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Chivas USA redefines itself
by Ridge Mahoney, April 25th, 2008 11:45AM

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How tough a battle has it been for Chivas USA to carve out an identity in Southern California?

Tough enough that prior to its home opener earlier this month against Real Salt Lake radio promotional spots referred to "Reel" Salt Lake. Worse were mentions of the team itself pronounced "Shhivas USA" as in the famous Scotch whiskey, Chivas Regal, which is one of the team's sponsors.

Both mistakes are understandable, as the pronunciations aren't inherently incorrect except in the context of MLS. Yet any team seeking to stamp its identity can't afford to confuse the audience it is trying to cultivate.

Chivas USA is seeking to establish a balance between the rich heritage of its parent club in Guadalajara, and the realities of marketing the game in Los Angeles with a far more glamorous co-tenant, sort of like the guy who roomed with George Clooney in college.

"Their 100 percent Mexican roster makes them unique and that obviously will never happen in Major League Soccer," says Chivas USA president Shawn Hunter of CD Guadalajara, which for the first season at least dictated personnel and philosophical procedures. "You'll always see us want to have a couple of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, but also a diverse roster that helps us win a cup.

"The fact we can have a passionate fan base and also celebrate diversity and have evolved into a team that has guys from 12 or 13 different countries, that's what the Chivas USA brand will stand for."

 

Chivas USA lead investor Antonio Cue has come to the conclusion his team has to be more USA than Chivas to succeed in America's soccer league. What started out as a branch office for the main headquarters in Guadalajara has morphed into something quite different.

Last September, Cue hired former Anschutz Entertainment Group executive Hunter to run the show as president, and in January Stephen Hamilton, brother and co-employee of the late Galaxy general manager Doug Hamilton, came aboard as vice president of soccer operations.

The arrival of David Beckham last year didn't appreciably improve L.A. on the field, but the much brighter spotlight on him and his new team cast an even deeper shadow over Chivas USA. The teams play Saturday at Home Depot Center in a Galaxy home match, their first of three meetings this season.

Despite a first-place finish in the Western Conference and a record (15-7-8) that was 19 points better than that of the Galaxy (9-14-7), Chivas USA placed 12th -- of 13 teams -- in MLS attendance with 14,305 fans per game, less than the league average (16,770). Only Kansas City drew fewer fans.

"We're in competition with other sports teams in this area as well as the Galaxy," points out Hunter as something just as important as appealing to large audience of Guadalajara supporters in Southern California. "Our work is cut out for us."

It will keep the red-and-white stripes, the in-stadium diversion of ChivaTown, and the glamorous ChivaGirls, but it has changed tack once again as it attempts to promote and sell its brand in the fiercely competitive Southern California market. Hunter takes the responsibilities previously held by Javier Leon, a Mexico City-born, Wall Street-honed executive who has since taken a position with the Chicago Fire. CEO Leon had replaced another former Galaxy executive, Whit Haskel, as general manager.

A year ago, Leon said, "No one yet has discovered the right formula. We're kind of like a research laboratory right now, and we're trying different things. I'm very positive that we'll find the right solution or solutions."

That Leon is now in Chicago, where Cuauthemoc Blanco has increased the team's exposure and attendances through enormous appeal to Hispanic audiences, indicates how the Chivas USA approach has changed.

It is losing millions of dollars a year, despite getting off strongly in its first seasons by setting a league record with local sponsorship sales of more than $4 million. AEG - in addition to collecting more than $1 million per year for the use of Home Depot Center - also takes a cut of Chivas USA sponsorships.

"What I remind our staff of is, 'Just when we're sick of our message, everybody else is hearing it for the first time,'" says Hunter. "Now that the team is competitive and is perceived as one of the better in the league, it's our job to make sure every soccer fan knows it. There is a global approach. We are working in different communities.

"It's going to be a long-term effort, but I think we're going in the right direction. It's going to take a few years."

During those few years, operator-investor Jorge Vergara will evaluate further the possibility of building his own stadium, perhaps in the San Bernardino area east of Los Angeles. That area is not heavily Hispanic and it might be, far from the bright lights of HDC, an element that proves to be essential in the Chivas USA quest for success.

As a member of the MLS Board of Directors representing AEG, Hunter helped formulate the Designated Player rule, and Mexican stars like Adolfo Bautista have been linked to the team. But Hunter implies that unless said Mexico star has the appeal of Blanco, another approach might be preferable.

"There are players out there - Beckham is probably a rare example - who cut across all cultures," he says, also mindful that Chivas USA traded its DP slot. "I think we'd always be open to a player who could take us to the next level, not just a Mexican player, not just a player whose had success in the Mexican league.

"Blanco is that kind of player; he not only got the Mexican-American audience in Chicago excited, they got the general market excited. That's something we're studying closely."

 



0 comments
  1. Root Wayne
    commented on: April 25, 2008 at 11 a.m.
    "AEG - in addition to collecting more than $1 million per year for the use of Home Depot Center - also takes a cut of Chivas USA sponsorships." Who is at the head of AEG? Sam Giancana?


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