John Guppy on the evolution of U.S. soccer culture, its unique fan dynamic, and the Gen Z influence

John Guppy has been involved in marketing soccer in the USA since the early 1990s, when he managed U.S. Soccer corporate sponsorships during the buildup to the USA-hosted 1994 World Cup. He also served as the Chicago Fire's president & CEO (2005-08) and as executive vice president of the MetroStars (2000-05). Ten years ago, Guppy founded Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, a marketing agency whose clients are corporate brands as well as domestic and international soccer clubs.

Guppy moved from his native England to the USA at age 18 and captained 1989 Division II national champion New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University). He was UMass assistant coach while earning his master's degree in Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts.

SOCCER AMERICA: What's the most significant trend in American soccer fandom that you've witnessed over the last few years?

JOHN GUPPY: I think it has to be the evolution of soccer culture in the U.S. For many years being a soccer fan in America was a rather lonely affair. Meeting another soccer fan or seeing that soccer was on TV in a bar was a noteworthy happening. To me, World Cup 2010 was the real turning point. This was the moment I think soccer broke through the niche barrier and became something much more prevalent and universally relevant in America.

Soccer really matters now to a significant number of people in America. People care about their team(s) and winning matters. There are more “fans” now at matches than there are “spectators.” Just look at the crowd environments in Atlanta and Cincinnati last year as two recent examples. I love visiting Portland and sitting in some coffee shop eavesdropping on people’s conversations about the Timbers. Soccer kids are now the cool kids in high school. In so many ways soccer has truly become an important part of life for millions of Americans.

We're coming upon the first men's World Cup since 1986 without the USA participating. What's your prediction on how the U.S. team's absence will affect the attention that this summer's World Cup will get in the USA?

I still can’t quite believe the U.S. will not be playing in Russia. It definitely stings from both a fan and a marketer perspective, but I remain extremely bullish on the appeal in the U.S. of the World Cup.

FOX and Telemundo are both first-time broadcasters and planning massive promotional campaigns around the event. You’ll have to be living under a rock not to be exposed to the World Cup on some level this summer. FOX, for example, is airing 38 matches on the big broadcast network, that’s more than ABC carried for the previous four World Cups combined. While historically U.S. matches (four games in World Cup 2014) have been ratings juggernauts, a closer look at tournament viewership shows that 86% of the total event audience for ESPN/Univision came from matches not involving the U.S. The World Cup is much bigger than just the U.S. team.

One of the big differences though will be the driving narrative in the U.S. There will be no mass red, white, and blue public viewings, no Christian Pulisic on Entertainment Tonight, and no iconic moment that “breaks the internet” in the vein of Landon Donovan vs. Algeria or Timmy Howard vs. Belgium. Instead the focus will be on the overall global significance and sporting drama that is the World Cup spectacle. Star players (Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, etc.) will be featured prominently, as well as the exploits of the Mexican national team.

A crowd of 68,917 watched Mexico beat Iceland in a pre-World Cup friendly at Levi's Stadium in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Photo by Conall Gaffney)

How would you rate the popularity of soccer in the USA compared to other major sports, such as football, basketball, baseball and hockey?

I’ll answer this question as a marketer. For people over 45 years of age soccer popularity is relatively low when compared to other sports. But if you look at the younger population things change dramatically. The industry got very excited recently, when a Gallup poll showed soccer tied with basketball (and behind only football) as the favorite sport for 18- to 34-year-olds. Similarly, there a number of reports and indicators that show soccer as a sport of choice -- if not the sport of choice -- for the Gen Z (13-18 years) youth audience. These are incredible stats and showcase just how well soccer is positioned for the future.

How much of a role does U.S. mainstream media still play popularizing soccer in this era of social media and the availability of the 24/7 soccer coverage on the Internet?

Building on your last question, soccer’s driving audience is the Millennial/Gen Z crowd. These are digital first generations. They don’t consume soccer the way we do as older fans. My 17-year-old son has a difficult time sitting down to watch a 2-hour match on a screen we call the television. But that’s not to see he’s less interested, he’s just choosing to “watch soccer” differently, through key highlights, goal GIFS, and social conversations all via his phone.

Mainstream media companies still have a major role to play in the sports rights business, but they are having to evolve their distribution and revenue models to address these changing consumption habits. When Turner recently won the rights to the UEFA Champions League, they stated that a primary focus is the digital exploitation of these rights, not the traditional television model we all understand. Of course, at the same time, new digital entrants like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, ESPN, Amazon are driving this dynamic as well.

John Guppy captained New Hampshire College to the 1989 NCAA Division II national championship title.

Is soccer fandom in the USA unique in that we have fans of so many different leagues and competitions around the world?

Fandom in emerging soccer cultures like the USA is certainly different from fandom in mature soccer nations like Mexico, Spain, or England. I was born in the Southampton region of England in the late ‘60’s so Southampton was my team. Simple. Even today with much greater access to soccer, most (not all) kids growing up in Southampton are Southampton fans.

In an emerging soccer market like the USA you don’t have that deeply embedded hometown association. Add in the fact that you have virtually unlimited access to soccer from every league in the world, and a very different fan dynamic exists. Soccer fandom in the USA is a series of individual choices as it relates to what teams(s) to follow. In theory, every club in the world has an opportunity to make their case as to why you should follow them. Winning, star players, history, peer pressure, media exposure, there are multiple factors that can influence these choices.

When it launched in 1996, I felt that MLS's big challenge was not creating soccer fans in the USA -- as was the case with the old NASL in the 1970s -- but convincing those who are already soccer fans to become MLS fans. For example, getting Liga MX fans or fans of European leagues to watch MLS games. Do you agree with that assessment? How would you rate the progress of MLS in that regard? Put more bluntly, is MLS succeeding in impressing the so-called Eurosnob fans?

In hindsight, I don’t think there were as many soccer fans in the 1990s as perhaps we all thought there were. But, to your point, the starting premise for MLS fan development was very much about (a) convincing existing fans of the international game to embrace MLS and (b) engaging the youth soccer population.

Converting the international soccer fan proved challenging. If you were a soccer fan living in America in the 1980s/early 90s, your only outlet was the international game. Then in 1996 these fans were asked to buy in to MLS. While there were certainly some great players (we are just talking in the office about how great the D.C. United ’96 team was), MLS 1.0 overall left much to be desired and was a tough sell to many a soccer fan who had been dieting exclusively on the international game for 10-15 years.

Fast forward to today and MLS is a wholly different proposition. Teams are performing in soccer appropriate venues, with international game rules, and a mix of global and homegrown players. Most importantly though, there is a whole generation (almost two) of fans that have grown up with MLS and helped foster a true soccer fan culture. MLS teams are far more self-assured today in what they doing, and I think most have stopped worrying about trying to convert the so-called Eurosnob.

Do you think the popularity of the FIFA video game has had an impact on the growth American soccer fandom?

Absolutely, no question it has had a huge influence. I often say that when the book is written about soccer’s growth in the U.S. the FIFA gaming franchise should have its own chapter. During the formative childhood years, soccer benefits incredibly from being both the most played participant sport and the sport featured in the most popular video game. These are foundational influences that lead to and shape future fandom. FIFA has also had a profound impact on the “star player” interest we see in many young fans. I’m sure PSG, for example, gained a ton of new fans when Neymar joined last year. Fans who fell in love with Neymar in large part because of their experience with him playing FIFA.

We're constantly seeing foreign clubs getting involved in American youth soccer -- something that your company has been involved with, such as in the case of Barcelona setting up in Arizona. Does American soccer actually benefit from these ventures, which must surely be inspired by the fact that American youth soccer is a such lucrative business, or does it just help inflate the price of pay to play?

Great question, Mike. I think it really depends on the genuine motivations behind the program. Ultimately, every program is some mix of soccer elements (i.e. player development, player ID, coach development) and marketing elements (i.e. brand development, data capture, merchandise sales). The question to me is, what’s really driving the agenda? In most scenarios, I do believe it’s the value of advancing the soccer elements and as a result the program is bringing a new and positive impact to the sport. However, I think there are cases where things get a little upside down and soccer becomes primarily a marketing solution, arguably to the detriment of the sport.

One of your clients is Panini trading cards/stickers. How popular are trading cards in this age of electronic entertainment, kids being so attached to their smart phones?

I will openly admit that Panini is a passion client for our Agency. Like many expats my age, I grew up with Panini and the nostalgic memories of collecting/trading stickers are deeply embedded. Amazingly, even today the Panini World Cup experience is a hugely significant part of the overall World Cup for many kids and parents. Our first World Cup with Panini in the U.S was 2010 and we’ve watched the product grew incredibly. This World Cup will be the biggest and best ever for Panini in the U.S. by quite a wide margin. Yes, they now have a digital trading game that is really cool, but the traditional sticker album still has amazing appeal.

5 comments about "John Guppy on the evolution of U.S. soccer culture, its unique fan dynamic, and the Gen Z influence".
  1. Ted Stephanides, March 29, 2018 at 9:48 p.m.

    I am glad to read John Guppy's optimistic take on the evolution of soccer in the USA. While there has definitely been progress I find that the mainstream media are still trying to avoid any soccer coverage (or at least MLS) as much as possible. I am a daily subscriber of the San Francisco Chronicle (largest newspaper in Northern California) and their idea of covering MLS is basically giving the scores and the standings on the back page. They never send a reporter to cover the home games of the local team the San Jose Earthquakes, let alone away games, and they rarely if ever have a story about any of the players or the team. There was not even a single line this year before the start of the MLS season about the Earthquakes or anything about MLS in general. Compare that to page after page (or entire sections) greeting the opening of footbal, baseball, basketball and even hockey seasons.
    I know several young people including my two daughters who like soccer and would attend some games or watch some games on TV  if they only heard about the team and knew anything about any of the players. Let's face it, we are a media society and if something is not covered the average casual fan will not go to the games.
    I have written letters and emails over the years to the sports staff at the SF Chronicle asking for some coverage of the game but their responses when I got one was totally unsatisfactory like they don't get it.
    Looking at the still medocre attendance for MLS games in huge markets like Chicago, New York or Boston I can only assume that MLS coverage from the mainstream media does not fare any better there either.
    I feel that soccer fans and officials of the MLS teams need to reach out to the local media and demand a respectable coverage of the game. Until then the large numbers of casual soccer fans will stay away from MLS. To me this seems the last barrier in MLS becoming a truly major league.

  2. uffe gustafsson, March 29, 2018 at 10:42 p.m.

    Totally agree, the news paper coverage is non exsistant in Bay Area news papers.
    and for HS if they a football team then soccer is something only parents are coming to. Except when Alameda Hs play Encinal then we get some students coming to watch city reviverly. But football is still the king and full stadium. Soccer is still the parents only spectators sport.

  3. R2 Dad, March 30, 2018 at 9:24 p.m.

    We're constantly seeing foreign clubs getting involved in American youth soccer...

    Ya know, if the youth set-up in the US was more stable, properly tiered and development-focused,  there would be no need for foreign clubs to come in--no opportunity, even. If club owners thought more like teachers and less like scavenging entrepreneurs our players wouldn't have the need for outside instructors. But club owners ARE greedy, unwilling to develop and unwilling to pass on their stars to higher tiers of competition/development. It eventually happens anyway, but not without delaying player development and sustaining lots of collateral damage. But because that damage is only an inconvenience to USSF voters/club owners/coaches it's easily dismissed as the cost of doing business, literally.

    For all those USSF members that voted for the status quo, that think our youth system is working just fine, here is my most recent anecdote on why it isn't and why the system is broken: my son's U16 team is playing in the state cup tournament. Our next opponent, a hispanic team, just forfeit the match beause their team blew up--probably over the summer but Management tries to hold on to their players or grab a couple new ones to salvage their team--but are never able.(This predictably happens every season, everywhere--my kid's team blew up 2 years ago (parents doing)and his current one will blow up this summer (club doing). The hispanic team,  which was very good, probably had a DA club take their top 1 or 2 players, which reduced the remaining players effectiveness and player count below 12. All the GotSoccer ratings, coach history--it's now totally meaningless. Of course coaches want to salvage the team and the season, but player requirements are the absolutely last priority.

  4. R2 Dad, March 30, 2018 at 9:25 p.m.


    There is natural attrition starting after U10, with fewer and fewer players and all clubs hoping to retain the players they have but are unable--the shrinking pyramid forces clubs to abandon teams starting about U12. Every year good players lose teammates, coaches, have to change clubs--it's all very predictable, costly, frustrating and totally kills development. Everyone is scrambling mid-season to find new arrangements. This repeats in every club at every age level. TONS OF PLAYERS FALL THROUGH THE CRACKS, ESPECIALLY HISPANIC PLAYERS WHO MAY NOT HAVE AS MUCH FLEXIBILITY WITH ROUTINES TO GET TO OTHER CLUBS/TEAMS/PRACTICE FIELDS. They may keep playing, but odds are on an unregistered adult team/league.


    It's the best way, regardless of whatever hocus-pocus MLS/SUM/USSF says. That's the way the rest of the top clubs in top leagues do it. Sure you can try to get the tail to wag the dog, and maybe in another 25 years there will be fewer players dropping out as MLS DA teams consolidate power (1st priority), slowly scale up (2nd), and lastly attempt to address quality training (complete afterthought, like MLS). But the MLS avenue is glacial, low in quality and still doesn't address the rationalization of the player pipeline, only the control over it.

    So yay, the MLS insider candidate won the election. At the youth level, it just feels like rearranging deck chairs on the USS Federation as we sink below the waves,  with USMNT coaches and club owners filling all the lifeboats!

  5. Wooden Ships replied, March 30, 2018 at 11:56 p.m.

    R2, with the Mic drop. Nice!

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