ON A FLIGHT FROM GUADALAJARA TO LOS ANGELES -- The messages were simple -- Chivas USA is striving to reach unprecedented heights; the club is an evolution from its Guadalajara namesake -- but the medium was anything but.
The local Major League Soccer club took to the skies this week to unveil its new jersey, part of larger marketing scheme meant to surprise and dazzle while embracing tradition. If there was a measure of the ridiculous to it all, well, that was the point.
With star striker Juan Pablo Angel, club-MVP goalkeeper Dan Kennedy and iconic local defender Jorge Villafaña serving as runway models, Chivas USA introduced its new look -- not particularly different than the old one -- on a flight Wednesday afternoon from Guadalajara to Los Angeles.
It was a flight like none other.
“We think it's very important to innovate, to do something very unique,” said Rodrigo Morales, who joined Chivas USA 14 months ago as vice president of marketing of sponsorship following four years in a business development for Club Deportivo Guadalajara, the Goats' parent club. “We decided to do something very creative, very unique, and to do something that's never been done in the airline industry and also the sports industry.”
Mission accomplished. This was certainly a first.
Chivas USA on Tuesday flew club executives and players, two members of the ChivaGirls dance team, representatives of sponsors and partners, plus several media to Guadalajara, where there was time to eat, sleep, eat and head back to the airport little more than 12 hours later.
Volaris, a club sponsor since midseason last year, was game. The Mexican airline, looking to promote its LAX-to-GDL service, isn't new to this: popular norteño band Los Tigres del Norte performed on a flight.
“We have a lot of things in common,” Morales said. “We're very young bands, want to innovate and be creative and do crazy things.”
If it gets attention, it works. This got attention: lots of media coverage, here and in Guadalajara, and potentially 120 or so new fans. Only about a third of the passengers for Wednesday's flight home were connected to the venture; the rest were unsuspecting travelers, most of whom joined in the fun, snapping photos, cheering on request (or demand) and happily accepting replica jerseys -- everyone took one home (or were promised a shirt, when supplies ran short).
The actual catwalk, some 36,000 feet in the air, lasted all of 10 minutes.
“I think this is one of the weirdest [things I've done],” Villafaña said when it was done. “I have never, ever done thing thing before. We were talking about [how the people on the flight] didn't expect this, but it was fun. And maybe these people can go and cheer for us at the Home Depot.”
The negative for the players was missing Tuesday's 60-minute preseason game against Montreal and Wednesday's training session -- says Kennedy: “It won't be the end of the world, but you never like missing; it's fun to be around the team, and you feel like you're missing out" -- but Angel received an unexpected bonus.
The high-scoring Colombian forward played for the New York Red Bulls (and Galaxy) before joining the Goats last August, and as soon as he cleared customs in Guadalajara, he ran into some of his old Red Bulls teammates and other friends associated with the club, heading home after a 16-day camp in Cancún and Guadalajara. He spent a few minutes talking to 19-year-old U.S. national team forward Juan Agudelo, who's sporting a Neymar-ish hairstyle.
Angel, Kennedy, Villafaña and ChivaGirls Alma and Whitney signed autographs and posed for photos before boarding the plane, which featured Chivas advertising on the overhead bins and tray-tables. The fun started about 90 minutes into the flight.
“It's definitely ... I would like to call it creative,” Kennedy said. “I didn't expect to fly all the way to Guadalajara to do our jersey unveiling, but with that being said, hopefully what this does is spark some interest, because it is different.”
That's what Morales is hoping to do. Chivas' initial launch, in 2005, was disastrous -- the club was seen as arrogant and uneducated to the nuances of the American game, and it won just five games in year one. There have been good and bad seasons since, but the struggle to make an imprint in the Southern California marketplace has been difficult. The club draws, in real terms, perhaps two-fifths as many fans as the Galaxy, its archrival and landlord.
Chivas certainly is getting more ink for its new jersey, although the changes to the Galaxy's shirt -- with the blue sash and “scudetto” in honor of last year's title -- are more dramatic. The Galaxy had no official unveiling: The new jersey, also by adidas, was first shown at David Beckham's news conference last month at Staples Center.
The new Chivas look won't shock anybody. The iconic red and white stripes, of course, remain; the changes are in the details. Now there's a blue collar, red and white striping on the shoulders, white on the back of the arms, and the stripes extend to the bottom of the shirt.
The real innovation is the material, made possible by new technologies. Mike Walker, adidas' project manager for soccer, describes it as “engineered mesh” -- it's much lighter and, even with the stripes, seamless. Literally.
Chivas is the only club in MLS using the material.
“The texture is different,” Villafaña said. “It's more tight to the body, a retrofit. Very light.”
Morales, who said in “maybe three weeks, four weeks” that four new sponsors and partners would be announced, thinks the presentation will be “very positive,” but his work depends somewhat on how good the product is on the field. Second-year head coach Robin Fraser and top assistant Greg Vanney last year built a viable foundation for success. The playoffs, maybe more, is expected in 2012.
“The best marketing strategy, the best sponsorship strategy is winning,” Morales said. “If you win, everything is very easy. If Chivas USA gets our first championship, I will sell tons of sponsorships. Once results will come, every single part of the institution will follow. Winning is of the essence.”