NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Americans might be slow in numbers to embrace soccer, but for advertisers, the recently completed FIFA World Cup was nothing short of a golden goal.
The six official FIFA partners successfully fended off some good ambush-marketing tactics, and while most of the evidence is anecdotal in nature only 15 days after Spain's victory over Holland, there is a cautious optimism that the sponsors -- Adidas, Coca-Cola, Visa, Sony, Hyundai/Kia and Emirates Airlines -- got a big bang for their $125 million.
Moreover, the USA's performance at the event -- winning its group to advance to the Round of 16 -- not only helped nudge the needle on soccer's popularity in the states, but has enticed even more sponsors to join America's bid to host either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
"I've got an interesting perspective since I was both here at home and on the ground in South Africa," said Kathy Carter, exec VP for Major League Soccer and the head of SUM, Soccer United Marketing, which helps cull multiple, soccer-central deals for advertisers. "I can tell that with rare exception, the official partners owned the World Cup. From Visa's point of sale to Adidas' presence all over, you knew who really owned the event."
Indeed, two weeks into the five-week tournament, NM Incite found that official sponsors connected better with World Cup fans than non-sponsors, registering an average 55% higher net likability than commercials from non-sponsors. The company has yet to release a post-World Cup survey.
Even better, Ms. Carter said the amount of advertising in the U.S. during ESPN's and Univision's coverage of the World Cup increased.
"This is the first time we've seen so much creative centered around the event," she said. "Frankly, I think it's a watershed moment in advertising on soccer."
Seemingly everybody scored. Most of the marketers said it was too early to glean ROI information from their investment (Adidas sold 6 million soccer jerseys during the tournament, 3 million more than during the 2006 World Cup in Germany) but they are seeing the success anecdotally.
Emmanuel Seuge, Coca-Cola's director of worldwide entertainment and marketing, told Bloomberg News that the soft-drink maker expects gains in sales and consumer perceptions based on its ad campaign and the wild success of the "Wavin' Flags" song the company commissioned for the World Cup.
Budweiser's "Bud House" digital-reality show, part of its Bud United campaign, was one of the top five branded YouTube channels during the span of the tournament from June 11 to July 11.
Visa's "Express Your True Colors" ad campaign from TBWA, as well as its ultra-successful YouTube channel from digital agency AKQA, were highly regarded. The "Go Fans" YouTube channel, in which fans could watch videos of famous soccer players make a "Goal!" call or upload their own videos, currently has 7.5 million views -- 50% more than the 5 million Visa was hoping for.
"This was our first time as worldwide sponsors and our first activation around the World Cup. To say that we're pleased would be an understatement," said Jennifer Bazante, Visa International's VP-global marketing.
Ms. Bazante said Visa decided to enter the World Cup fray after 20 successful years as a global Olympics partner. "The World Cup sponsorship was part and parcel of our overall global strategy," Ms. Bazante said. "They really have a lot of synergy. The World Cup is slightly different, though. There's a very strong fan base for the Olympics in North America. For the World Cup, it's strong in other parts of the world."
That leads to the inevitable question of whether soccer can fly in the U.S. From a fan's perspective, "the beautiful game" is nonetheless hard to compete with the meat-and-potatoes football, baseball, basketball and hockey mentality, but the signs are there. Organizers of the July 28 friendly match between Mexico's Club America and England's Manchester City at the Georgia Dome had to turn away sponsors after all the marketing slots were filled.
And, Ms. Carter said, there will likely be an announcement in the coming weeks from companies taking corporate sponsorships with the USA Bid Committee working on securing either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.
A big help would be if Landon Donovan, the breakout star of the U.S. team who scored the unforgettable goal against Algeria that put the team into the next round, remains in the country to play in the MLS with the L.A. Galaxy.
Bob Dorfman, partner in the San Francisco firm Baker Street Advertising, said Mr. Donovan needs to stay top of mind since there are four years between World Cups, but that he is best served by being cast as a role player in endorsements.
"Whether he can carry a whole campaign on his own is questionable," Mr. Dorfman said. "I see him working best in a supporting role, maybe alongside Peyton Manning for Sony, with Jared for Subway, or maybe teaming with fellow players like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain for foot-related products like Tinactin or Dr. Scholl's."