When my family emigrated to North America from Italy I was just seven years old, but I clearly remember the look of amazement and puzzlement in the faces of my Anglo-Saxon classmates when I was discussing soccer. In that age soccer on this side of the pond was something that school kids played but it wasn’t really a “sport.” Soccer went from a complete nonentity to very slowly build momentum until the point when the World Cup match where the USA was eliminated by the Belgians beat the television ratings of the World Series! For a game to literally come out of nowhere to effectively take over the American sporting world demonstrates how shrewd branding can move the goal posts of the public psyche.
Italians would cram into cafes with satellite TVs
Growing up in Little Italy I was accustomed to seeing the throngs of fans cramming into the cafes with satellite TVs where my paisanos could watch the Italian Azzurri (blue-shirts) triumph or fail, with the relevant reaction of either pure enthusiastic giddiness marked by cars roaring up and down the street horns blaring, or the utter despair portrayed by frowning men walking home wiping tears from their eyes. Soccer in Italy, and effectively in much of the world, is not so much a sport as it is a matter of national honor. The locals’ complete disregard of the beautiful game was yet another justification in the mind of us recent Italian immigrants that we had landed in a very strange country indeed.
Soccer started marketing to ethnics
Turning general invisibility to nearly universal cheering in the matter of just a few decades is a task which may have seemed impossible but was achieved through sheer perseverance and outright marketing genius by the branding professionals which shepherded soccer in the U.S. to its current level of prominence. This magnificent marketing strategy started by consolidating the existing fan base in the country, which was nearly 100% ethnic. Italians, like the French, the British, the Brazilians and many other nationalities didn’t need any encouragement to be soccer fans. By marketing American soccer to these nationalities first and almost exclusively they were able to establish a fan base which was sufficient to fill soccer stadiums and allow the sport to gain a foothold in this country.
US soccer was built on a single superstar
However, the soccer marketers were very well aware that they needed to expand past the ethnic soccer fan in order to become a truly national sport. The turning point was when the Los Angeles Galaxy managed to sign David Beckham. The legendary Man U player had managed to win the Premier League title six times, the FA Cup twice, and the UEFA Champions League to boot, but more importantly to the American audience he was a gossip sheet staple. Even though wags argued that on the California pitch he was a mere shadow of the extraordinary Manchester athlete, all of that didn’t matter. It was the superstar aura which drew the American public to Beckham and by extension to the sport itself.
The Belgians didn’t cry in their Trappist beers
It will be left to the prognosticators to wonder what would have happened if in extra time it had been the Americans who had sent the Belgians home to cry in their Trappist beers. The U.S. team would have faced the awesome Messi and the fearsome Argentinians and then would have been just one victory away from the finals. While that would have been an astounding result for a country that didn’t even qualify for a single World Cup between 1950 and 1990, even just getting to the knockout rounds was a result that Americans should be proud of.
Regardless of the result, soccer is here to stay in the USA, and the merit is to the marketers who realized that they could literally change the American sporting world by leveraging a hyper-popular star to sell the game for them. The power of a juggernaut endorsement a la Beckham changed the entire game… so imagine what a similar one could do for your brand!