SBJ/June 2-8, 2014/Opinion

Soccer’s unique social power is opportunity for growth in U.S.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off next week in Brazil. More than ever before, the buildup to this edition of soccer’s showpiece celebration has been overshadowed by the social cost of hosting the world’s richest mega-event in a country where millions live in poverty and lack basic services.

In this context, it’s perhaps surprising that the sponsors of the world’s favorite sport haven’t done more to leverage the game’s unique position as a powerful driver of social development and education.

Working in South Africa in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, those of us in the “soccer for social change” sector experienced a post-Super Bowl rush of brands — usually those outside of the FIFA partner family — looking to invest in social programs during Africa’s first World Cup. This made a lot of sense: It’s a lot cheaper to sponsor a nonprofit organization than to sponsor the FIFA World Cup; it guarantees your brand visibility and credibility during the world’s most watched sporting event; and, hey, it might even do some good. The problem was that many of these partnerships were ill-conceived and poorly executed, with only the larger, more sophisticated nonprofit organizations able to cope with short-term investment and provide the sponsors with the outcomes and stories they needed to feel the investment was worthwhile.

This time around, the rush has not been quite as pronounced. Faced with increasing criticism of the seldom-delivered legacy promises of sports mega-events and the unexpected volume, organization and impact of the protests in Brazil, the 2014 World Cup’s big marketing campaigns are perhaps even more traditional than four years ago. Perhaps fearful of being criticized for tokenism or green washing, brands are keeping any message related to social programs firmly in the background. While stopping to acknowledge the anomalous leadership of Nike, invested long-term in Brazil through the Designed to Move initiative, it’s hard not to feel there is a huge missed opportunity here, especially given that there are no shortage of nonprofit organizations using soccer to address critical social issues that are desperately in need of funding.

One brand that seems to understand the potential is Chevrolet, which in 2012 announced a three-year partnership with the One World Futbol project, pledging to deliver 1.5 million “nearly indestructible” soccer balls around the world. What has been notable is the way Chevy has aligned the social
mission of the partnership with a marketing message built around the inspirational, global and — crucially — simple message of bringing joy to children by delivering soccer balls.

Rather than treating this as a distinct corporate social responsibility project, Chevy,

Chevy’s partnership with One World Futbol pledges to deliver 1.5 million “nearly indestructible” soccer balls around the world.

through the platform ChevroletFC.com, leverages its investment in One World Futbol for brand value every bit as much as its $600 million-dollar sponsorship of global powerhouse Manchester United or its relationship with the U.S. men’s national team. Chevy’s social media stream is full of inspiring content generated from One World Futbol and the programs where it gives out its product. For example, a recent “fan of the week” is a young coach from an organization using soccer to empower youth in the slums of India. It’s the sort of authentic, genuinely inspiring story that would touch the heart of any soccer fan — all estimated 2 billion of them.

Also notable is that Chevrolet selected a charity partner able to deliver on a global scale, with a simple message appropriate to every market; such is the power of a soccer ball. In his recent blog post on CSR Wire, Andrew Mack, the founder and principal of AMGlobal Consulting, talks about the value for global brands of “franchising” CSR approaches: identifying common needs that exist across different geographies and choosing the right partners to create a modular approach appropriate to any environment. It’s significant that the example Mack, a 30-year veteran of international development with the World Bank, imagines as his fictitious example is a program that teaches entrepreneurship through soccer. Chevrolet has heeded this message but with an approach much closer to cause-related marketing than traditional corporate social responsibility.

All of these experiences are relevant for the growth of soccer in the United States, where the game is fighting for attention in a saturated market with a product that is, unusually for American sports, a long way from being the best in the world. Unable to compete in terms of television presence or brand recognition, it makes sense for soccer to play to its strengths and consider the character, values and interests of its fast-expanding fan base of young, socially conscious millennials.

The good news for the U.S. is that soccer is light years ahead: More nonprofit organizations use soccer to address social issues than any other sport, including a growing network in North America.

It’s good news, too, for those of us who work in this sector because in the United States, perhaps like nowhere else in the world, there is an opportunity for a sport to grow with social responsibility at the heart of the business model rather than a late-stage adoption to offset increasing ticket prices or the cost of a replica shirt. This is already apparent at MLS clubs like Seattle and Portland and, perhaps most notably, the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions, an entire professional team created to support a social goal.

This is what we will be examining, together with some of the most progressive teams and brands in the world game, at “Beyond Soccer — powered by streetfootballworld,” a one-day event taking place at Yankee Stadium on June 10. We believe that the unique power of soccer to create social change and the thousands of years of aggregated experience that exist around the world give soccer in the USA the opportunity to lead the way as a model of how sports business can do well by doing good.

Mike Geddes (geddes@streetfootballworld.org) is managing director of the U.S. office of streetfootballworld, an international soccer organization that uses the world’s most popular sport to help young people out of poverty and into a brighter future. For more information on “Beyond Soccer,” visit www.beyondsport.org/event/beyond-soccer-2014.

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