Five thousand screaming fans at the airport, police escort leading to a public welcome, one by one, amongst a sea of people, sold out signs over market stores selling genuine (or perhaps not) playing strips and merchandise…
You’d think I was referring to the visit down under by English Premier League powerhouses Manchester United or Liverpool FC right? Or the British and Irish Lions rugby tour, a once-in-every-twelve-year event? Perhaps another ‘global’ English or American team touring Oz?
What I’m actually referring to is A-League club Sydney FC, currently touring Italy with marquee man Alessandro Del Piero.
Let’s go back 12 months. Honestly, who would have thought that an Australian football team would be playing against teams in Europe, being received by thousands of adoring fans, wearing a strip featuring the Opera House on its crest?
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No one should pretend this was a fluke, and that Del Piero’s presence in the team had nothing to do with it. In fact, he had everything to do with it.
But this shouldn’t be perceived as a negative, as what Del Piero brought to the club (note reference to the term club rather than team here?) – what he was charged with was to turn Sydney FC into a global brand.
Reading through the details of the club’s reception in the Italian city of Jesolo took me back to an article I had written about 12 months ago focusing on the lack of ‘heroes’ in the Australian sporting landscape; personalities that could cross sporting borders and help to develop a club’s brand.
In football, David Beckham put LA Galaxy on the map (as evidenced by the sell-out crown on their visit to Sydney some years ago) and Spanish club Barcelona FC hope that Neymar (voted the world’s most marketable sportsperson in a recent poll) will do the same in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in his country of birth, Brazil, next year.
Closer to home, some would argue the AFL’s recruitment of Karmichael Hunt to play for start-up club Gold Coast Suns was done for much the same reason; a proud rugby league Queenslander who has played for state and country now plying his trade for a cross-code rival.
Surely this would allow the AFL to connect with the wider community, and allow Hunt the opportunity to cross that boundary and be truly recognised as a sporting hero, a Queenslander that can do it all?
Ask anybody who doesn’t follow ‘Australia’s Game’ to get your answer. Whilst you’re at it, ask a Greater Western Sydney Giants fan living in the state’s heartland whether they feel the same about Israel Folau.
Recently I came across an ESPN documentary called Fernando Nation, which tells the intertwined story of Fernando Valenzuela, Chavez Ravine and the LA Dodgers. For anyone who has any interest in sports marketing, community engagement or even the history of Los Angeles and its multicultural roots, it’s highly recommended.
Chavez Ravine, the hillside, mostly Mexican community overlooking downtown LA, was torn apart to accommodate what would become the home of the LA Dodgers, Dodger Stadium, in the early 60s.
What ensued was the Battle of Chavez Ravine – an unsuccessful 10-year struggle by residents to maintain control of their property, from which they were forcibly removed.
As you can imagine, support for the Dodgers from the growing Mexican American (and Hispanic) community in LA was hard to come by.
Enter Fernando Valanzuela, a chubby, 20-year old Mexican pitcher who couldn’t speak a word of English, and went from living in a remote village in the Sonoran desert of Mexico, to filling Dodger stadium every week.
To quote a community leader at the time, “…some people in the stands didn’t know if a baseball was round or square, but they didn’t care. Here was someone they could identify with, a hero, allowing Mexicans to believe that they could aspire to do great things”.
So was this an accident? Nope. The team owner at the time, Walter O’Malley, had set out to specifically find a hero who could break through the white America/Mexican American barrier and speak to people beyond sporting lines, bridging the gap that connected the club to the community.
Back to Sydney FC. Of course, I won’t pretend that the LA Dodgers situation is on the same level as Sydney FC, emotionally speaking; however, the crust of it is the same. As a sports club attempts to build its brand, home and abroad, it needs a hero which represents the community and plays with, and for.
Valanzuela, his cultural background and the Dodgers. Beckham, his celebrity pull power and the Galaxy. Del Piero and Sydney FC, together conquering the holy grail of world football that is Europe, and shining the light back on Australia’s global city.
I can only hope that other Australian clubs might learn the true value of a marquee player, their responsibility not only on the field but also off it, and the potential opportunity that lies within to become a hero for the club and code, one that can cross sporting borders.
Nic Ferraro is the founder and managing director of Sports Business Insider, the leading source of news, analysis and opinion on the business side of sports.