Thursday, July 20, 2006
Let's get this straight right off the bat: I'm a marketing guy. I know a lot about it. I get paid to tell other people how to do it. I've spent time with people who are world-renowned experts on the subject.

I believe in the ability of excellent marketing to drive the popularity of products and services. Finally, I am highly critical of organizations that are bad at it. At the same time, I fully appreciate the difficulty that soccer faces in this country.

It is hard work competing not only against other, more popular and entrenched sports like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NCAA (sorry NHL, you're no longer an aspiration), but also against 500 channels of niche cable programming, NetFlix, movie theatres, beaches, mountains, malls, skate parks, rock climbing walls, the gym and every other form of recreation and entertainment available in the over-saturated market for our leisure time.

Despite this competition, there is ample evidence that soccer made a legitimate step forward in the American consumer consciousness during the World Cup that just concluded.

Most obviously, there are the numbers – increased ratings on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and Univision show that people were paying attention in far greater numbers than ever before.

Throw in the amount of airtime and column inches dedicated to the tournament in the ever-illusive "main-stream media" and this World Cup was clearly a winner for the sport.

Heck, even notorious anti-soccer curmudgeon Tony Kornheiser was talking footie with Michael Wilbon nearly every day on PTI throughout the entire tournament.

Just as important as the objective evidence are the multitude of stories that I and every other soccer fanatic in the country heard from their non-soccer-loving friends in July.

"Some co-workers and I snuck out at lunch and watched a game at a bar in the afternoon…and it was packed."

"My company set up a TV in a conference room for the US matches."

"What did you think of that French guy head-butting that Italian guy? And WHAT did the Italian guy say to him?"

"What happened to the US team?"

"Did you see what that English guy did? OUCH!"

And, my favorite: "Isn't that fat guy for Brazil supposed to be really good?"

All of the above is representative of a sporting nation that is increasingly willing to give soccer a chance. The question is how do US Soccer, MLS, and foreign leagues capitalize on this momentum?

Certainly, the "main stream media" will start comparing the World Cup to the Olympics – something it is OK to care about every four years, but is otherwise still the same boring game that we've been bashing for years.

This will absolve them of the need to learn more about the sport or cover it on a more regular basis. In the face of this inevitability, there needs to be a quick response from someone – preferably multiple someones – in the soccer community to capitalize on the World Cup momentum.

Given the first paragraph, I'm sure you're expecting me to launch into a lengthy critique of the marketing prowess of the various players related to soccer here in America. Not going to happen - at least not right now.

No, I am going to focus on the opportunity at hand. In addition to the success of World Cup, American soccer finds itself the potential beneficiary of two bits of serendipity. If they're smart, the powers-that-be who market soccer to Americans will find a way to exploit them.

This manna from heaven comes in the form of two cultural icons that are in a position to influence popular opinion in this country – especially among the treasured 18-35 year old male demographic.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jon Stewart and Bill Simmons…

Jon Stewart

As avid fans know – the Daily Show host was a very good player in his day – not National Team good, but better than your average Sunday afternoon rec leaguer.

Stewart played wing in a 4-3-3 alignment for a William & Mary team that went to NCAAs and frequently faced off against Bruce Arena's UVA dynasty.

The people at Fox Soccer Channel were the first to capitalize – however slightly – on Stewart's soccer connection by featuring him in an FSC promo.

However, if he is willing to be a part of building the sport here then someone in the soccer community – a shoe company, ESPN, FSC, MLS, EPL, or US Soccer – needs to find a way to get him more involved.

Soccer is at the perfect stage for a celebrity endorser to headline an advertising campaign. People have taken an interest. They've invested some time. They've had their curiosity piqued.

Now, they're looking for two things: 1) cultural "permission" to continue paying attention to soccer; 2) some direction as to what their next outlet should be.

With the USMNT not playing anything resembling an important match until next summer and the shoe companies having spent their budgets for the year on World Cup, the two networks, MLS and the English Premier League are in the best position to use someone like Jon Stewart – who definitely has the ear of the people – to help fans make the transition and keep up the momentum.

In my mind (and yes, I think about these things in my spare time), I picture a cross between the Don Cheadle NFL ads from the last few years and the current Keith Jackson Gatorade campaign with a twist of the irreverence that has built a cult following for The Daily Show.

As far as who will make the connection, here's my brief handicapping of the field…

adidas – Doesn't seem to be their style, they haven't ventured very far outside of the traditional athlete-as-endorser model when they've had a spokesperson.

Throw in the fact that they blew their budget on the World Cup and they're probably out unless someone can convince them to boost their support of MLS.

Verdict: Don't hold your breath. Plus, they need to focus on their jersey design – the World Cup models were just HORRIBLE.

Nike – Much more likely to embrace the notion of a pop culture star as a vehicle for their products. The question for Nike is what would the angle be right now?

The stars of the teams that they sponsor in Europe (e.g., Man United, Arsenal, Barcelona, Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven, etc.)? A US Team that didn't do very well and doesn't play for a year?

Verdict: Unless/until Klinsmann signs as coach and Nike decides to build a campaign around him – a Stewart/Klinsmann combo on the set of The Daily Show sounds like a great idea, if you ask me – then this isn't happening anytime soon.

MLS – They would have to increase the quality and profile of their advertising to make it worthwhile for Stewart to participate as well as to justify the expense of hiring him.

Verdict: Doesn't seem likely without an infusion of cash and/or creativity.

ESPN – They will soon be in the middle of promoting the heck out of the baseball playoffs and the beginning of the NFL season, so having Jon Stewart in as part of a halftime studio show or involved in some way in the MLS playoffs would be the most logical way to get him involved.

If that works well, then they could figure out a way to build a campaign around him for MLS next season and/or the Gold Cup next summer.

Verdict: Probably on the back burner.

EPL – They would have no trouble with the amount of money necessary to launch the right campaign, the question there is focus.

The EPL seems content to allow their member clubs to make their own individual forays into the American market and largely ignore marketing as an entity (which in my mind is a HUGE mistake).

Verdict: Don't bet on it unless they combine with…

FoxSoccerChannel – They do a great job getting matches to their niche audience, but production values on FSC-produced content speaks to inadequate resources to mount a "game-changing" campaign on their own.

Their best bet is to find a sympathetic ear at either Fox corporate or in the EPL offices willing to help invest in the growth of the sport in a potentially lucrative market.

Verdict: Best chance to make it happen with the right creative deal-maker.

The Sports Guy

For those of you who don't read ESPN Page 2, you probably scratched your head when you saw this one. If that's the case, I strongly urge you to check it out.

The rest of you already know that Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons is something of a cultural phenomenon – especially among the large childish, sports-crazed male segment of the population.

His columns on use pop culture as a frame for his observations on the world of sports. His writing is exceptional and from all reports is far and away the most popular on the Worldwide Leader's site.

This popularity has led to a best-selling book, over-flowing email boxes and online chats that compel fans to spend entire afternoons shirking their job responsibilities.

Traditionally focused on the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the vagaries of popular culture from the '80s through today, Simmons tuned in to the World Cup and enjoyed the experience enough that he has publicly declared his intention to give the EPL a chance this season to see what it's all about.

He claims that he is going to make an enthusiastic effort and his column describing his choice of teams lends credence to that claim.

Despite his rejection of Arsenal as his team to support and even more wretched choice of Spurs as the object of his support, the profile that he will give the English game is exactly the sort of break that no marketing, no matter the quality or quantity, can match.

The number of people that will check out at least a couple matches on FSC starting August 19th is likely to show a marked improvement based on his recommendation.

Since he is still on the fence about the sport, I don't think there is any way to capitalize on this bit of serendipity right now other than to enjoy it.

If the EPL becomes a regular part of The Sports Guy's world, then the powers-that-be in the soccer world had better be ready to jump on the opportunity in the same way I've suggested they jump on the Jon Stewart opportunity above.

Mark my words, if The Sports Guy – already an ESPN employee – isn't meaningfully involved in online commentary related to next summer's Gold Cup then I may give up hope that the Worldwide Leader has the will to lead the US into an everyday appreciation of soccer.

So, there's the challenge. Two icons with some form of interest in or connection to the sport we love and want to see become a large scale success in the States. Who is going to be up to the challenge of harnessing their popularity for the good of the sport? Rupert? Don? Sunil? I'm waiting… impress me.