Ann Rodriguez is no stranger to soccer marketing.
She joined Atlanta United last year after working for the Washington Freedom of the Women's United Soccer Association from 2001 to 2003 and the San Jose Earthquakes from 2006 to 2008. After leaving the Earthquakes Rodriguez worked at Under Armor for five-and-a-half years, only to return to an MLS landscape that is incredibly different than it was eight years ago.
Dirty South Soccer had the opportunity to have a conversation with Rodriguez about how Atlanta United plans to leverage its brand in a crowded MLS field and how it can use the resources of the Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Dirty South Soccer: What prompted you to take this job with Atlanta United?
Ann Rodriguez: I took the job for 3 reasons: (1) the team has a world-class owner in Arthur Blank, who is committed to building a successful organization on and off the field (2) I like being on the ground floor of a business and helping build the foundation and (3) I enjoyed working with Darren Eales when he was at Tottenham Hotspur and thought it was a great opportunity to get to work with him again.
DSS: What are your full duties for your job at Atlanta United?
AR: Ultimately, I’m responsible for marketing, creative, social, digital media, communications, sales, service, and merchandise for Atlanta United. In some cases, I directly manage the group, and in some areas, I work in concert with my counterparts from across AMB Group to achieve our goals for the club.
DSS: How did your work at Under Armour best prepare you for this job?
AR: Being at Under Armour was a fast-paced, constantly evolving and innovative environment. The culture there focuses on great product and great service, and it requires close collaboration across all functional areas. So, it was great preparation for exactly the start-up environment we have here.
DSS: You last worked in MLS in 2008 with the San Jose Earthquakes, how is the business side of MLS different than it was 7 years ago?
AR: The business side has matured quite a bit since the last time I was in the league. It’s made great strides in terms of attendance, fan engagement, facilities and revenues. The league has attracted high quality owners and business leaders, and it’s been fun to work with all of the new, talented folks now in the league. In all, I’m impressed with the work that Don Garber and his team have done to continue to elevate the business side of the game.
DSS: What is the biggest challenge MLS brands face in 2016?
AR: The most important things for MLS clubs to focus on are: fan engagement, attendance and broadcast viewership. The league set a record for attendance last year and we have positive momentum going into 2016. We need to continue that trend by continuing to make the match day experience energetic and exciting. Those elements in turn drive interest in the clubs and drive broadcast viewership.
DSS: What are the biggest challenges Atlanta United’s brand faces in a crowded sports market like Atlanta and as an expansion franchise?
AR: When you work for a pro sports team, you are ultimately trying to sell tickets. And when you are selling a ticket, you are not only asking people to spend their money, but also their most valuable resource, their time. You need to compel them to come out to the stadium and support the team. We need to develop a compelling brand and an exciting and enjoyable match day experience that differentiates us from other sporting environments in the marketplace.
DSS: You’ve been with the team close to seven months now, what kind of partnerships have you been pursuing to grow the team?
AR: We have spoken to a variety of potential partners across the spectrum – including organizations in the corporate community, grassroots organizations, non-profit foundations, and Atlanta’s start up community. We will be working with a diverse set of partners that are representative of our audience, our values and our community as we gear up for 2017.
DSS: When can fans expect a kit sponsor for the club? Will the team look to leverage the training ground and other venues for sponsorship?
AR: It’s hard to say exactly when that will happen. Right now, we are working with the AMB Group sales team, which creates integrated partnerships across the Falcons, United and Mercedes-Benz Stadium to establish partners for the club. We are leveraging opportunities across our portfolio to maximize enterprise revenue and deliver great value to our partners. There is a lot of interest in our brands in the corporate community, and I imagine we’ll have news regarding club partners throughout the year.
DSS: Does being in Mercedes-Benz Stadium limit the kind of branding opportunities you can pursue?
AR: No. As I mentioned earlier, we are working with the AMB Group sponsorship sales team to create partnerships across our properties. Being in a tremendous venue like Mercedes-Benz Stadium helps us attract great partners and offers unique branding opportunities in the venue.
DSS: How close have you worked with the Falcons to grow the Atlanta United Brand? Have both franchises worked on cross-branding opportunities? Do you think this is a unique partnership in MLS?
AR: In some cases, we work closely with the Falcons organization, and at other times, we work independently. We have certain shared services across all our properties, so we consult with people in those roles frequently. Where it makes sense, we are adding dedicated soccer roles in order to focus on and directly connect with our community (i.e. marketing, social, communications, tickets, etc). There are some other MLS clubs who have similar models to ours and we’ll continue to refine ours as needed as we develop the club.
DSS: How do you see MLS’ brand overall in the sports business landscape? Does MLS mandate what clubs can and cannot do with business opportunities due to the single- entity nature of the league?
AR: MLS is a brand on the rise within the sports landscape. It’s growth in attendance and the attractiveness of its audience to advertisers (young, diverse, and social) has captured the attention of many people in the sports industry. It’s a great time to be in the business of soccer in the U.S. MLS is flexible regarding business opportunities at the club level. They have a consultative approach to most areas of the business so that we can come to agreement on what decisions are best for the enterprise. In some cases, there are rules in place to protect our brands and league partners (i.e. certain sponsorship categories, changes the team’s marks, merchandise suppliers), and for the most part, we can do what we need to do to grow the business.
DSS: Darren Eales in interviews has stressed that he wants the club to be seen globally, has that impacted how you pursue the business side of the operation?
AR: It is important for us to be globally relevant, and in order to do so, we need to focus on winning first in our home market and then implement our strategies to scale the brand globally. Our approach is to build a great supporter following here, which can be a story that translates to other markets. Then, we will emphasize digital and social activation, which is the best way to engage supporters globally. To a certain extent, the types of international players we sign will inform our global outreach strategy. We are looking forward to seeing the story take shape!