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How the World Cup is selling soccer to Americans

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The 23-player roster that will represent the United States in this year’s World Cup has been announced, but are Americans really paying attention?

Full Roster: Gallery of all 23 players

Attempting to court American sport audiences into embracing and consuming the world’s beautiful game requires persistence and loads of creativity. The nation’s trinity of baseball, football and basketball seemingly leaves little room for soccer which, by and large, has been seen as a foreign sport.

Given that soccer is the world’s most celebrated game – with its World Cup attracting the largest TV audiences  (an estimated one billion global TV viewers) through its diffusion of 73,072 hours of broadcast – the notion of calling this sport a subcultural or niche market may seem absurd. Yet, in the U.S, soccer culture and market development largely remain an alternative or lesser-sport dealing, at least until now. Perhaps ironically, soccer industry brand makers are actually seeking to keep soccer’s alternative sport image intact.

Major League Soccer (MLS) has strengthened its financial solvency, franchise worth and talent acquisition since 2007 through its explicit efforts to internationalize the game.  In the last month, the MLS has signed landmark television and media rights partnerships with ESPN, Fox, and Univision Deportes. Extending until the end of 2022, the deal – estimated combined worth of $720 million – provides a schedule by which MLS games will be broadcast live and exclusively on each network.

Yet, professional soccer in the U.S. remains in a market entry phase that requires securing funding streams and long-term fan engagement.

With less than a month until the World Cup in Brazil, the sport industry efforts to brand soccer, the MLS and Team USA are taking on a broader public presence.

Related: Donovan left off US Men’s National team, left in commercials

As the current sponsor of Team USA soccer, Nike has put its graphic design and branding teams to work in the creation of this year’s team away kit – a thickly vertically striped red, white and blue jersey. Like other World Cup jerseys, the design has its proponents and critics – including those who see the jersey as “just too French.” Yet, Nike has also opted for a less traditional soccer advertising approach.

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(Credit: Alfredo Montes)

To make soccer “more American,” Nike has stamped its lead-up to the World Cup with an advertising campaign, Nike F.C. (Nike Football Club). One of Nike’s hooks has been to piggyback soccer with sport images and identities that have cultural purchase. In America, few sports have more “street cred” than skateboarding. In an interactive pop-up event format, Nike, or more specifically Nike F.C. (Nike Football Club), has introduced a campaign called “brotherhood of feet,” which pairs soccer with skateboarding sporting experiences and entertainment. In Los Angeles, within a branded experience of live arts, music and sport in an urban warehouse setting, Nike’s Brotherhood of the Feet involved the hosting of a soccer tournament alongside skate ramps and street obstacles.

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Nike, Brotherhood of the Feet

Beyond such pop-up events, a larger consumer branding campaign – stylized in gearhead tattoo-like graphics with mottos such as “risk everything”– boldly hits at a cross section of high energy subcultural, streetwear fashion types, who may not play soccer but surely know the status these activities afford.

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Nike Risk Everything, Los Angeles Finals

Hurley International, a Nike-owned brand, has taken soccer to the surf market by offering board shorts in World Cup team graphics.

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Phantom US National Team, Board Shorts (Hurley), Nike, Inc.

Other cross-referencing soccer branding moves include the use of sport celebrities: In a short video promotion, Kobe Bryant stands centered before the camera spinning a basketball that magically transforms into Nike’s latest soccer boot, the Magista. By these lateral sport discipline moves, which pair soccer with other sports, sport subcultures and sport celebrities, Nike F.C. re-positions soccer as culturally authentic for Americans.

ESPN (ESPN F.C.) has adopted a similar strategy that presents soccer through the entertainment form of a reality show, “Inside: U.S. Soccer March to Brazil.” In a six-part series, ESPN follows the making of the U.S. National Team roster for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Tagging along with the team road trip, viewers receive a primer of the game, as well as its global business. ESPN seeks to cultivate audience interest in the U.S. World Cup team through a heightened drama preview of the roster selection process.

The series provides an emotionally charged insider look at the personality, skill and personal stories. Dramatizing the sport and the World Cup dream helps make soccer more relatable. ESPN hopes that Inside: U.S. Soccer March to Brazil capture audiences not only for the broadcast finale that revealed who will make the American soccer squad, but also for the World Cup itself.

The goal of sport and sport media industry stakeholders is to produce an image of soccer that might have real cultural purchase.

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(Credit: Alfredo Montes)

Attempting to anchor soccer culture and fan engagement, these ad campaigns point to (rather than from) cultural and subcultural groups that already have purchase.

Yet, in this World Cup run-up year, soccer culture may also be brewing locally. If the upstart of American homegrown soccer fanzines such as Howler and 8by8 are indicators, the next generation of American soccer fans now also pushes from the ground up.

As the roster of the U.S. team has been announced, the image of soccer may now have some needed bite as the U.S. heads to Brazil to face Germany, Portugal and Ghana in the so-called “group of death” bracket.

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Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter: @cabinet48

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