Can Social Save American Soccer?

Steve Jobs was once asked how much market research went into the iPad. “None,” he said, “it’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want.”

That got me thinking about soccer…and how for most people, nothing gets them thinking about soccer. Americans don’t care about it. Sure, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, we just look up the definition of off sides every four years so we can follow the game closely enough to justify a month long inebriation as “World Cup festivities”. At the peak of those games, we feel a bit more worldly, and maybe even excited about our budding love for the sport, until we focus all of our attention on either fantasy football, or making fun of people who play fantasy football.

Disagree? Do you think the Beckham experiment paid off and soccer is on the rise in the US? Well you’re entitled to your opinion. Do me a favor – name all 19 MLS teams right now (yes, there are actually 19). Better yet, name 5. Better YET, name two that don’t employ anyone who had a movie named after themselves and don’t have an energy drink for a mascot…exactly.

Why don’t we give domestic soccer any attention? The problem is we have little opportunity to develop a communal fondness because soccer isn’t on TV regularly, and that has nothing to do with the skill level of the MLS. The average American, who since the start of reading this article has researched and already forgotten what off sides is, isn’t going to distinguish World Class soccer from really good soccer (MLS players are pros too).  The sport gets the shaft on air time because of advertising. And for those of you who were wondering when I would make this relevant to Big Fuel and not just a rant about sports, now.

Unlike Basketball, Baseball, Hockey and Football, there’s almost no stoppage in soccer. They play through minor and major fouls, out of bounds calls, life threatening crowd riots… they didn’t even take a pause when Zidane went battering ram on that Italian guy. The only opportunity ESPN, ABC, Fox and every other sports network have to make money off soccer is at half time. Because World Cup and international Championship games draw such a large audience, those few commercial spots come with a big bank, making the telecast of the games profitable. But for the average MLS game, which would likely draw as big if not greater an audience as a typical Charlotte Bobcats game (the viewership of which should be illegal), the average cost per spot multiplied by the number of spots results in an unfavorable number for broadcasters.

This leaves soccer in an unfortunate cycle. Every little kid plays soccer growing up, but around 10-12 years old they start watching TV obsessively, see NBA and NFL games and start asking mommy and daddy for football pads and basketball shorts. Because fewer kids stick with the sport, the competition for our youth is weaker, making it rare that one of them grow up to excel. Nothing would spark a rating boost for the MLS like true American star on the rise. A Jordan-esque, no one can touch him, this guy is embarrassing everyone type of star, but how realistic would that be if there’s no atmosphere to develop that talent? No great players mean poor ratings for soccer, which means less air time, which means less domestic cultural influence, leading to no great players in the next generation.

Enter social media. The rise of the second screen gives advertisers more capacity to send brand messaging to viewers. As platforms and brands find new ways to promote content and new routes to monetize the advertising potential, the profitability gap between soccer and sports more popular in the US will narrow (at least from a percentage basis). The 15 minutes of commercial time during an MLS game might not make ESPN much money, but given their recently announced Twitter promotion for the NBA finals, they clearly understand that commercials are no longer their only avenue to reach consumers. Additionally, the in-stadium and on-player advertising in soccer (these guys look like human Nascars sometimes) means that every shared image, post, tweet and link is inherently laden with subtle messaging. And as we all know, every impression counts. Just ask GM about the value of tagging a soccer player/stadium with your brand image. Seriously…ask them. I think we’d all like to know what they paid for it.

Social media provides the same value to every sport, so why do I think soccer could use this more than anyone else? Because the rest of the world isn’t crazy about it for no reason – it’s a beautiful mix of athleticism, endurance and teamwork. I’m not even a big soccer fan! I just recognize that the US can fall in love with it, just as everyone else has. As with all great products, it just needs a little push, and social media can serve that purpose. Plus soccer has the greatest room to grow. Nascars explosion over the past few years proves that American’s capacity for sports love isn’t capped at the 4 majors. Either that, or we’ve just stopped caring about the NHL. If that’s the case, and I’m right about soccer, the MLB better watch out (just saying…)

Do I think twitter will drive a revolution that creates a Midwestern-bred Pele? Maybe not. I honestly don’t know. However, I do think that social has the potential to turn soccer into a consistently marketable sport in the US, despite its time constraints (or lack their of). Every now and again we catch the soccer bug, only to see it fade away due to lack of nurturing.  I believe all the sport needs is a slight change in order to give major broadcasters a reason to play Cupid.

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  2. 06/12 2012

    Good article Mike. I actually read it as I’m watching the EURO 2012 tournament in the background. Your article jumped out at me as I am one of those rare Americans that is actually a football/soccer fantatic. I actually believe that you are right on regarding the ability of social media to increase the profile of soccer here in the states.

    With FSC showing tons of EPL and Serie A games, ESPN now showing a Saturday EPL game every week and even Fox showing the Champions League final live it’s a reflection of how much the game has grown here. Part of that is due to demand and part of the demand is from access to information on social media channels, clips on You Tube, etc.

    I personally am an Arsenal fan and I am connected to over 800 other Arsenal fans (Gooners) from all over the world on Twitter. When Arsenal play, the interaction between fans is amazing. It’s also allowed us to have our own voice and interact with clubs and players. I have a blog as do many of the other fans I’ve connected with through social media.

    Then there’s the players themselves. American soccer stars such as Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Stu Holden and Brad Guzan actively interact with fans on Twitter.

    The success of team USA and the “access” to the players has definitely put US soccer on the map. As for the MLS, that’s another story. The Redbulls have benefited from bringing in Thierry Henry and David Beckham of course brought his star power (and soccer abilities) to LA. The league is also smart in scheduling visits of EPL teams for the MLS All Star Game and friendlies featuring other international teams. Unfortunately, the league as a whole is not as good as those abroad. If a player is top talent, they generally will go abroad as the level of play is better and the paycheck is better. Look at Clint Dempsey. He started in MLS and is now a potential transfer target for Liverpool, Arsenal, etc.

    I do think the MLS is growing and the league and the teams have been smart in embracing social media to help raise the profile of MLS.

    By the way. I recently applied for a social media position with Big Fuel and I’d love to come in and talk to you folks about it. Last year I completed a digital media marketing program at NYU and one of my assignments involved creating a digital marketing plan for any company. I chose the New York Red Bulls and it pretty much ties in with what you are saying in your article.

    Thanks for a good article.

  3. Chris
    06/13 2012

    Believe it or not, there ARE US-born soccer players which have the “Jordan-esque” potential that had potential to become media darlings. Back when soccer was starting to be picked up by mainstream media, there was one in particular that came to mind – but failed to capitalize on the interest he was gaining – Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union)

    Freddy Adu was promising – He was good enough that he was brought on trial at Manchester United but was failed to be granted a work permit. At this time, it was unthinkable that a US player would make it in one of the top teams in the world. The buzz created however, did earn him to spells in Benfica (Portugal) and AS Monaco (France); but he has since failed to capitalize on momentum; and as of 2011 is back in the MLS.

    As time has progressed however, we’ve seen some solid US players playing overseas which have developed some buzz. Great keepers including Kasey Keller, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel; Defender Carlos Bocanegra; and most notably Midfield/attacking dynamos Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey,

    The issue at hand is how do we put the spotlight on them? These guys do an amazing job in the teams they play for; but these leagues do not get much air time in the US (this is slowly changing of course). The US needs another solid run in the world cup, with its successes covered in media and amplified by social to have a solid chance of gaining stronger traction. The question is, how do we capitalize on this?

    Do we continue to bring in foreign players in their heyday (Beckham, Henry, Juan Pablo Angel) to ply their trade in the MLS? Or do we have to do a better job in chronicling American’s endeavors overseas? While the former has helped, I believe it’s the latter option that is what’s lacking – and this is what will help. Having an American achieve the ultimate success overseas; while helping to develop local talent – and bringing that experience back home after several years.

  4. Mike Mikho
    06/13 2012

    Thanks for the comments, Chris and Jocelyn. The main point of my article was that the typical American isn’t interested in soccer because it’s not on TV regularly enough. There are exceptions, and clearly both of you are, given your knowledge of the sport. While there’s talent to be seen both domestically and internationally, I believe soccer faces an uphill battle for TV time. ESPN and other broadcasters know that if they air MLS games, people will watch them, because people watch sports channels religiously. However, the telecast of these games offers little opportunity for monetization, so they are less incentivized to do so.

    I don’t argue that the talent in the US is growing, as is the sport. But that growth is stunted, and perhaps capped by the business model of soccer. If social can provide new revenue streams for broadcasters, the talent pool we have will be given what it needs to expand – prime time TV placement.

  5. 06/13 2012

    Michael, thanks for the article. American Soccer does not need to be saved, though. It’s doing just fine.

    I’d like to separate your points about the game in general, and then the domestic league, which have massive differences.

    First about the global game in America. 20 years ago, US-based fans would be hard -pressed to find 1-2 televised matches per week. Now, fans with a digital sports tier can watch dozens of matches from top-flight European & South American leagues every weekend without leaving their couches. EPL matches are appearing on ESPN on weekend mornings, as is Fox. Not Fox Soccer, mind you, but big daddy FOX. Ratings for these matches as well as tournaments like EURO and World Cup grow every year. Ratings to date for EURO 2012 are 3x larger than the 2008 tournament. So it’s save to say that interest in pro soccer has never big bigger here. Ever.

    There are also more American players playing overseas than ever before (see http://www.yanks-abroad.com), so in fact young American soccer players do have role models and opportunities to have pro careers.

    Now for the domestic league. Major League Soccer was born in 1996, just as the Internet exploded. Suddenly, millions (yes millions) of American Soccer fans suddenly found each other in online communities. That’s a good thing, because since the league’s inception, the mainstream media has completely ignored MLS in many important US markets (NY, LA, and Chicago in particular).

    However, if you live in Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Houston, or Philadelphia, you know that your local MLS is treated like a true local pro team by the local sports media. That means features by the local newspapers, coverage on TV, radio, etc.

    The New York Red Bulls are the 10th professional sports team in the New York market. In an age of shrinking newspaper and TV sports departments, there are just not enough resources (or desire?) for the mainstream media to cover the club, which makes RBNY (and MLS in general) invisible in this crowded sports and media marketplace.

    Social media has been a massive boon to MLS. Search #MLS, #RBNY, or #USMNT on twitter during game days to see the passion. MLS is doing a great job leveraging social media not only to connect to fans but also to engage blue-chip league sponsors like AT&T, Continental Tire, Castrol, and more.

    So again, thanks for the suggestions to save American Soccer. American Soccer is doing just fine.

    -Mark

  6. Phillip
    06/13 2012

    American soccer doesn’t need saving.

  7. 06/13 2012

    The US Women’s team, not mentioned above at all, are former World Cup and Olympic champions and don’t require saving.

  8. Mike Mikho
    06/13 2012

    To Mark and Phillip – I love the passion, and I hope my post doesn’t come off as offensive to soccer fans. The underlying message is that there aren’t enough Americans like you who appreciate and admire the sport like it deserves. I’m not saying the MLS isn’t gaining popularity, I’m saying the timing structure of the sport isn’t conducive to profitability for major networks. That’s why EPL matches, which are among the best brand of soccer, are played on weekend mornings rather than prime time. Soccer is a great sport, but it’s behind the NBA, NFL, NHL, Baseball and Nascar in terms of airtime in the US, not because its undeserving, but because the action almost never stops.

    Social “saving” soccer doesn’t mean soccer is dying. I agree completely that the sport is on the rise, as it should be. Social “saving” soccer means it’s giving alternative revenue streams which may encourage broadcasters to CONSISTENTLY play DOMESTIC games at primetime. When ESPN starts airing Major League Soccer games at 8pm on a weekly basis like they do with every other major sport, I’ll agree that soccer doesn’t need saving. Until then, I believe the lack of exposure of the MLS is proof that the sport needs something to “save” it from itself, not as a beautifully entertaining show, but as a business venture for networks.

  9. 06/13 2012

    Michael:

    My thoughts:

    MLS is ignoring the technological potential to integrate ads into their broadcasts. NASCAR does what is essentially a split screen (live race/commercials), so why couldn’t MLS try this. And isn’t rich media inexorably coming to broadcast TV?

    Until it does, why can’t MLS run iAd-type spots along the bottom of the screen? Sports fans are certainly used to seeing scores and news scrolling endlessly across the bottom of the screen. Every time I watch TNT I have stars of every show on the network walking around in the lower right corner (sometime much more than the corner) of my screen.

    (By the way, the commenter Jocelyn shot herself and other commenters in the foot; she called it “THE MLS,” not “MLS.” If people can’t even say the name of the league correctly, we’re light years from embracing it.)

    Soccer has many negatives right now, from training techniques to insurmountable competitive sports, but those are excuses from a marketing standpoint. I agree that social can help, but the bottom line is the product. MLS can creatively engage fans on every platform and use myriad screens, apps and promotional efforts to boost their brand. But all that will only go so far.

    Americans are all about star power. When the best we can do is Freddy Adu—FREDDY ADU—we’re sunk. I’d humbly suggest that Jobs was slightly off in his comment about research. Americans actually know what they DON’T want, and it’s soccer at its current level.

  10. 06/13 2012

    EPL matches are played on weekend mornings in the US… because that’s what time it is here when the matches are held in England.

    Soccer is “behind” the other sports because the other sports in general have a 75-100 year head start. Less so because of the nature of commercial breaks.

    I agree that a regular prime time televised time slot for MLS would be extremely valuable in terms of generating TV ratings & revenue, which is at the heart of your argument. The league realizes this as well. Baby steps. 10 years ago folks were still wondering if MLS would survive financially. That question is now moot. The question now for MLS is when will the league become relevant within the crowded national sports scene. Again I’ll say, baby steps. Thanks again for the article.

  11. mark
    06/13 2012

    look to the way the portland timbers are building lasting enthusiasm for american soccer (despite this year’s poor performance). they’ve used a powerful combination of social, concentrated fan organizations (not splintered), a bad-ass ad campaign, and civic pride to build something truly remarkable.

    http://www.portlandtimbers.com/news/2010/12/timbers-ads-feature-locals

  12. Mike Mikho
    06/13 2012

    Mark, you’re right about the timing of the games, but I meant that even tape-delayed games are telecast during the day rather than in prime time. That said, my argument was in regards to the MLS. You’re 100% right about the baby steps comments. The MLS has been improving and will continue to improve. My believe is that the improvements have come in small steps rather than rapid accention because of the lack of commercial profitability. Look at the RAPID rise of Nascar popularity – and consider how much marketing is involved in Nascar.

    While the MLS is a much younger league than its competitors, it has been unable to capitalize on the fact that soccer pre-dates and is more popular than any major American sport. Ask yourself this – if soccer suddenly became twice or three times as profitable for Fox, ESPN, ABC and the like, would you expect to see more MLS games on TV?

    Great insights Mark – I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. We are alike in our thinking that soccer is on the rise in the US, and deservingly so. I believe/hope that social media will escalate that pace.

    thanks for reading!

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