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FULL CUP — Despite a long history of American indifference to the sport, global-minded advertisers are flocking to World Cup ’94 By ED KIERS

With qualifying now in the final stages for next summer’s World Cup and

But no group is more worked up than World Cup organizers. Billed as the world’s largest sporting event, the affair is not only expected to draw a cumulative total of 30 billion viewers, it’s making a strong showing with advertisers. The top two tiers of marketing packages are sold out, and more than $350 million in ad fees have already been secured.
Considering that soccer has never caught on professionally in the U.S. and that broadcasts of matches usually earn ratings of 2 or less on American television – compared to a 40 rating for a Super Bowl – organizers have a credible point when they call the first World Cup on American soil a ‘marketing miracle.’
‘The event is a juggernaut, a bonanza,’ says Gary Pluchino, vice president of Lucerne, Switzerland-based ISL Marketing, which sells exclusive rights to all international sponsorships. ‘Without any publicity, this largest event on the planet is capturing America’s imagination.’
McDonald’s, MasterCard, General Motors and Coca-Cola are among the heavyweights who’ve forked over $20 million each for international ‘official sponsor’ status of the 31-day event, which begins June 17. American Airlines, Budweiser, Sheraton and U.S. Sprint are some of the companies paying $7 million apiece to become ‘marketing partners.’
Despite the impressive roster of advertisers and the fact the two previous World Cup finals rank first (1990) and third (1986) on the list of the globe’s most-viewed sports events, there are still plenty of doubters about its viability in the American market.
‘Soccer is just not an effective media buy in the U.S.,’ says Bill Croasdale, president of Western International Media. ‘For too long I’ve heard soccer is the growth sport, but it still hasn’t taken off. ABC got a 2 rating for an important American team game last June, and that kind of number doesn’t justify a media buy of a too-foreign sport that has never attracted a U.S. following.’
While official sponsors will receive valuable signage in stadiums, plus other forms of TV exposure in countries where soccer is the ruling obsession, advertisers signed on for American regional or spot promotions are taking a decided gamble. They can’t bank on any identifiable U.S. soccer heroes, and American interest in the games could easily vanish if the relatively weak American squad is quickly ousted from the tournament.
Though conceding that risks abound, companies with international marketing agendas remain upbeat about the World Cup. M&M Mars’ Snickers brand, a longtime supporter of youth, scholastic and even professional soccer in the U.S., is one such sponsor. Jim Conlan, external affairs director at M&M Mars, explains that because his company has already been embraced by the 15 million U.S. youngsters who play soccer, it plans to use the World Cup to further associate the brand with ‘nutrition, lifestyle and sport’ abroad.
Advertisers are also thinking about the rapidly growing, soccer-friendly Hispanic market in the U.S. ‘Hispanics are crucial to us, and that’s why we’ve made a major purchase on (World Cup Spanish-language network) Univision,’ says Peter Moore, director of soccer for Reebok. ‘I realize that kids won’t be identifying with American soccer heroes for another decade. But soccer is still the U.S. game of the future.’
That may be, but then again soccer has been the game of the future in the U.S. for 30 years. A professional soccer league is expected to begin play in this country in 1995. A new, full-size pro league was one of the requirements of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, when it awarded the Cup to the U.S. Whether that league will be able to capitalize on the post-World Cup buzz, or whether it meets the same fate as the defunct Pele-led North American Soccer League, remains to be seen.
Hartford Courant columnist Jerry Trecker believes the game may have a future in this country, but that advertisers and officials need to realize it may not be through the usual sports channels. ‘The game’s future is not in another American league,’ he says. ‘Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups disposed to watching soccer comprise 40% of this country, and advertisers have to realize these strong consumer groups will watch quality, foreign-based teams.’
Ed Kiersh is a freelance writer based in Boca Raton, Fla.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)