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When France won the 1998 World Cup, more than a million fans danced all night in the Champs-Elysées. In Latin America, Asia and Europe, streets empty as entire populations stay home, glued to their TVs, when their national team plays a big soccer game. This year's World Cup games in South Korea and Japan, to be broadcast this month in more than 200 countries and 41 languages, are expected to draw a record 30 billion fans worldwide.

But while soccer reigns as the world's favorite televised sport, the 2001 World Monitor survey, by New York-based research firm Ipsos-Reid, found that in the United States, it still trails football, basketball and baseball. Although TV ratings are high for the World Cup, they remain consistently low for the sport otherwise. According to Ipsos-Reid, only 3 percent — or 8.5 million Americans — say soccer is their favorite sport to watch on TV.

Behind those small numbers, however, are some very desirable demographics. Supported largely by blue-collar fans abroad, in the U.S. soccer attracts young, educated and affluent enthusiasts. According to the 2001 ESPN Sports Poll conducted by Philadelphia-based international marketing research firm TNS Intersearch, more than 30 percent of U.S. major-league soccer fans are ages 25 to 44, nearly 30 percent have a college degree or higher and 25 percent have an annual household income of $50,000 to $100,000. In addition, women make up more than 40 percent of soccer devotees. “Families are a huge market, but soccer attracts a lot of single, young professionals,� says Tracy Schoenadel, executive director of the ESPN poll. While acknowledging that soccer's popularity in the U.S. doesn't begin to rival its foothold in Europe, TV sponsors are starting to wake up to attractive demographics of this small but devoted group of fans.

For years soccer remained a niche sport in the U.S., watched on TV mostly by the foreign-born cheering their national teams. Labeled an “immigrant sport,� the game wasn't picking up new fans, states Mike Woitalla, executive editor of Soccer America magazine. He says that immigrants, wanting to assimilate, often dropped soccer in favor of more traditional American sports when they moved to this country. Now that soccer has become more widely embraced by Americans, immigrants are returning to the fold, he adds.

Prior to the 1990s, televised soccer was almost nonexistent in the U.S., according to Jim Moorhouse, director of communications with the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation. Its popularity surged in the mid-1990s, after the U.S. men's team hosted the 15th World Cup finals in June and July of 1994 with games in California, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Florida and Washington, D.C. Many Americans who did not consider themselves soccer fans followed the event on TV. According to the Zurich, Switzerland-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer's international governing body, the 15th World Cup was played in front of a record number 3.5 million live spectators. Television ratings also soared: ESPN, which aired 41 out of the 52 World Cup matches, received a 1.8 rating average with 1,137,600 households tuned in. “The U.S. rallied for its team because the game was on U.S. soil,� says Wally Hayward, CEO of Chicago-based Relay Sports and Event Marketing. “From then on, soccer was on the U.S. sports map.�

Now soccer is available on three major English-language networks (ABC, ESPN and ESPN2), Spanish Telemundo and Univision, pay-per-view cable and closed-circuit TV. The 1998 World Cup coverage on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged a 3.6 combined rating, accounting for some 3.5 million U.S. households. Yet such ratings are an exception. A major-league soccer game typically reaches only about 200,000 homes on ESPN and about 800,000 homes on ABC Sports.

Soccer's popularity in the U.S. was boosted by the women's team World Cup victory in 1999. U.S. soccer star Mia Hamm won sponsorship contracts with Procter & Gamble, Gatorade and Mattel. In 1999, the 22,500-seat Columbus Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in America, was opened in Columbus, Ohio. A 27,000-seat soccer stadium complex at California State University is scheduled to open in 2003. Perhaps most important for marketers, under an innovative five-year arrangement ABC and ESPN will have exclusive English-language broadcast rights for the major-league soccer games and the next two FIFA World Cups (this month and in 2006).

Companies are starting to discover soccer's potential to score with upscale fans. For example, a sponsor of this year's World Cup, as well as of the U.S. men's and women's soccer teams, Basking Ridge, N.J.-based telecommunications firm Avaya, looks beyond the sport's relatively low TV ratings. Vice president of marketing Paul Myer focuses on its ability to reach an exclusive audience of IT professionals, and CEOs. “I'm not selling hamburgers, Budweiser or Coke, so mass audience is irrelevant to me,� he says. Myer believes that soccer sponsors can reach their target audience effectively, because there are only about 15 sponsors for the World Cup, compared with hundreds of sponsors for the Super Bowl or the Olympic Games. “I get quality exposure, which is more important than mass exposure,� he says.

For Brian Boyd, brand promotional manager at Chevrolet, soccer represents an opportunity to build brand awareness among kids and to target women, who are the Chevy van's core consumer. “Nobody walks to a soccer tournament, and moms are very important primary decision makers in 80 percent of household purchases,� says Boyd. “We're an entry-level, get-'em-'n'-grow-'em brand for General Motors, and soccer gives us perfect access to youth.�

Soccer's growth potential for advertisers is signaled by an increase in participation. According to a 2001 report by the North Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), a company specializing in sports and fitness research, the number of “frequent participants� (those who play soccer 25 or more days a year) rose by 48 percent between 1987 and 2000. As more Americans develop a fondness for the game, network executives are catching on. Of the 2002 World Cup's 64 games, 17 will be broadcast live on ESPN, 46 on ESPN2 and the championship match on ABC. Despite the time difference between Japan, South Korea and the U.S., which will place many live broadcasts at the brutally early hours of 2:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. on the East Coast, FIFA expects millions of American fans to tune in, coffee mugs in hand.

FÚTBOL FANS

More than one-third of people who watch professional soccer games on TV in the U.S. are women. Half of all fans who attend soccer games are in the 18- to 34-year-old age group.

SEX ATTEND SOCCER GAMES WATCH PROFESSIONAL SOCCER GAMES ON TV
Female 34% 37%
Male 66% 63%
AGE
18-24 25% 17%
25-34 25% 25%
35-44 26% 25%
45-54 16% 16%
55+ 8% 17%
HOUSEHOLD INCOME
< $25,000 19% 16%
$25,000-$49,999 18% 24%
$50,000-$74,999 22% 21%
$75,000+ 41% 39%
Source: Simmons Market Research Bureau, 2000
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