There's debate on both sides as to whether soccer will ever truly stick here. Optimists say that a rising immigrant population and the spawn of soccer moms make it inevitable. Pessimists (or apathetics) say there's no way -- not enough scoring, not enough serious hits (unless you count the rabid fans), plus we really shouldn't be sharing sports with the French.
My question is this: Can a good ad campaign span this gap?
The Major League Soccer has already done a lot of heavy lifting on this.
It's brought in the stars.
The MLS set the soccer world into a tizzy when it recruited David Beckham to give some glamour to soccer on American soil. He started out the season injured but upon recovery started packing stadiums.
Becks has his own stars in tow. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have brought their chic black turtlenecks and sunglasses to soccer stadiums, and Becks has even been seen hanging out with Kobe Bryant. In a bit of randomness, HBO's "Entourage" had an episode with Dennis Hopper and Vince betting on a Manchester United game -- not a direct tie to Becks yet, but I'm convinced it will be.
But the same way Target isn't just Isaac Mizrahi, the MLS is not just David Beckham. Mexican star Cuatemoc Blanco was recently recruited to play for the Chicago Fire, not to mention good ol' American stars like Landon Donovan, who keep an element of down-home flavor.
This star-power is filling stadiums.
Ballhype.com says "Major League Soccer's average attendance is at its highest level since 1996, the league's very first season, and the league-wide attendance average itself rivals the league-wide average of the most recent seasons of both the NBA and NHL. All three leagues now average between 16,000 and 17,500 nationwide." Filled stadiums are good. They imply a movement waiting to be harnessed.
Star-power is also enticing big brands into the arena. Microsoft just completed a $20 million deal to put the Xbox 360 logo on the Seattle Sounders' jersey front.
American soccer is not without its branding hiccups, however.
Let's start with the web address, www.mlsnet.com. Yes, net.com. It's weird, even if it is supposed to be a clever play on words (net of the goal). This doesn't say America is embracing soccer. This says the sports people are being out-muscled by Realtors (who own mls.com and mls.net). The NFL would never stand for this.
Then there are the team names. They span the gamut, from the more original but less soccer-y San Jose Earthquakes and L.A. Galaxy, to the team tribute names like Chivas USA or and Real Salt Lake. This seems like the league is trying too hard to buy authenticity, first from the American sports establishment and then from real soccer fans. As students of good branding, we know having a special vocabulary is a good thing for a brand. Yes, it can be annoying when Starbucks rephrases your drink order from "medium" to "grande" but it gives the true believers a secret code language to feel a part of. Here, in the soccer equivalent of Esperanto, one of the least pandering names on the roster might be the New York Red Bulls -- at least there's no question about to whom it's trying to appeal.
Ultimately, however these are small blips on the radar of a bigger movement who's time seems to have come. Euro Cup games are being broadcast on ABC, not just ESPN2. More U.S. players are playing abroad, and the U.S. national team has been performing well, holding its own against soccer royalty like Spain. U.S. Women's soccer continues to be top of world competition.
And, perhaps most importantly, YouTube has video of Chicago Fire fans beer-bonging before games set to defacto world soccer anthem "Mas Que Nada"
When the beer-bong has made it to soccer, there may be hope, America.
Now all American soccer needs is a good ad campaign to catapult the movement to the masses -- to convince red-blooded American sports fans (not Vince, but Turtle and Johnny Drama) that soccer has all the passion, excitement, suspense, rivalry and extreme beer consumption they want from a real sport. After all, isn't that what advertising does best -- navigate cultural barriers, bring cool to brands people have dismissed? There must be a way to get nay-sayers to see how a 1-0 outcome of Italy v. Spain can rival the best NFL or NBA playoff game.
Maybe David Beckham won't end up on "Entourage." In any case, for the bigger cause of American soccer, his time might be better spent in a cameo on "Friday Night Lights."