We are 50 days out from the 2014 World Cup, which promises to be a television juggernaut, a 397-hour bacchanal of programming as the best football players in the world trot around the sport's myth-soaked spiritual home of Brazil, with kick-offs grazing primetime. The perfect storm for a ratings bonanza. Last week, a controversial Reuters article cited a poll that challenged that notion, proclaiming that "two in three Americans do not plan to follow soccer's World Cup."
The report has been widely derided as a desperate attempt to push an old nerve, a legacy of America's footballing-phobia. (Though the headline reads negatively, the reality that 100 million Americans will be watching the World Cup is remarkable.)
A recent conversation with ESPN's SVP programming Scott Guglielmino also left me with the opposite impression. "The World Cup is going to take over our culture for a month, both from a media perspective and a social perspective," he reassured me. "Whether you are getting out of a cab, standing in a subway or sitting down with your family for dinner, it will be the water cooler conversation dominating the United States." Guglielmino's confidence is propelled by the explosive growth of digital consumption. "Handheld device technology has evolved so drastically since 2010," he tells me. Though America loves a big event, and the World Cup has grown into a signature, broadcast must-watch affair, in the light of the Reuters report, will the American sporting landscape truly be permanently altered by the 2014 World Cup? To examine the extent to which America's love of soccer may be transformed by the tournament and the long-term legacy Brazil 2014 will leave behind, I spoke to three gents whose commercial interests have forced them to invest considerable creative bandwidth in imagining the future of soccer to hear their predictions. 1. The Digital Game marketer: "A bigger, more educated, football savvy-American audience" "We are prepared for a blockbuster year," said Jamie McKinlay, the Sydney-born vice president of marketing at EA Sports who oversees its FIFA Franchise. "Last World Cup when Spain won, Real Madrid and Barcelona blew up as Americans instantly signed their new Spanish heroes on our game, which led to us striking a partnership with Barcelona, and Lionel Messi becoming the face of the package."
In a similar vein, the digital executive believes this World Cup will shake up that talent mix and break new stars in the U.S. market. "Few Americans can name more than one Germany player right now. I bet by July, a dozen Germans will be household names." Guglielmino had suggested that the long-term impact of this World Cup would be seismic because of the existence of a large, influential and informed core of American soccer fans, an avid group he estimated to have "grown five-fold." EA Sports is banking on this group.
"This World Cup will elevate our audience because we have a much more educated set of fans in the U.S. than we did last time," McKinlay explained, admitting that EA Sports learned this lesson the hard way when it tried to market the tournament back to the audience in the wake of 2010. "We came out of the South Africa World Cup and immediately built our [marketing] platform around, 'The best players in the world play FIFA, you like them, you should play it, too...'" This approach was tried and tested in Europe, featuring stars such as Wayne Rooney and Giorgio Chiellini, but when the ads ran in the U.S., they failed to register. "The feedback we received was A. Who are those guys? And B. I don't love football, I just liked the World Cup," McKinlay said ruefully. "They liked soccer for four weeks but quickly went back to talking about NBA and NFL." The existence of an informed American football culture makes McKinlay believe 2014 will be different. "This World Cup is going to be a massive gateway," he suggests. "The FIFA franchise has surged since 2010 to become the third biggest sports game in North America behind Madden and NBA 2K. The growth we are seeing means we expect to become No. 2 in the next five years."
Sounding a little like an Australian Alex Ferguson, McKinlay predicts with a laugh, "Soon, we expect to knock the basketball game off its perch." 2. The European club matchmaker: "The Premier League teams will target North American fans more than ever" "The 2014 World Cup will be the true beginning of soccer as a true, high-profile sport from a marketing perspective in our country," says Charlie Stillitano, President and CEO of Relevent Sports, American soccer's matchmaking version of Don King. He's also the mastermind behind the Guinness International Champions Cup, which will bring elite European teams including Manchester United, Real Madrid and Manchester City over to the United States for preseason battle.
"In years past, big sponsors here have always been interested in us bringing over clubs as a way to target the Hispanic market, but the World Cup will blow that through the roof, and elite European soccer will become the de facto way to engage 18- to 34-year-old males in general. "The big legacy of the world cup will be the rise and rise of the English Premier League brand in America," he continued. "The league has the language is in its favor. U.S. fans have already conditioned themselves to the nuance of every regional English accent," he said. The promoter believes that the English stranglehold on the American imagination will run deep. "I see a future where it is not just the big clubs but the Birminghams, the Stokes, the Fulhams coming over here to brand-build," he said. "At Spanish, Italian and German clubs, the word has become that English teams are killing them in the United States. Many are beginning to open offices here -- one or two marketing guys in an office. They are only just realizing that is not enough." Stillitano finished with a final, bullish flourish. "The net effect will be to reinforce football's presence to such an extent, it will even become a regular presence on shows like 'Around the Horn.' General sports fans will accept soccer in general, and MLS in particular as a real sports league," he predicted. "The era of America's 'Major Leagues' referring to just four sports will be over..." 3. The MLS marketer: "America's elite, young athletes will aspire to become footballers"
This will be the first World Cup where the U.S. international players will become household names in America according to Howard Handler, Chief Marketing Officer of MLS.
"They will become fixtures both in sports culture and popular culture," he suggested. "This is the fifth World Cup cycle since MLS launched. Every tournament has created a degree of fascination, growth and sniffing around the league, but apart from maybe Landon Donovan in the wake of 2010, there have been moments of pride and hope, but little in the way of individual recognition."
"We believe this is the transcendent moment when both soccer and MLS are embraced by mainstream culture. We have the roots in the communities, the teams and the stadia now," Handler continued. "I don't just expect a tour of the late night shows for a couple of weeks. I mean the players -- Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, for example -- will be embraced by corporate America and will rank as popular sports heroes in the same way as Ronaldo and Messi have in America." Handler allowed himself a moment of pause as he contemplated the U.S. team's Murderers Row of opening round opponents. "It is a tough group and anything can happen," he admitted. "Yet whether they get beyond group stage or not, there will moments -- big, iconic, water cooler moments -- that will play out for the audience, and it is those American moments that will endure." The marketer returned with a flourish to make a final point that will warm the heart of any American Outlaw.
"The one lasting legacy of this World Cup may be experienced at our youth academies. Now we have that infrastructure, and we are already seeing that more elite American athletic talents are choosing to play football." Handler expects that trend to spike. "When young kids see Michael Bradley starting to make the kind of money other athletes earn and witness him impacting the global tournament in Brazil, they will want to follow his lead, put down their baseball bats and choose football," he explained.
"This is the kind of transformational change which will transform American soccer," he said with a smile. "So roll on World Cup 2022."