SBJ/June 2-8, 2014/In Depth

EPL steps up U.S. marketing as interest builds

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.
Photo by: Getty Images
The tours provide activation opportunities for the clubs’ sponsors and allow the clubs to show what they have to offer potential new corporate partners headquartered in the U.S. In other words, if you’re going to fish, fish where the fish are.

“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.
different territories around the world,” Hogan said. He added that the club’s U.S.-based ownership also plays into the plans.

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.

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