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As World Cup Approaches, Marriott Gets In on Soccer Action

Though not a World Cup Sponsor, Hotel Chain Takes Advantage of Increased Interest

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Advertising Age Player

Here comes the invasion of the soccer endorsers on Madison Avenue.

With only a month to go before the start of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, get ready for a flood of ad campaigns starring current and former soccer stars. The newest: Marriott International and U.S. Soccer are poised to unveil a new digital campaign this week starring ex-soccer star-turned-ESPN-analyst Alexi Lalas and Team USA member Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy.

The stars will headline a "Defenders of Travel" ad campaign from Marriott. An interactive microsite launching May 13 will feature videos starring Mr. Lalas and Mr. Gonzalez. Their goal: Give fans an inside look at what it's like to suit up for the biggest games on the world stage.

The ads will also run on Marriott's web page as well U.S. Soccer's site and SportsIllustrated.com. The digital campaign will be part of a larger soccer-themed campaign by Marriott, which serves as the official hotel sponsor of U.S. Soccer. IMG Live created the campaign, which will use the hashtag: #TravelVictories.

Mr. Lalas, who starred for Team USA at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, believes America is finally ready to embrace soccer figure as mainstream athletic endorsers after a generation in which the sport made a slow, steady climb in popularity.

The 74-year old Brazilian soccer legend Pele, for example, is already pitching the likes of Volkswagen, Subway and Santander bank, according to the Wall Street Journal. Other marketers such as VW, Nike, Budweiser and Coca-Cola are launching soccer-themed campaigns around World Cup.

The powers that be in marketing "are recognizing the power of the game. And now the power of some of those individuals," said Mr. Lalas. "They recognize the association with them is beneficial because of who they've become. And in the case of Omar Gonzalez, who they can potentially become."

The American soccer fan base is not just kids and Soccer Moms any more, he added. "There's a whole generation that's grown up where Mom and Dad played soccer, many at a high level. There's soccer families now. It's not just the kids playing soccer -- and the parents going along. The level of understanding and passion for the game is transcending generations."

"Our sponsorship of the U.S. Soccer Federation has provided Marriott with many wonderful opportunities to connect with our guests through a sport they are so passionate about," said Joanna Todd, Marriott's VP-segment marketing.

Over the years, Mr. Lalas has had endorsement deals with Nike, Adidas and other sponsors. He's even seeing a shift in cultural acceptance of soccer from the beautiful people. Cheering for an English Premier League team (or another international club) has suddenly become cool for New York hipsters, according to The New York Times.

Sure, Mr. Lalas gets amused by the bandwagon-jumpers. But he think it's good for soccer in America: "The world doesn't end at our borders. As proud as I am of being an American, I'm also a citizen of the world. That world loves soccer. To be able to have that is very appealing, especially to a younger generation that sees itself in the context of the world as opposed to just the country."

There's been growing concern among World Cup marketing sponsors that Brazilian authorities won't have their football facilities ready in time. But Mr. Lalas noted we've similar situations with the World Cup and Olympics before, most recently at the Sochi Olympics where the hashtag #SochiFail was shorthand for half-built athletic facilities and hotel rooms with no lights or doorknobs.

Said Mr. Lalas: "I've found that in big events, they figure it out. It almost becomes part of the color of the story. You do a lot of adapting on the soccer field. And you have to do it off the field too."

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