European Football Clubs Earn a Yellow Card

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Hi everyone,FC Barcelona 2011 Summer Tour to the US
A very interesting piece by Rick Liebling, a Marketing and PR expert. Rick points out that football clubs aren’t willing to understand the uniqueness of US market.

While clubs from around England and Europe see the United States as a new Revenue Stream, They Aren’t Willing To Truly Understand This Unique Market

(Note: This piece originally ran on the Sports Marketing & PR Roundup website).

It was 20 years ago that I first got interested in soccer – or football as I’ve come to call it. My introduction to the game was typical in that it was completely atypical, just one of the many things that makes the American football fan different.

Very few of us inherited clubs from our relatives and we certainly didn’t grow up down the street from the local stadium in Birmingham, Frankfurt or Rome. No, I was introduced to the game by a colleague of Portuguese descent while working for the New York Yankees. Not soon after that I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, and well, you can guess the rest. Or maybe you can’t.

I fell in love with Arsenal to the point that in 2000 I founded Arsenal America, a group that would eventually become the official supporters’ club in the U.S. for the English Premier League club. I went on to write a regular column for their monthly magazine and appeared on BBC radio numerous times in the run up to big matches against Manchester United, or prior to another FA Cup final.

By that time I had left the Yankees and become a part of the global sports marketing industry. I was fortunate enough to work on behalf of international football sponsors, working on-site at FIFA World Cups, UEFA Champions League and European Championship finals as well as other tournaments. I wore out my passport traveling the globe and working with legends such as Pele, Bobby Charlton, Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann.

Throughout the first decade of this century, I also participated in meetings with numerous clubs from Italy, Germany, England and Spain who saw the United States as a lucrative new revenue source to be exploited. Some came to play exhibition matches, others to set up “academies” and others still to sell cheap t-shirts, but they all saw similar results. Why didn’t the youth of America embrace these teams? Why weren’t mainstream stores filled with their kit? What’s keeping their stars from appearing on late night talk shows? One reason: Because the clubs failed to understand the unique nature of the U.S. market.

The United States isn’t like any other football market in the world and after more than a decade major English and European clubs still fail to realize that. Just a few of the reasons:

  • The American fanbase consists of Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, South Americans… you get the idea. Each one adds something to the American experience which is more diverse than any other fanbase in the world.
  • The vast majority of football fans in America already have a favorite club. They came to America as Real Madrid fans, or Inter fans or Everton fans. You’re too late.
  • Bringing over a handful of coaches for youth clinics doesn’t work. It’s too small, too labor intensive and there’s too much competition in the marketplace.
  • We already have 100+ major professional sports team in our geographically and soially diverse country. We have two professional ultimate frisbee leagues! We’re also the entertainment capital of the world, and e-Sports are about to dominate our youth, so how are you going to compete with that?  

People who have worked in this market, promoting the sport for years, understand these challenges.

“The US soccer market is the most unique and complicated in the world.  It also will be the largest soccer market from a revenue perspective in the next 5 years so it has to be taken seriously,” says Clay Smith, Marketing Director for The Bridge Sports Group, a Berlin-based agency specializing in the US and German soccer markets.  “Foreign clubs and leagues entering the US market, whether for revenue or brand-building objectives, must take a highly focused and long-term approach.”

All that being said, there are still opportunities for European football clubs in the United States. Fifteen years ago the main outlet for my fandom was online bulletin boards. Now I can pretty much watch any game, from any major league, live. Football is more mainstream than ever in the U.S., but it has to be addressed differently. Here are five things you must do:

  1. Stop trying to conquer America. You can’t, it’s too big. Instead, focus on one aspect. Whether that’s a region, a style of play, a demographic or even something only tangentially related to on-field play. Become known for something to a specific group before trying to be everyone’s favorite.
  2. Have realistic, concrete goals. Merchandise, online subscriptions, partnership development… what do you, what can you, accomplish? Have a clear understanding of what you are trying to do before you even think of executing any programs.
  3. Go native. If you think you’re going to run this operation from your offices in Paris or Barcelona or Manchester, think again. You need boots on the ground, committed to the cause, but you also need someone who is intimately familiar with the U.S. football landscape. Don’t think because you know the fans in your local market, you know them in the U.S.
  4. Follow through. A photo opportunity with a local youth club on Thursday, a match on Saturday and back on the plane on Sunday isn’t a winning strategy. What’s your long-term plan to have an impact?
  5. Be humble. The vast majority of people in America have never heard of your club, and don’t know, or care, that you won the European Cup Winners’ Cup twice.  This will come as a shock to you, but the sooner you realize where you stand in the marketplace, the sooner you’ll be able to build brand awareness authentically – through hard work.

Rick Liebling is an independent marketing consultant with more than 15 years of sports marketing experience.  You can follow him on Twitter: @RickLiebling