A U.S. soccer boom started with the 1994 World Cup, which was played here, and the subsequent establishment of Major League Soccer followed by the U.S.’s success in women’s World Cup play. The men’s World Cup will return to the U.S., Canada and Mexico next in 2026, providing more domestic momentum.
Whether there is room in American consumer hearts for still more soccer brands is a topic of some debate among soccer marketing experts. Generally, they see ample opportunity for a Brazilian club to win appeal among Latino and Hispanic Americans, especially in cities like Orlando, Miami, New York and Boston with heavier concentrations of Brazilians.
“When I think about Flamengo, I think about a surging Hispanic and Latino community in the U.S. that has significant interest in soccer,” said Jon Stainer, managing director of Nielsen Sports Americas, which is involved in sports media valuation and fan insights. “Liga MX has capitalized on that really nicely with strong broadcast rights, and has co-created competitions with MLS clubs.”
But with U.S. soccer also growing behind a thriving MLS and a lower-tier league known as USL also gaining a footing in smaller cities, “the pie could be getting smaller,” said Fred Matthes, a former DC United executive and founder of FM Professional Soccer Consulting.
“The new MLS team in Charlotte had 70,000 fans come out for their first game. That could make it harder and harder for foreign clubs to come and establish a market for themselves,” he said. And while the level of play in U.S. pro leagues is still below that of its international neighbors—Flamengo would “crush” an MLS team on the pitch, Fathi maintains—the standard of the game is improving as are elements like developmental programs.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea owe much of their reputation in the U.S. to branded academies teaching soccer to American kids, said Matthes.
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International clubs have an edge on U.S. league teams because they are not bound by regional marketing limits, or necessarily by top-down league rules that govern domestic clubs, noted Brennfleck.
“If you’re the Dallas Mavericks, there is a circle around your arena that extends out—a radius where you’re allowed to activate with your partners. It cannot be a national platform by definition,” he said. “European clubs also have complete control of their kingdoms as a franchise: You have control of your player image rights, you have control of merchandising and licensing rights—all those things are tools that the international clubs have and their U.S. counterparts don’t.”
John Guppy, founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, an agency specializing in soccer, said he was somewhat skeptical of Flamengo’s ability to be a big U.S. sports brand. His firm’s latest survey of U.S. soccer fans, conducted in November, pegged Flamengo as tied for the 32nd most popular soccer club brand in the U.S. (The top five, respectively, were Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea).
“If you ask the average soccer fan how much Brazilian soccer they’ve watched in the last 10 years the answer is going to be basically zero,” Guppy said. “In the U.S., it’s a four-horse race: There’s the MLS for obvious reasons. Liga MX is by far the most-watched on TV, and then you have the top European leagues: The Premier League and La Liga. All the media investment is behind one of those four leagues.”
Ricardo Fort, a former Coca-Cola sports marketing executive who today runs a consulting firm called Sport by Fort Consulting, notes the Brazilian league’s current U.S. television deal, with Paramount Plus, is “very small.”
Millennials and younger
While social media and television provide the exposure teams require to expand internationally, the appetite for taking it up reflects new attitudes around sports consumption, primarily driven by younger generation fans, and young soccer fans in general, said Guppy.
“There is a demographic mapping to soccer fandom, where you can draw the line at 40 years old and younger,” Guppy explained. “If you’re 40 or younger, you’ve basically grown up with soccer. You’ve had the MLS, and the international game has been accessible for you. And if you’re over that age, you haven’t. That’s a massive difference; everyone older than millennials is really not in the soccer demographic.”
These younger fans, who tend to follow the NFL and NBA in addition to international pro soccer, “like global narratives, and they like star power,” Guppy said. “They are enamored with the individual athlete. The NBA has been demonstrating that exact thing. And when [soccer star] Neymar moves to a new club, the fans will change their interest.”
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This phenomenon underscores some drawbacks to Flamengo’s marketability, in Guppy’s estimation. Its star players routinely gravitate to top European clubs to chase their dreams, “and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” he said. Flamengo’s roster includes a mix of very young stars and Brazilian professionals whose careers in Europe have ended.
There is, however, a movement afoot to build strength and staying power for clubs in Brazil. According to Fort, interest is building to create a Brazilian league that would be something of a South American equivalent to entities like the U.K.’s Premier League or the Spanish La Liga. Currently, Brazilian clubs are overseen by a national sports governing body similar to U.S. Soccer, and as a result its individual teams are “not as organized or as professionally run as those in Europe and the United States,” Fort said. He is involved in a group with ambitions to bring an investor to purchase 20% to 25% of the commercial rights as a means to kick off an independent league and provide the television coverage that he says is “only a fraction of what it can be.”
American soccer fans differ from their European counterparts by maintaining relationships with multiple clubs, Guppy noted.
“One of the things we hear constantly from our research is if you ask people in England about their fandom they’ll say ‘I’m a Southampton fan.’ If you ask an American they’ll say ‘I’m a soccer fan,’” he said. “They first and foremost identify with the sport, and they’ll go on to tell you how those passions come to life. So they’ll tell you they’re from Seattle and so they like the Sounders. Their favorite player is Messi, so they follow Barcelona and now they’re interested in PSG [Paris St. Germain]. The Premier League is on my house because my kids watch it and so I’m gravitating to Arsenal. They are picking four or five teams on average that they have an affinity for.”
While not revealing what Flamengo is putting behind the effort to establish itself, Sportfive executives shared its big ambitions.
“In four years we have a seven-figure goal for merchandise sales, and a seven-figure goal for sponsorships,” said Brennfleck. The team is considering a U.S. tour as soon as this summer.
Dortmund, which engaged Sportfive in 2018, provides a potential blueprint. When their partnership launched the club’s U.S. Twitter account had about 30,000 followers. Buoyed in part by engaging a U.S. player, Christian Pulisic (who today plays for Chelsea), that following grew to 2 million while topping follower growth and engagement over its Bundesliga peers.
Eventually, Flamengo would like to attract a U.S. sponsor to leverage its assets in North and South America, although the club only recently landed a three-year primary kit sponsorship with BRB, a Brazilian bank.