“Y’all are standing in line to create a giant shirt?” a tourist asked, completely perplexed.
The answer was yes. Stretched throughout Bryant Park in New York on a sweltering Saturday morning in July, lines of people waited to form what was being billed as “The Largest Human Soccer Jersey Ever,” courtesy of FC Barcelona. By midday, everyone would converge on the Lawn in the middle of the park, hold up a piece of posterboard at the appointed moment and together create a mosaic of the club’s newest variation of its iconic blue-and-garnet striped home jersey.
The event was part of Barcelona’s U.S. tour for the International Champions Cup. Yet while Lionel Messi and company have since gone back to Spain for the new season, Barcelona is sticking around in soccer’s biggest growth market. Last year, the club opened an office here in an effort to expand its brand in America (both La Liga and German Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich have also opened permanent offices in the U.S.). And it turns out creating a giant shirt may also hold some ideas for successfully navigating this profitable new frontier of American fandom.
Create the Content, Capture the Connection
Nearly 4,000 miles from Barcelona, club tradition was still on tap at the event. Former players like Thierry Henry and Juliano Belletti were on hand. The club anthem blared from loudspeakers. Even the mosaic idea is part of the club’s history, started 25 years ago at the Camp Nou as a way for the fans to express their support.
What is new is this: clubs like Barcelona are not only international brands, but have far more ability to craft their own content and more ways to deliver it. As a result, clubs can engage their fans, even in the face of constraints (for example, beIN Sports, which broadcasts La Liga, is only in 22.7 million homes in the U.S. and is not nearly as widely distributed as other cable sports channels), enabling Barcelona to export traditions like the mosaic to Midtown Manhattan and cover it through its own channels.
More importantly, it means the club can translate that tradition into a feeling of connection in any setting. After the event, Barcelona posted an inside tour of it on its YouTube channel (which recently became the first sports club channel to surpass 3 million subscribers). The one-and-a-half minute video shows the mosaic taking shape and gives off a simple vibe: it was big, it was cool, and it was fun to be there. In that sense, a different mosaic also emerged: around 3,300 soccer fans coming together to try and set a world record and, in their own way, live the game – through Barcelona.
Unify the Support
It took a little under three hours to fill the Lawn with the requisite amount of people needed to create the mosaic. As participants stood in front of their respective posterboards, staffers kept barking simple instructions for how to hold them up. Eyes rolled.
“If you can’t follow these directions, you can't be a Culé,” said the fan standing next to me, referring to the nickname for Barcelona supporters. “You need to be a Madridista.”
You also can’t talk about Barcelona without talking about Real Madrid – regardless of where you’re located.
Culés and Madridistas exist in the U.S., though they’re not entirely driven by the rivalry's historical and political underpinnings. But with cultural and language hurdles to get over, rivalries can often act as cross-cultural unifiers. In general, competition is appealing, especially when the disdain is palpable. The first El Clásico on American soil, played in Miami a week after the mosaic event, definitely had a Super Bowl feel, complete with entertainers and celebrities – but it certainly wasn't a typical friendly, especially in terms of interest. In addition to drawing a sellout crowd at Hard Rock Stadium, it also drew record live streaming audiences and was the most watched non-U.S. friendly on ESPN.
One of El Clásico Miami’s subplots was that Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo didn't play (leading one Miami Herald columnist to nickname him “No-Naldo”). It is unclear yet whether the name will stick. What is clear, though, is that El Clásico, like all major rivalries, has a compendium of plots and subplots that can, in turn, provide a common vernacular for fans – and it’s a vital way to get fans invested not only in the club, but in the league as well.
Be Global, Engage Local
After all the waiting, the moment of truth came fast. Everyone held up their posterboards. Photos were snapped. The mosaic looked good from the air.
But beyond that, how many participants will actually buy the new home jersey they helped to form? And how do you recruit those who participated for fun to be active fans in the future?
The answer, in part, lies with how much buy-in is developed afterwards. And as with any good organization, it’s all about the people.
Barcelona’s vice president Jordi Cardoner told ESPN FC, “We want Barca's presence [in the U.S.], starting from the opening of the office in New York, to also have an influence on the supporters' clubs.” This makes sense. Fan engagement by international clubs here is particularly important because fans are a key part of their American story. Since the actual games are not played in the U.S., it is the fans, in a sense, who become the Ambassadors for the product here. They drive internet culture surrounding soccer, create local identities for the club and recreate the stadium experience through their supporters clubs. New fans may be drawn in by an interest in the team, but what may keep them around is by having a local fan community they want to be a part of.
Understanding how the fan base is evolving here is crucial and involves continuous interaction. What is making people become fans? How are trends shaping what type of content they consume? Having a strong grasp on this can help a club target key consumer groups. Long-term, though, it can help create more homegrown representatives and influencers to advance the club’s mission into the future.
It was a valiant effort, but in the end, history was not made in Bryant Park that day: the mosaic fell just short of breaking the Guinness World Record.
Walking off the green, one participant simply said, “that’s it?”
Will this just be a memory, over as quickly as it happened, or is it a first step to making history in the future? Part of that lies in whether, like Barcelona sells itself as “more than a club”, this event is more than a shirt. Generating content to create a connection, finding ways to bridge cultural gaps, and sustained local engagement will help clubs – even one as recognizable as Barcelona – establish a sustaining American identity while the players do their part on the pitch in Europe. Like a mosaic, though, it all needs to come together to fully capitalize on this investment.
By Jessie Daniels.
Header image credit goes fully to David Wilson.