Advertising Age has learned Adidas America, Nike and Reebok International all turned down $10 million ownership stakes in Major League Soccer and balked at $1 million league sponsorships.
While executives say they're interested in supporting the new league, there's obviously concern about how far and how quickly the U.S. soccer market can grow, even with a World Cup kick-start.
Advertisers support keeping the commercial-free broadcast style of ABC/ESPN's World Cup coverage. But they also want more creative graphics and bottom-of-the-screen crawlers, like Univision, the Spanish-language cable station carrying the World Cup.
"To pay that much for a sponsorship, plus the cost of outfitting [teams] ... to reach maybe 10,000 fans in a stadium and viewers on ESPN2 just doesn't make it effective," said one executive.
Soccer league organizers appear to have realistic expectations, planning to start with 12 teams next spring.
"We are not expecting to start on top or be one of the Big 3 sports leagues within the first, second or even third year," said Randy Bernstein, World Cup '94 senior VP-corporate marketing, who will work for the league.
The feeling among World Cup sponsors and English-language TV carriers ABC and ESPN is that the event is surpassing what were modest expectations. They cite the surprising success of the U.S. team, which made it into the World Cup's second round for the first time since 1930.
Much like the U.S. hockey team's stunning 1980 Olympics success, if the U.S. soccer team upsets Brazil in second-round play today, "it could be Lake Placid all over again, a miracle on grass," said Tom Shine, president of Logo 7, an Indianapolis-based licensed athletic apparel maker. "But the U.S. needs to win to keep Americans involved in the event and keep soccer at the forefront of their minds."
Major League Soccer will be led by Alan Rothenberg, who will be commissioner. He is also chairman-CEO of the U.S. World Cup organizing committee. The structure calls for the league to own all teams and player contracts. Companies can purchase equity stakes and operate local teams or, as a sponsor, place logos on uniforms, get TV time and on-site signage, and rights to use league logos in ads and on products.
ABC and ESPN paid a small rights fee and purchased an equity stake to carry games. Start-up cost for the new league: $100 million over five years.
Organizers are confident that the new league won't meet the same fate as the last major outdoor soccer league, the North American Soccer League. The NASL enjoyed a healthy run throughout the 1970s but died in '82, done in by financial instability, limited national TV exposure and squabbling among owners.
Would-be sponsors of the new league have other concerns:
ESPN2. ESPN, which reaches 63.1 million homes, plans to carry at least 10 games, while ESPN2 will carry at least 25 and ABC will carry the championship. Currently in 14 million homes, ESPN2 hopes to reach 20 million by the league's spring start. Still, one prospective sponsor called ESPN2 "a non-network."
The visibility of on-field signage. Some outdoor boards are difficult to see. World Cup marketing partner Sprint Corp. has apparently suffered most since the letters in its logo are so thin.