50 Most Influential: Introduction 50 Most Influential: No. 34 Ditching ’burbs for Detroit NHL brings doughnuts, signs Dunkin’ deal 50 Most Influential: No. 16 ‘Suite’ gifts, and even a few ugly ones Group builds platform for hockey award 50 Most Influential: No. 38 Alabama scores some serious bling Sports Media: NFL steps into esports
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They were standing five deep along the bar, shoulder to shoulder from wall to wall, spilling out the open front door and into the courtyard, where another screen provided a viewing spot for those who hadn’t secured space inside.
It is like this on many a Saturday at Hooligans, a soccer bar at the center of Charlotte’s business district. The regulars begin filing in not long after dawn, most of them gathered for the first of the English Premier League games, but some also interested in the goings on from Germany, Spain or Italy.
This day brought something special. One of the world’s more popular clubs, Arsenal, won the fabled FA Cup in dramatic fashion, with the perfect finish of an artful, back-heel pass 19 minutes into extra time. As the crowd inside erupted, a man in an FC Barcelona jersey craned to see inside.
“This is why I love soccer,” he said with the accent you get when your father is Mexican, your mother Colombian,
A fan cheers on the Philadelphia Union.
“As you should,” said the guy standing next to him, who comes regularly to see the best soccer, regardless of who might be on.
When time expired, the celebration began, a couple dozen Arsenal supporters jumping and hugging. One came from the bar to the courtyard with a bottle of champagne he’d been stashing. Another walked out with both arms held high, holding an FA Cup replica he’d made out of cardboard and foil. They passed the trophy around, posing for photos with it.
There was a British accent here, a Caribbean lilt there. A guy from Belgium, who backs Arsenal because its captain is Belgian. But mostly, these were Americans, born and raised.
For decades, you have heard that this was coming.
All those toe-heads who came dashing out the minivan doors and onto the soccer fields, a million of them and then 2 million and then three, would grow up and then they’d take this country, leaving their parents’ favorite sports in a pile alongside their LPs and eight-tracks and cassettes.
Rich Luker, the father of the oft-quoted ESPN Sports Poll, was doing baseline research for the founders of Major League Soccer in the mid ’90s before they launched the league. He thought that if they found that 30 percent of Americans were fans of soccer, or if 5 percent were avid fans, they had a sport that could sustain a business and have enough reach to grow.
What he found was far more striking. In 1995, 30 percent of U.S. households reported that someone in the home played organized soccer. This wasn’t a casual connection. Families were committing time and money to the sport.
“That 30 percent was a massive number,” said Luker, founder of the polling and research company Luker on Trends. “Our anticipation was that this was going to be a layup.”
Turns out it wasn’t.
Soccer moms did not beget soccer fans, at least not at a sufficient rate to propel the wave that the sport’s evangelists projected. Interest rose with each World Cup, and then it went dormant, similarly to the way track and field or skiing ebb and flow with the Olympics cycle.
Soccer looked as it had for years: A game children played at a very young age, but soon abandoned, never to return.
Then, five or so years ago, Luker noticed a percolation he hadn’t seen before. In focus groups, young adults began speaking knowledgeably about soccer. More recently, the sport has been bubbling up in surveys, as it had not before.
As many of the teens he surveyed said they were avid fans of MLS as said they were baseball fans. Global soccer icons Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo are among the 10 most popular athletes not only among teens, but on up to age 34. FC Barcelona is among the top 10 teams, regardless of sport.
A recent poll of engaged soccer fans from across the U.S., conducted for SportsBusiness Journal by Turnkey Sports and Entertainment, revealed a base of fans who follow the game far more broadly than they are typically thought to, following both the men’s and women’s national teams, as well as the top international leagues and MLS (see charts).
“What we see among these engaged fans is that you are a fan of the sport and you consume all available soccer content; you don’t pick and choose,” said Nikolay Panchev, vice president of consumer research at Turnkey. “There are going to be small segments which are the snobbish EPL fan who thinks EPL is the top and we will watch only EPL. But this segment is getting smaller and smaller. Mostly, you have soccer fans, and they will follow soccer in general. And that base is growing for many reasons.”
Consider how the landscape for soccer has changed in the last five years:
■ Games from the best leagues in the world are promoted more heavily than ever and distributed more widely than ever in both English and Spanish.
■ The emergence of social media allows fans to find each other more readily, and connect to a sport more deeply, regardless of whether others around them share their affinity.
■ The FIFA video game is ragingly popular among teens and 20-somethings, increasing their familiarity with players and clubs from around the world.
■ MLS clubs have doubled down on the soccer-specific stadiums they’ve built by fostering a supporters culture that provides an experience that better replicates that which fans find in Europe, Mexico and South America.
■ About 53 million Hispanics now represent 17 percent of the U.S. population. Those whose heritage lies in Mexico and Central and South America consistently report a close, cultural connection to the sport.
“You have all these things triggering at the same time,” Luker said. “The consciousness of it. A generation of young players who played soccer. Ready access to the rest of the world.
“Now, 18 years in, that’s the end of the first generation, there is enough connective tissue in the consciousness of kids, and more importantly young parents …
“We’re poised. I really believe we’re poised.”
Seeding the playing field
It has been 40 years since the first of a series of events that we will point to here as the germination of U.S. soccer. That’s when Kyle Rote Jr., the son of a famed New York Giants receiver, crossed over into the broader sporting landscape.
Rote led the North American Soccer League in scoring in 1973. This, hardly anyone noticed. What he did that mattered played out the following winter on ABC, where he competed in a made-for-TV event called “The Superstars.” Rote beat out a host of better known athletes, including Pete Rose, O.J. Simpson and John Havlicek. He would win the competition twice more in the next three years.
Something important was happening.
By 1980, participation in soccer had grown eightfold, to 810,000. It increased another 400,000 in the next five years, and 400,000 more in the five years after that. In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup, setting ticket sales records that still stand today. A year later, participation was up to 2.4 million. In 2000, it eclipsed 3 million.
There were all these kids playing. All these screaming fans at the World Cup.
The narrative surged. Clearly, soccer was the next big thing.
Only it wasn’t. At least not at that point.
All those kids playing? Most still had their baby teeth. Today, soccer is the most-played sport among 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds, according to the most recent participation study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (see chart). But by the time they’re 10, more kids are playing basketball. By 12, soccer is in a dead heat with baseball. By 14, both soccer and baseball trail football.
David Downs’ connections to soccer are long and deep. He was president of Univision Sports, executive director of the U.S. bid committee for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and, briefly, commissioner of NASL. He also coaches youth soccer.
Downs sees a significant difference between the way today’s youth players follow the game as compared to those who came before them, not only because they can watch more games but because the FIFA video game exposes them to such a breadth of leagues and players.
“It’s good to have millions of kids educated and it does make them better adult fans,” Downs said. “But the hard part was not getting them to play. It was getting them to consume it as a fan. And now that’s easy. There isn’t a goal scored anywhere in the world that you can’t see if you’re so inclined.”
Turnkey’s survey showed no connection between playing youth soccer and high avidity as fans, Panchev said. It did show a strong one between playing currently and high avidity.
“A key emotional connection is the fact that you played the sport growing up,” said Simon Wardle, chief strategy officer at sports marketing agency Octagon, which will manage at least 500 client events in connection with the upcoming World Cup. “But because soccer is not in the top three sports, from a media perspective, it is struggling for air space. When you don’t have media coverage to drive the conversation and make it an ingrained part of society, that’s when the sport struggles. That’s the reason why soccer has always been the next big thing in America and never quite made it.”
Here’s the first, and perhaps most important, shift. Soccer isn’t just on television; it’s all over television. Wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday morning and go searching for live sports. What do you find? Soccer from Europe, particularly the EPL.
First on Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN and beginning this past season on NBC and NBC Sports Network, which streamed every EPL game live at no charge, English football has established a beachhead on weekend mornings from the fall through the spring.
NBC and NBCSN together averaged 438,000 viewers per match, doubling the combined average of Fox and ESPN from last season. The cumulative TV tune-in of 31.5 million for the season more than doubled last year’s total of 13.3 million. Fifteen games averaged more than 750,000 viewers.
“They’ve almost created this perfect storm of appointment viewing on Saturday and Sunday morning,” Wardle said. “All these kids who are playing on the weekend are getting up and watching games. Ten or 20 years ago parents wouldn’t have had any interest because they didn’t play. But now you have all these dads and mums who grew up with it and are engaged and will sit down with the kids and watch Chelsea or Arsenal or Liverpool. That is key.”
That connection is one of the more likely ways for a child to be socialized into a sport, sociologists have found in studies over the years. Others are playing the sport, encountering it through media, and having friends who play or are fans.
“If your family today is socializing you into the sport by not only taking you to your own games but also the games are playing on a Saturday in the house, that’s different historically from what most kids experienced before,” said Galen Trail, a Seattle University sport management professor who also serves as a consultant to teams and events.
“One would expect from social identity theory that you’ll become more of a fan. But then it gets back to whether you enjoy the experience. That can be a motivator or a constraint.”
Drawn by fan experience
Increased coverage is only part of the equation. Because fans of team sports typically are tribal by nature, they need access not only to the sport, but to other fans. This is why social media has been such an important accelerant for soccer.
Latch onto FC Barcelona or Arsenal or Manchester United or Bayern Munich this morning and by this afternoon you can connect with thousands of like-minded fans on Twitter and elsewhere on the Web, both locally and globally.
“One of the factors that seems to increase every time we look at which factors are contributing to why fans are fans is the talk and socializing factor,” Wardle said. “Social media allows that talk and socializing to not just be a phone call or in a sports bar. It allows you to engage with Fulham fans on the other side of the world or friends you know are going to be watching the game. The ways in which you can engage with family and friends and fellow fans and even the players themselves on Twitter is clearly helping fuel that love of the game.”
So have significant changes in the experience fans find when they attend a game.
MLS clubs have built a dozen soccer-specific stadiums since 1999, with eight of them opening since 2007 and two
That was important to the fans surveyed by Turnkey, about 90 percent of whom said they went to a pro or college match in the last year and half of whom went to three matches or more. While 80 percent were avid soccer fans (at least 4 on a scale of 5), they also said they were avid fans of football (85 percent), basketball (79 percent) and baseball (73 percent). Only one-third said soccer was their favorite sport.
Yet 54 percent who said football was their favorite sport preferred going to soccer matches. That number was slightly more than 60 percent among those who favored baseball or basketball.
They cited match-day atmosphere, camaraderie among fans and a family-friendly environment as the three leading factors.
“As important as building the venue is what happened in those venues: The rise of the supporter movement here in the United States,” said MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler, who joined the league in 2012 after stints at Madison Square Garden, EMI Music, Virgin Mobile and the NFL. “There’s a rhythm and a feel and an experience that is soccer, and it started in MLS with D.C. United and then Toronto FC. The chanting, the singing, the march, the drumming — it all kind of brought to life an experience that was very different from these PA-driven experiences, where music is blasted at you and they’re firing T-shirt guns. The fans created part of the experience, and in many ways created an alternative movement for people in their 20s and 30s who wanted something that they could call their own.
“All those kids running around the stadium, practically still wearing their cleats, they’re still part of it. But the 20-something and 30-something multicultural element is really the heartbeat.”
Trail saw the impact of that stadium experience when studying season-ticket holders of the Seattle Sounders.
Buyers in that first year most often bought because they felt an attachment to their city, and also because they wanted to support MLS. They typically were not avid fans of soccer in general. Those people — the aficionados who were watching matches from around the globe and reading about tactics and transfers — wanted no part of Sounders season tickets.
But in the second season, Trail saw a significant shift among Sounders buyers.
“Watching the Sounders the first year caused a bunch to buy the second year,” Trail said. “And these people were totally different in their behaviors. They followed the game internationally. But they didn’t see the product of the Sounders being of sufficient quality to follow the first year. After seeing it a little bit, and seeing the crowd, they became interested sufficiently to buy season tickets. They’re the ones who follow the EPL and are in the soccer bars. Now they follow the Sounders as well.”
The Turnkey survey showed interest in a broad range of soccer properties, both domestic and abroad. More than 90 percent were at least casual followers of both the U.S. men’s team and the EPL. More than 80 percent were at least casual followers of MLS, the U.S. women’s team, the Champions League, La Liga and Serie A. On average, fans followed eight properties at least casually.
Before he was a sport management professor, Bill Sutton ran a YMCA. He remembers the boom in participation among kids, and all the soccer program slots that he filled as a result of it. Like many, he was surprised it didn’t translate into TV ratings and attendance. He predicts this World Cup will ignite broad interest in the U.S. again, but that this time it will be sustainable.
“I think this is very different from what we were seeing before,” said Sutton, founding director of the sport and entertainment management graduate program at South Florida. “The parents that were driving them around back then were like me. I’d look at my watch the entire time. I went. But I wasn’t really into it. I wanted them to like my sports. Now, it’s one of their parents’ sports, too.
“Soccer has had a number of false starts here. They were thinking people were ready for it and they weren’t quite ready. They’re more ready for it now than I’ve ever seen.”
Melissa Briski was up late watching the U.S. men’s national team last Tuesday night, but she was still up and
“A friend took me to a soccer bar — like, a legit soccer bar, where they don’t even serve food,” said Briski, a 32-year-old nurse who lives about 30 minutes north of Cincinnati. “You’re crammed in, wall-to-wall, with people. You’re yelling, laughing, crying and hugging total strangers. It really took me by surprise. I’d never been that excited at a sporting event before.”
Briski dove headlong into the 2006 World Cup, her interest expanding beyond the U.S. team. When it ended, she wanted more. She continued to soak up information, reading stories online and embracing an EPL club, Liverpool, largely because she favored two of its midfielders, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso.
World Cups have come and gone, but Briski’s interest has remained, and even grown. “I’m not sure I’d have even done any of this if not for social media,” she said. “I have friends all over the country. We watch the matches together on Twitter. I love to go watch at a soccer bar, but I can only do that so much.
“Soccer is in a sweet spot right now. The people into it are extremely passionate, and there is this community out there. You may find something like it at a mosque or a temple or a church, but that’s about it.”
— Bill King
Matt French caught our eye about six weeks ago, when the following showed up beside his handle on a
“So what are the chances my wife will agree to Mother’s Day brunch at @HooligansClt for the last day of the EPL? @LFCUSA #YNWA”
Alas, they weren’t very good. Still, French said he appreciates wife Mandy’s tolerance of a habit that emerged four years ago, when he was drafted to run the office World Cup pool. He watched every match, and hasn’t stopped since.
Thanks to NBC Sports’ streaming coverage, French watches almost all the matches of the EPL club he adopted, Liverpool, tuning in on TV or watching on the iPad. He has taught his two soccer-playing daughters, Molly, 8, and Anna, 6, the names of all 20 clubs in the league. French also follows a couple of Bundesliga clubs and will watch anything from any of the top European leagues or cup competitions. And, of course, he tracks the U.S. team closely.
French’s Twitter feed is about 80 percent soccer and 20 percent politics.
“They say that there’s no zealot like a convert and that’s absolutely true in this case,” said French, who works in public affairs at a law firm. “While there might not be a lot of people following it like you are in the office, there’s no shortage of people out there on Twitter. You really are part of a closed society. When I get the chance to go watch a game at Hooligans, being surrounded by people who appreciate the game and understand the tactics, it’s almost as good as being there.”
— Bill King
When we caught up with Fernando Proano last week, he was in a hotel room in San Francisco, to which he traveled
“It’s almost a religion when you’re into it as deeply as I am,” said Proano, a 61-year-old physician from Vancouver, Wash., who is a member of the American Outlaws supporter group in Portland. “I got the soccer bug early in life and never lost it. And today, really, you can follow everything like never before.”
Proano’s parents were from Ecuador. He was born the year after they migrated to Vancouver. Though soccer was not popular in the U.S. or Canada, his father, Augosto, remained immersed in it, starting a youth team. When Portland was working to land an NASL franchise, Augosto Proano invested in it.
Years later, Fernando Proano is struck by the momentum building around soccer in the U.S., not only for the national team and the MLS matches that he regularly attends but for international competitions, such as the Copa Libertadores, which features clubs from Central and South America.
“The supporters, we’re sort of like soccer evangelists, getting people interested,” said Proano, who frequents the cleverly named 4-4-2 soccer bar when in Portland. “With the watch parties we do for the World Cup, we’re going to introduce the casual fan to the game. Soccer is a social event. Watching a match together like that is a different experience. A certain percentage of those people will become real fans. You can follow the game from around the world every day now. You couldn’t do that when we had the Timbers in the NASL.”
— Bill King
El Paso, Texas (via Chicago)
Patrick Staley played soccer in high school. But when you ask him what made him the fan that he is today —
Staley (right) walks with his brother after watching Liverpool at a pub in Chicago.
It was at Ball State that Staley began playing EA Sports’ popular FIFA game, which broadened his familiarity with the world’s premier players and clubs. And it was soon after that, while working as a teacher in Chicago, that he joined his brother to watch a Liverpool match over breakfast at the Globe Pub, and found himself falling deeply for the club whose supporters are known for their spirited renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
“It’s bizarre the way you can form this kind of connection,” Staley said. “I’ve never been to Liverpool. But it’s kind of like falling in love. You have this connection to a team that you really can’t explain.”
Last year, Staley, 30, moved to El Paso to work as a consultant with an educational software company. Though none of the bars that aired soccer opened early enough for EPL games, the one that hosts the local U.S. national team supporters club said it would open for him if he could bring a group of 10 Liverpool supporters. Staley created an El Paso Liverpool group on Twitter, but fell just short of the 10 he needed.
“We just didn’t have enough time,” Staley said. “But we’re hoping to build off that and have our own little mini Globe in El Paso for next season.”
— Bill King
They say attending soccer matches provides a better experience than attending football, baseball or basketball games, even among soccer fans who selected those other sports as their favorite. Compared to attending football/baseball/basketball games, the experience of attending live soccer matches is …
Football overall Football is favorite sport Baseball overall Baseball is favorite sport Basketball overall Basketball is favorite sport Soccer is better 66% 54% 77% 61% 70% 62% Comparable 24% 26% 20% 34% 23% 29% Soccer is worse 10% 18% 3% 5% 7% 9%
The atmosphere at games, including the fan camaraderie and family-friendly environment, is what makes the live soccer experience better.
To what extent do each of the following explain why you find the live soccer experience better?
The matches are shorter Takes less time of the day to attend soccer matches Value No commercial breaks in play Family-friendly environment Level of camaraderie among fans Better match-day atmosphere Explains very well 37% 43% 45% 53% 56% 56% 61% Explains somewhat 40% 38% 43% 37% 36% 39% 35% Does not explain 24% 19% 12% 10% 9% 5% 5%
The majority of engaged soccer fans believe that MLS broadcasts and elements have improved over the last three years. However, more than 40 percent think the consistency of time slots on major networks and the amount of original MLS programming have not improved.
Compared to three years ago, rate the following areas of TV coverage of MLS action:
Quality of live broadcast of MLS matches Number of MLS Matches shown on Major TV networks per week Consistency of day/time slots for MLS Matches on major networks Amount of originalMLS Programming on TV (non-live) Availability ofyour local Club’s games on TV Better 65% 60% 56% 56% 53% Comparable 32% 37% 42% 40% 43% Worse 3% 1% 3% 3% 4%
At a conference table in New York in January, Howard Handler and a team of Major League Soccer marketing executives came to the conclusion that the 2014 MLS season must be linked to this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“For Club and Country,” the league’s slogan for the current season, was hatched.
The following day, Handler, MLS’s chief marketing officer, traded emails from his laptop on a flight from New York to Los Angeles with David Bruce, the league’s senior director of brand and integrated marketing. Thoughts on how the theme would look and be used were refined.
“It just kind of made sense,” Handler said. “The World Cup is the greatest locomotive you could ever imagine. It always creates a seminal moment for soccer, and MLS players form the nucleus of the U.S. team and are key components of other national teams.”
The "For Club and Country" slogan makes the link between MLS players and national teams.
There were an additional 16 MLS players at their respective national team camps outside of the United States looking to make World Cup rosters this year. Overall, 13 of 19 MLS clubs had players at World Cup training camps in late May.
So it made sense for MLS to have “For Club and Country” in all of its messaging, the largest display being a billboard in Times Square. The league’s print and digital ads read, “March to Brazil. It all starts here. MLS. For Club and Country.”
The campaign, created entirely in-house, will run before, during and after the World Cup. The league and U.S. Soccer have co-produced scarves with MLS team branding on one side and “For Club and Country” on the other.
“We are in lock-step with U.S. Soccer,” Handler said.
“MLS Insider,” the league’s flagship digital documentary series, has been focused on MLS players likely to participate in the World Cup. MLSsoccer.com’s video features also have been focused on the World Cup, including “Brazil Bound” (presented by Castrol GTX) and “For the Love of the Crest” (presented by Continental Tire).
A series of posters featuring MLS stars in action with the “For Club and Country” message was created by the league and distributed to fans by the featured players’ respective clubs. There are 11 posters featuring not only stars of the U.S. squad, but also MLS players competing for Australia, Brazil, Honduras and Costa Rica. MLS clubs are hosting a combined 125 viewing parties for World Cup matches, as well.
Every four years, MLS is happy to close its doors for two weeks during the World Cup. Unlike the NHL, which has had reservations about shuttering midseason so its players can participate in the Winter Olympics, MLS embraces the World Cup. MLS has scheduled games on Wednesday, June 11, the day before the World Cup opener between Croatia and Brazil. The season officially resumes with a single game (Montreal-Vancouver) on Wednesday, June 25, but starts again in earnest on Friday and Saturday, June 27-28, after the conclusion of the World Cup’s group-stage games. The World Cup Final is July 13.
MLS is banking on the U.S. national team having a successful World Cup and that translating to an uptick in attendance and television ratings for the second half of the season and beyond.
“The better the U.S. does, the better MLS is likely to do,” Handler said.
Although it won’t be easy, with the U.S. trying to advance past the group stage with three increasingly tougher opponents in Ghana, Portugal and Germany, MLS can use the spark. Ratings from English-language MLS telecasts in the U.S. have rarely been strong. While EPL matches during the 2013-14 season averaged 438,000 viewers on NBC and NBCSN, MLS games on ESPN, NBC and NBCSN have averaged around half that mark. The EPL has taken notice of its rising stock in the U.S., with seven Premier League clubs now playing exhibition matches in America this summer.
But MLS has reasons to believe that ratings will improve. In partnership with U.S. Soccer (which is represented by
The deals take effect in 2015 and are for a combined $90 million annually. The broadcast schedule will be structured with Univision having exclusive games on Friday nights, and ESPN and Fox broadcasting games on Sundays.
The league’s upcoming expansion should also aid its television ratings. New York City FC, to begin play in Yankee Stadium in 2015, provides a local rival for the New York Red Bulls. Orlando City (2015), Atlanta (2017) and a David Beckham-owned franchise in Miami (deal pending) give MLS a needed footprint in the South.
Over the last year, U.S. stars Clint Dempsey (from Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders) and Michael Bradley (from AS Roma to Toronto FC) have returned to MLS after stints in the top European leagues. With so many MLS players representing the U.S. in Brazil, a big showing — or even just one captivating victory — would be a boost for the league.
“If you get the water-cooler moment, something that shines a positive light on our guys, they’ll come back as heroes,” Handler said. “We have star power in our league. David Beckham and Thierry Henry have been phenomenal for us as global stars, but having home-grown American stars makes such a big difference.”
MLS Digital plans to make sure fans never miss a moment at the World Cup.
“We’re amplifying the link between MLS and the U.S. team,” said Chris Schlosser, vice president of MLS Digital.
While the league had only two editorial employees in South Africa in 2010, it will have a dozen in Brazil, including on-camera analysts and reporters Jimmy Conrad, Nick Firchau and Andrew Wiebe. Conrad, a former MLS and U.S. team defender who played in the 2006 World Cup, is the face of Kick TV, MLS’s YouTube channel for global soccer coverage.
The dozen MLS Digital staffers on the ground at the World Cup are staying in an apartment in Rio that will double as their studio and writers’ workspace. In New York, MLS will have what it’s calling its Responsive Station: a crew of writers, editors and social media team members posting breaking news, analysis, photos and live statistics for all World Cup matches.
“There’s a halo effect from every World Cup, and we expect Brazil to be the biggest one yet, so we need to be at our best to see that a new swell of fans comes into the MLS mix,” Handler said. “Or, put it this way: The World Cup is our Black Friday, but for us, Black Friday lasts for a month.”
Twenty years ago, David Sternberg never imagined he’d build a career around soccer. He knew next to nothing about the sport when he took a temporary job with the 1994 World Cup organizing committee. He just wanted to do some sports-related work before he enrolled in business school at UCLA.
“Soccer wasn’t part of my long-term plan,” Sternberg said.
But over the past two decades, Sternberg has spent the majority of his career working around soccer — first at Fox Sports, later at Fox Soccer Channel, and now as the head of media at Manchester United. He’s one of dozens of people who worked on the 1994 World Cup who continue to work in the sport. Their professional involvement in the sport is a testament to the growth of the soccer business in the U.S. over the last two decades.
Organizers of the event faced plenty of obstacles stateside and plenty of scrutiny abroad.
Photo by:Getty Images
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how much things have changed. The U.S. bid to host the World Cup almost failed to materialize. The bid cost $1.5 million, and the bid committee only managed to raise half of that. California attorney Scott LeTellier, president of the organizing committee, left his law practice and mortgaged his home to secure the rest. Even after FIFA awarded the U.S. the World Cup, there was skepticism about it being played in America.
“The international soccer press was predicting that no one would come and that we would cut the game into quarters so we could have commercials,” said Hank Steinbrecher, who worked on the bid and was the former secretary general of U.S. Soccer. “We had every possible complaint registered against us beforehand.”
The corporate community also had its doubts. Kathy Carter, who worked in marketing for the World Cup organizing committee, recalls meeting with potential sponsors and having to explain what the World Cup was. The U.S.
qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years in 1990, and the U.S. team lost every match it played. As a result, the event and the U.S. Soccer team weren’t relevant to most marketers.
“They knew a big event was coming, but I wouldn’t say the marketplace knew what that event was,” Carter said.
The sports industry was still in its infancy, and the organizing committee reflected that. Organizers cut a value-in-kind, loaded deal with Starkist Tuna and planned to feed it to volunteers, but Carter said it was so hot in the summer that it couldn’t keep the tuna fresh for the workforce.
“Our sponsors were Coke and Mars, and I had so little money that I had Snickers bars and Diet Coke all the time, and sometimes for dinner,” said Scott Rosner, who was in graduate school and working as the assistant manager of volunteers at Giants Stadium during the 1994 event. “I had a stomach ache for months and was too dumb to figure out why.”
There were other issues as well. Hours before a match at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., a garbage truck knocked down a pedestrian footbridge near the stadium and took out all of the broadcast wires that ran from the stadium to nearby broadcast trucks.
“Miraculously no one was on the bridge,” Sternberg said. “Can you imagine a less auspicious start? We wound up taking the bridge down and routing people another way and getting the signal back up in time for the game.”
Ticket sales were a challenge as well. There was little history outside the failed NASL for attending live soccer matches in the U.S., so organizers turned to local youth soccer organizations for support.
“When we started to sell tickets, we had some lists from [the American Youth Soccer Organization] and a bunch of index cards with other names and addresses,” said Joann Klonowski, the former vice president of marketing for the 1994 World Cup and the current vice president of the 2015 Special Olympics. “We started the initial sale and used advertising with American sports icons to get people interested. In March 1994, we had a million dollars in ticket sales [in a single day]. Then everything started to sell out.”
Premier Partnerships founder Randy Bernstein, who was the senior vice president of corporate marketing for the 1994 World Cup, added, “We never really knew until the opening game in Chicago and saw the first ball kicked with political leaders that we had something special.”
The Rose Bowl is filled to capacity for the 1994 World Cup Final.
Photo by:Getty Images
The event served as the launching pad for Major League Soccer, which debuted in 1996. It also was the catalyst for the first rights deal in the U.S. for the English Premier League, which Fox acquired for $2.5 million in 1998, and the UEFA Champions League, which ESPN acquired in 1994.
Soccer in the U.S. has exploded since then. MLS now attracts more than 6 million spectators annually. The league has 19 franchises playing this year (compared with 10 in that first season), increased its expansion fees from $10 million to $70 million, and has signed marquee international players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry.
The EPL became the foundation for Fox Soccer Channel, which was later disbanded so that soccer matches could air alongside other sports on Fox Sports 1, which pays more than $60 million for UEFA Champions League rights.
Rights for the EPL rose considerably over the past two decades. NBC Sports Network currently pays an estimated $83 million a year for those rights.
The value of World Cup rights in the U.S. exploded, as well. No broadcaster in the U.S. signed on to air the 2002 or 2006 World Cup. MLS stepped in to acquire the rights to both World Cups for $40 million to $50 million and struck an agreement with ESPN to broadcast the events.
ESPN and Univision went on to pay a combined $425 million for the rights to carry the 2010 and 2014 World Cups (ESPN paying $100 million, Univision paying $325 million). Looking ahead, Fox Sports bought the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments for between $450 million and $500 million, with Telemundo paying $600 million for the Spanish-language rights to those two events.
In addition to its media value, soccer has become a major live sports event. European clubs now regularly tour in the summer and draw more than 50,000 spectators for exhibition games.
The game’s growth has allowed a host of people who worked on that World Cup in the United States to continue to work in the sport. In addition to Sternberg, who is working with Manchester United, the people still working in the sport include: Bernstein, whose firm Premier Partnerships has sold naming-rights deals for MLS stadiums like Philadelphia’s PPL Park; Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing; Sunil Gulati, who served as the executive vice president of the 1994 event and is the current president of U.S. Soccer; and Charlie Stillitano, who created the summertime Guinness International Cup event.
“Our mission statement said we were going to host a great World Cup and leave a legacy for soccer in the U.S.,” said Rosner, now a professor of sports business at the University of Pennsylvania. “We accomplished both.”
This summer, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City will all tour the United States as they look to build their fan bases and tap into the growing interest in the English Premier League created in part by NBC’s expanded television coverage.
EPL teams have long been a staple of the lucrative U.S. summer tour schedule, whether they are playing Major League Soccer clubs or exhibition games against each other. But they also have stepped up efforts to grow their brands through the creation of U.S. fan clubs and increased marketing and PR activity.
“A lot of clubs are now resurrecting their North American tour plans,” said Richard Ayers, a former Manchester City consultant who now runs U.K.-based digital media firm Seven League. He points to the growing status of the EPL in America coupled with rising interest in MLS as two of the key reasons behind the moves.
Arsenal, fresh off winning the FA Cup, will tour the U.S. this summer for the first time in 25 years. Three other EPL clubs are doing the same.
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“If you’re looking to create a big global partnership with companies which have large portfolios, particularly in [soccer], then obviously America is a big target,” said Phil Carling, managing director of the soccer division of Octagon.
“The MLS guys have managed to give [soccer] a clear brand identity, which means it’s attracting younger audiences who want exciting sporting experiences,” Ayers said. “[Soccer] is now seeing a lot more traction, hence the growth in sponsorship money.”
In addition to the tours, at least three other EPL clubs will be playing exhibition matches in the U.S. this summer.
As part of its tour, Arsenal will play a match against the New York Red Bulls, whose star player is former Arsenal player Thierry Henry. The game is part of a three-day whistle-stop tour of the Northeast that also includes soccer camps, sponsorship activation and fan events. Arsenal will showcase its new $249 million kit deal with Puma by holding a fan event in Puma’s flagship New York store.
The fact that this is Arsenal’s first U.S trip in 25 years is an indication of how the brand of soccer in the U.S. has risen to a point where the country now is rivaling the Far East and China as a destination for touring.
Tom Fox, Arsenal chief commercial officer, said it is partly about “where our global partners want us to be.”
Liverpool will use its tour as a platform to activate many of the new U.S.-based partnerships the club has, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Gatorade and Subway, said Billy Hogan, Liverpool’s chief commercial officer.
“We do work closely with our sponsors, both global and regional, to ensure we make the most of our visits to
Clubs have bolstered supporters groups in U.S. markets so fans can share their passion.
Playing soccer interspersed with sponsor commitments may take up a significant chunk of the clubs’ U.S. tours, but Liverpool and Arsenal also will host football clinics and charity events and will meet with official U.S. supporters clubs while in America, as well. Those clubs are an important part of brand building in the United States.
Manchester City fans in New York City, for example, gather at the Mad Hatter bar, while Arsenal fans have made the Blind Pig in Manhattan and Woodwork in Brooklyn their bars of choice. Manchester City ran a program that offered official club plaques to those wanting to run supporters clubs in the U.S.
The clubs alert fans through Facebook and other social media platforms to events during the season.
“It is about creating a destination in a local market where fans can go and share their passion with other fans,” said Mark Ward, the former communications head of Tottenham Hotspur.
Ward said the outreach and brand building among EPL clubs has stretched into Canada, too. For example, Tottenham’s sale of Jermain Defoe to MLS club Toronto FC in January included a clause for the Toronto FC team store to sell Tottenham memorabilia. Similarly, a friendly between Tottenham and the LA Galaxy was included as part of the sale that sent Robbie Keane to the U.S. side.
EPL clubs are also using the increasingly international nature of the league for their advantage. For instance, Swansea toured the U.S. two years ago, and Hispanic fans flocked to see the club’s Spanish players.
As Octagon’s Carling said: “If you have a dog in the fight, then that tends to help audiences.”
There is little doubt that NBC’s viewing numbers have alerted EPL executives that interest and excitement around the league is at an all-time high in the U.S. NBC and NBCSN’s EPL telecasts averaged 438,000 viewers for the past season, almost double the numbers posted for the EPL’s 2012-13 season, when matches were on ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Soccer.
NBC’s blanket coverage gives the EPL a major advantage over other European soccer leagues.
“It puts the Premier League at a higher level than its main competitors, like La Liga and Serie A,” said Henry Chappell, chief executive of sports sponsorship agency Pitch. “It means that there is a whole generation of American sports fans getting weaned onto the Premier League.”
The growing popularity of the EPL in the U.S. prompts the question of whether a U.S.-based EPL franchise could one day be a possibility. After all, the NFL, which now annually holds regular-season games in London, is studying the possibility of placing one of its teams in the U.K.
Such discussion is nowhere near the table at the EPL, though. Instead, what seems more likely is that EPL teams could follow Manchester City’s lead and invest in or launch MLS clubs in the U.S. Manchester City and the New York Yankees have partnered to start New York City FC, which will begin MLS play in 2015.
EPL Chief Executive Richard Scudamore believes that the growth of MLS and the U.S. national team’s qualification for this year’s World Cup are crucial in helping the EPL grow its brand.
“Anything which grows the popularity and uptake of soccer will be of benefit to all of us,” Scudamore said. “The indications are that football can continue to grow in the U.S. If you look at MLS, the quality of football has improved and attendance is very strong.”
And while the EPL scoffs at any suggestion that it will one day launch a U.S. franchise, the league is clearly keen to establishing strong foundations.
“We are in discussions with several U.S.-based organizations about if and how we can help the development of the game at both a grassroots and elite level,” Scudamore said.
Meanwhile, the clubs and the league will continue to grow their brands through tours and marketing.
As Carling said of the EPL: “They have a clear ambition to grow the value of their media rights. The Premier League is trying to get [soccer] rights in the same conversation place ultimately as the NFL.”
John Reynolds is a writer in London.
In the run-up to the World Cup, much of the news out of Brazil has had little to do with the upcoming games. Press reports have been filled with protests and construction problems. Brazil’s government has been accused of shipping undesirable elements away from some of the host cities.
The World Cup’s two U.S. rights holders, ESPN and Univision, have covered these problems on their various news programs, but both networks say the outside stories will take a back seat to on-field action once the tournament starts.
“Our intention is to see what develops,” said Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. “These stories already have been done. Our intention is not to cover these things unless news merits it.”
Protests have garnered much of the attention in the build-up to the event.
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“The three main verticals of our network will be there,” said Alberto Ciurana, Univision Networks’ president of programming and content. “We have sports, news and entertainment. News will be taking care of that.”
The World Cup is big business for U.S. TV networks. ESPN and Univision are paying a combined $425 million for the rights to carry the 2010 and 2014 events, with ESPN paying $100 million and Univision paying $325 million.
This year will mark the last World Cup for both TV channels. Fox Sports bought the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments for between $450 million and $500 million, and Telemundo paid $600 million for the Spanish language rights to the two tournaments.
Despite the amount of money being invested in the games, both networks say they will not be shy about covering stories that may cast a bad light on the World Cup.
ESPN is sending some of its top journalists to the country, with Doria highlighting reporters Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap, producers Jim Witalka and Michael Baltierra, and news editors Sandy Rosenbush and Javier Perrone.
ESPN also will use Bob Woodruff and Paula Faris from ABC News as part of its team.
“We have a lot of resources down there to use if need be,” Doria said. “Clearly, our journalists will do work for the games, but if the landscape shifts, they are all comfortable moving into hard news.”
Univision is sending some of its most popular shows to the country to add to the coverage. It will produce its popular morning show “Despierta América” and its weekday entertainment show “El Gordo y La Flaca” to Brazil, where they plan to focus on lighter news on the culture and traditions of the country.
“We want to really bring to our audience the flavor of that beautiful country and the people of Brazil,” Ciurana said. “We’ll have special coverage, not from the sports point of view, but from the personal and entertaining part of the trip from Brazil.”