Soccer publishers pitch U.S. advertisers on evergreen sponsorship around the sport

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Sports publishers are once again expecting soccer to have a pretty significant moment in the United States over the next few years, thanks to a series of major championships and tournaments taking place stateside.

And while many of these publishers have been covering the sport and selling ads against soccer content for years, sponsorships have largely been rooted in tentpole moments like the Men’s and Women’s World Cups, rather than in an evergreen or even seasonal capacity.

“Historically, [in the U.S.], you see the biggest jumps in spend during those key moments,” said Lauren Funke, vp of advertising at The Athletic. “Our goal is to develop this always-on brand building, affinity alignment in the lead up to the big moments,” which is more in line with how U.K. brands advertise against soccer.

And given the Men’s World Cup will be held in the United States two years from now, publishers like The Athletic, FootballCo, Just Women’s Sports and the Men in Blazers Media Network are hoping that the slow build of excitement leading up to that tournament will be enough time to transition U.S. advertisers into that same mindset.

Men in Blazers released a new study today that surveyed 9,000 of the media company’s U.S. audience members about their consumption of soccer and what makes them unique compared to international fans. It was conducted in an effort to teach the publisher’s advertisers, as well as the soccer leagues and teams themselves, about the burgeoning fandom in the U.S. ahead of the 2026 World Cup, said Roger Bennett, founder of the company.

Bennett said that some of the biggest international soccer teams in the world, including Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, are training in the U.S. “Not just to train but to grow their brands here to touch and speak to this audience. And that’s where we are in America today. There’s almost an arms race for the hearts and minds of this young, deeply passionate audience,” he said.

Advertising on the rise

Despite the fact that most soccer sponsorships in the U.S. are currently tied to tournaments, Funke said that over the next two years, she’s expecting more U.S. brands to take an always-on approach with soccer audiences in the lead-up to the World Cup, and she therefore expects growth in ad revenue for soccer coverage.

That doesn’t mean The Athletic isn’t continuing to build franchises around major tentpole moments that attract the most views in soccer, however. Funke said that, at the end of the day, many brands interested in sports are eager for scale, so The Athletic’s new FC franchise is the effort to bundle together all of the publisher’s local podcasts, newsletters and other coverage into one offering. It’ll include both the lead-up to major tournaments as well as the coverage of the tournaments themselves.

The reason why soccer — and other sports for that matter — has a harder time convincing advertisers to commit to always-on advertising throughout the season is because it’s hard to keep audiences engaged outside of major tournaments, season kickoff events or player trades, said Jimmy Spano, evp and head of Dentsu Sports Media. 

What some media companies have been doing to try to lure ad dollars in for longer periods of time is take a bundle or umbrella approach to coverage. Spano said that he’s been pitched the idea of summer 2024 being the “summer of soccer,” because the Copa America tournament and the European Championship (Euros) are taking place back-to-back.

“[Publishers are] trying to bundle some of those larger tent poles with their other soccer programming that they have to try to make the regular seasons feel bigger and more important than they might necessarily be,” Spano said. This strategy works for some clients, he said, particularly for those who don’t have the budget to spend on a singular large league sponsorship for a tournament.

U.K.-based soccer publisher FootballCo kicked off the year wanting to make a concerted effort to grow its audience (and advertiser base) in the United States. The idea was to give enough time ahead of the Men’s World Cup in 2026 in the U.S. to win over brands that may not have historically advertised against the sport so they could get to know the fan base and hopefully deem it lucrative — including brands like e.l.f. Cosmetics.

Jason Wagenheim, CEO, North America, at FootballCo, said that financial services, banking, insurance and technology are four ad categories that he’s seen really lean into soccer, but auto, CPG, fashion and beauty are areas the company is planning to pursue going forward.

“We’re seeing a heightened interest [and investment] across the board, regardless of [ad] category,” Eric Burge, vp of Publicis Sports, said via email. And while “historically, we saw that advertisers’ interest in soccer only peaked every four years once the World Cup was in market,” soccer is being viewed as another channel to reach a live sports audience outside of the “cluttered” NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB marketplaces, Burge added.

“There’s always something happening on the soccer calendar. … It doesn’t always have to be the World Cup,” said Wagenheim. “So when we talk about the World Cup, it’s really just this great crescendo that marketers should be looking toward over the next two years.”

Women’s soccer as an entry point

One of the points of entry that publishers are using to get new advertisers and categories interested in soccer advertising is the growing wave of interest in women’s sports.

Globally, Wagenheim said that men’s soccer currently drives the majority of FootballCo’s advertising revenue, but the growth opportunity in the U.S. is being primarily led by women’s soccer, given there’s a significant amount of advertiser interest in women’s sports.

That’s in part because of the fact that the U.S. Women’s National team has been highly ranked since the 1990s and had a head start in garnering fandom for women’s soccer in the country compared to the men’s team. “I’m really glad to see that marketers’ interest and dollars are following finally,” Wagenheim added.

And unlike college and professional basketball, where women’s basketball is growing in popularity but is still competing for a share of the ad revenue that’s historically been allocated en masse to men’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer are on a more equal playing field, according to Haley Rosen, founder of digital sports publication Just Women’s Sports.

“There isn’t this massive men’s soccer culture in the U.S. I feel like women’s soccer has really been able to step into that [and] lead the charge around [growing the interest around] soccer in the U.S.,” Rosen said.

A lot of her conversations with advertisers around soccer are rooted in education, Rosen said, particularly when it comes to planning around the women’s sports calendar.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season and the U.S. Women’s National Team events are not on the same schedule as the NBA or the NFL, which is both a challenge and an opportunity when trying to win ad budgets. On the plus side, there is no competition with established tentpole events that could be siphoning money away from soccer, and it can offer a way to round out the calendar for sports-minded advertisers. However, Rosen said that a lot of the brands that have historically advertised in sports may be operating on a budget schedule that’s linked to events like March Madness or the Super Bowl.

Dentsu’s Spano said that women’s soccer leagues, like the NWSL, actually offer the bigger opportunities for advertisers interested in getting into soccer right now, because there are more league sponsorship positions open with recent changes to the league’s media rights.

“That’s where we want to make sure that we’re putting those positions in front of our clients because positions within sports [sponsorships] don’t become available very often,” Spano said.

Leveraging league sponsors

Relationships with soccer leagues and clubs (as well as their advertisers) that are hoping to build U.S. fanbases are also proving to be a lucrative avenue for some soccer publishers.

FootballCo is an official media partner of the NWSL, and while Wagenheim said that they’ve not yet closed deals with any of the bigger league brand sponsors, like Google, Adobe or Nike, having that tie to the league has helped his team open doors to those brands.

Men in Blazers works with several brands who are also sponsors of specific soccer clubs in the U.K. and U.S., including soda company Olipop and the Kansas City Current women’s soccer team, Michelob Ultra and the U.S. National Men’s Team, and Stōk Cold Brew and Wrexham Association Football Club.

But Bennett’s pitch to advertisers in the U.S. and abroad is if you’re sponsoring a league or a team, you’ll only reach fans of that league or team. And with American soccer fans far more willing to root for more than one club or team (32% of respondents said they support two teams and 46% said they have the emotional capacity to root for three or more teams, according to Men in Blazers’ survey) than fans outside of the U.S., brands that work with media partners like Men in Blazers will be able to transcend fan alliances.

The Athletic is taking a slightly different route to brands that are interested in league sponsorships.

“It’s expensive to become a FIFA World Cup sponsor and a lot of brands aren’t going to be able to make that kind of an investment,” said Funke. So her team is telling those brands that, instead of spending millions of dollars on one momentary sponsorship every four years, they can spend that money over the course of a couple years leading up to the World Cup and on coverage surrounding the event, and use that opportunity to build brand affinity with soccer fans during that time.

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