Commentary

Football's fight for fans in the U.S.

Updated: August 1, 2011, 8:02 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | Special to ESPN.com

Manchester United FansMike Stobe/Getty ImagesClubs like Manchester United are aggressively trying to convert more fans like the ones who showed up at the All-Star Game to cheer on the Red Devils.

I recently met an avid American soccer fan who had fallen for the game after the 2006 World Cup. Searching for a team to support, he originally pledged allegiance to then-Premier League champion Chelsea, but Gareth Bale's swashbuckling displays encouraged a transfer of his affections, and he recently morphed into a Tottenham fan.

On a trip to England last month, the fan was explaining his defection to a London cab driver who listened patiently before responding, "Can I be honest with you Guv'nor?"

"Yes," he replied.

"You can change your wife. You can change your underpants. But you can never, ever change your team."

The cabbie's rules may be right in Europe, where the club you support is passed through the generations down the family bloodline. But it is not true in the U.S., where a spike in television ratings has catalyzed an anarchical glut of curious new fans desperate to define a rooting interest. Teams are often selected for the most random of reasons: distant family ties, a haircut similar to a star player or a childhood vacation spent by chance in Blackburn.

The big European clubs are well aware that the 2010 World Cup has increased the sport's popularity in the U.S., fostering a lucrative market. Witness America's recent transformation into a vast continental training ground for leading European clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Juventus, culminating in the delirious All-Star spectacle showcasing Manchester United.

The Europeans are not only here to shake off the preseason rust, or to cash in their appearance money (Manchester United is reported to be bagging an estimated $9.2 million in appearance fees from its tour). Their ultimate goal is to grab curious Americans' attention and hook them on their club brand for life.

Manchester United estimates it has more than 6.5 million fans in the U.S., a number it would like to grow precipitously. Other than trumping the MLS All-Star team, or playing a glorified training session against a fellow giant, what longer-term branding and marketing strategies can the club employ to seduce new American fans?

Or, more simply put, what will make the difference between an American fan choosing Manchester United or Manchester City? Or Barcelona, Real Madrid or AC Milan, for that matter. I solicited the opinions of two marketing agency founders, Jon Cohen, CEO of Fader and Cornerstone, and Ian Schafer, the CEO of Deep Focus, as well as Boston Red Sox executive vice president and COO Sam Kennedy, who has been processing these issues since New England Sports Ventures' acquisition of Liverpool FC in 2010.

1. Stop the anarchy: Develop an overarching brand

Soccer, in the words of Schafer, remains an "outlier brand," but one loaded with potential that is, in Jon Cohen's eyes, "making giant strides every year." Schafer marveled at the success of Citi Field as a soccer venue. "Greece almost filled it against Ecuador [this summer]. Something the Mets aren't close to doing," he said.

A critical barrier for soccer is the inherent inefficiency of the every-team-for-itself approach. The NBA's growth in China, by contrast, is the product of a league-wide growth strategy, as is the NFL's attempt to hook the British on gridiron football. But in global soccer, anarchy reigns. Every club is participating in a gold rush of narrow self-interest in which no one takes ownership of the overarching brand. Cohen identified the dangerous blind spot created by this approach: "No entity is responsible for explaining how all the pieces lock together -- Copa America, Gold Cup, Europa Cup or Champions League all make sense when you have dedicated yourself to the sport, but to a newer fan they can be bewildering."

2. I am the lore: Selling heritage and fandom

What makes a club unique? A history of storied achievement, legendary characters and epic rivalries. "Americans enjoy sports as a platform for storytelling," explained the Boston Red Sox's Sam Kennedy, "we love to tell tales about heritage, history and tradition."

[+] EnlargeHenry
John Powell/Getty ImagesLiverpool owner John Henry checks out the merch at Anfield. The challenge is getting fans in the U.S. and elsewhere to buy into the club's brand.

But for domestic soccer clubs, communicating their celebrated pasts to a new American fan base is an uphill struggle. "History and heritage only mean something if a sentimental connection exists," Schafer said. "If we can't harken back to a simpler time we experienced ourselves, it does not amount to much."

"European geography is not an American strong suit," Schafer added. "We're largely unaware there are actual places called Manchester and Liverpool, but the clubs have the perfect fallback position in their brand name and logos -- it's all about 'United' and 'The Reds.' The clubs should simply find ways to show fans what we can be part of."

"There is nothing more powerful than genuine, credible fan passion," Cohen agreed. "We have some of it here -- the Garden, the Yankees bleachers -- but soccer has a unique intensity that never stops." Both men believe the clubs can do more to educate Americans about the culture surrounding the game. "Fan passion remains an underutilized commodity," Cohen suggested. "A club's chants and rituals are eminently marketable. They should film game action twice. Once with the players seen through the fans' eyes, and again the other way round, like the kind of multiple angles NASCAR routinely used to portray a sense of the same race."

As part of NESV, which owns Liverpool, Kennedy is grappling with strategies to tap into the game-day experience and take it one step further. "Nothing beats attending a game in person," he said. "My first game at Anfield was life-changing. I was mesmerized."

With Liverpool as close to New York as New York is to Los Angeles, NESV is examining ways of tempting American sports aficionados to experience the passion and choreography of an English Premier League game live. "Television is good, but actually being at Anfield is unlike anything in American sports, and I have seen World Series games at Fenway," Kennedy said. "The sustained intensity of the passion makes Anfield a cathedral in the world of sports."

3. There is an I in team: Market the players first, and the teams will follow

While team affiliation may be the ultimate goal, the elite skill and human charisma of individual players are an easier sell at the outset. "Take a Messi and put him at the level of a Kobe, or put Wayne Rooney in the same commercial spot as Amare," Schafer urged. "This is where the hidden hand of powerbrokers Nike and adidas come into play."

Cohen concurred: "The powerhouse athletic brands establish sport's iconography and play a key role in telling the stories of the athletes they deem to be important. The teams need to ride that endorsement muscle to break out a crossover star we can relate to."

[+] EnlargeRooney fan
Matthew Peters/Getty ImagesWho's considered the most marketable star in world soccer? Wayne Rooney, of course.

"David Beckham could have been that crossover star," Schafer suggested, "but he 'crossed over' too far -- too much fashion, not enough performance."

Both marketers believed one man has what it takes to break out in the United States -- Wayne Rooney. "He is a character that young people can connect to because he appears to transcend the sport," Schafer said. A tailor-made communications strategy built for the U.S. market is key. "When Rooney reads the Top 10 List on Letterman via remote from Old Trafford," Cohen said, "we will know Manchester United are serious."

4. Brand transference: Let the magic of others rub off on soccer

Brand transference is a standard move in any marketer's playbook. The transfer of an existing brand's positive standing to introduce a less familiar product, such as what William Shatner did for Priceline. The "spectacle approach" is an effective strategy that often works for sports, according to Ian Schafer. "I would have Manchester United play the Yankees at baseball and soccer in an athlete-to-athlete doubleheader or at the very least," he said, "put Chicharito out to throw the first pitch at a playoff baseball game." (This approach sounds great conceptually, though the reality did not work out too well for Manchester United's Gary Neville.)

The strategy can work in reverse. The European teams could import role models from the American sports pantheon who have a genuine curiosity about soccer. "America needs more athletes like Steve Nash who can articulate a sense of wonder around the sport," Schafer said. "Manchester United need to get Chris Paul and dump him in a fan section at Old Trafford," Jon Cohen proposed, "then sit back and capture his reactions throughout the game."

Sports figures are not the only alternative ambassadors who can be used to message a team's rituals and customs. "The world of music has barely been tapped," Cohen said. "The number of bands who influence their fan bases and are crazy for soccer is staggering -- Blur's Damon Albarn and his love of Chelsea, for instance." Manchester City dabbled with this strategy during its 2011-12 jersey launch. Not everyone is an Oasis fan, but the extra buzz the team received by involving ex-lead-singer Liam Gallagher in a slightly surreal video was priceless.

Perhaps the most prominent and controversial example of this approach was LeBron James' acquisition of a minority ownership in Liverpool. Schafer was skeptical about the synergy of the deal. "Something smells wrong. We had never previously heard LeBron liked the sport -- never mind had a connection Liverpool," Schafer said. "I would love for this to be real, but he is going to have to prove it, and LeBron is not exactly known for being loyal to cities."

Kennedy explained the process from inside the deal. "This was LeBron's idea. He has watched a lot of global soccer on ESPN and has become intrigued," Kennedy said. "For him, this was simply an opportunity to invest in one of most important clubs in the sport."

Cohen agreed LeBron carries baggage, but sees an easy solution. "If we can get him to some matches, LeBron can show us his passion and demonstrate this is more than a press release."

5. Become America's team: Integrating U.S. talent into the squad

Global soccer's approach to conquer the Asian markets has been very straightforward. Signing Asia's finest players -- Park Ji-Sung at Manchester United, Lee Chung-Yong at Bolton and Ji Dong-Won at Sunderland -- has proven a tried and tested way to trigger a fan frenzy.

The lack of apparent depth in the U.S. game -- aside, of course, from goalkeepers, Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden -- presents a challenge, but not a fatal one. "You only need to see what impact Landon Donovan's 10-game cameo had for Everton's profile in the United States to glimpse the possibility," Cohen said. "America tunes in."

You can easily envision possibilities. MLS teams could build on the type of commercial partnerships clubs like the Colorado Rapids have struck with Arsenal, and loan young American stars such as Omar Gonzalez, Andy Najar and Tim Ream to train in England during the MLS offseason. "The MLS may not like their young talent playing year round," said Cohen, "but they will love the statement such moves make, bringing some global exposure to the league, its talent and respective teams."

Any European club eventually signing Juan Agudelo, even just on loan, may find it hard to overpay. It would be buying American eyeballs as much as goals and assists.

6. Partnering with powerhouses: The strength of major league joint-marketing deals

When Manchester United and the New York Yankees struck a pioneering joint-marketing deal in 2001, the relationship fizzled before the two giants could truly derive a benefit. But the time may now be right for more clubs to develop cross-promotional partnerships with leading American MLB, NFL or NBA franchises.

"If I were running Barcelona after their Champions League triumph," said Cohen, "I would have taken a giant billboard outside of the San Francisco Giants stadium and launched a 'Game Recognizes Game' campaign. Barca could develop a relationship with the Giants, honor their World Series achievement, and bask in Americans' glow."

Liverpool's shared ownership with the Boston Red Sox offers an intriguing array of cross-promotional possibilities, but Kennedy disclosed that NESV is not rushing into anything. "Our goal is to expose Liverpool to New England slowly," he said. The English team's games are replayed on New England Sports Network, and a sprinkling of Liverpool merchandise is available at Fenway Park's concessions stands. But for Kennedy, it is important to respect the differing histories and traditions of the two teams. "It is illogical to say because you have grown up cheering for Boston teams your whole life, you should automatically become a Liverpool fan," he said.

7. America's next top model: Utilizing team style

"There was a fleeting period in the late '80s when soccer style crossed over," Schafer reminisced, conjuring a time when baggy Umbro soccer shorts accompanied by a pair of adidas Sambas were summer camp de rigueur. It's an era which feels quaint when compared to the sophistication of today's apparel marketing. "Soccer needs a classic Air Jordan strategy -- a team-related sport line that can be worn on the street."

"There are few finer ways to communicate a love of soccer than through fashion and style," Cohen said. "Logos and jerseys carry a real allure to Americans."

Cohen encourages teams to distribute their shirts to culturally influential Americans. "Barca should have put their iconic jersey on Lil Wayne when he played Bonnaroo," he said, "and while Manchester City were in Los Angeles, they should have opened a pop-up store to launch a limited edition of Manchester City Umbro-wear designed in collaboration with [cult sneaker-store] Undefeated. Approached that way, soccer has a real possibility of gaining broad urban appeal."

Kennedy revealed clubs are incentivized to experiment with strategies like these. "Soccer merchandise is extremely lucrative compared to the U.S. major leagues, which handle the marketing on your behalf and take a percentage of the revenue for doing so," he said. Soccer has no such middleman.

While there has been a noticeable proliferation of team jerseys worn as fashion statements, Schafer believes they are not yet at the level they could be. "The jerseys remain the equivalent of a fad like a trucker's hat or a hipster's ironic T-shirt," he said. "The message they convey is 'I am worldly' as opposed to 'I live and die for the sport of soccer in general and this team in particular.'"

8. Bring the mountain to Muhammad: Play a game that matters in the U.S.

This year's sold-out MLS All-Star Game at Red Bull Arena was one of many exhibition games to draw a sizable crowd with a frenetic atmosphere. But on the field, is impossible to disguise the fact the European clubs are playing during their preseason downtime. "The teams let their starters play for 30 minutes max and then their reserves fill the field," Cohen said. "To really make us care about their storylines, they have to play games here that mean something."

Schafer suggested, "They have to find a way to make the U.S. the world's stage, soccer-wise. A league game would be good, but Americans like nothing more than loser-goes-home tournament play. Let's have the Champions League final at Giants Stadium."

The idea may seem radical, but in 2008 the English Premier League flirted with the notion of scheduling a "39th game" in places as far flung as Australian, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Sepp Blatter blasted the plan, declaring it to be "nonsense" and "an abuse of football," but with FIFA, as we have seen in the past year, every idea is possible, especially the farfetched.

For all the variety of the above ideas, Liverpool's Kennedy was resolute in his belief that one simple strategy can trump the rest. "Winning is the best strategy," he said. "There is nothing -- nothing -- that sports fans love more. That is our No. 1 goal."

Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He is the co-founder of the Men in Blazers Productions and can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett