In October, I had the pleasure of attending the Leaders in Football conference in London, a gathering of some of the most important figures in world soccer. Invitees ranged from managers to club presidents to federation secretaries-general. The guest list was as first-class as the facilities: the glittering halls of Stamford Bridge stadium, home to powerhouse club Chelsea FC. I also was lucky enough to sit in the owner’s suite for Chelsea’s home match against Liverpool FC, another legendary English club.
It was a sell-out crowd and the atmosphere was explosive, with the Blues putting on a great display against the visiting Reds for an emphatic 2-0 victory. Interestingly, the traveling contingent of Liverpool fans was louder at times than the home crowd, which was not quiet by any stretch.
Whether due to their sporting passion or business acumen, these two clubs are not only followed by hundreds of thousands in England, but by millions worldwide.
In the midst of all the excitement and celebrities at this legendary stadium in West London, I saw first-hand the billions of dollars at work in this industry and the vast potential the sport has in our nascent American futbol consciousness. The sport has been followed for decades in this country by a passionate and knowledgeable minority, but today’s sports industry in the U.S. has awoken to the business potential of the beautiful game of soccer.
Commentators galore have labeled soccer “the sport of the future” in the U.S. for more than 40 years. I know patience is a virtue, but even that slow a pace would daunt any saint. What has changed in the mind of the American sports executive is that we’re now running soccer, not only as a sport and a passion, but as a business.
Failed efforts in the past, like the original North American Soccer League (NASL) of the 1970s, created a great product but couldn’t sustain it commercially. The reasons for the NASL’s failure were multiple and more complex than I could discuss here, but the professional game never quite hit its stride in this country. Only through the efforts of newer leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS) and the recently-reborn NASL has pro soccer apparently learned from past mistakes and developed a long-term plan for the sport’s success, both as a sporting endeavor and a business.
But soccer is much more than the professional side of the sport. Around the U.S., youth groups in the millions have succeeded for decades in making soccer a business. Some argued that the only way to make money in soccer in America was to run a youth club, where middle- and upper-class parents paid good amounts for their kids to learn the world’s game. Many immigrants with convincing accents and only moderate soccer skills have made a good living in the U.S. selling their wares to the millions of kids who wanted to kick a ball. Other successful ventures include the thousands of adult amateur leagues nationwide that host countless games on weeknights and weekend afternoons.
Last, but certainly not least, is the very lucrative business of soccer on television and the hundreds of international exhibitions that take place on American soil each year. These exhibitions draw hundreds of thousands of fans to some of the country’s biggest stadiums while ESPN has dedicated an amount of resources to this summer’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa that rivals what other networks would commit to the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Many are surprised to learn that the U.S.’s hosting of the World Cup in 1994 still holds the attendance record of any World Cup, and the tournament only had 24 teams back then (it now has 32). It’s no surprise that we’re trying to get that magnificent event back here in 2018 or 2022, with initial estimates at five million tickets in sales and a national economic impact of $6 billion.
Soccer has always been run differently in the U.S. than the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s due to the American penchant for separating itself from its Old World colonizers or our xenophobia and ignorance of all things “foreign”. Whatever the reason, good ole’ Yankee ingenuity and values are now being applied to soccer, both on and off the field.
International sports executives have always admired American expertise in marketing, sales, and customer service. U.S. club and league execs in virtually every sport have turned the science of promoting a sports team and capturing every possible ancillary revenue dollar into an art form.
Soccer is no exception. MLS and its commercial entity, Soccer United Marketing, control much of the sponsorship, television rights, and other revenues that companies put into professional soccer in the U.S. Many individual clubs have also become quite adept at executing the principles that have proven so successful in American football, baseball, and basketball.
Other companies like Traffic Sports, the largest soccer marketing and promotions firm in Latin America, are attempting to replicate their successes abroad in North America. Even the biggest clubs in Europe look admiringly on American know-how in creating a great fan experience and generating sponsorship and marketing revenues and are looking to apply those principles in their countries while also expanding their own world-renowned brands in the growing U.S. soccer market.
So, it appears that the business of futbol in the U.S. hasn’t been a total wash after four decades of hype. It’s had its share of successes and failures, but as in any business, one needs to looks for growth opportunities, and soccer seems to be a good bet.
Scott Moran is an international corporate attorney and a partner with Atlanta law firm Berman Fink Van Horn P.C. This is his second article in “The Business of Futbol” series. He has served as legal and business counsel with AT&T/BellSouth, Turner Broadcasting, the Atlanta Silverbacks, and Troutman Sanders LLP. Scott is involved with Atlanta’s efforts to help bring the FIFA World Cup to the USA in 2018 or 2022 and return men’s professional soccer to the city. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, a former military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, and speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and French.