John Guppy on American soccer marketing's new era, the sport's flourishing U.S. landscape, and remembering Kevin Payne

Last month, For Soccer Ventures created For Soccer by merging with another American soccer-specific marketing and media firm, Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, which was founded by John Guppy in 2008.

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). After earning his master's degree in Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts, while UMass assistant coach, 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 (now New York Red Bull) in 2000-05.

SOCCER AMERICA: What was the idea behind the merger between Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing and For Soccer Ventures?

JOHN GUPPY: Big picture? I started Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing 14 years ago. I looked around and I saw golf-specific agencies, motor sport-specific agencies, but I didn't see a soccer-specific agency. So that was the vision: Copy the model that existed for other sports and apply it to soccer.

SA: What is that model?

JOHN GUPPY: It's everything that the Octagons of the world do, but solely within the vertical of a sport. Integrated marketing services, sponsorship management, sponsorship negotiation, experiential, digital content, PR — we would do it solely for soccer.

So that's what we did for 14 years. Good for us, we were successful, but I think to answer your question: We are living in the most important growth decade for soccer in America, right now. What I didn't want to do was drown in a sea of opportunity. Meaning, there's so much happening with our sport right now, I felt like bigger was better. One and one makes three. And makes sure that we don't drown but thrive in a sea of opportunity.

It felt like now was the time to bring the two entities together and create a bigger entity in terms of expertise, manpower, relationships. Again, I don't always believe bigger is better, but I think in this situation it is. That's the reason why it made sense to bring the two firms together.

SA: What are the next steps for the new company, For Soccer?

JOHN GUPPY: A lot of our focus right now is on integration — the boring stuff, putting the two companies together, that's essentially what we're doing. The most significant property development that hopefully you're going to see from us at some point is a women's property — we haven't done that yet but have some thoughts on how to. Will you see that in six months? Maybe not. Within a year? I would hope so.

SA: As marketing experts who specialize only in soccer, what can you tell us about the American soccer consumer? And by that I mean, the person who lives in America who likes soccer, because those are two different things, right?

JOHN GUPPY: Well, we get asked all the time, 'What's the American soccer culture?' And the simple is, there isn't one. It's made up of dozens of subcultures, all of which are important but are really not homogeneous. That's part of the challenge for the sport. It's growing in its reach but also growing in different ways. People are fans of different teams and fans of different leagues. I mean even look at the domestic game. You've got people who love Major League Soccer and people who are just detractors of Major League Soccer. They're still soccer fans and no less important than the believers. But they just choose to consume this sport in a different fashion.

When you add the women's game and the international game, the youth game, the sport comes to life in so many different fashions. That's what's challenging for a brand, to really understand the landscape.

Strategy, Arlo, has always been one of the main things that we bring to the market. We will help you understand the landscape and we'll help build you the roadmap.

I've seen it so many times: brands getting involved with properties, believing that the property can do x, y, and z — and then reality comes to bear. Strategic guidance has been and will always be one of the foundational things that we look to deliver to the market.

SA: Going back to when you started in soccer marketing in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup in 1991, what are some of the biggest changes in the soccer business?

JOHN GUPPY: I started when we were playing national team games at the St. Louis Soccer Park in front of 3,000 people. We were paying to have our games on television. I remember I was trying to pitch Mia Hamm to a company and people were looking at me like I was from another planet. In those early days, nobody in the corporate world really believed in soccer. We would celebrate in the hallways when a brand agreed to take a meeting just to hear our story. That's not an exaggeration!

What we had was that we were joined at the hip with the World Cup organizing committee. We had the ability to provide corporate brands the opportunity to work with something they did kind of understand — the World Cup. In the very early days, we were able to leverage the appreciation for and interest in the World Cup to get them into the more rhythmic U.S. soccer and youth soccer world.

You don't have to do that these days. Many, many brand marketers woke up this morning and said, 'Hey! Soccer's demographics are pretty amazing. Young, diverse, multicultural, we should maybe look at how this sport can help us!'

That's the No. 1 change. It's now a question of how as opposed to, necessarily, why.

SA: What are some things you're looking forwards to in the next few years?

JOHN GUPPY: The Copa America in 2024 is going to be amazing. You're going to see a lot of the big, global teams wanting to come to America to get used to the landscape. I think you're going to see very high profile friendlies — but I think if the federation can turn a friendly into a mini-tournament, I think they would probably look to try and do that.

SA: It's often said on the hush that in American pro soccer, it's not about how much money you're making, it's about the least amount that you're losing. Besides a handful of MLS teams, almost all teams run a deficit. How does that fact factor into For Soccer's marketing strategy?

JOHN GUPPY: That's a good question, and one that only someone like you who's so connected to the sport would ask. I have no reason to believe that it won't change in the future. But part of what I love about doing what we do is that we can do whatever we want. At the end of the day, making money is important to the company, but that isn't what drives our decision-making.

We have taken plenty of projects over the years that didn't make us a ton of money, but for whatever reason we felt like they were good initiatives. That's going to continue. We do believe in the grassroots.

Two of the properties the For Soccer guys are bringing is the Alianza de Futbol program and the Black Star program, which is a little newer but kind of follows a similar model: trying to help access and give opportunities within the Black community.

Those are massive projects, and a big reason we do them is because we believe they are valuable editions to the soccer landscape. We have the ability to make them happen.

Kevin Payne (1953-2022) welcomed into the National Soccer Hall of Fame (Builder, Class of 2021) by Cindy Parlow Cone and Sunil Gulati.

SA: Kevin Payne, the longtime soccer executive, passed away late last year. Do you have any memories of him you'd like to share with the Soccer America audience?

JOHN GUPPY: Kevin was the guy who gave me my break in this industry. I wrote a long piece that I put up on LinkedIn about it. I started it out by saying that everybody needs a break. And I was fortunate that he gave me my first opportunity.

He was a mentor and believed in me. Put me in situations, business-wise, that I probably wasn't qualified to be in. His message was, 'You've got this.' I do feel like because of that I was able to learn an awful lot in my very young years in this industry.

Kevin did an awful lot for me and later on in my career was the guy who opened up doors for me to be the president of the Chicago Fire, for example. When I started Gilt Edge in 2008, the country was in a financial crisis and I started my own company. Most people were like, 'This is the dumbest thing you could do.'

One of the first people to call me was Kevin, and his message was the same thing: 'You've got this. You've got a good vision, you'll do great.'

Photos: For Soccer & National Soccer Hall of Fame.
6 comments about "John Guppy on American soccer marketing's new era, the sport's flourishing U.S. landscape, and remembering Kevin Payne".
  1. frank schoon, March 18, 2023 at 10:34 a.m.

    I wish the word or rather the concept of "QUALITY" would be mentioned. We have lots of growth, lots of seas of opportunities as Guppy mentioned but nothing about Quality which unfortunately is lacking and is far behind all the growth of opportunities. Sorry, but too much opportunities seem to 'waterdown' quality soccer here, thus allowing  European stars nearing 40 , past their twilight of their career, can still be stars here. 

    The lack of quality ,specifically, can be seen in our Developmental Soccer Academies which ,to me, have reached a glass ceiling. More people will come to watch MLS games whether on TV or  at the stadium , if the Quality was raised.

  2. humble 1 replied, March 18, 2023 at 10:56 a.m.

    Frank, this is the the top-down approach to soccer.  Bottom up would be clubs growing in communities and linking up to form leagues, while maintaining their independence.  Here, we have the league built out for us and it, the league owns the teams.  This actually accelerates growth, but at the same time, it is artificial in the context of the rest of the world.  Then, on the youth side it is the same thing.  You have to have 10 teams and 10 full sized fields to enter in many youth leagues around the country.  What kind of 'club' is this?  Soccer clubs around the world are community based, you would not 'drive' to take your 10 y.o. kid to play soccer anywhere in South America, and, a club only needs half a pitch and one team for each age group U6 to U13, 8 teams, the can have fewer by combining age groups.  So this is the issue, there are so many non-soccer people busy building this top down framework, it is a career, a job for many, instead of a passion.  Meanwhile, in the old way, the sport is actually growing, from the ground up.  This is unique, it is some time frustrating, but it is not all bad, as what has been built top down, is currently suffocating some of the bottom up growth, but in the medium to long run, the grass roots will naturally win, and we will have our own unique soccer culture.  I am in the thick of it, I see it growing up, every day, against the designs of many, but undeniably growing.  Have a nice day.

  3. frank schoon replied, March 18, 2023 at 11:05 a.m.

    Humble, YUP.  It reminds of the story of 'Johnny Appleseed' who walked the country throwing apple  seeds  on the ground , and hope something will grow. This is why the Mexican NT outdraws us for their culture is intertwined with soccer.  Whereas we had bring in the NASL seeding to give soccer a beginning here.

  4. humble 1, March 18, 2023 at 10:48 a.m.

    It would be interesting to see a peice about the Spanish speaking numbers in soccer.  Here the article is about Soccer Marketing, but outside of the mention of the 'dozens of subcultures' and Alianza de Futbol, there is no acknowledgement that the Spanish speaking market for soccer in the USA is significantly larger, in many spaces, probably there are more viewers of Liga MX for example, than MLS, but alos, there are 10s of thousands of Spanish speaking kids that never register to play in UCS, AYSO, USYS, they play cash leagues, then High School.  Mexico MNT draws far larger crowds than USA.  I am sure they are Spanish speaking marketing agencies that speak to this crowd.  We are still living in a bubble, when it comes to soccer, no, when we talk in broad sweeping terms about the 'industry', but fail to mention it's largest audience.  Thank you, have a nice day.

  5. humble 1 replied, March 18, 2023 at 11:01 a.m.

    BTW, I have seen the Alianza de Futbol marketing, and my player, who is native Spanish speaker was in the final with the men, in my town, but he was one of like maybe 4 players on his team that were, so what was the point again?.  They have kind of lost their way, IMHO.  So that 'property' I think, has kind of lost its inertia, and a lot of it has to do with that it became a 'property' instead of a service.  They need a broad rethink on that one.  Best of luck to them.  

  6. R2 Dad, March 18, 2023 at noon

    When I think of marketing I think of targeted ads. According to "my" ads I'm either hispanic or Chinese. The targeted ads think I'm Hispanic because I follow soccer and/or Chinese bc my neighborhood is within 1,000 square blocks of Cantonese speaking Chinese people. It's a matter of the blind marketers trying to describe an elephant they are touching but have never encountered before. Toss in a bunch of offensive ED ads (I'm over 50), scary social security/annuity/life insurance pitches, and I have little faith "marketers" "ad"much value.

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