Part of our ongoing “Creating Soccer” series spotlighting the workhorses of the American Soccer Marketing and Design. These are the men and women who are called upon to create, market and produce most of the soccer we consume.
Neel Shah is known in the soccer world as one of the hardest working men in his field. While at MLS he oversaw the creation of the Fan Development department, a crucial link between the league, its fans, and its sponsors. Balancing the needs of all those elements is one of the things that helped the league grow from a novelty to a more serious league that fans could truly get invested in. Without his and his team’s research and work it would be hard to imagine a world where MLS could truly take advantage of the explosion and growth that took place in the late ’00′s. His success has brought him to India where he hopes to replicate and even surpass what MLS has done here.
1. Tell us a little bit about your professional background history.
I started playing soccer when I was 4 years old and have loved the sport ever since. When I was 15, I had the opportunity to travel to England, Denmark and France to play in some tournaments and it was then that I experienced the immense global impact that the sport had on individuals, communities and cultures. When I returned to the US, I was clear that I would spend the rest of my life working to support the growth of soccer around the world.
I then spent 3 years at UC Santa Barbara where I studied Business Economics and Sports Management and spent my summers working on soccer programs for Hyundai Motor Corporation. I also spent my 3rd year of university in London studying economics and visiting professional clubs in my spare time to better understand the business of the sport. After graduating, I went to Seton Hall University where I received my MBA in Sports Management. During that period of time I started interning at the Major League Soccer League Office which eventually led to my first professional job in soccer.
2. Were you a soccer fan before working in the soccer industry?
I always loved playing soccer and because of my older brother I grew to love watching it live and on TV. During the 80’s there wasn’t much quality soccer to see in California, but in the 90’s we started going to watch the LA Salsa play semi-professional games and also LA Splash play indoor matches. Also, during the 90’s my brother recorded every FIFA World Cup match of the ’90 and ’94 tournaments and we used to watch those games over and over. My love for watching the sport hit a peak when I was living in London and frequently went out to East London to see 3rd division Leyton Orient play. Some of the best soccer experiences I’ve ever had took place in Orient’s home stadium.
3. What were some of your responsibilities while at MLS?
I was always a part of the Fan Development department during my 7 years at MLS. First as Coordinator, then Manager and then eventually Director. My core responsibilities focused on 4 areas: establishing partnerships with grassroots soccer organizations, managing national grassroots programs, working with MLS clubs to build their brands within their local communities and working with club supporters groups.
4. In your time at MLS what was the core market that the league was after? Do you think that changed over time?
During my first few years, MLS was mainly focused on connecting with youth soccer players and the Hispanic community and developing them into supporters of the league and their local clubs. However the last few years (2007-2009) was all about reaching out to the 18-34 “core” supporter. This group was made up of the many US and Canada based individuals who loved watching European soccer but didn’t necessarily follow MLS.
5. How did the relationship between sponsors and the league affect the way you cultivated fans? In other words did they insist on a certain demographic or where they happy to have people view them at all?
During the first few years, sponsors had a huge impact on the way we cultivated fans. We didn’t have access to a large Fan Development budget so most of our resources were tied into sponsor programming. When I first started with the league, the 2 major programs I was looking after were the Pepsi Dribble, Pass & Score program and MLS Futbolito. Both programs were connected to major national sponsors and were created to help those sponsors reach a specific demographic. The sponsors were certainly interested in the overall success of the league, however, when it came to evaluating these programs it was all about our success in reaching their target market. Although we appreciated the sponsors’ support we found that most individuals were becoming supporters of these programs and not the league or their local club.
Commissioner Garber eventually allocated resources which could be used purely for Fan Development purposes without relying on sponsor support. This had a tremendous positive impact on our department’s ability to develop fans.
6. In the last 5 years MLS has seen a surge in its core fan base, what do you think attributed to that?
The league has definitely been successful in reaching the core fan demographic. A major reason for this is the success that Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders had in creating an authentic atmosphere and raising the bar for other clubs to follow. Another reason is that the league has taken a bigger interest in working with and empowering club supporter groups. Also, bringing in quality designated players such as Beckham, Henry and Marques has served to introduce the league to a whole new crop of soccer supporters. Finally, the fact that most clubs have their own soccer specific stadium has definitely created a more European soccer experience which is what many of the core supporters are ultimately seeking.
7. What do you think MLS needs to do more gain a wider audience both in the soccer and casual sports communities?
I strongly believe that MLS is on the right path to become one of the most successful sports leagues in the US. Something that MLS could look at it is reaching out to the urban communities. Although it’s slowly changing, soccer in the US and MLS are considered more suburban, whereas, there is a massive segment of the population which lives in urban areas and could connect with the sport and MLS. The NBA has done this well and I know that through futsal, player appearances, CSR projects, etc… MLS could find its way into this community.
8. Are there some things you wished you could’ve changed while at MLS?
I wanted to put more emphasis on long term community outreach efforts. I strongly believe that some of the best Fan Development is done while making a lasting difference to a community. If you look at many of the top EPL clubs, most of their grassroots marketing is focused on community service projects. MLS has an opportunity to transform communities around the US and Canada while developing supporters of the league and I don’t think that we really took advantage of that opportunity while I was with the league.
9. What are some of the misconceptions you think fans have about MLS and its marketing efforts?
Fans will always be critical of the league’s marketing efforts and, to some extent; I appreciated how emotionally vested the supporters were in the success of the league both on and off the field. However, I think many of the fans would be surprised how bright, passionate and creative the people working for the league are and just how much they also care about the success of the league…and not just their own careers.
I think that the biggest misconception is that the league is not really doing anything to market itself. With limited budgets and not a lot of support from corporate or broadcast partners, we all had to work extra hard to gain even a little exposure for the league. Unfortunately it was not always easy to see the tangible results of the efforts put in given the size of the US and the number of competitors MLS has in the market.
10. What are you doing now?
I currently live in Delhi and am Director of Libero Sports India which is India’s first and only soccer consulting company. My main intention of being in India is to help professionalize the soccer market within this country. Here is our corporate video which gives some background on the type of projects we work on:
11. Is soccer more popular or more or less the same in India?
Cricket is king in India, however soccer is definitely the #2 sport. Most youth in tier 1 cities love to play the sport and are surprisingly more knowledgeable about European soccer than many people in Europe. However the sport is just picking up in the rural communities which comprise of a major part of the country’s population.
12. What are some of the challenges you are having in growing the sport in India? Are they similar to what they were in the US?
I feel that the state of soccer in India is where the sport was in the US back in the 80’s. There is definite grassroots interest in the sport and interest in watching it on TV, however the domestic options and product leave a lot to be desired. The domestic league is poor, infrastructure scarce, coaching is not at a high standard and there are not many quality leagues for youth players. That said, the future is bright and there are many domestic and international stakeholders all aligned in supporting the growth of the game over here. I’m quite certain that the state of soccer will rise in India at a much quicker pace than it did in the US.
13. What are some of the things you learned at MLS that are now helping you in India?
The biggest thing I learned from MLS is that slow, steady and strategic wins the race. The architects of MLS did a fantastic job of creating a solid foundation which would allow the league to thrive in its late teenage years. In India, everyone is trying to create an EPL in 1 day and wondering why these projects fail quickly or never get off the ground. I frequently bring in MLS examples of single entity, slow expansion, salary caps, etc… into conversations when recommending how we approach building a stronger domestic league in this country.
14. What are some of the things that MLS could learn from soccer in India?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything that MLS could learn from soccer in India.
15. Do you think MLS would benefit by focusing some resources to attracting fans in India and the rest of Asia?
Yes, I certainly see value in MLS focusing resources to attract fans in India and the rest of Asia. When I first arrived in India, the Kansas City Wizards signed Indian striker Sunil Chhetri. Although he didn’t play much, the signing generated significant media and interest in MLS within India.
My recommendation is that MLS begins to form partnerships with some of the better youth academies in Asia. With the right development, I’m quite confident that a few players from emerging markets within Asia will be good enough to regularly start for an MLS club which is when the real return on investment will be experienced. In India alone, with a population of over a billion people, I’m confident that MLS will significantly benefit from supporting the development of an Indian player and then signing him on to a club.
16. While at MLS what were some of your favorite projects(s) to work on?
My favorite project was Sueño MLS. I felt like it was the first authentic reality show trial to be organized by a professional league. The first year of the program was extremely exciting because we were able to discover Jorge Flores who went from cleaning church bathrooms to starting for Chivas USA and now representing many US National teams. One project I’ll never forget is when I had the opportunity to organize soccer clinics for underprivileged youth in Harlem, New York and Oahu, Hawaii with David Beckham. I think it was the first time I was ever star struck and I got to experience how great he is with making everyone he interacts with feel important. Finally, I’ll always cherish the many moments I got to spend with club supporter groups and experiencing their pre-game, in-game and post-game passion and parties. Probably the best part of my job as Director of Fan Development.
17. Do you have any advice for a young marketing major who is looking to break into the soccer scene?
My advice is to figure out your passion, your strengths and your dream job in soccer and then go for it full out. My 10 years working in sports has taught me that it is rarely the smartest person who gets the job, it is the one who is most hungry for it. So follow your heart, take risks, fail and never lose sight of your dream.
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