America’s pitch man

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

In the business of marketing and advertising, companies carefully guard their core brands while doing everything possible to grow, nurture and maintain them.  Sure, every once in a while, there’s a hiccup like “New Coke” briefly usurping the Real Thing.  But generally speaking, venerable products are given the care and attention their profitability deserves.

Sports is a different story.  Brands — even the most popular ones — disappear on a regular basis.  Magnificent, indispensable, seemingly immortal athletes that for so long filled the seats age out of their prime.

Typically, one of two things happens.  They exit gracefully as did Mariano Rivera last year.  Or they limp toward an ever-receding finish line as we watch them diminish.  Think Bret Favre.  Sure, there are exceptions. Some athletes take on mythical proportions and transcend the sport they played.  Their eponymous products live on.  The Nike Jordan brand topped $1 billion in annual revenue in 2009 and shows no sign of ebbing.  Jordan retired from the NBA in 2003.

All of this brings us to a recently discontinued brand:  Landon Donovan.  Donovan is arguably the most popular soccer player ever produced by the United States, with the possible exception of Mia Hamm.  In the last World Cup tournament, he did what thought was impossible.  He made Americans care about soccer – a sport long disdained in the good old US of A for its fictitious injury flops and grown men pretending to be airplanes.

It isn’t just that Donovan is the highest scorer in the history of U.S. men’s soccer.  Not simply that his five goals in World Cup play outpace soccer gods such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.  It’s the sublime moment he had in 2010 in South Africa. With backs to the wall, defeat staring us in the face and every other sports cliché you can imagine, Landon Donovan scored a goal that made the United States a World Cup group winner for the first time in 80 years.  I was listening to the game on the radio, driving down Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.  I practically drove off the road with excitement.  Maybe it wasn’t Kirk Gibson’s home run, but at the time, it felt damn close.  If you know where you were when it happened, it counts for something.

Which brings us to now.  As if most Americans weren’t already indifferent to soccer in general and the World Cup in particular, Landon Donovan has been kicked to the curb by a German.  Team USA’s German coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, has come to the conclusion that other players are “just a little step ahead of Landon in certain areas.”  This may be fabulous soccer judgment (excuse me Jürgen, fussball judgment), but it is truly awful marketing.  As it is, Team USA is in a no-win group along with Germany, Portugal and Ghana.  Chances of emerging to the next round are up there with Donald Sterling winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  Maybe not even that good.  So someone should have shared with Jürgen that all that leaves him with is marketing.  And Team USA’s marketing can be summed up in two words.  Landon Donovan.

This likely would have been Donovan’s last year playing for his country.  There won’t be the opportunity for a Rivera-like farewell tour, except possibly in MLS.  And there won’t be the chance for a do-over as with David Beckham and England in 2007.  Will any of the Team USA players rise to the top as brands?  Hard to say at this point, but probably not.  Will Klinsman stay on as coach?  Doubtful.  My prediction is that come the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he’ll be nothing but a distant memory.

So who could coach Team USA to a 2018 World Cup victory both on the soccer pitch and in the pitch for marketing dollars?  My vote?  Landon Donovan.


Claudia Caplan is Senior Vice President, Business Development at MDC Partners, Inc., holding company for more than fifty advertising and marketing agencies. Throughout her career as a writer and creative director she has worked on accounts from Honda Dirt Bikes to the Baltimore Orioles. You can find her at or on Twitter: @claudiacaplan.

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