Inside the Fire: Dan Lobring
OTF Editor Scott Fenwick talked to Dan Lobring on April 12th about his new position, the club’s front office organization and direction, and growing MLS in Chicago and America…
OTF: What’s your personal connection to the game of soccer?
DL: “In my last job at a sports marketing agency here in Chicago, we worked with ESPN (college football, lacrosse, basketball, etc.) and EA Sports quite a bit. So one of my first soccer experiences, so to speak, was more on the international side around the time of EURO 2008. It was our first project with ESPN on soccer, and it also introduced us to EA Sports. EA was launching a European Cup-specific title to go along with the competition itself.
You know, when I played the game, I started to really get into it, and picked up knowledge of who the players were, the stadiums, who was on which national team, etc. That was sort of my introduction.”
OTF: EA Sports’ FIFA franchise is a significant inroad for folks who are soccer novices.
DL: “Yes, for sure. You’re doing something right when you sell more than 100 million copies globally. EA’s approach is also interesting because for them it’s not just a soccer play, it’s a lifestyle play. But more personally, in 2000, I was lucky to be in France during the EURO Cup. When France clinched a berth in the championship game, we were in Paris. I remember walking around that evening near Notre Dame, and everyone in the cafes and on the streets was paying attention to the semifinal game.
I was with my wife (fiancée at the time) and brother, and after France won everyone spontaneously took to the streets, to the Champs–Élysées and marched to the Arc d’Triomphe. There was something about that experience too, something you don’t see in the U.S. in terms of sports. It was this sort of national reaction of pride. It was cool to witness that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that experience. To be there as it was happening was amazing.”
OTF: Tell me about your previous job and how your background translates into your new position as Senior Director of Communications for Chicago Fire SC.
DL: “I was at rEvolution, an independent sports marketing and media agency, for six years before I came to the club this February. rEvolution works on the client side of sports marketing. So for example, if there is a client who wants to activate around any sports program, i.e., soccer, golf, NBA, NFL, etc., the agency would facilitate that deal and ideate and execute the marketing campaign. Essentially, I joined rEvolution at a time when they didn’t have an internal PR group.
So, I was brought in to formalize the PR group internally, execute PR for client programs, as well as oversee all PR for the agency itself. A lot of the PR work we did on the brand side was around experiential marketing, i.e., for Travelers, Dyson, World Sport Chicago, etc. In terms of soccer (which I know is probably of most interest), we primarily worked with ESPN and EA. For example, with EA, they’d launch the FIFA title each year. Since 2008, they’ve done a grassroots experiential marketing tour with rEvolution where they put customized Sprinter vans equipped with TVs, game consoles, giveaways, etc., and they would travel around the country and sample game play. They’d go to college campuses, soccer bars, youth leagues, parks, MLS games, etc.
We worked with Cuauhtémoc Blanco when he was on the cover of FIFA ’10 and did an event at the Best Buy at the Hancock Building with him. We also had an exclusive media launch party where Fire players came out to a nightclub in Chicago in 2009. Professionally, these were my first connections with the club itself.
Also, the owner of rEvolution got to do the coin toss at the 2009 Fire/Revs Eastern Conference semifinal at Toyota Park, which was certainly a highlight of my experience as well. As luck would have it, a guy I worked with at rEvolution was college roommates with Logan Pause, which helped bridge the initial gap when I started. Since I came to the team at the end of February, Logan has been very helpful in introducing me to the locker room.
So to backtrack, my experience at rEvolution was to formalize PR and make it something we could sell. I also worked on positioning the executive team as thought leaders in the sports marketing world and in sports business. We accomplished those things. On the flip side, social media also became a de facto PR function because no one else was doing it at the agency at the time (2007).
So with the FIFA marketing program, as an example, we instituted things like Facebook fan pages and used Facebook events to reach out to fans. Standard now, but this was five+ years ago. We also used Twitter and posted photo and video content to bridge the gap between the EA crews on the road and the folks interested in playing the FIFA game. Even if they couldn’t make it out to an EA event, folks could still win t-shirts, games, see photos, watch videos, etc. It was an integrated communications approach to marketing the product.
What attracted me to the position here at the Fire was sort of a culmination of everything I had been doing at rEvolution – working with leadership and ownership on perception and brand management, using integrated communications, and formalizing the group internally as it related to helping all of the different groups under the company’s umbrella. I’ll do all of that here.
In addition, I’ll work closely with the Chicago Fire Foundation and the corporate partnership team. With the latter, I’ll help with what our sponsors want and provide different channels of communication to them to leverage the Club’s assets. The job now is to use my skill set on the property side, whereas before I was on the agency side. I’ve got to bring it all together – what we want, what the sponsors want, what the fans want.”
OTF: Your Senior Director of Communications position is a new one. Was what you just described ownership and management’s vision of exactly what they wanted, or is it the intersection of what you brought to the table, which perhaps influenced the job description and responsibilities?
DL: “I think they had an idea of what they wanted. They wanted more transparency. They wanted to build broader relationships. They wanted somebody who could be that front line of communication from ownership to the team, to the fans, and to the media. Those are clearly the goals. You’ve heard people say, ‘there’s not really a spokesperson,’ so that’s part of my role too.
You’ll hear ownership and management talk about scale. Obviously, the Fire has a core group of fans that are critical. In many ways the Section 8 supporters are the lifeblood, especially regarding the tradition, honor, and passion of the Club. But also I think everyone also knows that in order to be what we all want to become, we have to grow beyond that core. One of the things I was excited about when considering the job was the opportunity to find different and unique ways to do that.
Our upcoming “Art of Futbol” event, as a recent example, has allowed me to reach out to different outlets that might not necessarily cover the team, like WBEZ, Nothing Major, the Chicago Reader, and the Chicago Independent Radio Project. We want people who are not in soccer, specifically, to be involved with the club so they are exposed to soccer’s unique qualities and what makes the Fire so different from the other sports teams in town – from the music during the games, the singing, the chanting, the flags, to the fan/supporter experience, etc. That’s a big challenge and an opportunity.
Part of my role is looking at those challenges and finding opportunities with non-traditional media (beyond the soccer bloggers and beat writers), as well as reaching out to the local colleges, their journalism programs and art programs, and college students who are fans of the game. One of the things we’re working on is a broader ambassador’s council that we want to launch to bring a wide variety of different groups together. We think it will be really valuable, as it’s done well at other clubs. So that’s a big initiative too.
There’s also the broader challenge of helping us gain more long-term corporate partners and sponsors in order to gain more opportunities to invest back into the club.
Even with the Chicago Fire Foundation, there may have been a disconnect in the past with knowing where the money goes or what they actually do with it. Another recent example, the P.L.A.Y.S. program, helps solidify the sense that something real and tangible from the Club is making an impact in the city.
There are so many different stories to tell, and the challenge is to figure out which of them will have the biggest impact. I think we’ll get there. I haven’t been here long, but it’s been very eye-opening so far.”
OTF: What’s been your biggest challenge, your biggest learning curve so far?
DL: “Every organization has its unique mechanics of the way things work and how to navigate the waters to get things done. When you come in from the outside, it’s always a bit overwhelming to learn the nuances of who does what. On the agency side, a lot of what I did was very project-focused, i.e., here’s the client, here’s the project, here’s what we’re contracted to do, and we did it. Move on. Now, on the property, or club side, you’ve got to be able to juggle a bunch of things at once, with one ultimate goal: filling the stadium. There are also perhaps more stakeholders in terms of who I need to work with. So part of what I’ve been trying to do is learn as much as I can as fast as I can.”
OTF: Then is it fair to say that you’ve moved from behind-the-scenes to an up front position?
DL: “In some ways, yes. My personal style or approach is to push other people into the limelight, but I will be out there. With guys like A.K. (Atul Khosla, Chief Operating Officer) and Javier (Leon, Chief of Soccer Operations), I’m aware that they’ve not been out there as much historically, so my job will be to facilitate that people know who they are, what their role is, and what they’re doing. But it goes beyond them too.
Take for example Jessica (Worley, Senior Director of Corporate Partnerships), she’s a huge asset. My job will be to position her as an expert in the field and make people aware that the Fire is doing innovative things on the corporate partner side. Same with guys like Mike Ernst (Vice President of Ticket Sales, Service, and Operations). He’s been here four+ years, he is the current liaison to Section 8, and he’s been doing a tremendous job.
I’ll be out there on the communications and press side, but I also want to bring people out who the fans might not know about. People may ask, ‘Who are these people and what are they doing?’ Part of my job is to shine a light across the board.”
OTF: Interestingly, one person who has been out there, who everybody knows, is Brendan Hannan (Director of Marketing, Digital, and Broadcast). By virtue of your position being created and, organizationally speaking, things being shifted around a bit, how has that affected Brendan, Jeff Crandall (Editor, chicago-fire.com), and Eunice Kim (Communications Specialist)?
DL: “Essentially, right now, communications is just me and Eunice. Marketing is now a much bigger department than it used to be. There, you have Linda (Connors, Senior Director of Marketing), who oversees the group, including Brendan. He’s taking on a different role but is still very connected with communications. If anything, he now has more freedom to flex his creative muscle through things like digital, brand, and partner marketing. Brendan also manages everything that relates to the broadcast media, the website, and social media, working in conjunction with Jeff, who’s editing and still writing for the website.
So what may be different structurally is that I will work closely with all these different teams to ensure that everyone – from the leadership team on down – is on the same page with the messages we’re trying to get out there. For example, we’ll have specific players we’re trying to highlight, or corporate partner deals that are coming through, Foundation events to promote, etc. It’s making sure that what we’re saying on the website, to the media, to our corporate partners, through social media, is all integrated and unified. So I think it’s a positive that we’re truly trying to get more organized.
I also have a direct line to Andrew (Hauptman, Owner). Part of that is because he wants ownership to have a voice that’s more transparent in Chicago. I prefer it this way. PR and communications only work when you have buy-in from the most senior people and they make themselves available. So that’s huge for me. Having a direct line to both A.K. and Andrew should allow me to answer any questions people will have (or at least try).”
OTF: Granted, it’s only been two months, but what do you enjoy most so far about the job? What are you excited about? What do you most look forward to?
DL: “First, I love sports. I also like the independent nature (to a degree) of the underdog – not only the Fire in Chicago’s sports landscape, but also MLS overall. Every place I’ve worked has been either family owned or independent. I think that culture allows you to be entrepreneurial, to forge your own path. That’s what’s exciting about this job, that it’s okay to try new things, to innovate and find solutions.
I also come from an independent music background. Everything I’ve learned about the Fire and MLS, similarly, kind of marches to the beat of its own drummer. This is exciting to me. That always hasn’t been done, but ownership and leadership wants that type of environment and culture. For example, just because something was tried in the NFL or the Premier League, that doesn’t mean it should be tried here. Here, I think it’s the other way around, i.e., ‘let’s try things that haven’t been done and not settle for how others think it should be done.’
Coming in from the outside, there’s a challenge here, an opportunity, and that’s exciting. Being around the team, who are a good group of guys, and the staff, Frank – these are people who are extremely passionate and care. They want the team to succeed. So if anything, I want to rally all of those groups together and try to push toward that goal. I always try to focus on the solution of what we can do, versus rehashing something we have no control over.”
OTF: So is it fair to say Chicago Fire is a forward-looking organization?
DL: “Yes – absolutely. Andrew’s vision is very much for the long-term. It’s also important to note that his mindset is club before individual and doing whatever is in the best interest of the club. He trusts the team and the front office staff to execute that vision. For example, he doesn’t micromanage me to death because he wants me to be able to come in, pick up as much as I can, and execute the things we talked about.
In PR and communications, it’s all about relationship building, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Obviously, there’s the importance of shoring up the relationships with the hardcore supporters, the current season ticket holders, the current corporate partners, etc. But the long-term play is also the new relationships that will take us to the next level, to where we want to go. From the media standpoint and to the collegiate crowd and beyond, I’ll at least try to lay some of that groundwork so we can continue to build that over time.”
OTF: I’d like to switch gears and talk about the relationship between the league and its clubs as franchises. Many argue that MLS’s single-entity model has met its aim: stability. Does the league need to loosen its reigns and allow clubs more freedom to innovate and take advantage of their own unique markets? There are so many opportunities for an individual MLS club to craft its image on its own terms. In my opinion, there’s no better place in America for a professional soccer team to do business than Chicago, for a number of reasons.
I know you haven’t been on the job too long, but have you been able to get a feel for the benefits and/or disadvantages of being a franchise connected to a single-entity structure, in terms of being able to innovate and your opportunities to be entrepreneurial? Has Andrew, Javier, and/or A.K. had conversations with you about how the league operates, things the club must comply with, and what the club is able to do on its own? Is a balancing act required?
DL: “Honestly, most of what I’ve experienced so far in terms of the league centers directly around the games. From a communications standpoint, there are things we must do each week, and on gameday (obviously). The parts that make up the institutional process of being part of a league: media guides, weekly notes, injury reports, postgame press conferences, postgame press releases, etc.
Beyond that, I’ve been on league-wide PR calls. I’ve met Howard Handler (MLS Chief Marketing Officer) and Dan Courtemanche (MLS Executive VP, communications), and I sense that they’re very much in a supporting role. Meaning, from a league standpoint, ‘What can we do to help you?’ For example, they came down to South Carolina in the preseason and did media training with the team. It’s something they offered and wanted to help with before the season started. Granted, that’s just one small example, but I think my experience with them is that they want to help the club achieve what it wants to do. They’re not going to be dictating marketing or advertising plans.
Of course, they have league-wide initiatives, such as the ‘This is Soccer’ campaign we’re participating in, which I think helps everyone. Obviously, if you have a unified, consistent message across the league, I think that will help hit home a bit more than a disconnect between multiple markets pushing different things. Although, that’s not to say that each market can’t individually tailor the message (so it makes sense).
Also, the league is supportive from a broadcast partner standpoint in helping to promote the national broadcasts. That’s huge, especially as we go into a media rights renewal year at the end of 2014. As a sports business, so much of your revenue comes from media rights. So the more we create a demand and people tune in and demonstrate they’re passionate, they care, and that they’re watching, then it’s only going to help everybody. It’s an exciting opportunity for the league.
The other thing that’s pushing forward is the 20th team in New York. I think everyone feels like it’s going to happen. That will be exciting as well. I think you’ve seen expansion teams succeed recently. And of course, there are the older, more established teams, like Chicago.
I think each club has its own unique set of challenges, and I think the league is there to support everybody. Yes, we’re in Chicago. Yes, our stadium is 11 miles away from downtown. That’s not going to change. I think we work within the mindset of how we can improve or communicate that Toyota Park is not that far and that once you actually get here, the experience is unique. That’s a big challenge, but it’s one that can be overcome.”
OTF: I agree with your latter point. For many, many folks, it’s not too hard to get to Toyota Park.
DL: “For sure. But one of the things the marketing team is working on is expanding the bus program from the city and working with bars to facilitate getting more people out here. I think once people do that, the rate of return is high.
I also think that communicating the fan experience is a challenge, especially if you want to come across in an authentic way. That’s something I personally want to try to focus on. There’s such a range of folks who come out to the games, including how long they’ve been coming, why, and more importantly, why they care. Once other fans see that, it’s beyond just a product on the field. I think as a club we can help tell those stories. We have a voice.”
OTF: That’s a nice segue to the last issue I’d like to talk about. The league’s been around 18 years, yet it still has yet to find a tangible solution to the folks who know soccer, play soccer, and love soccer, yet pay MLS no mind because they think it’s poor quality. But they appreciate the game for the same reasons you and I do. Moreover, many of these folks have kids who are raised with a negative image of MLS. Have you had conversations with people about this issue? Is there an ongoing strategic initiative to try to reach these folks? This is a big problem for the league.
Granted, it’s smart to go after the younger demographic (16-34), the so-called “digital generation.” Yes. Do that. But what about these other folks, the next older generation? They have money to spend. They have kids. Many are involved in the game as coaches, soccer parents, or perhaps as players themselves. What about them?
DL: “I think you raise a huge point. First, league-wide, I think it’s the perception of the soccer itself. I think we’ve made inroads to that effect. We’re seeing more homegrown players, MLS players participating on national teams, or playing in other leagues. A lot of what I’ve been learning and reading up on is (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber’s vision, whereby he said before the season how by 2022 we want to be one of the premier leagues in soccer. Obviously, that’s several years from now, so it’s not going to happen overnight. But it’s good to have that public goal.
I like to think even something like our rec program provides a good example of what we’re talking about. Case in point, one of my former co-workers. He’s a guy who plays in an over-40 league and has kids who play youth soccer. One of the guys he plays with is (Chicago Fire player) Brendan King’s dad. Some of the guys he plays with have Fire season tickets, and then there are guys who think the quality of MLS play isn’t good enough (or they just don’t really care). So I think we have to chip away at the latter and find something that resonates with them – be it rec soccer, youth soccer, you name it.
We talk about how MLS has been around for 18 years. It’s interesting to think that you have high school kids who’ve grown up in a world where MLS has always existed, whereas for some older folks, perhaps MLS is still a bit of a novelty.”
OTF: Or, they think it’s crap. For me personally, this is the challenge. There are plenty of teenagers who’ve grown up in households where they’ve been taught to believe that MLS is not good soccer. There’s only 24 hours in a day, thus all of us only have a certain amount of free time to devote to our interests (in this case, consuming soccer), and there are a lot of teens who devote their soccer consumption time to the Premier League, Liga MX, La Liga, Serie A, or Bundesliga – especially the first two.
DL: “It’s a huge challenge. The league is well aware the challenge exists, especially in a media landscape where you can watch any game in any country at any time. That’s the reality. It’s a global media landscape. When you and I were growing up, whatever sports game that was on TV is what we watched. Now, people have so many more choices.
The positive, is that generationally, I think there’s a huge growth opportunity. Especially when you consider the amount of kids who are growing up with MLS and the large number of youth soccer players here. All good things. But the issue you brought up is something that needs to be figured out.
Globally, just look at the Fire. You’ve got guys like Sean Johnson, who gets called up to the US national team, or Joel Lindpere, in Estonia, and Arne Friedrich, the German World Cup veteran. I think it helps with credibility to have a guy like Arne come out and talk about why he wanted to come to MLS, be an ambassador for other guys to come over, and talk about how he loves Chicago. I think those are positive things that hopefully will stick with time.”
OTF: It’s sort of interesting how the perception of MLS’s quality of play, at times, is higher abroad than at home. I sometimes wonder if it’s a matter of whether some American fans understand the game or not. From a PR and marketing standpoint, there must be clever, fun ways to educate American fans without being pedantic. If my perceptions are correct, this is another interesting challenge for the league.
DL: “Yes, and there’s also the marketability of stars. That always helps in any sport. If we had a phenom from Chicago (take Derek Rose) who played soccer, people would pay attention. Landon Donovan is another obvious example who has a national profile. I think the more we can have homegrown talent, that will really help. That is, homegrown talent that stays here.”
OTF: Indeed. This is an issue. There are so many Americans playing abroad. Some of these guys will command Designated Player-type money if they’re to play at home. Strategically, take the idea of Herculez Gomez playing for the Fire. A guy like that would be an asset – not only for the team, but for the league itself. There are so many others, especially Latino-Americans who play abroad and have the “homegrowness,” if you will, plus the soccer credibility among Latino fans in the US and elsewhere.