For the second straight World Cup, the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) could dramatically advance to the knockout round. After a vengeful win against Ghana and a thrilling tie against mighty Portugal, the USMNT has given many Americans a reason to root for the United States. Certainly the excitement surrounding the US’s survival of the group stage makes attractive headlines. The idea that the USMNT was an underdog and could make it out of the “Group of Death” against the odds is a storyline that Americans love to love.
Yet, there is something a little different about 2014 that did not exist in 2010, nor in the USMNT quarterfinal run in 2002. US Soccer, the football association of the Men’s and Women’s national teams, left nothing to chance in promoting the team for the World Cup. It is hard to dispute that on of the the greatest marketing tools in sports is success on the field. Despite the tough opponents that the US faced in Brazil, US Soccer bet heavily on US success to gain supporters.
US Soccer’s marketing strategy for the World Cup involves social media promotion as well as using taste-makers to promote US Soccer. This strategy seems obvious and even trite. Companies pay famous spokespeople to sell products regularly. Companies also use social media to push advertisements and promote products, sometimes even ad nauseum. However, US Soccer invited fans to interact directly with the product through social media. Fans had the opportunity to use social media to give words of encouragement to the team throughout their trip to Brazil. Using the slogan, “One Nation. One Team.” fan messages would be put in places visible to each player such as luggage tags, team materials, even during training.
The United States is a unique and very diverse market in that the people in America might often identify with more than one nation or culture. Since the 1990 World Cup, it has been difficult for US Soccer to sell the USMNT to Americans when teams like Brazil, Argentina, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain have a superior product on the field. (In 2002, I woke up just after 2 am to watch the USMNT lose to Germany in the quarterfinals. I arrived to grade school late and told my young classmates about the tragic loss for our nation. Most did not even flinch). Taste-makers (celebrities) have changed the way Americans view the World Cup and who they choose to root for. US Soccer sent personalized jerseys to several celebrities, which they then wore with pride and posted pictures on social media. Comedian Conan O’Brien, NFL quarterback Drew Brees, and television personality Ryan Seacrest proudly posted pictures of their love for US Soccer on Twitter. These celebrities and others, with their level of reach to the public with the sheer number of followers on all social and mainstream media channels, are responsible for setting trends for the masses to follow.
When taste-makers such as LeBron James, Jimmy Fallon, and Justin Timberlake display their support for the USMNT, it is more enticing for younger audiences to show their support for the USMNT rather than another nation with more history or superstar players. These taste-makers are selling US Soccer without US Soccer paying them a cent. US Soccer simply used two popular trends, celebrities and social media, to promote their product.
US Soccer also promoted the team through ESPN’s Road to Brazil, a six episode series with rare footage of behind the scenes training as the team prepared for the World Cup. Interviews introduced fans to players and coaches and made them feel connected, even personally invested. These interviews make the audience feel as if American soccer players are not the typical professional athletes, and viewers quickly learned that US players are not multi-millionaires who are out of touch with the rest of the nation. They are talented individuals with a dream. With this marketing strategy, the positive results thus far in Brazil certainly helped US Soccer make the most of the television series. If the US had failed in Brazil and lost each of their three games, the series would be seen as a large build up for a massive letdown.
Soccer in the United States is slowly becoming relevant to fans. US Soccer is maximizing the exposure for the USMNT for this World Cup. For each successive tournament after 2014, US Soccer won’t have to convince as many Americans to cheer for their national team. It will be expected.