MLS Execs Choosing the Wrong Words

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | View Comments
DC United introduced Ben Olsen as their new (permanent) head coach yesterday.  At a press conference in front of gathered local media, president Kevin Payne and general manager Dave Kasper spun the hiring of Olsen, after only a few months ago claiming he was too inexperienced to remain in charge, as a positive for the club.  The event was a classic example of management doing their best to put a good face on a bad situation.

The backtracking is somewhat detestable, and the revisionist history is a wealth of unintentional comedy (Payne says he always kept "an open mind" about Olsen, despite publicly ruling him out as a candidate).  It's not that Olsen is a poor candidate (he's not), it's that the club looks foolish for having declared him out of the running only to hire him permanently when a search for a replacement came to nothing (for whatever reason, though most that come to mind aren't good).

But United's fumbling of the coaching search and the sardonic hilarity of the press conference aren't really what bothered me about it.  Payne and Kasper could hardly be expected to be forthright and honest with the man they hired in the room sitting in front the collected press and loyal fans watching from work or home.  Cutting Olsen off at the knees by admitting he was a choice of last resort would to the team no good.

No, what bothered me was the single utterance of one word, a word that has no business coming out of mouths of MLS executives in any setting involving direct communication with fans: "brand."

Full disclosure: I was not able to watch Olsen's introduction online, and I cannot locate a transcript of the proceedings (probably because none exists).  I'm working strictly from secondhand Twitter info here, but since more than one of my DCU friends mentioned the word, I'm certain it was used, and probably by Kevin Payne, though it doesn't really matter for the purposes of my angst.  I've since been told by someone who was in the room that Kasper was the main transgressor - JD

MLS executives need to learn, and quickly, that words like "brand", "image", "market", etc. do nothing but engender resentment in a sizable segment of soccer fans.  Even if technically true, especially in relation to MLS and in the modern sports-as-business environment, execuspeak like the above borders on offensive.  It's flatly wrong to ask fans to give their loyalty and money to a team, then talk about the team like it's the latest offering from Apple.  Professional sports organizations ride a line between "product" and civic institution, so the image projected by the those in charge is crucial.  Using marketing language to describe the league and its teams in a boardroom setting while laying out a long term plan is understandable and perhaps necessary; doing so in public, when talking to emotionally invested supporters who view the club as much more than a "brand" or potential fans who have yet to give themselves over, is just plain stupid.

Maybe I shouldn't single out Payne/Kasper and DC United.  Most MLS clubs are guilty of allowing their business jargon to bleed over into their public statements, and the League's commissioner might be the most guilty of all.  United is just the most recent example, one that struck me as ridiculous.  There are ways to talk about improving the the team's standing in the community and attracting more fans that don't rely on boardroom buzzwords.  No fan wants to be relegated to "consumer" status.  The connections fans form with their teams are so much more than a simple product-consumer relationship.  MLS leadership should treat them as such.

That goes for Garber as well, because though his position as commissioner gives him a little more freedom to speak in terms of improving the common good from a business perspective, too much of his word choice is a turn off.

Work hard, MLS executives (by the way, Payne should know better - and so should Kasper).  Maybe words like "brand" and "product" are second nature.  Maybe Garber has been a bad influence.  No matter the excuses at hand, it's time to cut it out.  Keep the "brand visions", and any references to them, in the boardroom.  Choose words that don't turn fans into replaceable parts or walking wallets.  Treat your teams as the institutions they are, or you hope they become.  You're not in charge of Nike, you're in charge of a soccer club.

Otherwise, all MLS teams will ever be are "brands", with the limits on passion and loyalty that label dictates.

Fathers don't pass a love of Nike on to their sons.

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