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.