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Do Brands Really Believe in the Growth of Soccer in the U.S?

Soccer marketing - including sponsorships, experiential activations, advertising/branded content, and influencer marketing - is in most marketers' mouths. But do brand marketers really believe soccer will have a transformative impact on marketing? We surveyed the decision-makers, and this is what they have to say.

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Soccer marketing – including sponsorships, experiential activations, advertising/branded content, and influencer marketing – is in many marketers’ mouths. But do brand marketers really believe soccer will have a major impact on marketing in the U.S.?

Messi is playing in Inter Miami. Over the next three years, Copa America and the Soccer World Cup will be played stateside. Major media agency holding companies are evaluating whether to create or expand soccer and sports consultancy businesses. What do brand and media agency decision-makers have to say about the sport’s prospects in the United States? Portada is conducting a survey of brand marketers and media agency executives on their soccer marketing-related initiatives. The final and aggregate results, along with a wealth of other high-quality content, will be included in our Insights Report: The Transformative Impact of Soccer on U.S. Marketing and Media, which we will be publishing in 2024.

As part of the survey, decision-makers are asked “what challenges/obstacles they see for the growth of soccer as a major way for marketers to engage with audiences in the U.S”. Below are some of the answers we have gotten so far.*

1. Soccer Marketing: Audience-Related Challenges

Upper funnel focused. Male skewed. Not a really large audience.

Other Obstacles/Challenges mentioned:

  • “It’s still a relatively small audience.”
  • “No challenges. The distribution/access is there. The fan base is there. If your audience/ICP displays signals of being a fan, you can reach them.”
Brand marketers from Altice, LAFC, Pernod Ricard, Proximo Spirits, Rocket Mortgage, and Wells Fargo shared insights.

WHAT BRAND MARKETERS SAID AT THE LAST PORTADA LIVE EVENT:
At our last Portada Live event in New York City, one of the concurrent workshops delved deep into the factors impacting the growth of soccer marketing in the U.S.

Wells Fargo’s Rebeca Vargas makes a point while Pernod Ricard’s Christian Acosta listens.

Participants agreed that brands in the U.S. right now have the opportunity to co-create an idealized soccer fan culture as it is still in its growth stage. Storytelling and branding will have a big influence.

PORTADA’S TAKE:  The views and perceptions of some of the brand marketers are not necessarily backed by research; Soccer represents the fastest-growing High School sport for both men and women over the last 10 years. Among 18-34 year-olds, soccer is seeing a relative growth rate that is 4X of football and hockey; and 8X that of basketball and baseball.  (MRI-Simmons, Nov. Sports Fan study (Relative Change 2022 vs. 2021). Sure, audience levels are not yet those of the three top sports: Only 13% of sports fans said they follow soccer “every day” or “several times a week,” compared with 44%, 33%, and 32% who said the same for football, baseball, and basketball, respectively, according to a Morning Consult Data Survey. However, taking into account the above-cited very high growth rates, soccer audiences are bound to rise relative to football, baseball, and basketball.  Additionally, contrary to most other countries, men’s soccer may not the most popular game in the US. But it’s a top women’s sport. That dominance within the U.S has also been reflected in the women’s team’s international performances; In eight World Cups since the first one in 1991, the U.S. has reached the semi-final in every tournament, never finishing below third place, until the last one, organized the last summer, when they lost in the second round. Regarding the argument that most soccer marketing and advertising is upper funnel-driven; marketers in all sports, not just in soccer, leverage the passion in sports to engage audiences. Often in real-time. These initiatives are upper funnel oriented in all sports, not just in soccer. Besides, strong upper funnel marketing is paramount to feed the lower funnel.

2. Marketing Challenges: It’s Still a Mostly Hispanic-driven Sport

It is not a sport that is increasing in General Market viewership, therefore it is harder to secure budgets that can be used between GM and Hispanic Marketing.

Other Obstacles/Challenges mentioned:

  • “There are 2 distinct audiences: Non-Hispanics who are fans of the competitive nature of the sport with limited regard to nationality; Hispanics who are fans of the passion of the sport and seeing players from their ancestral countries represented/succeeding. These are two very different reasons to believe and thus challenging/costly to market to.”
  • “Adoption by the older parts of the General Market is needed.”
  • “Not enough focus and budget when targeting Hispanic audiences by brands.”
Altice’s Fabiola Vicente and Karim Madueno with LAFC’s Casey Sosa

PORTADA’S TAKE:    It’s true, with approximately 70% of the viewership being Hispanic, soccer is the only major sport in the U.S. that is clearly Hispanic-led. However, the audience research cited above clearly shows the growth of soccer beyond the Hispanic population. Soccer is also favored by strong cross-cultural trends because of the strong influence of Latin and  Mexican culture on the U.S. consumer. Additionally, a major advantage of soccer sponsorships is that they provide the advertiser with a high rate of co-viewing,  as the whole family watches live matches. Additionally, as brand marketing executives at our last Portada Live pointed out, soccer marketing and advertising initiatives can micro-target specific parts of the Hispanic population. The Mexico National Team (MNT) and major players like MNT goalkeeper “Memo” Ochoa are particularly appealing to Mexican Americans. Mexican Americans coming from a specific Mexican city can be engaged by sponsoring that specific team.  Financial institutions like Wells Fargo leverage this through country-of-origin-specific products and marketing initiatives. As the sport grows for general market audiences, U.S. team and player-based marketing initiatives will gain clout.

3. Media Related Challenges

Need of more platforms, streaming on-demand soccer content.

Other Obstacles/Challenges mentioned:

  • “It’s still a relatively small audience.”

Soccer MarketingPORTADA’S TAKE:  From a media perspective, there are an increasing amount of specifically soccer-oriented digital media properties that exclusively target a U.S. audience. With LigaMX being the most-watched league in the U.S., the jury is still out on whether a U.S.-based league can take the lead.  In August 2022, Major League Soccer signed a 10-year, US $2.5 billion deal to stream virtually all of its matches on the Apple platform. Apple TV offers soccer fans an MLS Season Pass but has not yet disclosed any data regarding viewership. Observers note that soccer fans often watch individual matches, or even a part of matches (e.g. a half-time), not necessarily many matches a month which would make a season pass interesting to them. (MLS recently said that it is now recording audiences of more than one million viewers for its biggest matches during the first season of its global broadcast deal with Apple TV, boosted by the arrival of Lionel Messi at Inter Miami.)

4. Soccer Marketing Challenges: Quality of U.S. Soccer

The quality of the soccer on the pitch is the main obstacle for long-term, sustainable value.

Other Obstacles/Challenges mentioned:

  • “With Messi in the US, it’s going to be more about bringing talent like Messi, so it can be competitive league vs. elephant cemetery.”
  • “We have to unlock our multicultural strategy as a whole and figure out how soccer fits in.”
  • “MLS and Liga MX are behind European leagues in terms of quality of play. Somehow both of these leagues need to upgrade on-field play to continue with the Messi halo effect.”

PORTADA’S TAKE:  While the MLS and LigaMX level of play might be below the top European leagues (England, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany) there is a clear growth trend in terms of the quality of the players and the teams. The NWSL, the U.S. women’s soccer league , is among the most competitive women’s soccer leagues in the world.

5. Other Challenges Mentioned

  • “Measurement and Segmentation.”
  • “How to break through the noise in an authentic way.”

* Our upcoming “Portada Insights Report: The Transformative Impact of Soccer on U.S. Marketing and Media” will contain aggregated responses of brand decision-makers to different questions in our ongoing survey. The published above are answers, published under the condition of anonymity,  from some of the executives surveyed so far when asked about challenges/obstacles to the growth of soccer marketing.

 

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