Twice In A Lifetime: Who’s Behind The New New York Cosmos?

It’s in the New York Times, so it must be happening: the New York Cosmos are back, and Pele’s name is in lights as the reborn club’s Honorary President.

New York Cosmos

Everyone and their mother has an opinion on it: Bill Archer has a pretty harsh one, ridiculing the idea of the Cosmos fielding an “Independent All Star Team” that has apparently been mentioned, though it’s worth noting the NY Cosmos’ official site does not mention that at all. Instead, the focus is on making the Cosmos a key player in elite youth development and an announced effort to bring the Cosmos to MLS. Those two ambitions are where the real play is being made here.

It was actually on 28 August 2009 that we first noted the “The New York Cosmos are back!” and took a skeptical view of Paul Kemsley, the former Tottenham Hotspur director who procured the rights to the Cosmos brand and is now the Chairman of the club, using the same infamous photo of Kemsley with Pamela Anderson as Archer does. As we said at the time, Kemsley had earned a “reputation for overstretching himself” and has a troublesome history of lost investments in recent years.

But while Kemsley might appear to be a bit of a joke on the surface of it, what about the rest of the folks behind this venture?

The key figures are Carl Johnson, the CEO and Terry Byrne, the Director of Soccer (I really should make my job title “Director of Soccer for Pitch Invasion”, shouldn’t I?). The latter name you’ll recognise if you’ve been paying attention to David Beckham in recent years: in Grant Wahl’s excellent The Beckham Experiment, his backroom influence on the Galaxy earns him a few pages of infamy answering the question “Who was Terry Byrne?” and explains his rise “from cabdriver to David Beckham’s best friend.”

Byrne played a key role in the establishment of the David Beckham Academy in California a few years ago. Similarly, a crucial part of the Cosmos’ revival announcement was that the club will be fielding U-12 to U-18 teams, and will be a part of the high quality US Soccer Development Academy set-up, by virtue of their partnership with BW Gottschee, a long-time youth soccer club in Queens. Due to this partnership, Gottschee announced they were now making their Academy free (something most elite academies nationwide are currently having to consider doing to attract the top talent, in competition with MLS clubs’ numerous free academies). This year, Gottschee finished bottom of the “Liberty” division of the US Soccer Development Academy at U-16 level, and third out of six at U-18 level. Their status in the US Soccer Development Academy system and long track record of stability is extremely important here.

This is because Byrne and Beckham’s ambition to make it big in US youth development failed in LA: The David Beckham Academy in Calfornia closed its doors this year February. But despite its failure, this effort (along with everything else that went into The Beckham Experiment) tied Byrne to a very, very important figure in American soccer who will be one of the key players if the Cosmos are to join MLS: Tim Leiweke, President and CEO of AEG, owners of the Galaxy and at one point half of MLS’ teams. In The Beckham Experiment, Leiweke says “I started with Terry on this whole thing a long time ago. And Terry’s been my partner since day one, someone I loved.” Leiweke is, very importantly, currently the Chairman of MLS’ Board of Governors.

Still, Byrne’s connection to Leiweke has had its ups and downs due to his tight relationship with Beckham, a friendship with serious roots for both Englishmen. Byrne earned David Beckham’s undying affections by being there to cradle him at his most traumatic moment: following his red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, with the rest of the England bench ignoring him, Byrne (England’s masseur) was there for him in the locker room when no-one else was. Shortly after, Byrne got his first “Director of Soccer” gig with Watford, not long after leaving that to become Beckham’s full-time personal manager, and ending up as a paid consultant to the Galaxy following Beckham’s move to MLS in 2007, becoming the genius behind the disastrous hiring of Ruud Gullit as the foreign superstar coach Leiweke believed the Galaxy needed — and creating a curious situation, with Beckham’s best mate and business associate (through Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment, Beckham’s agency) Byrne pulling the strings at the Galaxy.

The experiment proved to be a disaster, and in August 2008, Gullit was ousted and Byrne was booted from his role as a Galaxy consultant, with 19 Entertainment effectively put in their place by AEG. Bruce Arena was brought in as Galaxy General Manager, with Leiweke fuming at the fumbling that had taken place. As Grant Wahl put it, Leiweke’s message to 19 Entertainment and Byrne was: You had your chance, and you screwed it up. Now I’m taking my team back. Leiewke told Wahl: “I think what David and his people will tell you is they’re probably not a huge fan of mine based on Bruce. I didn’t ask them. . . are they happy with me? No. Now Simon Fuller and I have a very strong personal friendship. Terry Byrne and I had a friendship. I think we still do, but am I real popular with them as it relates to us owning this team and the decisions we have made [recently]? Absolutely not.”

Over the last year, since the publication of Wahl’s book, there’s been a lot of fence mending by everyone embarrassed by The Beckham Experiment. Leiweke and Byrne and Fuller and Beckham are probably best buds again. And the Cosmos are obviously the vehicle Byrne wants to control and prove he can make it in American soccer with, from youth development to MLS. Beckham’s name is not yet officially attached to the Cosmos, but many have already noted he has the option to purchase an MLS franchise once his playing career ends. The question, is how much faith does he have in Byrne given past failures: what does that hug in 1998 still buy Byrne?

If we dig into the various connections Byrne can call on through Simon Fuller and 19 Entertainment, we find a very interesting one, if only for historical irony: Ed Bleier is the Chairman of CKX, Inc., one of the world’s top “entertainment content” companies and owner since 2005 of Fuller’s 19 Entertainment. 80 year-old Bleier previously spent 34 years working for Warner (rising to become its president in 1986), the company that founded and owned the original New York Cosmos under Warner president Steve Ross, an investment Bleier worked closely on for Warner.

It was Warner who, as Gavin Newsham puts it in his book about the original New York Cosmos rise and fall Once In A Lifetime, had a “relentless drive to publicise the team”, and it was Bleier who was chairman of the NASL’s Television Committee and warned against the NASL’s television deal with ABC signed in 1979 that saw nine league games telecast per year from 1979-1981, believing more imagination needed to be used in how the content of the sport was presented, wanting a highlights show that would have “standings, players, saves, goals, player of the week to build all the intrinsics of the sport and only put the Championship game on television. I got outvoted.” Within five years of the deal, the NASL was dead despite ratings on ABC that MLS would kill for. The Cosmos played their final game in 1985, a year after Warner had pulled the plug on the growing losses and handed the club to Giorgio Chinaglia and Peppe Pinton, who became the self-appointed “curator”of the Cosmos brand until Kemsley came along.

And that’s how we ended up with the latter standing next to Sunil Gulati (President of US Soccer), Kemsley and Pele yesterday. Which is kind of funny, as just three years ago, it was a frustrated Pinton saying that “I don’t think they [MLS] have good leadership to be honest with you. They don’t come from the world of soccer. They have no clue. It’s sad what they do in the league office … not just the league office, the headquarters of the [U.S. Soccer] federation too.”

But, hey, that old conflict is nothing a little slick Cosmos marketing can’t fix to get the club the buzz needed for investors to fund it for MLS (and to build the key missing element in all this, an MLS ready stadium). So take a look at the CEO of the new Cosmos, Carl Johnson:  the founder of a very successful marketing company Anomaly, named in 2008 as #24 in the “World’s Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company magazine, the only creative agency on the list:

Instead of claiming to reinvent advertising, Anomaly shirks the ad categorization altogether. In 2004, DeLand set out with four former colleagues from Chiat\Day and Wieden+Kennedy to build a new kind of company: part branding firm, part design shop, part innovation think tank, part VC firm. Anomaly has created a model that attacks the fundamental flaws of the agency machine. Most ad agencies still earn their paychecks from time sheets and media spend, which means they’re motivated to be inefficient and to produce ideas that are wedded to expensive media. Anomaly takes a different approach, negotiating upfront either a predetermined fee or, better yet, royalties or an equity stake in a product. So when a client comes in with an advertising problem, Anomoly addresses it more broadly as a business issue, analyzing everything from design to product development. “They have a talent that goes beyond your typical artist or creative,” says Brian Kelley, president of Coca-Cola’s Still Beverages, a client. “It’s an eclectic group of people who think about driving every piece of your business.”

In thinking about their own business, the partners recognized that as branding experts, they could just as well create original products too. “We would rather invent the next VitaminWater than do the ads for VitaminWater,” says partner Carl Johnson. So while half of Anomaly’s business is doing client work, the other half is building brands from scratch. “What we’re really doing is generating profit from clients, then reinvesting in a venture fund for our intellectual properties,” Johnson says.

Anomaly’s Sand Hill Road–meets–Madison Avenue approach isn’t yet ubiquitous — or dominant — but it is showing results. Profitable in its first year of business, the New York–based agency has doubled its revenue every year since. In 2007, Anomaly brought in nearly $20 million, with new clients including Converse and Bluetooth-headset maker Jawbone.

The thinking is obvious: Pele is the star power, Byrne does the soccer development and develops elite players that can be sold for bagloads of money down the line (and brings in Beckham), the same thinking that everyone has right now about tapping into the huge US youth soccer market for future profit. The Cosmos brand has the shit marketed out of it by Carl Johnson and his savvy associates: the Cosmos also hired Dan Cherry from Anomaly as their Executive Director of Marketing (how many youth soccer clubs do you know that have two of the leading creative executives in the world on their staff? Someone does have some money in the Cosmos here, if we consider that they’re also investing a fair bit in making the Gottschee Academy free to play in). Kemsley, who appears to have a talent at getting people to throw money at his ventures, gets the big investors lined up behind the Cosmos to get them back into MLS, presumably leveraging Byrne’s connections to the likes of Beckham, Fuller and (wishfully for the historical symmetry) Ed Bleier. The Academy breeds players for the MLS team and they’re then turned around and sold for a lot of money. Hey presto!

I’m not saying Kemsley and Byrne don’t have a questionable track record and there’s a huge question mark about the club’s MLS ambitions given the need for serious investment and a stadium. But at the same time, there’s a plan in here that makes some sense from a business perspective: the upside here may well make a big enough fish bite.

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