On Monday November 17th, soccer league administrators, adland, brand marketers, and plain old soccer enthusiasts gathered for Media Post’s Marketing Sports: Soccer in America conference. After a day of sharing insights and best practices on marketing to fans (interspersed with not a few friendly scuffles between fans of rival clubs!) Truth Central walked away with some learnings about soccer that are enriched what we already know about soccer fans from our recently released Truth About Fans study.

How Soccer Mastered Digital

One recurring theme in the conference was the very savvy way in which soccer has leveraged digital technology to grow in the US. While football was born through TV, soccer was born through digital. This fact has tremendous implication for the spread of the sport in the country. It references a shift in fan behavior that the Truth About Fans calls ‘From Neighborhood Expert to Global Guru’: while once upon a time, a fan’s community might have been his high school or neighborhood, the Internet has opened him up to a truly global community. With globalization, and the increasing sway of (particularly Hispanic) immigrants in the US, many Americans have woken up to the popularity of the sport elsewhere in the world, and want to be part of this global community. This is unsurprising, given the innate ability of sports to create community: ‘global sporting events such as the World Cup or the Olympics’ have the greatest ability to make humans around the world feel most connected to one another, according to Truth Central research, ahead of major religious holidays or global crises such as climate change. Indeed social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have proved invaluable tools to connecting soccer fans in the US to their foreign counterparts, and building a core group of fans in the country.

From Sport to Cultural Phenomenon

But in order to grow beyond this core group, soccer leagues/marketers recognized early on that they were going to have to do more than popularize the sport, they were going to have to transform it into a cultural phenomenon. Conference attendees heard from David Pekush of EA Sports, who spoke about the strategic decision to hire Snoop Lion and Drake as the spokespersons for their FIFA 2012 and FIFA 2013 video games, in order to embed soccer in a larger cultural landscape of music, fashion and entertainment. The Truth About Fans talks about the New Language of Fandom, driven by memes and GIFS, that is a mash-up of sports with every aspect of pop culture from TV shows to politics to advertising (just Google FIFA World Cup memes to see what we mean). As a result, according to Pekush, 1/3 of people who bought the FIFA game became pro-soccer sports fans (rather than buying the game because they were already pro-soccer fans). In other words, people bought the video game because established cultural tastemakers said it was cool to do so, and subsequently developed an appreciation for the sport.

Fandom in America

The success of this strategy of integrating soccer into a larger cultural landscape reveals a deeper truth about Americans: particularly in this country, fandom is a way of communicating personality, declaring allegiances and marking one’s interests. Indeed 64% of Americans would describe themselves as a fan of something, with 12% of those people calling themselves die-hard fans (as opposed to a 39% global average for self-described fans, and a 5% global average for die-hard fans). The strong vein of individualism in American society vindicates these findings. The more soccer marketers can communicate with fans in general (rather than just sports fans) and the more they talk about the beauty of fandom (community, belonging, identity) rather than solely the beauty of soccer, the greater their chances of growing the sport in the US.

The Future is Bright

As things stand, there’s definitely cause for optimism. The US men’s and women’s teams have been receiving attention for their spirited performance in international tournaments, creating more and more excitement domestically and drawing new fans to Major League Soccer games across the country. Even the Brits and French in the room grudgingly acknowledged that the men’s national team might very well find itself in the semi-finals in the 2018 World Cup! Brands interested in sports marketing should keep an eye on soccer; this could very well be America’s next big national pastime.