Monday, June 02, 2008

how i came to see soccer as the coolest sport

I became friends with Bruce Du Nord or, as I prefer to call him, Wolf Druce almost twenty years ago and I was honored when he asked me to take a turn in the pulpit here while he's traveling. I emphatically accepted and assumed I'd write something about the intersection of soccer and design... maybe jerseys? maybe stadium architecture?... or something along those lines, since that's the world I live in and have a blog myself called rolu dsgn about art, architecture, music and design culture stuff.

Easy and fun... right?

Bruce and I at a friend's wedding

Well, all the ideas I tried to chase after quickly became lame, uninspiring or had already been done. I remembered some posts about soccer at one of my favorite architecture/design blogs, strangeharvest. Maybe there was something there... the visuals in that post were super cool... I bet he'd let me use them (and even though I'm not taking that route, I'm still using them just because they're so cool. Thanks Sam)

then it hit me... I really don't know shit about soccer.

So, here's what I can write about: My history with the game and how i came to see it as the coolest sport.

  • For about a week in the late seventies I got interested in soccer due to a joint marketing campaign between Kix brand cereal and my home state's first attempt at a pro team, the Minnesota Kicks.
  • On Friday, July 7th, 1995 the legendary BBC DJ John Peel played a song I wrote called National Soccer Day on his program (the song really has nothing to do with soccer). It was a band I did when I was a young man called smattering. Listen to the the song here.
  • I watched a World Cup game with Bruce and a bunch of other friends in 1998.

So far not so good, huh? Well, it gets a little better, I hope.

In 2001 after spending about 8 years in the music biz as an indie rock band guy and/or as I was once described... to my face no less... by David Gedge of the Wedding Present, a blue-haired idiot, I found myself wanting to use my creativity to make a decent living in a more normal and less heartbreaking way. Many of the recovering music dreamers I knew had wandered happily, or so it seemed, into the world of advertising and so...

I found myself sitting in the lobby of a large, super cool ad agency here in Minneapolis called Fallon Worldwide waiting for the woman who'd later become my wife to finish up some work late on a Saturday afternoon. There were very few employees around so, I felt comfortable putting on a large, authentic NYC Fire Dept helmet that was sitting out. I picked up a laptop, sat down at the baby grand piano, checked eBay for vintage Bjorn Borg Fila... nothing in my size, so I started playing some gentle, Arvo Part inspired, piano music. While I was pretty sure Amy would get off the elevator and find my little scene cute, I was really scared when the firms founder and namesake showed up. When he smiled and said he wished he could afford to have me sitting there playing piano, just like I was, all the time, I knew I was home.

I proceeded to talk to people there about getting a job as a Creative, though eventually it was suggested I pursue Account Planning which is a job that's hard to sum up but could be described as qualitative research followed by Emersonian style, head scratching, philosophical brand and ad strategy development. I was given an internship in Fallon's amazing Planning Department and was almost immediately assigned a cool project to work on by a super smart fellow named Spencer Baim.

The client? Umbro.

The challenge? Develop a strategy to make them relevant again.

The next Monday morning started as usual, at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. I was psyched to get started with my research. I knew what Umbro was but needed to learn as much as I could about the game, it's meaning, it's past, it's future, the people who love it and why they often don't seem to just love it... they absolutely LOVE it. I noticed a fellow I'd seen there before outside with his morning coffee wearing a soccer jersey...

I approached, commented on his jersey and asked if he'd answer a few questions about his relationship to the game. He agreed and it started out about like this:

So you're a big soccer fan? me
Yeah, definitely, really big.” him
Do you play?” me
'Yeah, a lot actually.” him

On an actual team... in a league... or just with buddies?” me
On a team. Actually... I'm a professional soccer player. I play for the Minnesota Thunder.” him

It was Amos Magee, who was then a star player for, and is currently the head coach of the Thunder.

Damn. Can you imagine? A ridiculously good omen for my assignment.

We talked for a long time and I started falling in love with the game immediately. I recognized all the descriptive terminology he used in a deep, heartfelt way. The passion, poetry and almost mythic sense I could feel in his words would set the tone for my whole project. We talked about how soccer is different in America than it is in Europe and different still in Africa and South America. What soccer fandom can be like in a poverty stricken country. He suggested the book “Football Against The Enemy” by Simon Kuper to give me an even deeper understanding of how the game has affected politics and culture in the world and even loaned me his copy when we got together a second time.

I joined in on soccer chat rooms and talked to people all over the world about their view of the beautiful game. I was moved by the many people who talked about their country's teams and their own play in such epic, almost cinematic terms. Nationalism, but in a good way.

I remember the story of one African teen who had played with a ball made from a tube sock stuffed full of fabric because he couldn't afford a real one. I remember another sarcastically asking me "do think my town has enough money to build an indoor ice rink for hockey?” when I asked him why he played football.

I emailed Simon Kuper and he graciously talked with me on the phone for a couple hours. We spoke about the game using lots of musical metaphors and he made comparisons to ballet and dance.

I interviewed Bruce... and on and on.

On the whole, the people, fans and players alike were eager to talk to me about this sport they loved. Though, I have to add, the people who mocked my sense of wonder about the grand scale of how many people talked about soccer seemed to be European while the bulk who seemed to like the game “just because” seemed to be American.

I developed a love and respect for soccer that I didn't see coming at all.

So what about Umbro?

They were in a distant third place situation. Nike and Adidas were way out in front and gaining. Nike seemed at the time to be trying to literally buy the sport and Adidas was a “cool” brand. Umbro seemed like your father's brand. Everyone knew the name though, which was a huge asset obviously , and Umbro had history which was a topic that seemed to come up everywhere I went as an important part of the game.

Even though Nike was in first place, it didn't seem symbolic to me of the things that made me think soccer was great. There was no poetry, it seemed like a big Hollywood blockbuster brand that was about winning and glamour American style. They owned victory and superstardom.

Adidas was a cool second place brand. They used their history to their advantage and seemed to have a distinct sense of identity. They owned cool.

So what could Umbro own?

(I'd love to hear what you think of my conclusion if any of you are still reading.)

Umbro could own loss. The sense of camaraderie that happens in any community when loss strikes. The poetry of the game. The beauty of a boy playing with a tube sock soccer ball. The history, the nationalism, the truth of the game. All are things no other sport has...

Obviously, not too many folks who develop brands and their strategy's think about embracing loss, sadness, melancholy etc. as way to win people over so, it might be needless to say, I am no longer in the ad business (oversimplification).

I became a landscape design firm owner and no, I don't think the brand we've created embraces sadness and loss...

What the hell was that you ask?

That was the story of how I came to think soccer is the coolest sport.


Anonymous Sean said...

Brilliant post. I enjoyed every word of it. Thank you for the insight!

7:11 PM  
Blogger Arelcao Akleos said...

That was great. The concept you had for Umbro was a stroke of genius. I wish they had given it a shot, the results would have surprised them.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too enjoyed your article. . .the progression of soccer "pitch" drawing really made me laugh, when I got to the bottom of the article and see that you own a landscape design firm, what a great graphical ending. Bruce will be proud of you!!!!

5:09 AM  
Blogger r1ooooo said...

I like thos pictures..hehe..

By the way do you mind to exchange links?

Thanks and have a good day.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to the pic, Brucio couldn't bother to wear a coat and tie to the wedding ?

Stay classy !

12:36 AM  
Anonymous Neal said...

great job ... continuing the tradition of bringing the diverse folks of futbol together.

Peace and futbol.

10:17 PM  

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