Why the World Cup will never matter in the United States

We [the majority of United States citizens] are such total tools of the marketing conglomerates…

I was talking with my brother-in-law last week. He is a brilliant marketeer whose company, ironically, was responsible for the eventual dominance of the Cuervo brand in the United States and who also marketed some of the most recognized brands in the country in the ’80s and beyond.

The World Cup was on and, as an avid sports fan, he was interested in the standings. Now, I’m pretty much the opposite of an avid sports fan — I’ll watch a good game (Mavericks vs. Heat was great!), but could not care less about following teams, etc…

He wondered why the World Cup dominated the sports scene on a near global basis but was nearly unheard of in the United States (less than 6% follow WC games). What was different about a football [soccer] game versus american football, baseball, or basketball?

The key and the reason for the lack of exposure in the United States?

No marketing opportunities. A football game is properly played without any breaks as the clock runs down [up]. There is a half time and that is about it. Two long blocks of continuous play.

No breaks….

No commercial breaks…

No marketing opportunities…

So, it really comes down to profits. There is very little revenue potential for any network carrying a proper football game vs. any sport popularized in the United States.

Sure, you could find the games on cable or satellite, but did you see any marketing of the various games? … any attempt to publicize the United States vs. games?

Nope. The revenue potential just doesn’t exist, therefore the people of the United States should not be encouraged to pay attention.

Instead, we have basketball and football where the last 2 or 3 minutes of game time can easily take 30 to 45 minutes of real time, with all the extra time occupied by ads. Or a slow paced game like baseball where the ad opportunities abound.

Hell, we have even made an annual event out of watching the superbowl where many a consumer only watches for the advertising itself!

Update: Many comments have indicated that the world cup is already commercialized; teams have sponsors and corporate logos abound throughout the stadium and game. The key difference, though, is that the commercialization of FIFA Wold Cup Football has been done by integrating the marketing into the otherwise relatively unchanged game.

This doesn’t compare to the level of commercialization of American professional sports. The rules of the games have changed over time to integrate huge gaps of time to play commercials during the most decisive moments of the game. As mentioned before, the last 5 game minutes of a contentious basketball game can take more than 30 minutes of clock time — 20+ minutes of which will be actual commercials or in-game product discussions or tight focus on logos.

The closest sport to the style of marketing present in football would be NASCAR. In NASCAR, the commercial breaks tend to be relatively spread apart and are often tied to yellow flags or other relative breaks in the action. But much of the marketing revenue is generated by the sponsors that slap their logos all over the cars. At the end of a race, someone sits down and literally counts the number of seconds each sponsor’s logo was on screen along with a rating system as to how clear the logo was during that time. The quality and quantity of exposure is added up and the sponsor pays accordingly. This is why the teams that lead the pack consistently generate much higher sponsorship revenue — the camera spends more time zoomed in on the leaders of the pack.

However, there is one huge difference between football and racing. In football, much of the televised footage is relatively wide angle shots of the extremely large pitch upon which the game is played. Much of the screen is grass.

Racing is completely different. The cameras tend to spend a lot of time focused on a half dozen cars or so. Tight shots of what are, effectively, billboards. Lots and lots of great exposure falls naturally out of the coverage of said event.

Now, some have suggested that the companies could run ads embedded in or around the game play. Sure — could be done — but the revenue generated from such ads is a tiny fraction of full screen ads.

As long as football is played the way it is now, it won’t be allowed to be popular here…

7 Responses to “Why the World Cup will never matter in the United States”

  1. Don says:

    There’s another reason, although it’s rarely discussed because discussions of class are tricky in the U.S.: In the rest of the world, soccer/football is a working class sport. In the U.S., it is a middle- and upper-class sport. For a lot of the world’s players being a good football player is a way out of poverty or the favelas or a dead end job, and I think this gives those players a motivation lacking in American players, almost all of whom are middle-class kids who play in NCAA schools. The same is true for cycling, which is a working class sport in Europe and a middle-class one here. It is worth noting that the two most successful American cyclists, LeMond and Armstrong, entered the European peloton straight out of high school, skipping the college education common to most American cyclists.

  2. bbum says:

    Interesting observation and one I can largely agree with. However, it wouldn’t really matter if it were working class, middle class, or upper class — hell, Horse racing is big in the US and it is upper class — without a change to the structure of play to enable marketing opportunities, football [soccer] just isn’t going to matter as a professional sport in the United States.

  3. ssp says:

    Hm, being on the side of the world that is currently dominated by the FIFA world cup™® (apparently you have to call it that way because of all the marketing…) the impression people have here is that audiences in the US just don’t care / know anything about football. Of course it’s hard to get people enthusiastic for the world cup when they hardly know the rules and never follow local leagues or play themselves.

    As far as marketing is concerned, football is quite big around here. Of course players are fully draped in ads and so are the sides of the stadium. TV audiences are big enough to make all the beer, car and other companies queue to buy ads and (at least in Germany) football is a main selling point for pay TV (which isn’t big here at all and probably wouldn’t have grown at all if it weren’t for football). So I am sure loads of marketing dribble can be placed in over and around football without problems, even if it is less convenient than in other sports.

    In addition, football seems to be ‘national sport’ in many countries. Just not in the U.S. for some reason. (This seems to have happened long ago. Why?) So I suppose it’d be hard to change people’s interests (fanatism, culture, …) to go with a completely different sport.

    The standard explanation I have heard about people in the U.S. not liking football is that culturally in the U.S. people prefer things to be objectively justified and will rather go for a game like American football that has numerous breaks and lots of rules if that’s what is needed to make things ‘fair’. In (proper 😉 football, people keep talking about beautiful and long moves. They’ll curse the referee if he gets things wrong, but they’re prepared to accept that he can make those decisions.

    That’s just what I’ve heard people say. I don’t really care for any variant of football myself. But the topic is very hard to avoid here these days.

    Yesterday was the first day without football in weeks! And today is ‘free’ again.

  4. Adrian says:

    I’m from Nuremberg, that’s one of the cities in the south of Germany where the World Cup games are held. Soccer never really caught my attention because I found it very boring. You could watch a game for 60 minutes and the ball wouldn’t even get close to the goal. So your regular baseball game is a lot more entertaining than a soccer match. I guess that says it all.

    But when everyone around you is in World Cup fever you’re kind of get drawn in. We have our neighbors invited for Friday to watch the Argentina vs. Germany game. For me the highlight is going to be the barbecue 😉

    With HDTV you could use some of the extra resolution to display commercials while the game is running. Or you could use all those little breaks after fouls and goals to show one ad and then cut back to the game. I guess if somebody wanted to exploit soccer for commercial purposes there would be ways. But I guess the American public would have to show a little more interest first.

  5. Stephen Mackenzie says:

    Actually, football is very commercial. There’s kit sponsorship and touchline advertising. Recently, clubs have taken to installing annoying LED displays that show animated adverts during the game. And in the UK at least, there’s a lot of of football related advertising on TV.

    There’s substantial revenue for TV rights as will. In the UK Sky and the BBC between them paid about more than a billion pounds for three years of English Premiership football coverage.

    So possibly it’s more of a cultural thing. I wonder if football isn’t so popular in the US because it’s such a fluid, variable game, compared to US-centric sports? Personally, I find baseball, American football and the like rather dull and one-dimensional to watch. I guess it’s a matter of what you grow up with.

  6. Reimer says:

    I heard this marketing argument a lot, but frankly I do not buy it quite.
    Comparing Soccer games to Baseball and American Football is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. A better comparision from a marketability standpoint would be Basketball and Ice Hockey. where we have even faster team sports with lots of action in a given time frame.

    I believe that popularity has more to do what you are growing up with. In Germany there a tons of grass spaces in each neighborhood, with or without goal posts, where kids just get together and kick the ball around. No extra gear besides a ball required: drop your jackets on the ground as goal posts and off you go.

    Once a game gains a certain level of overall popularity other factors will kick in as social status of players and aspirations of kids to become players etc…

    This will make it harder for other sports to gain wide acceptance as we see in the States with soccer.

  7. bbum says:

    Well, the argument came from someone who was a leading marketeer prior to his partial retirement….   Thinking it through, I happen to agree with it, but it was sourced from someone far more clued into sports marketing than me.

    In any case, soccer — as it is called — is immensely popular as a youth sport in the United States.  In my home town right in the middle of the midwest — Friday Night Lights kinda place — there were more children playing soccer than either little league or youth football.    There were enough kids interested in high school soccer that my city had several “traveling teams” of high school students playing soccer independently of school that would travel around and play other hich school teams.

    I completely agree that the decline of “pick up games” in the United States is disturbing, but — ten or more years ago — pick-up games were quite common everywhere in the country, even in the big cities.   Games of all types.

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