Union soccer team wins sponsorship from Bimbo bakery

(Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
(Yong Kim/Staff file photo) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: January 11, 2011

The Philadelphia Union is getting hitched to Bimbo.

No, the team has not signed a promiscuous, dull-witted semi-celebrity to play midfield.

The soccer club is poised to announce a major sponsorship deal that will stamp the routinely mispronounced name of the giant Mexico-based baker onto the front of the team jersey.

The four-year, roughly $12 million agreement with the U.S. arm of Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V. represents a victory for the Union, which has labored to sign a shirt sponsor that is iconic, well-financed, and regionally based.

Bimbo Bakeries USA has its headquarters in Horsham, operates 34 bakeries nationwide, and produces breads, cakes, and treats familiar to anyone who loads a cart at an Acme. Popular brands include Entenmann's pastries, Stroehmann bread, Old Country bread, Boboli pizza crust, and Thomas' English muffins.

In the agreement, Bimbo also becomes an official sponsor of Major League Soccer, joining a handful of firms that simultaneously support both a team and the league. That aspect of the agreement opens MLS stadiums and events to Bimbo signage and promotions.

An official announcement is scheduled for Tuesday at PPL Park in Chester. Team and company officials confirmed the outlines of the agreement to The Inquirer.

"A good strategic fit for them, and a good strategic fit for us," said Union chief executive officer Nick Sakiewicz. "Each one helps promote the other."

And, he added, "it's a cool name. It's a 'Wawa-like' name."

The correct pronunciation is "Beem-bo." But the misunderstanding is driving the company to try to persuade consumers that its name does not glorify dim blondes.

The dilemma has led Bimbo to place billboards along I-95 that instruct, "Say 'Beembo!'," and to trademark that phrase. The soccer deal is part of a push for accurate promotion and wide exposure - and greater sales.

"The big attraction for us is, we want to build the Bimbo brand in the U.S., and we think soccer is on the rise," said Vince Melchiorre, senior vice president of Bimbo USA.

He's confident the agreement will do more than build name recognition: "It builds sales and it builds profits."

The company runs its brands regionally, placing general managers in select cities across the country - which made the league component crucial, he said.

"I wanted to have the deal be broader than Philadelphia, because the brand is broader than Philadelphia," Melchiorre said. "A national element is really important to us."

Bimbo products have been known in Mexico for 65 years but appeared in the United States only more recently. In 1984, Grupo Bimbo started to export its wares into Texas, and later into California. The company began to acquire U.S. bakeries, including Mrs Baird's Bakeries in Texas in 1988.

In 2002, it bought the West division of Canada's George Weston Ltd., and in 2008, it paid nearly $2.4 billion for that company's bread-making unit, extending its U.S. presence from coast to coast.

The company moved its national headquarters to Horsham from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2009. There's now speculation that Bimbo could buy financially troubled Tasty Baking Co., maker of Tastykakes.

Bimbo has long insisted that its name signifies, well, nothing. It was coined when the firm was founded in 1945, a marriage of Bingo, the game, and Bambi, the then-new Disney movie, according to the firm.

In soccer, Bimbo is known and respected, its logo already fronting the jerseys of four teams, including Chivas de Guadalajara, the most successful and popular team in Mexico. Bimbo sponsors two other teams in Primera Division, the top Mexican league, along with Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica.

The Union will wear the same red, white, and blue Bimbo logo as those clubs.

To turn venerable team uniforms into advertising space seems unthinkable to fans of American football, baseball, and basketball. Eagles fans may love Budweiser, but that doesn't mean they want the team wearing a beer logo.

Among overseas soccer clubs, however, the practice is both common and lucrative, generating millions of dollars in revenue.

In 2009, Chicago-based insurance broker Aon Corp. signed a $130 million, four-year deal to sponsor Manchester United.

A big benefit to sponsors: Every time a player is photographed, videotaped, or televised, the name of the company appears, too, carried in newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and broadcasts. Every purchase of a team jersey pushes the company into the public consciousness. And every fan who dons a jersey becomes a walking billboard.

Manchester United, among the world's most popular sports entities, sells about six million jerseys a year.

MLS jersey sales aren't nearly as strong, nor are the sponsorships as profitable. But the deals still provide money and legitimacy to a league battling for fans and attention.

The range of packages reaches from about $1 million for a small-market team such as Real Salt Lake to the $5 million that Herbalife pays to sponsor the L.A. Galaxy, which employs the world's best-known player, David Beckham.

The Union deal, falling in the middle, means 13 of 18 MLS teams have jersey deals.

Since the day in November 2009 when the Union unveiled their blue-and-gold jersey, team executives have sought to fill the chest with the logo of a well-heeled corporate backer.

Tom Veit, then team president, said that few decisions would be as important because no sponsor would be more closely associated with the Union. Fans speculated that the team would sign Panasonic or perhaps Comcast.

The courtship between the Union and Bimbo began when the team approached the firm about six months ago.

During the season, Bimbo executives attended numerous Union home games, getting a sense of the team, its ownership, and its fans. One important date was the Sept. 1 Union exhibition against Chivas de Guadalajara, which allowed local managers to see the Bimbo logo on live players during game action.

"The passion that exists in that stadium rivals an Eagles game - that's what I took away," said Bimbo's Melchiorre. "This is Philadelphia, for goodness sakes. ... You would have thought we were in Mexico."

When Bimbo executives saw the Union play the Galaxy on Oct. 7, Beckham and American star Landon Donovan took time to meet and shake hands, helping to pitch the potential of MLS.

"The company understood the idea and the platform from the beginning," Sakiewicz said. "Once they decided 2011 was the year, it went quick. ... They want to get the whole country to 'Say Beembo.' "

The mispronunciation allows for a certain irreverence. One can only imagine the chants the Sons of Ben fan group might create. The Union has likewise tried to embrace a sense of playfulness.

"A perfect match," said Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing, the league promotional arm.

By becoming a league sponsor, she said, Bimbo gains the right to on-field signage, which routinely appears on screen during TV broadcasts. The company also gets to use the MLS logo, and those of special events like the All-Star Game and MLS Cup, in sales and promotions.

This year, Bimbo will run a nationwide "Soccer Mom of the Year" contest, with the winner earning a trip to the Cup game.

Carter said she had no concern about aligning MLS with a company whose name is so awkwardly mispronounced.

"They know their bread and pastries, we know what our fans are drawn to," she said. "Our ability to help them change their brand in the U.S. is part of why they're making this investment."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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