Is soccer a good investment for American advertisers yet?

20 years on from the launch of major efforts to popularize soccer in the US, it’s fair to ask: Has it caught on?

While long seen as a niche interest, the numbers don’t lie.

One strong example is the Women’s World Cup in 2015. While women’s soccer is a niche within a niche, the outcomes for viewership and advertising defied expectations. Fox out-earned its estimates for ads for the tournament, pulling in $40m – a massive $23m more than it had anticipated, and nearly seven times as much as ESPN made during the previous Women’s World Cup in 2011. More than 50 major US advertisers – including Anheuser-Busch, Fiat, and Nationwide – were rewarded with 25.4 million viewers for the final match of the series, beating out viewership for the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals, and coming very close to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game’s numbers.

In July, the United States hosted for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup. This international men’s championship tournament for North, Central American and Caribbean teams is one of the preliminary steps to the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup. Yes, the outcome of a 2021 tournament will be determined by matches played this summer.

That ‘extended-play’ aspect of soccer, where international matches feed into mega-matches that will take place years from now, presents a major opportunity to brands. This multi-week, multi-month, multi-year span provides a much wider promotional window than a one-off event – and the opportunity for an invested brand to make both long-term and short-term impact.

Live soccer delivers value to advertisers on other fronts. Some may be surprised by the broadness of the game’s fan base. Soccer’s popularity cuts across gender, ethnicity, and age groups. It is, of course, especially popular with Hispanic consumers – a key target cohort for many brands.

According to YouGov, over 56% of Americans who identify as Hispanic, Latino or African-American claim to follow soccer even during non-World Cup years. Even better, more than a quarter of those consumers say professional soccer is their favorite sport. But soccer’s popularity is much wider than that. In January, a study by the University of Tübingen revealed nearly 50% of US citizens have at least a basic interest in televised soccer games. And last month, Instagram revealed its data showing that, of the platform’s 700 million-plus users, three times as many are world soccer fans as are basketball fans. Those 146 million soccer-loving consumers on Instagram give an idea of why Fifa made $404m from marketing rights tied to the last World Cup.

Combine this popularity with the real-time nature of soccer matches – which discourages time-shifting (and the associated commercial skipping) – and soccer packs a powerful punch for advertisers. Among those that have found smart ways to make the most of the sport’s short-term and long-term benefits is Target. The retail giant is not only an official partner of Major League Soccer, but is also complementing their sponsorship with a four-year investment in youth soccer. As the official retailer of U.S. Youth Soccer, Target has pledged $6m to build 100 soccer play spaces across the country. This is the kind of marketing that yields immediate value for the company. Crucially, it also helps build the brand for future success, by associating Target in consumers’ minds with doing great things for kids, families, and the sport they love.

Fifa's official advertisers pay between $25-50m per year, before you start counting the cash generated by Fifa's World Cup sponsors. In 2014, World Cup ad budgets had grown 40% since the 2010 tournament. Global brands like Budweiser, Johnson & Johnson, and McDonald's – plus Brazilian telecoms giant Oi, European food manufacturer Moy Park, and others – shell out upwards of $25m annually.

Regardless of nationality, consumers are always yearning for what they think of as “a simpler, better time” – and live sports is a time-honored, shared experience for them. For many families, especially in the Hispanic consumer group, watching soccer is a way to engage in those legacy rituals. That often includes sharing a beer with friends and family at home, gathering in the local pub to cheer their team on with neighbors, or marking the start of spring with a season opener, a barbecue, and more beer.

The familiarity of those seasonal rites echo that of the sport itself. Consumers know soccer delivers excitement, relaxation, escape from day-to-day life, and an experience they find comfortingly familiar from past years. That same general predictability – the seasons, the tournaments, the punditry, etc. – means advertisers can go into a sporting event with confidence about what certain games are going to deliver.

All this familiarity comes with a bonus: The outcome of specific matches isn’t always predictable. The University of Tübingen’s study showed empirical evidence that U.S. fans prioritize "competitive balance.” Leagues with close championship competitions draw more fans than those dominated by a handful of clubs, and are considered much more exciting.

But has the popularity of soccer in the US reached a point where it’s a no-brainer for American brands? There’s no universal rule, but with the ever more feverish globalization of business, it makes sense for marketing teams to do their due diligence on whether soccer can help build their brand with target consumer segments. For example, the sport is very popular with business decision-makers – especially those who work in global industries and travel internationally. So it’s important to think not only about B2C, but also B2B advertising as well.

Jeri Smith is chief executive of advertising research consultancy Communicus

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