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Cosmos return threatens Red Bull

SPORTS MARKETING VETERAN Seamus O’Brien is confident of success in the New York area sponsorship market as he takes on the might of Red Bull with the reborn New York Cosmos soccer franchise.

The World Sport Group CEO believes the New York-based brand community will get behind the Cosmos, which should go head to head against the New York Red Bulls when a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion berth comes up for grabs in 2016. 

“We are not remotely concerned about being able to attract corporate sponsors,” says O’Brien, who heads up the Cosmos ownership group, which includes two Saudi families.

“I have researched the market – after all, that’s my day job – and the fact that Red Bull is a corporate team gives us distinct advantages. At the end of the day, I assume they [Red Bull] have very defined objectives for their own brand, but we’ve got the whole of the market to aim at.”

Having secured a place in the second-tier North American Soccer League from next season, O’Brien has no fears of the local competition. “The business decision [to invest] was based on how we perceive the Cosmos, I would not be bothered if another [third] New York area team came in,” he said. 

Marketers of Red Bull, the energy drink, are unlikely to share this view. According to a New York-based sports marketer, the Red Bulls, formerly known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, may now struggle to retain profile in a soccer market that has not taken easily to a corporate team.

With more than eight million people in the New York market and two million in New Jersey, attendances run at 70 per cent capacity in the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, located beyond the boundaries of metropolitan New York.

In October, Red Bull executives in Austria introduced a new broom of marketers and technical staff with European experience to energise
the club.

Chris Heck, a former NBA marketing executive, was dismissed from his job as Red Bulls’ president for business operations and his role absorbed into that of the new general manager, Jerome de Bontin, formerly a director and president of French club AS Monaco.

The technical side was bulwarked by veteran football coaches Gerard Houllier and Andy Roxburgh.

According to the source, the changes are an admission by Red Bull, usually so surefooted in its sports marketing activity, that the franchise has failed to claim New York as its own. “The Austrians have finally realised that they need people who understand football marketing,” the source said. “They understand that they’ve missed out on an opportunity; and with the Cosmos coming along, there’s very little time to reposition themselves in the market.”

Former marketers at the club, said the source, relied on the Red Bull Arena and star names like Thierry Henry to raise the profile of both the club and Red Bull brand in the local community and beyond.

“There has been none of the marketing innovation that Red Bull is famous for and Red Bull headquarters has been very cautious about local activations,” the source said. “The shirt deal with adidas is sold as part of the MLS collective deal, so their main sponsorship inventory is limited. Red Bull is now keen to add to existing partners like AT&T, Kia Motors, Prudential, Coors Light and Panasonic, but clubs like LA Galaxy and Chivas USA have been far more proactive.”

In contrast to the “Red-Bullised” nature of the club’s operations, Seamus O’Brien appointed the maverick Eric Cantona as director of soccer for the Cosmos last year. This month, O’Brien also hired the former New York Red Bulls executive Erik Stover as chief operating officer. Looking ahead, Stover will aim to work with MLS to build a stadium in New York City and for Cosmos to become the league’s 20th franchise.

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