For decades the American soccer marketplace was a confusing maze for potential sponsors. During my tenure as Director of Sports Marketing for Gatorade, I was called upon to explain the alphabet soup of soccer organizations. Where did a potential sponsor go to spend its dollars to maximize the investment? Did it go to the USSF or the USYSA, or the AYSO, or the NSCAA or the USASA, or the MISL or the 55 local state youth organizations or the 50 local State Amateur associations? You needed a soccer dictionary to distinguish what all these letters meant!
To make matters worse, we found that many of those organizations were selling the same rights and benefits, all claiming to own them, but at different price points. When you combined this confusing roadmap of American soccer with its seeming traditional inability to perform and deliver on contracted deliverables, you could easily see why soccer was struggling.
Thankfully the marketplace today is vastly different.
U.S. Soccer has proven capable of delivering for sponsors with both its men and women's team performing well to significant crowds. While the performance of the U.S. Men's National Team at last summer's FIFA World Cup Germany was disappointing, it continues as one of the top team's of CONCACAF, our region of the soccer world (includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean nations.) The U.S. Women's National Team is rated No. 1 in the world and is a favorite in September's FIFA Women's World Cup in China. And while performance on the field is important, a little known fact is that the U.S. television English and Spanish rights for the next World Cups in 2010 and 2014 sold for $425 million!
The MLS also performs well. On-field quality continues to improve and with the addition of the Beckham Rule, more entertaining players will be displaying their talents on MLS fields. The consummation of an historic television agreement with ABC and ESPN starting this season marked a turning point in the sport. No longer did they pay to be on TV. Instead, it was the networks that paid MLS!
Major League Soccer's move to develop its own soccer-specific stadiums that fit the demographic profile of the soccer community, helping to create a fan-friendly ambiance is another solid indicator of health. Now in its 11th year, the league's single entity concept has proven its value by creating stability.
Much of the confusion of the past decades has been eliminated by the creation of Soccer United Marketing. SUM represents a number of soccer organizations including the MLS and U.S. Soccer. This approach has given potential sponsors a "one stop shop" entry into the soccer market place. It represents needed clarity.
Today's potential sponsor may also choose to drive support down the chain of the soccer market by affiliating with the myriad of youth soccer organizations. Youth soccer continues its growth pattern and is the No. 1 youth participation sport in America.
Perhaps most important, America has become a soccer fan friendly nation. The reaction to the German World Cup was nothing short of stunning. America caught Soccer Fever.
While the soccer market represents a fantastic opportunity for potential sponsors, there are still a few cautionary notes:
Objective driven. Each potential sponsor must analyze his or her own strategic objectives. They must be aware of their target audience and be clear on expected results. They must also know the soccer "road map" to develop a marketing plan that mirrors those strategic objectives.
Support the sponsorship. While there are a variety of vehicles to market products in today's soccer marketplace, sponsors must be prepared to spend behind their initial investment to activate promotions that will bring results.
Competing organizations. Potential sponsors must also realize that while the soccer marketplace has become less cluttered, there are still competing soccer organizations all on the hunt for support. Knowledge of the maze of soccer organizations and their potential for performance is essential to successful marketing plans.
Spectator struggle. American soccer also continues to struggle with the concept of converting participants into spectators. While there are large numbers of youth participants, they have not yet been converted to active spectators.
Soccer today is a product that brings together a variety of demographic profiles. The mass appeal to the Hispanic population is important to note. Soccer, more than any other sporting activity, represents for potential sponsors an opportunity to capture the changing face of America.
The United States now represents a rich marketing opportunity for sponsors. All indicators point to continued growth and viability.
Hank Steinbrecher is president of Touchline Consultants Inc., an international sports management and marketing consulting firm based in Chicago. His career spans modern soccer in America. In the 1980s, he served as Sports Marketing Director for Quaker Oats Company's Gatorade brand. Then in 1990 he accepted the appointment as Secretary General of the United States Soccer Federation. He served until 2000, guiding both the men's FIFA 1994 World Cup USA and the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup. His lifelong relationship with soccer includes both playing and coaching at a high level and serving as a director of the Harvard Venue of the 1984 Olympic Soccer games.You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.