How sponsors and Fox can bounce back from disappointment at the World Cup

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After the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's devastating loss, how can brands pivot their messaging?

The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team recently suffered a devastating loss to Trinidad & Tobago in their final match of the hexagonal group stage of the FIFA World Cup CONCACAF qualifier. Because of this shocking loss, the USMNT did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup, marking this as the first World Cup without USMNT participation since 1986.

It’s safe to say this is a major hiccup for the entire U.S. Men’s Soccer organization. By not qualifying, U.S. Men’s Soccer is on track to miss out on tens of millions of dollars in World Cup associated revenue streams. These are extremely important dollars that directly impact funding for a variety of youth player development programs and initiatives throughout the country.

This loss is also going to leave partners of U.S. Men’s Soccer hurting—especially Fox, which paid a reported $200 million for the TV rights to the World Cup. The World Cup is one of those unique events where the entire world is watching. Specifically, for Fox, USMNT games had the potential of producing some of the largest social moments of the year, which also would have driven record-level eyeballs to their network in real-time.

Beyond cash, the absence of the USMNT will have an intangible impact on soccer in the States. While the sport has seen continuous growth in the US—particularly European soccer—validation of the American brand of the men’s game still has a long way to go. Following every World Cup, Americans are left with an invigorated interest in the game, easily excited by the spirit and pride of rooting for their nation’s team.

Instead, there will need to be a substantial damage control effort to win back disgruntled fans, which is further complicated by the nature of international soccer competition. There is a long path until the next World Cup, so U.S. Soccer is deprived of the ability to leverage every tormented sports fan’s adage of "next year."

We take it as a given that the USMNT would at least qualify, so just about everybody was blindsided by this. Certainly sponsors, agencies and networks already had their plans locked down considering the magnitude of the World Cup. So, how can USMNT sponsors pivot their messaging and activations around the World Cup in the absence of the USMNT?  

Own this moment. You cannot hide from it, and you cannot sugar coat it. So don’t attempt to. The USMNT’s absence will be glaringly obvious, but if done right, these brand partners could build powerful campaigns around the loss and ultimately retribution. They could also use it as an opportunity to shift focus away from the athletes and to the fans themselves. 

Alternatively, the best option might be for brand partners to get an early jump promoting the world-power U.S. Women’s Soccer team and their preparation for the 2019 Women’s World Cup instead.

The World Cup is a unique cultural moment that drives big brand activations simultaneously tapping into fandom, patriotism and global unity. Sports are most powerful when brands can leverage passion into action. This now leaves USMNT brand partners in a precarious place, unable to realize the full value of their sponsorships. Consider for example in September, the internet went nuts over rumored leaked Nike USMNT World Cup kits. Now, those kits are rendered irrelevant. USMNT partners will now be deprived of countless other brand platform opportunities leading up to the World Cup, during the World Cup and after the World Cup.

With or without the USMNT, the World Cup will go on and, there will be significant interest for fans—both casual and diehard—to still tune in. After all, it is the World Cup. Fox will need to rely on the emergence of some yet-to-be-determined Cinderella team. And with context often being more important than the quality of play in sports, Fox will need to quickly build storylines around other countries and their superstars that might be able to succeed as a USMNT surrogate. 

Luke Bonner is a Brand Marketing Executive at GYK Antler and the head of Power Forward Sports Group.