Day two at the Soccerex Americas Forum in Mexico City included yet another afternoon of bilingual discussions, but not before a series of presentations took place on the Studio stage.
Movistar’s sponsorship and marketing director, Fernando Rincon, kicked things off by giving a masterclass on sports marketing; TICKETING3D founder Francis Casado outlined what the future of the digital stadium will look like; and SAP’s Bernd Huwe explained the principles behind the leading data company’s Digital Athlete Framework.
Russia in the spotlight - again
Headlining the speaker line-up for day two was Alexey Sorokin, chief executive of the Russia 2018 Fifa World Cup local organising committee. Ever since Russia was awarded the right to host the tournament back in 2010, Sorokin has been forced to defend just about every aspect of it, from the sizeable distances between host cities to the allegedly unethical manner in which his country won the tournament. It is a role he has by now grown accustomed to, and his session provided yet another demonstration of his masterful handling of the media spotlight.
Interviewer Jeff Powell, the respected Daily Mail journalist, was hardly playing the fearsome interrogator role some in the audience might have hoped of him, but he did at least ask some of the awkward questions, covering everything from visas and security to travel times, stadia and the protocol for any major potential incidences during the event.
On the issue of visas, Sorokin insisted fans travelling to Russia in two years’ time can expect a simpler application process, with visa-free entry for all ticket holders. But, he added, “that is not to say the frontiers will be open because the people will not feel safe in Russia.”
“No matter what you might read we are indeed a friendly country and we will prove it during the World Cup."
Asked about past accusations of wrongdoing during the bidding process - any mention of destroyed computers was notably omitted from Powell’s questioning - Sorokin struck an exasperated tone. “We’ve been tolerating allegations very patiently but its getting very tiresome,” he said. “We’ve been defending ourselves for five years and we consider the matter now closed.”
Powell also raised the issue of the West’s perception of Russia, noting the strong sense of suspicion that abounds on a day when reports into alleged state-sponsored doping in the country made headlines once again. “The World Cup will most importantly give people an opportunity to see the real Russia, not the Russia that appears on the pages of a few British newspapers,” he said. “I’m being very delicate by not naming any.”
Regardless of international opinion, Sorokin pointed out that 65 per cent of the Russian population “supports the idea” of the tournament despite little promotion having been done inside the host country to date. He also said next year’s Confederations Cup would be “a full dress rehearsal” for the main event the following year. “We expect a lot of interest and we will continue to promote this event so the people are interested in it,” he added.
Asked what fans can ultimately expect from Russia’s first ever World Cup, he also reiterated the message he has been conveying throughout tournament preparations. “No matter what you might read we are indeed a friendly country and we will prove it during the World Cup,” he said.
Playing to the Hispanic crowd
After lunch, conversation turned back to the US with a three-man panel on the Hispanic influence on the Stateside soccer business. Early in the session it was noted that somewhere in the region of 17 per cent of the 325 million US inhabitants are of Hispanic descent, with Hispanic players making up around a quarter of those currently plying their trade in Major League Soccer (MLS).
Andrew Nestor, co-owner of Italian side Bologna FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies North American Soccer League (NASL) team, opened by saying that, when it comes to catering to Hispanic fans, “its not about where they’re from, it’s about how old they are.” He noted that around 50 per cent of the US Hispanic population is under 35, which, in the interests of marketing the game, should be deemed of more importance than ethnicity to brands and teams alike.
Camilo Durana, the vice president of property and commercial development at MLS, agreed with Nestor, adding that the league puts greater emphasis on consumer behaviour than ethnicity whether it is targeting Hispanics or not. He, too, acknowledged the commercial appeal of having a passionate, loyal and young fan base, with many major brands drawn to soccer in the US primarily because of that following. “Millennials are driving the sport in US,” he said. “Access to them is what we’re selling.”
Providing the media perspective on the panel was Francisco Pazmiño, Fox Sports Latin America’s senior vice president of programming and acquisitions. He pointed out that Hispanics are undoubtedly drawn to established stars like Mexico’s Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández and said the broadcaster has the viewing figures to prove it. The German “Bundesliga would not be as popular in the Spanish language if Chicharito wasn't playing for Bayer Leverkusen,” he said. “Ratings for their games have shot up and that applies to the rest of the Bundesliga too.”
Yet Pazmiño also spoke of the way in which Hispanic fans still connect strongly with locally grown talent. “Big stars have appeal but MLS fans prefer younger, exciting players grown in the cities,” he said. “Local identity is important.” On that subject, Durana noted how MLS teams are now investing heavily to develop young local talent in their academies, many of which “represent the demographics of their cities”.
The growth of MLS has been at the forefront of discussions throughout this year’s forum and Pazmiño continued that theme by saying the league “is positioning itself well” in what is a competitive sports market built on four long-established major leagues. But, he added, “I don’t know at this point if the NFL should be worried about MLS just yet. Some of the other sports - NHL, even baseball, which has an older demographic - they should worry about soccer.”
A Champions League for the Americas?
Earlier in the day, SoccerexPro caught a quick word with Nestor, who combines his club ownership roles with a position heading up business development for the proposed - and, it should be said, controversial - Americas Champions League.
During the interview, Nestor outlined plans for the competition, which is being led by MP & Silva boss Riccardo Silva, and shared a few brief thoughts on what it could mean for club soccer in the Americas.
Montagliani beats Mussenden
As the day’s proceedings began here at the Camino Real hotel, news broke that Canada’s Victor Montagliani had been elected as the new president of Concacaf, the troubled governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The current head of the Canada Soccer becomes the first Canadian to the lead the scandal-plagued confederation after beating Bermuda’s Larry Mussenden 25-16 in a two-way vote. The 50-year-old from Vancouver, who currently works in insurance, is also the fourth president of Concacaf in five years and the third in the space of a year.
Montagliani begins his four-year term in office just three weeks ahead of next month’s Copa America Centenario in the United States, which Concacaf is co-hosting for the first time with its South American counterpart, Conmebol. Discussions here at the Soccerex forum yesterday suggested the Centenario could be a precursor to a Fifa World Cup held in the Concacaf region, with the United States, Canada and Mexico all said to be eyeing a potential bid for the 2026 edition of soccer’s showpiece event.
A bid from any or a combination of those countries would be widely supported throughout the region but there remain doubts over whether the newly formed Fifa Council would be willing to consider a Concacaf nation for 2026 - the first edition to be awarded under new president Gianni Infantino - after the bribery scandals that have plagued the confederation in recent years.
That said, shortly after Montagliani’s election Concacaf legal advisor Sam Gandhi told members of the congress that the confederation is "an organisation no longer in day to day crisis”. Still, there can be no denying that the Canadian has plenty of work to do before trust and credibility are restored to the body.
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