Soccer as religion
Soccer is a devoutly followed religion in the U.K., and the team's often-rocky ride to the tournament once every four years is a pilgrimage of unparalleled importance. If a North American analogy helps, imagine the mood in Canada if Gretzky had injured himself weeks before a Winter Olympics.
Temporarily unable to concentrate on other sports -- Tom Glavine's masterful outing at Turner Field aside -- I found myself joining a bunch of Brits discussing Rooney's mishap in a BBC chatroom. We bemoaned our bad luck, parsed England's chances of winning without him and disputed foot fractures. The English are not partial to spelling bees (we try not to turn everything into a competition, perhaps due to a habit of losing), but we do have 12-year-olds with SMS-esque abbreviations for metatarsal bones.
$20 million in sponsorships
Of course I don't really expect Ad Age's audience to give a pigskin about this Rooney bloke. Unless, that is, you work at Wal-Mart, Nike, Coca-Cola or EA Sports, which have forked out a collective $20 million to sponsor Rooney or feature him in ads.
Nike is certainly watching closely, as Rooney was trying one of its new soccer boots when he suffered the injury. The boot, the Total 90 Supremacy, employs several innovative design features, supposedly concocted by Rooney himself, and is incredibly lightweight. Boots have been getting lighter for years, but with the media looking to parcel out blame for the nation's misfortune, the flimsy nature of the new Nikes has been implicated in the case of the fractured foot.
The rest of America's marketing fraternity, however, may wonder why they should care about the biggest competitive event on earth -- even if it is taking in over $1 billion in marketing dollars and thus plumping the results of agencies around the world.
Doesn't cut in in U.S.
Despite its enormous significance elsewhere in the world and a bi-annual Brit-written column to the contrary, soccer just doesn't cut it as a national sport here. It's for kids; it's for wimps; there isn't enough scoring; and, probably more significantly, there aren't enough natural game breaks for ads. I've even started arguing the case myself.
Yet there are signs that soccer is becoming a force here, too: The U.S. team enters the World Cup fifth in the global rankings and with a real chance of some success; Major League Soccer players like Landon Donovan are earning major league salaries ($1 million a year before sponsorships); eight soccer stadiums will be built here by 2008, including The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., and Pizza Hut Park in Dallas; MLS attendance hit a record 2.9 million in 2005 -- and with 42 million Hispanics now in America, exponential growth is possible.
Disney's $100 million soccer buy
Marketers and media owners are taking notice too. Disney paid $100 million for the English-language rights to broadcast the World Cup across ABC, ESPN and ESPN -- that's two-and-a-half times as much as the last rights deal. Univision paid $325 million to show them in Spanish. Adidas paid the MLS $150 million for a 10-year sponsorship deal, and earlier this year beverage giant Red Bull bought my local team -- the MetroStars -- and renamed them Red Bull New York, kitting them out with the Red Bull logo, Red Bull team colors and, to come soon, Red Bull Arena.
Sure, the NFL isn't quaking in its cleats, but soccer is clearly on the march and this World Cup will be a sports phenomenon, with or without Wayne Rooney. It'll be a billion dollar marketing phenomenon, too -- which sort of makes it your job to watch.