By Nachiket Karnik
To Whom It May Concern At Major League Soccer:
The recent rumors of a potential Minnesota United FC rebrand has me quite confused. I’ve been trying to think of who you have probably already heard from on this issue and I came up with this likely list:
- Dr. Bill McGuire (a successful businessman) has probably told you this is a terrible idea*
- The team’s front office and its leadership (who have marketed this team for 3 years) have probably told you this is a terrible idea*
- Soccer journalists in Minnesota have published articles about why this is a terrible idea
- Soccer fans in Minnesota have said this a terrible idea all over social media
- Soccer fans, journalists and blogs from outside Minnesota have said this is a terrible idea
- Some unnamed consultant/advisor/entity has suggested to you that this is a fantastic proposal.
* (I do not know for a fact that this has happened but I can’t imagine Dr. McGuire and his staff lobbying against a brand they specifically selected and cultivated for 3 years. They could have given it up a long time ago.)
When I review the list, the conversation sounds quite one sided but apparently to you it is not so simple. Let me add my voice as local soccer evangelist who has attempted to (and frequently succeeded in) converting countless people in Minnesota and around the country to following our local team and our domestic leagues:
This rebrand is a terrible idea. MLS is marching blindly toward an entirely avoidable PR trap that will dog not only Minnesota United but also Major League Soccer, leaving a self-inflicted black mark on the reputations of both club and league.
I moved to the Twin Cities two years before the Minnesota United brand was unveiled. At the time the Minnesota Stars were barely even a blip on the collective consciousness. Nobody encouraged me (a professed soccer fan) to attend matches and I saw no merchandise. Fast forward five years and Minnesota United merchandise is on display at every single major public event I’ve been to in the Twin Cities. This team, from the crest to the name, have made an impact.
I’ve seen people wearing the Minnesota United FC gear at brewery taprooms, the State Fair, concerts, Oktoberfest celebrations, college campuses, museums, on the bus, and just about every other imaginable gathering spot. Today spotting MNUFC car decals is a matter of course rather than the rare occurrence it used to be. You don’t live here, it makes sense that you haven’t seen the transformation.
So take it from me: If you are a soccer fan in the Twin Cities today you’ve heard about this team and you’ve heard they’re named “Minnesota United FC.”
Now imagine this world after the proposed MLS rebrand. Every conversation about our MLS transition will begin with, “Why did the team change the name?” Every conversation that ever covers the team’s history will include the statement, “The team was named Minnesota United FC until forced to change its name by Major League Soccer.” Every conversation a ticket rep will have to begin with “Wait, what happened to Minnesota United? They changed their name?” This adds up to wasted time and wasted money for the club, and confusion about the league.
The United name is simply too ubiquitous for it to be forgotten and every time its memory is brought up, it will be accompanied by an opinion about how the change was unnecessary and hobbled the team’s local presence. There is simply nothing on the ground to suggest ‘United’ has been anything but a tremendous name for this club. I have yet to hear a single individual even hint at any sort of “confusion” coming from the moniker.
On the other hand the local soccer supporters embrace it and our two loudest chants include the word “United” being shouted in a call and response. I hear the words “Minnesota United” far, far more often than any other in reference to this team (that includes the word ‘Loons’). There is nothing sympathetic to MLS’ point of view that can be brought up regarding this rebrand. All the negativity surrounding it will be discussed every single time the team, its history, and it’s participating in MLS are brought up.
Then there’s the little matter of how a rebrand would be perceived by anyone who has even a passing knowledge of soccer leagues outside the United States. I don’t like this fact at all but we still live in a country where the English Premier League is more popular than MLS. So there are a lot of people out there who know more about the soccer world outside the country than inside it.
They follow a league with several ‘United’ teams and are befuddled about why a league in this nation would take issue with Minnesota United’s name. (Hopefully none of your advisers have been foolish enough to suggest the millions of EPL fans around the world are confused by seeing Manchester United, West Ham United and Newcastle United in the same league.) There is absolutely nothing MLS could say to fans of the EPL about the necessity of this rebrand that would squash their derisive laughter. If you don’t believe me, please head over to a local EPL bar in New York and try it out. See how the core audience you’ve been trying to attract for twenty years reacts to hearing your league can have two teams named ‘United’ but not a third.
When I work to bring new fans to MNUFC (and unwittingly in reach of its sponsors), these “eurosnobs” are my bread and butter. The love the sport and make time for it. However they also subscribe to deeply entrenched stereotypes about US Soccer which I then have to take the time to break down using calm reasoning. But this rebranding issue has no reasonable explanation. So in addition to there being an asterisk to every MNUFC related conversation with an existing fan, you’ve now made it harder to attract a strong source of potential new fans and instead given them another reason to put down domestic soccer.
Finally, removing the ‘United’ moniker will strain my own relationship both with this team and domestic soccer in general. I have been one of the strongest proponents of domestic soccer you can ask for. Soccer fans can’t escape a conversation with me before I mention my fervent support for MNUFC and the local game. And yet, I’m truly not sure I want to continue down that path if this rebrand takes place.
Dr. Bill McGuire saved pro soccer in this state. It’s his tremendous insight as a businessperson and owner that made this club’s rebirth and growth possible. By instituting this arbitrary change, you’re repudiating his reasoning, insulting his investment in this team, and the work his staff have done in marketing soccer in this state. Regardless of how Dr. McGuire and the MNUFC front office feel about that, it sure infuriates me.
One of the strongest qualities of Minnesota United FC has been its respect for its supporters. This rebrand strips that away and in the process ignores the strong views of the team’s owner and supporters. To see the rebrand being pushed through would send the signal to fans that you either don’t trust our intelligence (in regards to United confusion) or that you consider us to be mindless consumers that you can yank around at will. It would tell fans that decisions such as moving the team away are not at all far from the realm of possibility. I would imagine you don’t want your fans to feel this way about your league or this team.
To see a domestic league make a decision with no provocation, which comes with all the obviously negative consequences enumerated above, weakens my faith in that league’s leadership. It also tells me that they don’t trust the people running “my team”; the ones who I feel understand my needs (as a soccer fan in Minnesota) the best. It would make me ask myself if I truly wanted to continue introducing new people to the league or the team. In short it would dramatically reduce the connection I feel to local soccer and the level of entertainment I receive from it. What’s the point of involving yourself so deeply in something when the powers that be show that they don’t seem to know what they’re doing?
Let’s recap. A rebrand annoys your owner-investor, annoys your fans, helps others ridicule you, and leaves unnecessary PR baggage on both the league and the team. Calling that an “own goal” would be generous. I’d say it’s more on the order of a player pulling on the opposing team’s jersey mid-way through the game, knocking one in against his team, and celebrating the goal. It strains logic and reason to that extent.
I know there are intelligent people in the MLS boardroom who have raised these same points. I strongly urge you to listen to these voices. Not doing so will be a blunder that will leave an indelible stain on this team and its league. It will lose you local goodwill, the fans, and their monetary investment in your league, its sponsors and Minnesota United FC. Keep Minnesota United behind this team and behind MLS.