The Cosmos? Slaven Bilic as head coach? Clint “Deuce” Dempsey as club captain? It will be interesting to see what impression Cantona will make on the team in his role as Director of Soccer. As a figurehead, he is invaluable, but will matters such as choosing personnel and signing sponsorship deals be consistent with this libertine image?


Unburdened by a century of European football traditionalism, The New York Cosmos would appear to be utilising the model of hip-consumerism to define their place in world football. Whilst large portions the game’s tribal culture are fading amongst stadium and club naming rights, sponsorship deals and globalisation as a whole; the Cosmos may have hit upon a strategy to use these forces to actually carve out an identity. If they are successful in their bid to become the MLS’ twentieth member club, then the New York Cosmos may well have set a precedent for a new narrative of modern football.


Robin writes regularly for IBWM. You can follow him on Twitter @RobinCowan.