Why did the Chivas USA experiment fail? An insider's perspective
Last week, Major League Soccer announced that Chivas USA, the much-maligned Southern California franchise, will soon cease to exist under that name. The league has purchased the team from Mexican owner Jorge Vergara, with the intent of installing new management and identifying fresh investors to keep a rebranded version of the club in Los Angeles.
Thus ends a bold 10-year experiment in cross-border sports branding, an experiment that ultimately failed to achieve its ambitious goals. It was also an experiment to which I had a front-row seat as Chivas USA's director of communications during its first five seasons in MLS.
Having spent those thrilling and frustrating years promoting this innovative soccer brand in one of the U.S.'s biggest media markets, I can think of a few reasons why Chivas USA failed to live up to expectations.
The first, and most evident, was on the field. Yes, Chivas USA played exciting soccer at times, and prominent figures sported the club's colors: from former Mexican internationals Paco Palencia, Ramón Ramírez and Claudio Suárez; to future U.S. standouts Brad Guzan and Sacha Kljestan; to a list of managers that included Bob Bradley, Martin Vasquez and José Luis "Chelís" Sánchez Solá.
But our beloved Chivas USA began life in MLS with a 4-22-6 record, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of local fans, many of whom were already skeptical to pronouncements that Chivas would teach the rest of the league to play "real" soccer. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in the club's much-debated inaugural branding campaign: Adiós Soccer, El Fútbol Está Aquí ("Goodbye Soccer, Fútbol is Here").
Subsequent seasons saw improvement, and the team even made it to the MLS Cup playoffs for four years in a row, from 2006-2009. But as hard as we tried to play the "feisty underdog" role -- especially following David Beckham's arrival in 2007-- Chivas USA became all too accustomed to playing second fiddle to the Galaxy in terms of star power, attendance and results.
But on-field performance was the least of Chivas USA's problems. Sports brands are steeped in meaning and history, so even in the best of circumstances, the idea of "cloning" a team from one country to another was always a risky proposition. And perhaps no sports brand was less suited to this kind of experiment than Chivas de Guadalajara.
For more than a century, "Chivas Mexico" (as employees of both clubs called our Guadalajara brethren) has prided itself on fielding only Mexican players. It is even considered by some to be Mexico's second national team: or, in the words of Vergara himself, as Mexican as tequila and mariachis.
So it's understandable that many diehard Guadalajara fans -- originally envisioned to be Chivas USA's core audience -- were unsettled by the idea of a second team out there sporting Chivas' red and white stripes yet failing to share its identity. I remember accompanying Chivas USA players to appearances in Southern California communities like Lynwood, Bell Gardens, or Downtown Los Angeles. "Where are the Mexican players?" fans would ask. Or, when one of our Mexican players did come along: "When will you be signing more guys from Guadalajara?"
This was not the fans' fault, of course: they were simply identifying a gaping hole between the "reality" of Chivas USA, and the expectations created by the "100 percent Mexican" essence of the Chivas de Guadalajara brand.
I should mention that I, like others in MLS, was a true believer in the idea of Chivas USA. I'd followed the league since 1996, and had developed a deep love for Latin American fútbol while living and working in Mexico, Brazil and Chile. So when the expansion club was announced in 2004, I jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles and promote what I figured would be a breath of fresh air for MLS: Chivas USA would bring talent and resources from south of the border, while injecting passion and rivalry into a league that just two years earlier had eliminated two of its franchises.
But it didn't take long to realize what a challenge we had on our hands. Our first-year squad was made up primarily of players from the parent club's "B" team, supplemented by MLS SuperDraft and Expansion Draft picks. Our intended fanbase proved fickle, with Chivas' original supporters group making it clear that they would not attend Chivas USA matches while Guadalajara was on television. I remember looking up in the stands as we played our curtain-raiser match against Javier Aguirre's Osasuna in 2005, one week before our MLS opener, and seeing swathes of empty seats at the Home Depot Center.
Although times have changed, there are still important lessons to be learned from Chivas USA's mistakes.
MLS has grown considerably since 2004, and the United States continues to be one of the high-growth-investment destinations of the global game, where the likes of Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona and many others see an opportunity to create new fans and -- in the case of New York City FC, co-owned by Manchester City and the New York Yankees, and David Beckham, who is spearheading the Miami expansion franchise project -- to open new teams.
But in so doing, foreign investors must always remember the importance of allowing a new team to grow its own roots and create its own history and identity. This is not just a question of establishing community ties (which Chivas USA certainly tried to do); it also means making sure that a new club doesn't feel it is constantly living under the shadow of a parent or older sibling.
I've asked myself a million times: Could Chivas USA have worked? Done differently, perhaps:
• For starters, ownership needed to make it clear from day one that this was going to be a "multicultural" team, not just because MLS player rules demanded it, but because that was its vision for the club. That was not the case at Chivas USA.
• Secondly, the organization should have thought twice about the name Chivas "USA." Even our most ardent fans agreed -- and we heard this often -- that "LA" needed to be included somewhere in the official name (objections from the Galaxy notwithstanding) to underscore the club's connection to its home market.
• Finally, threading the needle on this novel bicultural venture required a much clearer understanding of the complexities of Latino identity in the United States, and the fact that a brand or a team -- or an individual -- can be both Mexican and American, and does not have to choose between the two.
In less than two weeks, Chivas USA as we know it will kick off its final season opener under the bright lights of the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. And in the coming year, MLS will begin the work of identifying new investors, who will in turn lead the process of rebranding the franchise.
MLS has had plenty of success launching and rebranding teams during the past eight years, and there's reason to believe that a team with a new ownership group, a new identity and -- most importantly -- a home of its own, will have every chance to thrive in the Southern California sports market. After all, Los Angeles has always been a "soccer" town, no matter what its culturally diverse residents choose to call the game. And all available indicators point to an increasing relevance of the world's sport to Americans, a fact that no doubt will be underscored by this summer's viewership of the World Cup in Brazil.
But for Chivas USA, it will soon be time to say adiós. For me, and for the dozens of others who have toiled to bring this concept to life, it's certainly been an adventure. Though the club's name will cease to exist, its memory will live on -- if only as a cautionary tale for those looking to succeed where this particular experiment failed.
In one aspect, though, I have to say Chivas USA was right: El fútbol está aquí. And, as far as I can tell, it is here to stay.
Keegan Pierce (@KeeganPierce), MBA, was the communications director for Chivas USA from 2004-2009. He now works for ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain.