Europe's Mid-Market Clubs Are Missing Out on the American Soccer Gold Rush

Soccer is now a mainstream American spectator sport, commanding mainstream fan dollars. So why aren't more European clubs making a serious marketing push to cash in?

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Sep 26 2016, 1:40pm

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In the world of American soccer, few headlines are met with more groans than those about the sport finally making it in the United States. After all, there are different ways to measure "making it." If you're one of the millions of kids who grew up in the 1980s playing AYSO, as I was, and/or a member of one of the country's Latino communities, soccer made it a long time ago. But if you're a brand or a club looking to connect with a wide swath of customers or fans, "making it" has looked a little different. Interest in playing the game has been strong for the past couple decades, but interest in supporting the sport with dollars and eyeballs—at least among predominantly English-speaking Americans with a significant disposable income—lagged.

That lag is over. Soccer's place among mainstream American sports is now undeniable. MLS might not command large TV audiences, but, as the Economist recently noted, it is a bigger live draw than the NBA or the NHL. Once staunch soccer haters like talk radio host Colin Cowherd now treat it like any other sport. In 2012, an ESPN poll showed soccer to be the No. 2 sport among Americans ages 12-24, full stop, with no caveats about social class or ethnicity. Four years later, guess what? Many of those fans are now working adults in the world's biggest economy, and they're spending their attention and cash on soccer.

"You can watch soccer all the time, and my wife thinks I do," said Brian Quarles, Executive Creative Director at rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm with strong ties to MLS and U.S. Soccer. "But it's crazy. It really is. We ran the numbers once. There are more games being telecast in the US than anywhere in the world."

"You have to have the knowledge of, when are those games on?" continued Quarles. "How do I find them? Why do I care?"

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Oddly enough, outside a handful of big teams, few European clubs seem to be selling themselves to American fans, or at least doing so successfully.

Consider the Bundesliga, Germany's professional league. As Fox prepared to air Bundesliga matches in the United States last season, the league began boosting its English-language presence online. In terms of content, it has done an excellent job. The league keeps its English website full of regularly updated stories and analysis, and its YouTube channel is well stocked with highlights and comedy bits.

If you look at how the individual Bundesliga clubs have marked themselves to the English-speaking world, however, the situation is different. Without seeing their actual budgets, this is an admittedly difficult thing to measure, but let's use Twitter as a proxy:

Only three Bundesliga teams had an English-language Twitter presence—the most basic form of international fan outreach—prior to 2014. Amazingly, today three of the Bundesliga's 18 clubs still don't have an official English-language Twitter at all.

Bayern and Dortmund have the largest followings, which is no surprise. They're the Bundesliga's biggest, most successful clubs. Beyond those two, a relationship between English-language Twitter followers and club size doesn't seem to exist in any significant way. A club's recent success doesn't seem to matter much, either.

Schalke, Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, and Gladbach are all high-profile clubs, with plenty of recent Champions League experience. Eintracht Frankfurt and Hertha Berlin both represent huge metropolitan areas full of foreigners, where English is the unofficial second language. Yet none of these clubs have a particularly impressive English-language following.

They could all clearly do better, but it's not just about live-Tweeting every game and hoping people click "follow." It's about fan engagement, and giving your club a personality that differentiates it from the rest. It's about, well, marketing.

Frank Lampard playing for MLS's NYCFC. His previous club, Manchester City, is owned by the same parent company. Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

This isn't to say European clubs don't market themselves at all. The Red Bull company and Manchester City's parent company both own MLS teams, which gives them a built-in presence in the US. Liverpool, Everton, Barcelona, and a number of other clubs have youth team affiliates in the US. In more traditional channels, kit makers like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor promote the clubs they work with.

And then there are the now-ubiquitous summer tours, where European teams play friendly games in NFL stadiums across the United States. But even these tours, which once had an almost prestigious feel to them—My gosh, Real Madrid is coming here?—are losing their enchantment.

The 2013 "Messi and Friends Tour," which charged fans exorbitant ticket prices to see the wee magician, is the most shocking example to date. Messi himself occasionally did not show up at his own tour, and at times his team was forced to recruit local college players to fill out rosters. But even in the best cases, the players who take the field during these pre-season matches are a mix of stars and fringe players. Everybody's playing at 80 percent of their normal intensity.

One big thing that European clubs should be doing? Establishing a full-time, physical presence in the United States, working on the kinds of partnerships and deals that can help set them apart in the crowded field. Although many European clubs work with American marketing firms, so far only Barcelona and Bayern Munich have set up shop stateside. Bayern opened a New York office in 2014; Barca opened its own New York office earlier this month.

Manel Arroyo, Barca's VP of Marketing and Communication, told me the decision to come to America full-time was a no-brainer. "It's not secret, it's not confidential," he said. "The numbers on the market in football, in soccer, are growing in a very fast way in the U.S. Clearly, we're talking about the No. 1 market on the planet, in the world. We need to be around it. And on the other side, the market is calling us in different ways, through fans, through the followers we have in our social networks, through sponsors talking with us about possibilities of working together."

Executives from Bayern Munich were not immediately available for an interview, but the club's work in the American market speaks for itself. In 2014, there were eight Bayern fan clubs in the U.S. Today, there are more than 100. The team's recent video, which shows Odell Beckham Jr. going through the paces with some of Bayern's stars, is a good example of how Bayern has its eye on crossover fans. The video was produced in conjunction with the NFL.

MLS's Didier Drogba takes on most of Arsenal in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Barca is having success in the States, too. According to Arroyo, the club already has signed eight U.S. corporate sponsors. Arno Trabesinger, the Managing Director of Barcelona's U.S. operation, told me the club is working on projects aimed at increasing its visibility stateside, including a possible professional futsal team. The club is also rumored to be interested in a NWSL franchise. "We're in preliminary talks," Trabesinger said about a possible Barcelona women's team in the U.S., "but it's too early [to say anything definitive]. But to us it's fundamental to participate in women's sports in this country."

Barcelona and Bayern are, of course, two of the world's biggest clubs. They have larger marketing budgets than almost anyone else. They're also already household names. But you don't have to have an office in Manhattan and a large staff to come to America. Some dude working from a bunker in the Bronx with a rented conference room is bound to have an impact, too. So how long will it be before a mid-market team, one with a smaller budget but much more to gain from early-mover success in the United States, follows suit?

Returning to the Bundesliga, German teams like Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, and Gladbach all regularly qualify for the Champions League, where millions of soccer fans around the world watch their games, but in Germany they've essentially maxed out their markets. Wolfsburg and Leverkusen, which are both owned by companies rather than their fans, are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to attracting fans inside Germany, where they're seen as sterile, corporate tools.

But those same constraints, based on local culture and market size, don't exist in the United States. Few Americans care if your club is from a small town or owned by a company instead of locals. They care about what happens on the field, and what the club represents to them. This is a golden opportunity. It's up to the European clubs to tell, and sell, their own stories. The key, according to Quarles, is to treat American as the knowledgeable, experienced fans of the game they already are.

Is there room for improvement? The answer, according to Quarles, is simple: "Yes, definitely."

Brian Blickenstaff is a staff writer at VICE Sports. He tweets @BKBlick.

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