Argentina's No. 1 sport, soccer, has become the country's most violent and controversial game. There are drug and drinking problems among players, violence in stadiums and barras bravas, or hooligans, among the fans. Among the barras bravas, there are killings, police corruption and other ills.
And as futbol grows darker, it gets further from its origins: a family gathering, a fiesta, a passionate entertainment and a sporting event.
But among the chaos, in the outskirts of Argentina's third-largest city, Rosario, a small soccer club is emerging and reinventing -- with creativity, ideas and good spirits -- its business. Founded in 1905, Tiro Federal was only a 150-fan club until the mid-1990s, when Carlos Davola took office as its president, injected fresh private capital and decided to revolutionize the institution.
After a brief stint in the top division, the club slipped and remained quite anonymous, until an evening one year ago, when Mr. Davola's two sons went to listen a speech by Claudio Destefano, Argentina's top sports journalist, founder of Buenos Aires' top business newsletter and the leader of the recently founded Bizers Corporate marketing consultancy.
What Mr. Destefano said that evening in the Rosario Ros Tower Hotel grabbed the Davolas: "Here's the Rosario Central sweatshirt, and here's the Newell's Old Boys sweatshirt," he said, referring to Rosario's top futbol clubs. "I don't believe there's in the house any fan of Tiro Federal," he added in laughter.
"After the class ended," Mr. Destefano recalled, "two guys approached me and said, 'We're Juan Ignacio and Celina Davola. Our dad is president of Tiro Federal.' 'Oh fuck!' I said to myself. I've never in all my life done something like that."
But the Davolas were not offended. On the contrary, they agreed and hired Mr. Destefano and his consultancy to reinvent the Tiro Federal brand. What they did was identify two main target groups: First, the fans, and second (but certainly not least) the brands and sponsors.
"The first thing we said is: The club must appeal to families. There's too much violence in soccer stadiums today, and families have deserted them. We have very few fans. Let's turn that into an opportunity".
Now, families that go to the Fortin de Luduena stadium are greeted by a special entertainment area sponsored by Rasti, a Lego-like toy made in Argentina. There are resting spaces for wives and kids, and, most important of all, the stadium is secure, not because of the presence of massive police forces but by another concept that has been lost, and regained in Tiro Federal: hospitality.
In the last match played in March 2009, Tiro's stadium received the very troubled and violent, hooligan-filled barra brava of the Chacarita Juniors club. But no trouble occurred in the match, and mainly because the Chacarita fans were greeted with fireworks, a band playing welcome music and cheers from the Tiro Federal's fans.
"We've regained the sense of hospitality," Mr. Destefano said, "which implies a lot more that being just 'local.' Being host charges you with obligations toward your guests, but it also gives many things back."
For sponsors, what Bizers Corporate did was create a brand new concept in Argentine sports marketing. Tiro Federal is to be the first boutique club in the country (and the region). Part of the concept of the boutique club is that brands will associate themselves with a club and get no ugly surprises. And, as Mr. Destefano put it, "the club will be at the same level of international spectacles, [in its] spare time will host haute couture shows and culture spectacles, where the family will be able to purchase quality food products, where fans will receive discounts, coupons and circuit offers for the best bars in towns, and where a mass sports like soccer will be turned into a high-class, top-notch spectacle."
Brands, usually met with problems when they associate with big, troublesome-fan-filled clubs, have begun to embrace Tiro's concept. So far top brands such as Gatorade, Medialunas del Abuelo, Helados Panda, Bodega Santa Ana, Banco Finansur, Voltaren and Lamisil have joined the show.
Many of them, furthermore, have embraced their sponsorships with lots of creativity. Prosegur Activa, a home-security and alarm service sponsors, the goalkeepers; Rasti sponsors a playground and sells models of the stadium made of the toy; Medialunas del Abuelo (croissants) sponsors the half-field semicircles; Banco Finansur (a major financial bank) sponsors the benches in the players' resting areas (usually called "el banco," which in Spanish also means bank).
Behind this is not only the Bizers team but also ad agency Amen, directed by Sergio Pollaccia (one of Argentina's most renowned creatives and a former college professor of mine). Amen's job was to bring light to the many ideas needed to strengthen the concept within Tiro's strategy. Sergio oversaw the club's slogan, "Yo tiro para arriba," an untranslatable pun meaning "I go forward."
"Tirar para arriba" in Argentine slang means that you don't give up; you see the positive side of things, you push the envelope and, more or less, you "throw things to high ground." The word tiro (to throw) is also used for shooting, hence the name Tiro Federal (or Federal Shooting).
Sergio said he didn't have to think about the slogan for long. "It was the right thing in the right moment. Sports need to go forward, to be better; the world needs to go forward, to move on. These are hard times, dark hours, and what we need is hope, and ideas that help us move," he said over a coffee. On his arms are tattoos that read "Namaste" and "Paz" (peace).
Said Mr. Destefano: "What we asked Tiro's owners when we started to work were three things: fast, swift decisions; no hoolingans; and permission to fly to bring new ideas to life."