Cosmos Miss PK, But Is It “Sela” Vie?
I never met Paul Kemsley. And now it seems I never will. As Chairman & CEO of the new New York Cosmos, he was the face of the organization – and the man who first reached out to Pepe Pinton about resurrecting the legendary American soccer brand. Now he has stepped down, officially, after an ugly month of rumors and speculation about his future and that of the club.
Even though his credentials included a stint as Vice Chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, Kemsley wasn’t without baggage. His Rock Joint Ventures Ltd. - the real estate investment and development company he built – eventually sank like a stone, leaving some to question his ability to lead the Cosmos. But PK, as I often heard him called, was a self-made man – and a maverick, which made him a good fit to steer the Cosmos ship. After all, it would take some brass balls to pull off such a bold venture.
So what did Kemsley do for the Cosmos? Clearly he gave us all hope. He got the ball rolling on the effort to bring back the New York Cosmos as the 20th Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise. He helped established one of the most progressive and promising youth academies in the country. And he sold a bunch of t-shirts. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. The club’s Vice Chairman Terry Byrne – another Brit with both credentials and baggage (serving as Watford’s Director of Football after literally rubbing his way into the game as a team masseuse) recently stated that the Cosmos were barely 40 percent of the way to having a full-fledged MLS franchise.
While one could argue that 40 percent is a lot of progress for an organization barely a year old, it’s woefully inadequate for one that hoped to field an MLS team in 2013. Not to mention a growing payroll that includes the likes of Eric Cantona and Cobi Jones, and blustery expectations set by towering (and expensive) Times Square advertisements.
These days, the mood amongst most Cosmos fans is one of disappointment and frustration. Not just because so little progress has been made towards a stadium and franchise, but frankly because the Cosmos have been trying to ply them with everything but what they want. The Cosmos played an exhibition match in England and seemed to have agreed to one in Las Vegas next year – everywhere but here in New York City, where they promised to play one, and where it would do them the most good. Their tour of Asia seemed like an odd choice, but not quite as odd as their effort to produce a lengthy “Opus” that captures the complete history of the club, which is downright bizarre for an organization that was supposed to be making history instead of trying to sell it. And, thanks to a generous partnership with Umbro, they have marketed an endless line of clothing and accessories. Perhaps Kemsley will be carrying the Cosmos Diamond Icons Holdall duffel bag as he makes his exit. At $80, it’s a fittingly stylish accessory for any departing board member.
Speaking of departing board members, Carl Johnson has also disappeared from the “management” page of the Cosmos Web site. Prior to the announcement concerning Kemsley’s departure, Johnson had been listed alongside Rick Parry as a Board Director. Queries to both the Cosmos and Anomaly, the ad agency where Johnson worked, went unanswered.
The Ugly October
This all started with Twittergate, in the last week of September, which sprung countless rumors about Kemsley and the Cosmos. After a week of silence, Kemsley’s departure was officially denied, though ever so softly, which only led to further – and wilder – speculation. My favorite had to be that Chuck Blazer, who finally retired as General Secretary of CONCACAF amid an ongoing FBI investigation of funds he received, would now somehow be connected to the Cosmos organization. And given the club’s apparent eagerness to hand business cards to anyone who might bring them some publicity, it was almost believable. I would have loved to see his portrait – complete with parrot – in front of the brick wall with the Cosmos logo.
Then, what was once the loudest soccer club in America suddenly became the quietest. For almost a year, hardly a day had passed without a Facebook post or Tweet from the Cosmos. But during the first three weeks of October 2011, they posted only two things on Facebook, amid an endless string of unaddressed rants, abuse, and accusations about their demise. There was even a string of spam postings (removed not by the Cosmos staff but rather a concerned supporter). The once mighty Cosmos now looked like an abandon building covered with graffiti – and most of it rather nasty in content and delivery.
Following the official Kemsley exit announcement on Thursday, Oct. 26th, which was about as surprising as when Ricky Martin coming out of el armario, there was a tirade of abusive comments on the club’s Facebook page. A lot of people seemed to think that this was the end of the Cosmos, fuelled by even more speculation and conspiracy theories in the wake of what has been a general lack of information from the club.
The Cost of Change
Where do the Cosmos go from here? Clearly this is a turning point, though in which direction the turn has taken them remains to be seen. The departure of Kemsley could release the floodgates, opening up negotiations and generating the investment needed to land a stadium and franchise agreement. Or it could be pulling the plug that sinks the whole ship.
For many, the Cosmos under Kemsley were far too arrogant. Rather than embracing their fans and offering an open channel of communication, the organization has continually asked fans to have faith, offering promises instead of information, scarves instead of games, and books instead of seats. Rather than being open about its progress and challenges, the aspiring franchise has insisted that all was well, despite often failing to deliver what they had promised. And now, with the resignation of the Chairman & CEO, many feel that their suspicions that all was not well have been firmly confirmed.
Worse yet, the phrase that was used to dismiss speculation about Kemsley departure only a month earlier – “business as usual” – was also used in the announcement of his departure: “Business will continue as usual for the club and its day-to-day management.” After putting faith in the initial use of this phrase, I fear it doesn’t hold much water this time around.
The Future of the Cosmos
So what does this all mean for the fans of the New York Cosmos? Much of it depends on questions that the Cosmos have yet to answer.
For starters, why wasn’t Rick Parry named Chairman & CEO? As the former CEO of Liverpool FC, he certainly is as qualified a person as you’ll find. Are they holding the position vacant as part of some sort of merger deal with another franchise candidate? Or are they holding it in hopes of attracting new investors, with the Chairman & CEO job being the prize?
The Cosmos did not respond to these questions. Nor did they respond to queries about Shep Messing’s status with the organization. Some reports have suggested that he jumped ship to a competitor, with Chuck Blazer (the New York Parrots?) and former American football player Curtis Martin. However, no sources were cited for these claims, and Messing remains listed on the Cosmos Web site as an International Ambassador.
The Cosmos also failed to comment on speculation that Sela Sport is the investor that bought out Kemsley (and presumably Johnson). The Saudi-based sports marketing agency claims to have a New York office, according to their Web site, but their 2011 credentials presentation only lists Riyadh and London in addition to the Jeddah headquarters. Efforts to confirm the connection between the Cosmos and Sela Sport received no response from either party.
Sela Sport from Saudi Arabia
Established in 1995, Sela Sport was the first sports marking company in Saudi Arabia. The agency made a name for itself by securing Carlos Alberto to coach the Saudi national team and luring Hristo Stoichkov to play for the Saudi club Al-Nassr. Since then the firm has been in charge of securing sponsorships for the Saudi national team as well as many of the nation’s top-level clubs. It also organized testimonials for several players, bringing in competition like Real Madrid and Manchester United (sound familiar?). And they pioneered merchandising for several Saudi clubs (which should also sound familiar). But the only definitive connection to the Cosmos is that they tapped Rick Parry to serve on the Saudi Football Development Committee Task Force, a development significant enough to merit a full page in the agency’s 2011 credentials presentation.
Sela Sport doesn’t have a lot of experience outside Saudi Arabia, so it is unclear whether their expertise will have much bearing on MLS and the American market. And there’s even reason to question the quality of the game in Saudi Arabia, as the new national team coach Frank Rijkaard did in an interview with FIFA.com: “I’m a little more familiar with Saudi football right now and I can say that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, both on the field and in terms of the game’s administration.”
The Headless Cosmos
Perhaps the strangest thing about all of this is that Cosmos didn’t have a new Chairman & CEO waiting in the wings. In my 20 years as a marketing consultant, I have had the displeasure of handling a number of corporate regime changes. I never saw one in which a new CEO wasn’t identified as part of the announcement – unless the standing CEO met with a sudden demise, such as a tragic accident or felony indictment. And as far as we know, Kemsley was not hit by a bus or arrested for groping.
For me, this is the most troubling part of the story. Even if you think Kemsley was just abandoning ship (as opposed to stepping down for a business reason), the Cosmos had at least a month to identify a suitable replacement. Not a lot of time, but then why not keep Kemsley on as a figurehead until an appropriate candidate can be found?
Again, Parry seems like the obvious choice. But the Kemsley press release implies that a new Chairman & CEO won’t be announced for a few months. With this position left open, and many questions left unanswered, it’s hard to say what the future holds for the New York Cosmos.
Why Did This Happen?
This lack of substantive information has continued to fuel speculation about the reasons for Kemsley’s departure and the possible demise of the Cosmos. One publication suggested that Kemsley was forced out because of the “flamboyance” of his marketing efforts. But given that Sela Sport is a marketing agency, and having seen some of the work they do in Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that the Cosmos’ aggressive marketing campaign was what they took issue with – if they even took issue with something.
A few have speculated that Kemsley had planned this all along, that he wanted to build the brand and then bugger-off with whatever profit he could make. That’s certainly a colorful story, and would make for a great Facebook post – provided certain parties learn proper sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation – but no evidence to support this claim has ever been presented.
There’s also the possibility that Kemsley fell on his sword. The Cosmos were struggling to make headway with MLS, and there’s been rumblings from Commissioner Don Garber about how the 20th franchise would need to be managed by people who embrace the collective ownership concept (and it would make little sense for him to express this concern unless there was a potential franchise owner who he felt did not adequately embrace it). Maybe Kemsley realized that he had become an obstacle to the organization’s progress and decided to step aside?
Or maybe (and more likely, I suspect) it was all about the money. Despite their claims to the contrary, the Cosmos clearly needed more money. Whether or not they had or have the $100 million needed to buy into MLS is one thing. The real challenge was getting a stadium built.
As I reported earlier, the estimated construction costs for the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey were around $200 million whereas those for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn are closer to $1 billion. That requires some deep pockets. And, frankly, if the Cosmos already had this kind of money, we would have surely seen some progress on this front. It’s not easy to build a stadium in this city, but it’s not impossible (ask the Nets). It just takes money – and a lot of it.
The Bottom Line
Whether Sela Sport has invested additional funds or simply bought Kemsley and Johnson’s shares remains to be seen. But given the apparent stagnation of the Cosmos franchise quest after Old Trafford, I can’t imagine one investor would agree to buy the shares of another unless they were convinced that they could ultimately succeed. If Sela Sport thought the chances of the Cosmos landing an MLS franchise were slim, then why buy-out the other investors? If you think you are going to lose the money you invested, then you don’t invest more. And you don’t write a check to your partners so you can lose all the money yourself.
Which hopefully is good news for the Cosmos and their fans – at least those who stuck with them through this ugly October. If Sela Sport did increase their investment, then maybe the organization now has the resources it needs to secure a stadium and franchise. If not, according to the rumor mill, there are other bidders making a run for that 20th franchise in New York City. And the vacant spot at the top might be enough to secure some sort of merger for the Cosmos.
Though Anomaly would not confirm it, it’s safe to assume that Johnson will return to his old career in the ad business. As for Kemsley, that’s an entirely different matter. After the loss of Rock Joint Ventures, the company he built from the ground up, another perceived failure would make him a very unbankable commodity. Which is why a unilateral move on his part to leave the Cosmos seems like such a stretch.
But I have a feeling that Kemsley will land on his feet – somewhere. There’s always the possibility that he could go back into reality TV. He had a part on the UK version of The Apprentice before his company went under. I could easily see him appearing on Dancing with the Stars. That show is perfect for the not-quite-famous-but-morons-will-watch-anything set. Or maybe a supporting role on Jersey Shore, as the long-lost lovable Uncle Paulie, whose father came to England from New Jersey to fight in World War II and ended up marrying a local gal and settling down as a bricklayer.
But why limit yourself to the electronic urinal tablet that is reality TV? I could see Kemsley pairing up with Sherman Hemsley – Kemsley and Hemsley – for a new twist on the buddy-cop show. It would be like The Golden Girls meets Miami Vice. Maybe call it Boca Vice.
Until then, we’ll have to wait and see what happens. The Cosmos aren’t saying much, and even their most faithful fans seem to have lost interest over the past month. Whether or not they remain a viable candidate for the 20th MLS franchise remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t be surprised. At least no more surprised than I would be to see Kemsley and Hemsley in Boca Vice next season.