I tracked down Bruce Bundrant to discover why an American hailing from Abilene, Texas, would want to become the "directeur commercial" (chief marketing and sales officer) of a European powerhouse pretender: Ligue 1 leader AS Monaco. Once we connected by phone, the Texan trailblazer only had to quip, "Sorry for the background noise, I'm at the Monaco Yacht Show," to shed immediate light on my inquiry.
The 40-year-old revels in describing the unique set of circumstances he has grappled with since arriving on the Riviera in November 2012. "Our owner wants to build the first luxury football club brand in a sport that has traditionally been a working man's endeavor," he says.
That owner is Russian mining and fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. His free spending has accelerated the club's resurrection after two seasons in the second division. On the field, $230 million worth of new arrivals including Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho have combined to unfurl an alluring, attacking style of football. Off it, they present a more complex brand as Monaco's unique tax-free status has played a controversial role in enabling that radical transformation.
France Football magazine writer Philippe Auclair suggested that Monaco is a "club of contrast" and that its rapid ascent "frames a debate about the very soul of French football." Bundrant is the man who must fathom these complexities as he seeks to shape a club that rarely comes close to filling its own 18,523-seat stadium into a global brand. That possibility may sound unlikely, but no more than Bundrant's career journey that has led him to be charged with this task. His is a story of self-confidence, risk-taking and determination, qualities that have propelled the man from Jessica Simpson's hometown to the heart of European football.
"Abilene is 'Friday Night Lights' country," Bundrant says. "I was one of those rare American kids who slipped through the cracks and fell in love with soccer. From an early age all I dreamed of was being a soccer player or a rock star, but by the time I hit 21 I realized neither was going to happen and that the business of soccer seemed a more likely fit."
Bundrant's timing was uncanny. He emerged from business school in Major League Soccer's inaugural season, quickly landing an internship at fledgling franchise D.C. United. "On my first day, they asked me to put the U.S. flag up on the roof of RFK Stadium and set out a water jug in the training room, tasks I really needed that business degree for," he remembers with a laugh.
The intern must have demonstrated a classy touch with that water jug as he quickly rose through the ticketing, sales and sponsorship departments, learning the game from inside before sharpening his skill set by joining a European sports marketing agency and learning the game from the brand side with a stint at the Miller Brewing Company. When George Gillett and Tom Hicks purchased Liverpool in February 2007, they tapped Bundrant to increase the club's underperforming commercial revenue. "Though the club was massive -- they had won the Champions League in 2005 and reached the final in 2007 -- the revenue was underperforming, to say the least."
Bundrant's move to Liverpool was a sight unseen. "I knew if you want to play basketball, you dream about playing in the NBA, and if you want to crack football marketing, you work in the English Premier League," he says. Yet the Texan was shocked by what he found upon his arrival. "There was no culture of productivity. Their business model had been opening the gates of the stadium and 45,000 people would just show, so the club had never had to aggressively market tickets and that approach bled through to sponsorship."
In the five seasons he spent at Liverpool, the club's sponsors increased from six to 24 as the department grew from one staffer to 14. "We Americans are very aggressive and proactive when it comes to sports marketing. We changed the culture of Liverpool's business and moved its outlook from regional to global."
Can a football 'luxury brand' compete with Formula One, golf and polo?
Buoyed by his Anfield experience, Bundrant looked for the next challenge and the opportunity to head a department. After meeting Dmitry Rybolovlev and sharing his vision for global brand building, a move to the Riviera came quickly. "Monaco is a marketer's dream," he declares giddily. "A sexy brand you can get out and promote."
Asked to define that phrase a little deeper, the marketer rattles off the Riviera principality's assets: "Yachts, palm trees, sunny weather, partying rich people," he says. "Those are the images our owner wants to use to build a luxury brand that has the best hospitality, the best players, and selectively attracts sponsors who typically gravitate towards Formula One, golf, polo and sailing but know that the sport their high-net-worth clients really love is football."
Lofty ambitions, especially for a team that can rarely come close to filling its stadium, yet Bundrant is able to rationalize this challenge. "Thirty-six thousand people live in Monaco," he says. "Unlike Liverpool, where all you can do is go to football or to the pub, there is more competition here. When we attract 18,000 people in the stadium, that is half the country!"
The bigger surprise may be that Bundrant is talking about a French football team with such ambition. As Auclair explained, "Not that long ago, Ligue 1 seemed to be sinking. It had no money, television rights were a huge part of the revenue, the best players went abroad, the football quality was not high, the goal average was sinking as were attendances. First Paris Saint-Germain changed [when Qatar Investment Authority became majority owner in 2011], then Monaco, and the whole picture has been transformed."
Bundrant is wrestling in the engine room of this transformation. "The big battle between us and PSG is brilliant," he says. "The more competitive we both are, the more people care about the league and the more broadcasters buy in. The Premier League is in 210 markets, Ligue 1 is in 115 and we project that will increase by 20 territories a year, making French football very much the growth league."
Monaco's challenges are not only external. "When I arrived there was no strategy or infrastructure for merchandising, licensing, hospitality or sponsorship," Bundrant says. "I had to build them all from scratch in what was literally a start-up."
Fortunately, the American is a fast study. His French may still be a work in progress ("right now, it is mieux, mieux," he jokes) but he has a steely-eyed focus on his medium term goals. "Within five years, I hope we will have won Ligue 1 and are in the Champions League final," he deadpans, "with a robust commercial department to match."
Bundrant's vision is based on branding the club as a reflection of its locale. "We are a resort that people love," he says. "Our web traffic tells us we have a huge following in the United States, South America, Portugal and Spain, and within France, our location is not divisive like PSG, who come from the capital city, which you are either for or against." Bundrant paused before revealing his big bet. "The ambiance around Monaco can make us every French person's second-favorite team."
Auclair is skeptical about that possibility. "Monaco are intent on promoting an image that is all fluffy," he says. "They hope they will get people to forget about the essence of the problem [that] they live on [a] different planet in so many ways." Bundrant sees things differently: "French football needs a successful Monaco and PSG because we make every team successful by raising the league's profile and the nation's coefficient." Auclair concedes, "We are at the very beginning of this project. How is it going to develop? We just don’t know."
Ultimately, Bundrant has no doubts as to the outcome, displaying a confidence that could be described as very American.
"Our nation set the bar in sport marketing," he says. "We have a level of sophistication, aggressiveness and proactivity that world football needs."
For the Texan, success depends on understanding the strategies that translate into different cultures. "Cheerleaders, fireworks and people parachuting in at halftime does not work in every situation," he says, offering up advice that could serve as a mantra for every young American who wants to follow in his footsteps. "The trick is to know what you can bring with you and what you have to leave at home in the United States."