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Can Soccer Ever Conquer the U.S.?

Fútbol still trails football and the World Cup is not the World Series, but things may soon be changing for “the beautiful game” in America
  • January 30 2012

Every four years, World Cup fever grips the globe—and enchants a fair smattering of Americans. Though ratings for the final match in 2010 between the Netherlands and Spain broke global records, two years later more Americans probably remember Paul the Psychic Octopus than which team took home the title. (It was Spain.)

A record  24 million Americans tuned in to watch that World Cup final (9 million of whom saw the Spanish-language broadcast). But that’s just a smidgen of the 111 million who saw the 2011 Super Bowl six months later.

It’s an old story. Soccer is the world’s beautiful game and it is poised to take on the U.S. market. But it has never fulfilled that promise. It didn’t happen when Pelé joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 or when David Beckham jumped to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. It didn’t happen when the U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994 or when the Americans won the Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999.

But a confluence of factors may be changing that. First, U.S. networks are buying rights to broadcast overseas league contests in America. Second, the world’s powerhouse teams—such as Spain’s Real Madrid and England’s Manchester United—are building marketing machines with global, not local, aspirations. Third, the exploding Hispanic-American market is bringing its soccer loyalties to U.S. shores. Finally, social and digital media are allowing American soccer fans to keep up with overseas leagues, teams and players and be part of global communities that may not match local American tastes.

Sports fans tuning into Fox on the morning of Sunday, January 22, 2012 got a glimpse of this future. For the first time ever on an American broadcast channel, an English Premier League match was aired live when soccer giants Arsenal and Manchester United met at London’s Emirates Stadium. Two weeks later, on Super Bowl Sunday, Fox will air another “football game before the football game,” with Chelsea against Man U at London’s Stamford Bridge.

“We believe soccer is a big thing now and will be a bigger thing in the future,” says David Nathanson, EVP and general manager of Fox Soccer. “By bringing the Barclays Premier League to Fox Sports and pairing it with broadcasts of the most watched sports property in the U.S., we are exposing the world’s most followed league [the Premier League] to millions of sports fans who may not have had the opportunity to see it before.”

That Fox is broadcasting these matches is no accident—in October, it outbid incumbent ESPN for the English-language rights to the FIFA World Cup tournaments scheduled from 2015 to 2022 for a reported $425 million. At the same time, Telemundo snapped up Spanish-language broadcast rights over rival Univision in a deal said to be worth $600 million.

Telemundo’s bold move makes sense to John Guppy, founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, a three-year-old agency dedicated to connecting brands with soccer consumers. When it comes to soccer marketing, he says, America’s Hispanic viewers are the most hotly pursued consumer segment for corporate brands. But reaching them is more complicated than just teaming up with Spanish-language broadcasters.

“Hispanic soccer consumers are now rather complex,” says Guppy. “While the Hispanic population has spread throughout the U.S., many brands will still [only] look at the big Hispanic markets such as California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida.”

Michael Stirling, CEO of Global Sponsors, a U.K. company that works with multinational companies to identify sports sponsorships, agrees that the U.S. Hispanic audience for soccer is poised for growth. “There’s a greater interest in soccer in this community,” he says. It helps that the demographic’s income has grown in recent years. “They’ve become a key target for brands to put their marketing spend into.”

But will Hispanic soccer consumers follow—and, ideally, become fiercely loyal fans of—global leagues, teams and players?

Jorge Hidalgo, senior EVP of sports at Telemundo, thinks so. “There is room in the hearts of most Hispanic soccer fans for the league teams that they have traditionally followed” as well as those in new, even unfamiliar leagues. “As we strategize moving forward, we feel our audience will always make room for both.”

The Hispanic market is just one part of the equation. The second most important demographic for soccer marketers, he says, are the Millennials, the 80 million-strong generation of Americans born between 1980 and 1995 who may have grown up playing youth soccer alongside Little League baseball.

To see how these two markets intersect, look no further than the world’s top-tier soccer players and their presence on social media. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has 38 million Facebook fans, making him the social network’s most popular athlete. His teammate, Brazilian-born footballer Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, known to his fans simply as Kaká, has more than eight million Twitter followers, making him the most popular tweeting athlete.

Though neither is an American household name on par with LeBron James or Tom Brady, these athletes are among the world’s most hotly desired marketing properties. Between them, according to Forbes, Ronaldo and Kaká earned more than $50 million in 2011 by endorsing brands such as Nike, EA Sports and Coca-Cola.

Brands associated with global soccer look much like U.S. sports marketers: sneaker companies (Nike, Adidas); food and beverage giants (McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi); financial services  firms (Barclays, Aon, MasterCard); and brewers (Anheuser-Busch InBev). There are a few outliers (like sports betting site bwin) that wouldn’t fit the U.S. market, but most of these sponsorships could easily travel across the Atlantic.

As soccer’s audience grows in the U.S., marketing efforts could move beyond sneakers and soft drinks. Chinese solar panel manufacturer Yingli Solar became an official World Cup 2010 sponsor. That’s not a consumer play, but a way to use global soccer to help with B2B engagement. Yingli’s soccer sponsorships have since expanded to include the U.S. Men’s, Women’s and Youth National Teams as well as Germany’s FC Bayern München. “Associations with FIFA and U.S. Soccer help them tell a brand story that is both global and U.S. focused,” Guppy says. “From a B2B standpoint, it provides them a unique point of differentiation.”

Yingli’s presence on the world soccer stage signals another sea change: Asia’s arrival as a marketing force. “It’s very interesting to see these Far Eastern brands, particularly the Chinese brands, entering the U.S. markets,” says Global Sponsors’ Stirling. “Chinese entities are gradually becoming more familiar with how they should tackle the Western markets, more specifically Europe and the U.S.”
When pursuing the American sports consumer, it may seem that global brands still prefer to align with LeBron James over Lionel Messi—but for how much longer? After all, that’s David Beckham in a recent Diet Pepsi ad with TV actress Sofia Vergera.

According to Fox’s Nathanson, “Fox Soccer has one of the youngest, wealthiest and most educated viewership of any cable network out there, and they are captivated—meaning they tune in to Fox Soccer longer than any other sports network.” Successfully delivering this audience, he says, “has resonated with many blue chip brands, some endemic to soccer and others seeking to tap into this emerging audience.”

It must be working. Nathanson adds, “The advertisers who work with us see results. We have not lost a major advertiser in the last five years.”