On Cosmos Love

Thursday, January 20, 2011 | View Comments
-Jason Davis

With so many splashes, we have to wonder if there's any water left in the pool.

Cantona made a large one, entering the water on a Cosmos-colored throne, giving everyone reason to pay attention - again. This is what the new Cosmos do now, in their incarnation as a pre-team/brand name/home for retired greats. They do something or make an announcement, usually with lots of flash and sparkly things but crisp with class most American soccer clubs simply can't muster, and the American soccer public looks up, wrinkles their brows, and wonders just what those people are up to. Ads in Times Square? For what, exactly? Umbro shirts?

The Cosmos seem to be playing everything just right. Team or not, they talk a good game. "MLS" is always a part of any conversation they have about their plans, giving the organization imaginary weight as a legitimate effort towards creating a  real soccer product in a real soccer league. Not yet a team, but that's okay because they plan to be one. If the right to operate a second franchise in the New York market is the prize at the end of a race, the Cosmos shot out of the gate with amazing speed and ferocity. They seem convinced that with enough ostentatious maneuvering, they'll create critical mass. With enough hype, MLS would look foolish if they gave a New York franchise to anyone but the Cosmos.

If the question is whether or not the Cosmos and their act is good for American soccer, the answer is probably "yes." When it comes to focus on soccer in the US, what benefits one generally benefits all. This isn't a zero sum game; attention for the Cosmos, deserved or not, doesn't mean less for actual teams with actual players. Perhaps the buzz around the Cosmos serves as a lesson, or worse (better?), a shaming device for established soccer teams who can't seem to get out of their own way on the PR front. The Cosmos have carefully crafted their image, brought the noise around their organization up to an audible roar all while having no product to sell (unless you count the shirts).

The Cosmos are a reverse Keyzer Soze; they've managed to convince the American soccer community (specifically, those covering the sport) that they exist as a legitimate operation when it's still all noise and probably will be for some time. Eric Cantona is a director of nothing, and even those lauding the Cosmos recognize that hiring Cantona is nothing more than a publicity grab. Nevertheless, praise is flowing in ample measure because it worked. Like with some many things they have done, Cantona got the Cosmos headlines around the world.

I'm tempted to say "So what?" to any headlines garnered outside of the US (you know, the place where the Cosmos are supposedly pushing to launch their team). The back cover of The Sun might represent a free publicity coup on some massive handshakes-and-cigars-all-around level, but I don't see how it has much to do with the Cosmos as a legitimate American soccer concern. I can see how it might be a big deal for a company looking to "build a brand" to sell things that have little to do with a mythical MLS expansion franchise.

I don't doubt that the Cosmos people want to start an MLS team. I do doubt that such a thing is their ultimate goal, or why so much capital is being spent on a project with an uncertain outcome. The Cosmos "project" will include an MLS club if they can secure one, and will certainly be more legitimate, and probably more successful, but there must be a contingency plan in place. Too much money is going out the door for it to make sense otherwise. It will be easier for the Cosmos to sell things if they can put their shirts on players vying for a league championship, but it might not be a death knell if they are forced to put them on barnstormers instead.

Somehow, it has become an article of faith that the Cosmos are simply incredibly driven to join MLS and nothing more. Another point for the Cosmos.

Consider that the marketing firm attached to the Cosmos is more business partner than a traditional providers of marketing services, meaning that they have a financial stake in the ultimate success of the brand. "MLS team" seems a low target for such a company.

The Cosmos are certainly something refreshing on a scene littered with incompetence. They stand out because  too many American clubs struggle to drive interest in their own markets, much less on a national or international level. MLS teams deserve criticism for their PR and marketing failures, but we should be careful not to compare them to the Cosmos, or hold them to some new standard set by an operation working so differently. The new Cosmos are a different animal, working towards a goal only they completely understand, without restriction and free of the worry that comes with having to sell season tickets or find local advertising sponsors. That's not to say that what the Cosmos have achieved isn't impressive; it is, and we should all take note. But viewing MLS efforts through the prism of the Cosmos marketing and PR assault distorts too much.

This thing, by the Cosmos' own making, isn't cut and dry. If we don't quite trust them because they do things like hire Eric Cantona and have him pose on thrones, it's not necessarily sour grapes. We roll our eyes every time the Cosmos put out a press release because the act is transparent (even if the motives aren't), because MLS clubs do struggle to get a fraction of the same press, and because nothing tangible yet backs up the growing collection of retired stars. Should American clubs that actually exist get more attention than the Cosmos? Probably, though it would be fair to say they have to earn it. That doesn't necessarily mean the Cosmos deserve all the credit for being masters of publicity they appear to be.

The Cosmos have an ace up their sleeve, that being the name itself. It's impossible to separate the success that Kemsley, Byrne, and the rest of the group have had building the buzz from the legacy of the name. They purchased it from Peppe Pinton for that very reason, because the built-in fascination provided a massive head start on the road to relevance. Without the Cosmos name, the inclusion of Pele has less significance; perhaps Cantona or Cobi Jones don't sign on. Even if the group was able to lure the same names with money alone, the attention would be a fraction of what it is with the Cosmos logo and history attached. The headlines and features the return of the Cosmos has garnered simply shows how brightly they burned thirty years ago.

Getting people talking is a lot easier when you have a history, softened by the passage of time and improved through the effects of nostalgia, to lean upon.

I find the Cosmos fascinating, and have admitted as much. I'm rooting for an MLS Cosmos because I'm convinced it would be a boon to the league and the New York market. In the end, the Cosmos are good for American soccer.

That doesn't mean lingering suspicion is misplaced, or that the Cosmos are a new standard by which everyone else should be judged.
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