WHEN YOU THINK of Los Angeles, what do you think of? Most would probably name Hollywood, celebrities, and a sense of how the other half live. Los Angeles carries a glamorous reputation around the world – even if the reality isn’t always the case – and it’s where stars are born.
Whilst the movie business is what LA is known for around the world, in the sporting world it’s one of the places you just have to play, no matter your sport. The LA Lakers and Clippers of basketball, the LA Dodgers of baseball, the LA Kings of ice hockey and – say it quietly – even LA Galaxy carry a sense of attraction due to their location.
There’s a common trend amongst these LA teams: they’re bigger in so many ways, even if their success isn’t always tangible. The Lakers, however, have 16 NBA titles, the second most in history and have had some of the best players don their jersey. The Dodgers may not have been as successful as the Lakers, but they have consistently had one of the highest wage bills in Major League Baseball, as well as a celebrity fan base.
It’s one thing to play in LA, but you’ve got to live like LA if you want to succeed. In football, the LA Galaxy have tried their best over the past decade to stay true to that motto. Their clean-cut image of success and sunshine has helped attract some of the game’s biggest names from abroad, including the likes of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole and Giovani dos Santos. But did they really resonate with the LA masses? Since 2014, they have been the only MLS team in the City of Angels, but this season, the winds of change are coming to town.
In 2014, MLS bought the flailing Chivas USA franchise in order to replace it with another, and just three days later it was announced that Los Angeles Football Club would become the newest franchise in the league, scheduled to join in 2018. At the time, most didn’t know what to expect – would they be aimed at the largely Hispanic community, would they operate to the same tiny budget as Chivas, or would they take things in a whole new direction?
The team had been announced in 2014 but it wasn’t until the following year that we found out what the official name and colour would be, signalling a clear shift from the Chivas disaster. This is where the story really begins, because this is where the brand of Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) started to take off.
In certain cities, the look of something or the size of the brand matters more than what the product actually delivers. The Lakers could miss out on the Western Conference title but it wouldn’t really matter because they’re the Lakers. What went through the head of the LAFC ownership consortium (something I’ll get on to later) was quite simple. Create a look that is clean yet eye-catching, aiming to attract a generation of new fans to the club. Black and gold was the desired image – smart, elegant and powerful – and, so far, it’s working.
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It’ll capture the eye of those who see a sign for LAFC, and their Art Deco-inspired badge is probably the coolest one in the entire league. It fits the culture of Los Angeles and that is what will set LAFC apart from the Galaxy – at least to those looking in from the outside. Their rivalry won’t just be on the pitch; it’ll be in the streets, in sports stores, on billboards and in bars. On one side you have the established white knights, proudly appealing to middle-class suburbanites, in the form of the Galaxy, but in the heart of Los Angeles, LAFC will look to the younger, vibrant community across the city. Their plan is simple: take what Galaxy could never appeal to.
For the time being, the rivalry isn’t about the football – it’s about who can make the biggest noise and who can generate the largest amount of supporters, much like the early days of the New York franchise rivalry. In typical MLS style, it’s all about branding, and this is where LAFC are generating all their noise. On the field we have no idea what will happen because, at the time of writing this, the team hasn’t played a single game, but the work they’ve done to get people interested in them is nothing short of spectacular.
Fans are already wearing the hats, the scarves and the track jackets, and the demand for their gear has been huge, both in LA and beyond, something which suggests that their marketing department has thus far ticked all the boxes. After all, why would anyone outside of new fans in LA be interested in the team? We have no affiliation with them, no desire to see them succeed. But the early days of the franchise, led by the face of the excellent Carlos Vela, seems to be working.
LAFC have utilised a model which is unique not just in the world of Major League soccer, but wider football. The hints of this can be found just up the road from LAFC’s state-of-the-art, purpose-built Banc of California Stadium, where the Los Angeles Raiders, led by their controversial owner Al Davis, set about establishing themselves with a black look and appealing to a young crowd hungry for something new.
Davis’ believed in creating an image that was unlike anything else out there, from the black uniforms to the pirate logo which became something of a must-have fashion accessory across the city in the 1980s and 90s.. While the Raiders are now the Oakland Raiders and in future will be the Las Vegas Raiders, the connection that the organisation had on the city of Los Angeles will forever be apart of its culture.
When the Raiders arrived in Los Angeles in 1982, people didn’t know how to feel. Here came this unforgiving, successful team to their city and, whilst Los Angeles is a huge market, many found it hard to associate with a team that bore no historical relationship with their city. But their attitude, their look and their importance to a generation, not to mention their links with rap group NWA, resulted in a sports fever rarely seen in LA.
Perhaps their greatest achievement, long beyond anything on the field, was the culture and brand image they created. In the UK today, people still wear Raiders gear despite many not knowing who their quarterback is or anything about their history.
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This kind of opportunity is what LAFC, having created for itself, needs to capitalise on: having people associate the city with its brand and appealing to a generation of young fans from all backgrounds and suburbs. That’s why their choice of colours are so important: if Galaxy are meant to represent the wealthy, suburban American, then LAFC have to be the Raiders of the night, dressed in black and looking ahead to an exciting future.
Whilst they have a huge job on their hands to establish themselves as the premier brand of MLS – even just as the best team in the city – they’ve already started establishing their name in the global sphere. Their social media presence has been impressive, with short videos highlighting their black and gold training gear in the unveilings of coach Bob Bradley and Designated Player, Vela.
Despite their good work, there are still warnings signs that will need to be heeded. I’m from a town in England called Milton Keynes, 60 miles north of London. Until 2004, we didn’t have a professional football team; we had multiple amateur teams but none that had any real following or publicity. London-based club Wimbledon were facing financial trouble and their owners decided to move to Milton Keynes. All of a sudden we had a professional club, but it never felt like ours.
Even to this day, despite having its own purpose-built stadium, famous domestic cup matches and a trip to Wembley, the MK Dons still aren’t Milton Keynes’ team, at least to those old enough to remember how the club came about. If Wimbledon had gone out of business and an open league spot had gone to a newly formed Milton Keynes side, I don’t think there would have been an issue but by essentially stealing a team from London, it didn’t have the same connection to the public as many would have thought.
The MK Dons formation reminds me of the Chivas USA incident that has ultimately led to LAFC, where MLS bought out Chivas and gave their spot in the league to a new LA-based franchise, allowing the new franchise to build itself from the rubble of the previous one. Los Angeles Football Club is like a cooler rebirth of Chivas, appealing to the masses this time, and while few mourned the loss of Chivas, there are clearly lessons to be learned.
So far, LAFC seem to have something that’s quite organic – as organic as an MLS franchise can be – with their supporters’ groups and season ticket holders already in place. It may seem like a standard achievement for a club, but bare in mind that they don’t have a stadium built yet, they haven’t played a game yet, no one knows what their kits will look like, and they don’t have enough players on their roster to form a competitive team.
These supporters groups, which are vocal in MLS and play a role in the image of clubs, are considered serious business – at least the natural ones, which have supported the team for some time. The 3252 LAFC supporters group – 3+2+5+2 = 12, with the supporters being the 12th Man – has already been allocated their area, and banners and flags are ready to be deployed. Whether this manufactured support appeals to you is probably dependent on the length of time you’ve associated with the sport.
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So with the intentions of the franchise clear – to create a marketable look, a winning squad in years to come and appeal to a generation of fans at home and abroad – what’s in it for the owners’ consortium?
When you go on to the LAFC website, there is a page that highlights everyone who is involved with the franchise at an ownership level, ranging from marketing managers, COOs, chairmen and a whole host of famous and influential individuals – and it’s with this list of owners that things start to get interesting.
The most publicised of the owners is comedian Will Ferrell, who has never hid his enthusiasm for football. Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan is also on board as well as former women’s national team player Mia Hamm and her husband, former LA Dodgers player Nomar Garciaparra. The co-founder and former CEO of YouTube, Chad Hurley, is also on board, including numerous people who have been involved in the running of the Kings, Dodgers, Lakers and the Golden State Warriors.
Many of these people know a thing or two about running a successful franchise in Los Angeles, but there’s one more person on the board who knows all about the local sporting scene. NBA icon and Hall of Famer, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, has invested his money into the new franchise through the Magic Johnson Enterprises company. Magic has a habit of investing in entities that usually bring success, like the Dodgers and more recently the Lakers, and he’s taken up a position as adviser to the new owners.
But is money the main reason for these owners to get involved? Of course – certainly with the way Major League Soccer distribute their wealth – but perhaps the chance to create something from the ground up, which goes against the LA Galaxy model of middle-class, white America, was too good an opportunity to turn down. There is boundless potential to create a true LA club, without the vitriol and anger that surrounded New York City FC when they came to compete against the New York Red Bulls.
The fans are already excited as, on board for the next season, Carlos Vela is joined by promising young Uruguayan Diego Rossi, experienced Belgian Laurent Ciman, promising American defender Walker Zimmerman and established international, Benny Felihaber. With Bob Bradley as manager, the foundations are there for a successful debut season. And they’ll probably need that to retain the interest and support of the franchise.
With lessons learnt from the Chivas USA debacle, Los Angeles FC have so far succeeded in creating the most natural feeling, manufactured franchise in Major League Soccer. It has no history and no established fan base, but it’s already appealing to a generation of younger fans, and the wider community of LA. Manufactured or not, that can only be a good thing for the sport’s growth.