Cosmos Executive Director Joe Fraga talks exclusively with TIAS about relaunching his childhood club
Three Brits, three famous men swoop in and buy the rights to the Cosmos. Now they just have to figure out what to do with what is probably still the most famous American soccer club in history. Some of today’s most famous Mad Men go to town. They hold interviews, not for employees as much as focus groups, all while keeping the secret.
Unlike starting a new business with new products, the Cosmos come on the scene with a trans-Atlantic tanker’s worth of baggage, both blessings and challenges. Surely they need to find someone who understands all of that, can make sense of it in today’s American soccer landscape, and provide the leadership necessary to get it off the ground.
Enter Executive Director Joe Fraga, a local man, original Cosmos fan, who was there when Giants Stadium was packed full and has been waiting inside the vacuum ever since. His first questions to the new Cosmos brass were pretty close to everybody’s questions.
Earlier, we heard from Terry Byrne about the MLS franchise and stadium goals of the club, for which they say all the finances are set. If all goes according to plan, they will be the 20th MLS franchise in 2013 with a soccer specific stadium to call their own in Queens. Which all sounds lovely, but what is it right now? That’s where Fraga comes in, charged with getting the grassroots efforts off the ground and keeping the soccer credibility on pace with the marketing.
It’s only been three months, but that’s an eternity in today’s new cycle. Will youth academies, club partnerships, corporate and community outreach, and forth-coming “inspirational games” be enough to sate fans all the way to 2013 and MLS?
TIAS: You are the one local guy on the executive staff at the moment, so let’s start there with your background and thoughts on the Cosmos before this came about and now that you’re working for the club.
Joe Fraga: Yeah, I grew up in the area. I was raised in North Jersey, so I grew up with the Cosmos. I’m 39; the team was launched the year I was born.
So old enough to have real memories of the team?
Absolutely, and a lot of the players that we’re dealing with now. One of the best things about this job for me is growing up with the team and getting to know players from that age—six and up into high school—they used to come to our practices.
So yeah, I grew up with the Cosmos and never really attached myself to another team in the States. I played in North Jersey, Bergen Kickers, Leonia high school. Played at St. John’s University. 1992 we won the Big East tournament. I left the area, was all over the country, played some ball. I went down to Miami, worked with the Fusion, worked with the Breakers, and with the Gliders—I was the GM of the women’s team for a while. Even when I left here, I guess in 1994—I was involved with politics—but soccer was always my first passion, so I was always involved with the sport in some way shape or form regardless of what my professional career was.
And then I moved back here in 2001 and started full time with the sport. I worked with the UN AIDS game, Real Madrid v Roma, in 2002. And then I worked with Champions World, where we produced all the tours for Man U, Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter, Roma, AC Milan, you name it. We brought them over for a while. Then when I left Champions World, I worked at the UN. I was executive director for the World Sports Alliance, where 99% of my job there was creating soccer programs, because that is what everyone wanted. We did have some basketball, some tennis, we tried to do some cricket; but soccer, everyone wanted soccer—the fields, the infrastructure, the equipment. Which then led me back here.
Guerrilla (er, monkey?) Cosmos advertising in Manhattan’s meatpacking district
I got a call—I don’t even remember who called me—saying I needed to be at Anomaly at a certain time in the afternoon, because they were interviewing people about their Cosmos experiences. So when you ask me how I got involved, obviously there are a handful of Cosmos fans from the day it folded until now who have always wondered what’s gonna happen, when is it gonna happen, and if it’s gonna happen. Even at Champions World, we were looking at buying the franchise from Peppe, and I have known Peppe for a long time as well. So it was one of those, “Hey did you hear, the rights were bought? Peppe finally gave up the rights!”
When was that?
October 2009 I guess. And so sure enough a few weeks later I get a call and show up at Anomaly.
What did you think it was for?
Well, I’ll tell you what, I remember telling the person who called me, well, how did you get my name, and they went through, “Oh, we were told you were a point person for soccer in the city.” I had just finished helping put together Copa NYC and connecting it with the Mayor’s office, and it came through there somehow. I remember the first comment I made was: can you tell me what this is about? And the person who called me from Anomaly was an assistant or someone calling for someone else, so they didn’t really know. They just knew they were interviewing people for their “Cosmos experience.”
So I showed up there, and it was Dan Cherry, who is now our Chief Marketing Officer, and he said, “Look, we are putting on film—we’re just interviewing people who had been part of the whole Cosmos experience, and we want to know what you remember.” Of course I asked why, where is this going? It was supposed to be fifteen minutes; I ended up being there for four hours.
So did he tell you?
I guess back then they had an idea, but they wanted to know what I wanted the team to be. I said they have to be this and can’t be that. You have to respect the legacy. It just started with that, which became a four-hour meeting. And then Dan introduced me to Carl Johnson, who is the Partner of Anomaly and the Cosmos CEO, and I spoke another hour or two with Carl. Then a couple of weeks later I’m meeting with Paul Kemsley. I met with Paul and Terry. I was finishing up my MBA, and they called again the day before my classes were ending, and I ended up going out with them, and then started working two jobs. One with the Cosmos, which was kind of on the DL because they hadn’t made the announcement or anything and segued from the UN, starting full time on this in February, and officially in April I was on board. And we made the announcement in August.
Where were they at when you came in and where are you today, three months out from the official launch?
When I came in, obviously it was an amazing marketing story. Taking the team from where it was, and sort of breaking down its history and seeing where they could make it relevant again, in what areas. Back when the team was around, you didn’t have any social media, any academy set up or system. So in every facet of the plan that we had, whether it was grassroots marketing, culture, it was very well thought out. One of the things that did impress me is that it wasn’t what everyone feared it was going to be, like some Globetrotters or whatever.
That was the big rumor initially.
Part of the attraction was to come work with these visionaries—they are at the highest of their game. The other part of what clinched it for me is that it wasn’t going to be, “We’re just going to slap a logo on something and take it around the world. And hope we get recognized and with a little luck we’re the team in MLS.” It was a really well thought out plan. It was based on growing it from the bottom up. It’s the only way, in my opinion, that I think it can succeed, especially if you are starting with such a gap in time from when the team played and now.
We’re very fortunate to have the history very few teams have in this country. It’s great that we can lean on the past to move forward, but I also see the challenge of making it relevant. And that discussion where it was like, “OK, we’re gonna make this straight. We’re not going to be the Globetrotters, we’re not going to just sell shirts, we’re gonna actually pull this off. And the reason why you’re so important is that you are the guy who is going to get it off the ground. The academies, the camps, the CSR (corporate social responsibility), with Copa NYC.” That is the first phase. Our goal is MLS, and that’s a couple of phases from here, but I think everything we’ve done from before February is with the intention of keeping the marketing and soccer credibility balanced. Both need to happen to get everyone on board and convinced.
I know it might be frustrating because we haven’t been able to announce a lot of things, just because of timing. We already know what we want to do and how we want to do it, and I think if you’ve been following—just carve out the academies and who we have brought on board and how the kids are playing already after just a couple of weeks. You can already see some of the product we were thinking about six months ago in motion.
New Cosmos track jacket by Umbro
Why maybe not perfect, it did after I sat on the idea for a bit seem wise to start with the kids, seeing as you have several years before MLS is even a possibility. The other side of that is critics saying, “It’s just a marketing thing, call me in 2013 when you have a MLS team.” What’s your response to that?
I respect that. Look, we’re in whatever a six-minute news cycle, and you have to have updates, but I imagine those critics are the same complaining that there is not enough talent in the U.S. national team or this coach isn’t best for that. If I was able to take them to Randall’s Island on any given Saturday and say, ok, this is phase one. This is part of what we need to do. If you want to wait until 2013, then just wait, but this is something that is very tangible and something that is needed. It’s not about, oh, let’s churn camps and make money. It’s really about that we have an amazing under-12 team that four or five years from now, some of those players will be signing for our first team. You don’t do that overnight. Anyone who knows the sport—go look at Ajax, go look at Real Madrid, go look at Barcelona. With Barcelona being the latest, Messi was seven when we came to Spain. In this country we have a tendency toward win equals success equals best players, and that’s not necessarily the case. So we’re gonna do it the way we think we need to do it.
But again, it’s a lot of timing. For every cool thing we do on the ground, there is also a retail or merchandising deadline. There was a lot of hurry up and wait on—obviously you can’t really move forward with the Cosmos and be considered legit without Pele, so you can’t just launch everything without having your honorary president on board.
What can you tell me about his involvement? He didn’t take part in the Cosmos documentary, Once In A Lifetime, and it was said because he wanted to get paid. How did he prove to you guys this wasn’t a money grab for him?
I can’t speak to what he did or didn’t do with the documentary, because I also heard other things that his staff didn’t want him on that because other people weren’t involved with it. If you watch the documentary, it really is a cool retrospective, but it isn’t entirely accurate. From what I know, based on the opportunity now I’ve had to personally work with him, there is no other thing that he wants more than to see this happen the right way.
When we launched at the final of Copa NYC, Terry and I sat down with him in a tent and he wanted to give input so to ensure everybody left that field with an amazing experience. He wants to be so involved. He doesn’t want to make a misstep. He’s always like, “Should I speak to this person or that person.” So he is very involved in the relaunch in the sense that he wants to see it done right. And I think every former Cosmos player, they all want to be part of it; they are all accepting of this, but they are all very cautious. They want to make sure. We are here because they were the best at what they did and created this whole movement and team and aura, and they want to see that we are doing the right things.
The biggest concern, as you know, in the documentary, there was the anti-Peppe and pro-Peppe group of players and everyone has an opinion, but the biggest concern was that if it did get relaunched, how and with whom? Would it be cheesy? I think we have quelled any of that, at least in the players’ minds. Now can I get every blogger and every soccer writer on board at the same time? That is one of the challenges we have everyday. That is why we are here everyday.
We couldn’t announce that we took over Copa NYC until we finally did it. That right there, for anyone who wants to question how or why we did it, there is no better way than to get a slice of our community than through Copa.
It is a great idea and tournament. One of those too perfect, too obvious things.
It’s awesome. And there are other things we are doing that haven’t been announced. Again with the timing. It’s not necessarily our fault that our Umbro deal came, and we haven’t kicked a ball or have a team, and an amazing company came along chomping at the bit to partner with us and be our kit sponsor. Do we hold that back? No, we have to announce that. And that’s one of the first things announced, so of course everyone says it’s all about marketing.
You take them as they come.
Exactly. Tomorrow, if they say, do you want to be the 20th MLS team? Will we not announce it until we say, oh, well, we aren’t even running our camps yet? No, we would jump on that. If you are not seeing this everyday or coming into the office—we had some people come in recently and they’re like, “Oh, wow.” What did you think; we were just a desk with a phone? It’s a pretty big operation. It’s building a team. Anyone who has worked with a team or a league gets it, but that’s not everybody. So the more people we can show that there is an inner working here that is moving toward the big goal, the better. We can only move so fast.
When does Phase two begin?
I keep saying phases, but I don’t know if we have set phases or a timeline. There are several things that happen. I’ll speak to grassroots because that is what I’m overlooking. If you look at it from August 1st and the grassroots components—the academies, the camps, corporate social responsibility (CSR), Copa NYC—there are a few more things that fall under that culturally, but those four:
Academies: we signed arguably the two best academy directors in the system right now. Teddy Chronopoulis in LA, and Giovanni Savarese in New York. For a start-up, that’s two huge signings right there. For development of children and players, I don’t know if you can do better than that. The teams are playing now. Whether that translates to success or not, I don’t know, but I know for sure that Teddy, Gio, and Terry are all in unison; they are all communicating, and we know that down the line we will have a system that someone will recognize as the Cosmos way. Both academies, even though they are 3,000 miles apart, will be playing the same kind of ball. It’s one of those things that will take some time, but I think we have the right people to make that happen.
Outside of the academies, we have our relationship with Gottschee, one of the most historic teams in the city. Some of the best players ever to come out New York, the national team, even the Cosmos, have come from there. So we hope to now rekindle that, and in a few years have that same history repeat itself.
Future 1st team Cosmos?
Was it ever a question whether or not to make the academies free for the players?
No, I think that is something due to the way soccer is run in this country that there is no way you can get around. If you want to attract the best player–hey times are tough, parents are getting squeezed, so for a lot of these parents it was a huge relief financially, and that’s the biggest hurdle with a lot of sports. If you can get over the financial hurdle, and you have some talent, then you could go far. It will be interesting to see next year once we have a year under our belts, what kind of talent is going to come out. Giovanni is a little frustrated now getting calls from lots of good players after the team has been picked. Next year’s tryouts will be very interesting.
So that is the academy side. And while this is happening, you also have a marketing component, a merchandising component, a retail component, a social media component, a communications component; Terry with the first team is already looking for stadiums and toward a MLS team. All of that is going at the same time on parallel tracks. Now at some point it will all collide, and poof, we have the Cosmos, but for right now, everyday everything goes little by little. Some days the grassroots or academy component will be further along that the marketing. Other days we get two or three opportunities for marketing, which you can’t pass up. So that obviously forms the opinion I guess in some people’s mind that, “Oh for right now it’s just a marketing play.”
We’re going to launch the Cosmos camps on both coasts shortly. Those initially will start out smaller than your normal soccer camp, so that each player gets what we call the Cosmos Experience, which includes our system, a dietary component, and other things; It will include various levels and age groups, from day camps to overnight camps, and they will include elements of the academies, and we want to work in the academy teams into the camps.
Then you have this whole thing with corporate social responsibility. We have several groups we’re seriously looking at. One of the major groups we are finalizing with is the Department of Education, because a way to be legitimate around here is to become part of the DNA and fabric of New York City, and so our partnership with the DOE is going to be a huge component. Maybe one that actually pushes the soccer credibility, depending on who wants to see what, past the marketing.
Explain that partnership a bit.
It’s a program that they have that other professional teams are involved with. The Jets and the Knicks. It’s called C.H.A.M.P.S, and it’s keeping the kids active after school, somewhat of an anti-obesity campaign component, but more importantly, it’s to teach discipline and gain a better livelihood through soccer. We couldn’t get that in the beginning, but now with the academies and Pele, they understand we are serious. And the numbers I just saw show that the C.H.A.M.P.S. soccer program eclipsed all the other programs that they offer. I’m not sure if the team across the river is involved in stuff like that, but I can say that everything we do will be here in New York; the LA academy not withstanding—that’s a visionary future play.
So that’s coming down the pike. And Copa NYC next year relaunches as Cosmos Copa, and it will be more accessible, a slightly different tournament, maybe a little longer.
So people can look at all of that however they want. I’m sure there’s still going to be people who are saying that’s not necessarily enough, but that’s the base. You are building from the bottom up. Look at some of the original MLS teams. There are some that have been in their communities for X amount of years and still don’t even have a quarter of what we have in three months. So, it’s hard to say who wants what, and where, and how, but I just know being here everyday that the approach we are taking is the way we need to go as the New York Cosmos, and the investment is part of getting to our ultimate goal of being in MLS.
Manhattan, East Village
What if MLS falls through for 2013?
Look, you take the whole business plan, for lack of a better expression. Our goal of MLS is one big component of the plan. Could it be that MLS decides to look over 150,000 school kids and a couple of thousands kids in camps, and academies that are hopefully on their winning ways, and a marketing deal, a kit sponsor no matter the Umbro-Adidas-MLS whatever. Could they look over all of that? I wish I could say no, but who knows? We want to be the twentieth team. If they come up with some reason why we need to be 21 or 22, I don’t think that means we close up shop and say sorry to parents and go. This is a viable business. If we wanted to just be a t-shirt company we wouldn’t have done all the things we’ve done.
What have you learned from growing up and living in the city and watching the MetroStars and then Red Bull work within New York?
In defense of the MetroStars and maybe Red Bull, it’s hard. If you look back they did draw some pretty amazing crowds in the beginning, but unfortunately the product on the field is what ultimately gets people into the stadium. And even though they brought the Donadoni’s in, it was kind of hard to watch because, especially for someone my age, those were all college guys. So that’s not to diminish the fact that they played professional, but just as that was starting, you’re also starting to get games in Europe and all that, so of course people are going to compare the product. Not fair at all for MLS.
Getting into the community was very hard for the MetroStars because you had hundreds of coaches who were used to getting taken out—the Cosmos did a tremendous job in the community. Players were at practices, kids played at halftime; they were in the community. I’m not 100 percent sure the MetroStars were able to get in there. I feel like they tried but nothing connected. Nothing transcended the area. I wasn’t on the staff but have friends who were and know they were frustrated. There was a definite misfire when it came to the community, and Red Bull has done even worse I think. This year is amazing because they were in last place last year, and now here they are winning the conference, so maybe that turns around. But I do find it interesting that you have a brand new stadium, that’s 18,000 seats, that if I was the head of Red Bull, I would say, my goal is that every home game is sold out. I just find it very strange that it’s not.
I’ve been out in the community, and there is an excitement there for the sport, and now maybe I’m biased because I’m out there as a Cosmos. Buy if you wear one of our shirts around here (SOHO) even, which isn’t a soccer-dense community, you will have someone come out of a restaurant and say, “Oh, the Cosmos are coming back!’” I think because of that hole in the heart of New Yorkers—that hole was the Cosmos—I think MetroStars and Red Bull never had that.
It wasn’t like in Washington, DC, where they really had nothing, and then poof, you have a great team that was amazing with the community because all the Hondurans and Ecuadorians had their players there. Sure New York had the Italian players, but they weren’t really all players. That also fed onto it. So I look back and now try to not make those mistakes with the Cosmos. I think we have, in their eyes, an unfair advantage, because there are so many people who have been waiting for this to happen. They assumed Cosmos would be the team to come back into MLS. That never happened. They thought they would be the team to take over for the MetroStars when they heard the team was trying to be sold. That never happened. So now there is an excitement there that neither of those teams, with all due respect to them of course, had, and it’s because there is that history everyone feels is going to come back.
That being said, that’s a dangerous position to be in too, because we can’t replicate what happened. It was an amazing five or six years that was a perfect storm. And that’s our challenge.
First it was the reported fright from MLS about taking on any or too many NASL teams. That passed with flying colors in Seattle and likely soon other places. Now it’s more a worry that DPs will turn MLS into NASL. All things that revolve around the history of the Cosmos. So it’s safe to assume in 2013 Cosmos will be going after some Designated Players?
Well, yeah, like any ownership group, if we get a MLS franchise, we are going to under the parameters of the league. We will go out and try to get the best players we can. I think that Seattle is the perfect example of what you just said about, oh my god NASL. Seattle is probably the best thing that could happen to the league, because I do feel like a whole wave of people just decided to ignore—this is going to be strong—but I think there was a whole group of people that thought soccer started after the World Cup in this country: “You know what, forget that [NASL].” And worse, “Forget the people who were part of that.” I think they lost a whole group of people that had knowledge and insight. I’m not saying they should have run MLS, but I do feel like there is that missing. It’s not necessarily missing from the business, because you could put down a business plan, a strategy and a model. I feel that it is missing the point that it affected the fans. People that were part of soccer in those NASL cities that were in the field with their sleeves up, getting their hands dirty, getting crowds in, and all of a sudden those people were derelicts. But now Seattle opens the floodgates, and you see the bridging of history with the present. But you still have a solid structure and guidelines that the NASL didn’t have. That’s what we’re working with, and that’s what we’re looking to do with the Cosmos.
That concludes the Cosmos Interviews. Part 1 with Terry Byrne is here.
Surely more to come from the burgeoning club. Will they be the 20th MLS team? Can they win the hearts, minds, and open wallets of New York soccer fans?
Follow TIAS on Twitter