United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s decision to exclude Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup squad is perhaps the most controversial decision in the history of US Soccer. The news has fallen slightly out of focus thanks to a few memorable results to start the USMNT’s World Cup in Brazil, where for the most part Klinsman’s decisions have paid off, but it’s a topic that has the public, social media, and pundits up in arms based on the experience, track-record, and success Donovan has brought to the team over the course of three World Cups. Beyond the public’s focus amidst the controversy though is the marketing impact Donovan’s absence will have on companies trying to capitalize off of the United States’ presence at the World Cup this summer.
From a familiarity standpoint, Donovan was the face of the USMNT. On the field, he’s since been eclipsed by the displays on the global stages by Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, but as a close friend recently argued with me half-jokingly, “Donovan is the USMNT.” From a marketing perspective, he’s a point of reference for any American supporting the team this summer, devout or not. He’s an irreplaceable persona that stars like Dempsey and Bradley have not been able to replicate from the endorsement side. It seems that for whatever reason, companies and consumers seem to lack the same connectivity with the likes of Dempsey and Bradley that they had with Donovan.
People value the nostalgic aspect of Donovan’s contribution to the USMNT. Regardless of the degree to which one follows the world’s game, for Americans, if you’ve ever watched the National Team play in the World Cup, and probably if you haven’t, you know who Landon Donovan is. His absence translates into a diminished link with domestic “fringe” soccer fans in America that jump on the World Cup bandwagon every four years – a segment that unquestionably adds value in raising the profile and reach of the team throughout the country.
A familiar face on the field serves as an instant connectivity point for consumers, a reason you might buy a jersey, or even be swayed into watching a game, during which you’ll be exposed to the hundreds of marketing messages that bombard a viewer during the ninety minutes (plus intermission) of a World Cup match. It’s a single detail that could set off a chain reaction of events that ultimately lead to a purchase.
Among Donovan’s endorsement agreements are Nike, Samsung, Gatorade, Seiko, and Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena. He’s been a no-show with mostly all of the above; Donovan’s image has been used sparingly during the tournament, in cases playfully highlighting his absence from the team, or in providing analysis for ESPN. With Donovan not in Brazil, the aforementioned companies have had to completely abandon or shift their advertising strategies around more international stars, taking a risk that domestic fans will recognize a Messi or Ronaldo type player. For serious soccer fans, in-tune with the international game, it’s no big deal. The risk comes into play with the fringe / bandwagon fans mentioned above that might not recognize a star athlete from overseas. The lack of recognition of a superstar endorser renders a Company’s investment, promotional effort and expenses significantly less effective.
Unfortunately for companies trying to cash in off of Donovan’s image, the USMNT’s profile is at an all-time high, clearly based on the World Cup, but bolstered by the team’s success. It has continued to grow with their navigation out of the Group of Death and should rise more so if they’re victorious in Salvador tonight.
The United States plays Belgium tonight at 4 PM New York local time (9 PM London).