World Cup runneth over

By Published on .

the united states' surprising success in the 2002 World Cup has been a golden goal for all involved, as U.S. advertisers jumped into broadcasts to take advantage of a surge in interest.

World Cup marketing winners range from the networks, whose ratings have been up; to the advertisers, reaping the benefits; to struggling Major League Soccer, which took a gamble by purchasing the live broadcast rights; and to the players themselves, some of whom should be able to score endorsements here at home, where interest in soccer is somewhere between slim and nil.

"Given the time difference between here and [South Korea and Japan, co-hosts of the tournament], and given that these telecasts are taped, it's worked out very well," said Mark Mandel, spokesman for ABC, which is sharing the broadcasts with Walt Disney Co. sibling ESPN.

fever pitch

Clearly, the accomplishments of the U.S.-advancing to the quarterfinals of soccer's quadrennial championship for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1930-have driven the sudden fervor. The 2-1 win over Mexico on June 17 that launched the Americans into the quarters drew a 2.29 cable rating on ESPN, according to Nielsen Media Research. The game began at 2:30 a.m. and was the most-watched cable program ever between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. among men ages 18-34 and 18-49.

That coveted demographic appeals to advertisers, some of whom jumped on board well after the month-long tournament began May 31 after seeing the success of the U.S. national team. That Major League Soccer was able to sell in the scatter market is a testament to the wisdom of its high-stakes wager.

MLS is this country's top professional soccer league, started after the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup. The league has struggled greatly in recent years, its popularity mirrored by the country's low-level interest in soccer-or football, as the sport is known in the rest of the world-where it reigns supreme.

Convinced it could raise its own profile, MLS took a chance and paid $40 million to purchase U.S. broadcast rights to the tournament. It then bought time on ABC and ESPN, and sold the advertising itself.

"Any rights-holder takes a risk, but it was a risk we thought was dead-on for what we wanted to do," said Mark Noonan, MLS exec-VP-marketing.

paying off

The risk has apparently paid off. Despite America's so-so interest in soccer and the fact that live games are being broadcast between 2:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. on the East coast, MLS sold out its inventory and went back to soccer's governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association to get more avails.

Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Budweiser signed on as the main presenting sponsor, and Mr. Noonan was able to later cut deals with Diageo's Burger King Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and Apple Computer, among others. Mr. Noonan said the deals ranged from high six figures to several million dollars. Along the way, MLS has been able to plug itself.

"Obviously, we're thrilled," Mr. Noonan said. "I think it gives us a lot of credibility as a league."

In the meantime, Nike, maker of the U.S. team apparel, is shifting into high gear to provide retailers with replica jerseys that are flying off store shelves at $89.99 a pop. American star Landon Donovan was on the cover of the latest issue of Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated in a week when golf icon Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open and the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.

Mr. Donovan and teammate DaMarcus Beasley are both just 20 years old and will most assuredly be back for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Clint Mathis is the team's poster boy/scoring threat, and goalkeeper Brad Friedel has been phenomenal. Those four are the early favorites to land endorsement deals.

"There will be some endorsements for them when they come," said one sports-marketing expert, "but soccer is still a low-priority sport in the U.S. It will be like the Olympics. They'll get some juice out of it for a few months, but it won't heat up again until the next World Cup."

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