International Soccer Continues to Tap into the American Sports Market

By Stefen Lovelace

I remember vividly the moment I saw Landon Donovan officially put soccer into the American consciousness.

It was last summer during the 2010 World Cup, and America was tied in a must-win game with Algeria. I skipped out on work, and was at a bar nursing a warm beer and cursing the day I ever started following the sport.

You remember the rest. Donovan scored, America erupted and all of a sudden Americans cared about soccer.

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Landon Donovan - Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

Even with that iconic moment, soccer will never resonate with the American fan the way football, basketball or baseball does. Internationally though, “futbol” is more popular than those other sports combined. International fans follow soccer much more vigorously – they talk it, debate it, discuss it… breathe it. The sport means everything abroad.

With such interest and passion, it makes sense that soccer is a multi-billion dollar business, and as lucrative as the sport is in countries like England, Spain and Italy, there’s still plenty of untapped opportunity in the American market.

The lucrative potential isn’t lost on soccer promoters or international clubs. This year, America will feature 60 games featuring international teams. Last week, the World Football Challenge began, which is an American summer soccer tour featuring top international teams playing against one another and Major League Soccer (MLS) teams. Some of the most popular teams in the world – like Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and more – will take part in the 14-game tour.

In the July 11-17 issue of Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, Fred Dreier looked at the recent trend of international soccer coming statewide, and its potential for long-term profitability.

“Europe’s biggest clubs are regular attractions in the United States, and their “friendly” matches fill 80,000 seat football stadiums. Promoters sell lucrative television and sponsorship packages, while merchandise sales can run in the low seven figures. Ticket prices have skyrocketed: Cheap seats for the July 30 match between Manchester United and FC Barcelona cost $123.10.”

Seems pretty lucrative right? Not necessarily. The story also stated that the teams of the caliber of a Manchester United or FC Barcelona command $2 million to $2.5 million in appearance fees.

“According to promoters, Major League Soccer team presidents and Soccer United Marketing officials interviews for this story, profit margin for international games remains painfully thin… [FC Dallas President Doug Quinn said:] “Individuals who are looking for short-term gains and don’t have a strategic benefit lined out for [these matches] are wasting their time.”

Although the profit margin may be small for game organizers, there’s still plenty of opportunity for sponsors. Corporate partners like Adidas, Pepsi, Lowe’s, and title sponsor Herbalife, whose partnerships with the WFC are “valued in the mid-to high six figures,” can see those sponsorships leveraged in on-site activation and branding, and television exposure on Univision and ESPN platforms.

Additionally, top international soccer clubs have some of the biggest social media followings of any other sports teams in the world. The top three teams in terms of raw following numbers on Facebook and Twitter are FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United in that order, with all three teams having more than 12 million combined followers. There could be potential for sponsors to leverage these massive social followings as well.

From Forbes.com’s “SportsMoney” blog:

“With this much star power, the sponsors win as well with pre-season tours. In total, there are 11 major sponsors for the World Football Challenge, including title-sponsor Herbalife. Commercial revenue more than doubled year-on-year, and there has been a five-fold increase in commercial partnership deals since the inaugural event.”

Soccer’s popularity in this country is still a far ways away from being truly mainstream, and in turn, consistently profitable. There are plenty of passionate cities, like Portland and Seattle for example, who draw big numbers at the gate with just their MLS teams. Conversely, there are cities where fans still seem to lack interest; last week the Club America versus Manchester City game barely attracted 11,000 fans at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

The trend of bringing international soccer to the States will only continue to grow. The opportunity is too great, and as this Women’s World Cup showed, Americans will follow well-played soccer, giving brands another potential sports avenue for getting in front of sponsors.

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