The Corporate Sponsorship-Youth Soccer Disconnect

By Jim Paglia

We have heard for years that marketers are salivating to tap into the youth soccer market. Various soccer entities from US Soccer, US Youth Soccer, AYSO, MSL, state youth associations, clubs, and individual teams claim they can deliver the goods. These organizations do not do a very good job, and in some cases, they are incapable of providing anything more than naming rights, and signage at their events. 

While growth in youth registration has fluctuated over the years, the overall numbers have remained robust in comparison to many other sports. The balance in the gender split also makes youth soccer members attractive to marketers. So why the disconnect? 

Simply put, soccer entities ask for the wrong things from marketers and marketers do not have the time or inclination to educate soccer people who lack marketing expertise. In an effort to get a deal done, both sides go for what is easiest, if not always effective. 

The companies with whom I have spoken over the years find their forays into soccer to be long on promise and short on delivery. Marketers want relationships with consumers that can convey a brand experience. Promotional packages that focus on logo identification and distributing free product are not meaningful to most marketers. 

Soccer administrators have admirably guarded access to their member lists to avoid exploitation. Many marketers would love to have the contact and demographic information collected by soccer programs, but for the most part, they know they do not really need it to create effective programs.

Here is an example: International Special Olympics (ISO) was seeking a relationship with my then client, McDonald's. The ISO proposal called for a mid-six figure cash sponsorship, and free food. The money was supposedly necessary to fund materials to stage the International Games in Upstate New York that year. We rejected the proposal almost immediately.

We asked ISO to share with us their specific needs, which included: Identity badges for all athletes, coaches and officials; lane markers; numbered bibs for the athletes; course signage; directional signs to find your way around the games; various officiating materials; beverages; publicity and spectator attendance

Through McDonald's vendors and supplier relationships we produced all the materials ISO needed, at a fraction of the cost quoted ISO. Images of McDonald's children characters such as Ronald McDonald®, Grimace®, and the Hamburgler® matched the athletes' badges with specific dormitories. McDonald's "orange bowl" beverage dispensers populated the games site. Our staff kept them filled with free cold drinks and water.

Most importantly, in the community surrounding the games site, we used tray liners in the McDonald's restaurants to provide a site map and to encourage customers to attend the games, especially the opening ceremonies. McDonald's various media contacts donated an extensive list of valuable prizes including wide-screen TV's and other electronics used in random drawings for door prizes to spectators during the opening ceremonies.

Despite offering free admission, previous ISO opening ceremonies seldom drew more than a few hundred spectators. We drew 20,000 spectators. The increased attendance carried over to the actual games as well. The higher numbers helped the TV coverage that year, and made a positive impression on other sponsors. McDonald's brought the ISO experience into its stores in a way that directly benefited its customers. Attendees at the games also got discount coupons for future visits to McDonald's.

Corporate sponsors and youth soccer need to work more creatively to meet the real needs of both parties. The days of youth soccer compiling equipment lists, or products it wants donated, the tournaments it wants underwritten, and a cash contribution are fading fast. Companies are not in business to give away their products or cash as part of their marketing effort.


Jim Paglia is a nationally recognized brand strategist who lives outside Chicago. He has an extensive background in soccer ranging from the NASL, to NCAA Division I, to World Cup 1994, and 30 years of club administration and coaching. Jim can be reached at




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