March Madness, the greatest single-elimination sporting event in the U.S., is currently in full swing. Just like millions of Americans I love this sporting event. David vs. Goliath matchups. Bracketology. It’s all so beautifully served up for both the hardcore basketball fan and casual observer.
As a “soccer-guy” though, inevitably every March Madness some conversation takes a sharp turn and divulges into a discussion about American soccer’s ultimate single-elimination event – the U.S. Open Cup.
Quite a pivot, perhaps. Admittedly, there are members of my friend group who have no idea how or why the conversation steers in this direction, but if you know soccer, you completely understand.
During this year’s conversation I was specifically reminded about a blog post I wrote five years ago – The U.S. Open Cup – the most valuable soccer property in the U.S. I invite you to take a read if you’re inclined. You’ll see my perspective hasn’t changed much over the years and a fundamental question remains.
What is going on with the U.S. Open Cup?
Let’s start with the obvious.
COVID wreaked havoc on the tournament. Last year it was cancelled for the first time in its over one-hundred year history. This year, it will be a dramatically scaled back competition with only 24 participating teams. Of course, the potential still remains for even more pandemic-enforced compromises.
The most significant other development with the property in recent years, however, has been a positive one. In 2019, U.S. Soccer signed a four-year agreement with ESPN+ to broadcast every match from the opening round through the Final. This agreement runs through 2022.
Press quotes would suggest ESPN “gets it” and appreciates the unique inherent value of the competition.
“The U.S. Open Cup is America’s version of what is truly unique about the sport around the world – knockout format club tournaments that invites the Davids and the Goliaths from all levels of the sport to compete against one another to determine the nation’s top team.”Burke Magnus, Executive Vice President, ESPN
A believing broadcast partner is a key ingredient for success, but another essential puzzle piece is still missing.
The U.S. Open Cup and a corporate partner
If ever a soccer property needed a true corporate supporter, this is it.
Securing such a partner is never easy, of course. Even more so during times of uncertainty. The U.S. Open Cup also faces some other significant challenges that I’ll address, but let’s start with the reasons to believe.
In my opinion, there are five extremely important considerations.
The U.S. Open Cup is a legitimate tournament
Soccer authenticity = brand equity. One hundred plus years of history and a qualification birth to the CONCACAF Champions League as reward for winning means a lot.
In a world where authenticity is priceless, nothing in American soccer has more authentic roots than this event. It means something to the fans. I believe a brand would realize reciprocal benefits by helping it find its appropriate footing within the soccer landscape.
A tournament for all
The number of Division I, II, and III professional clubs around the U.S. is growing rapidly. In general terms, there will soon be more than seventy Open Cup-eligible teams from MLS, USL Championship, NISA, and USL League One. Dig down one level further to the NPSL and USL League Two and you’ll find dozens of additional teams that could enter the competition.
Reaching critical mass in terms of the number of teams participating in an open tournament throughout the soccer pyramid could have huge benefits. Enticing matchups would drive excitement and create distinguished meaningful events outside of regular season league competition. For a brand partner this would mean tent pole moments in hundreds of markets around the country.
Appeal for the casual viewer
Hear me out on this one because you may feel it’s the exact opposite. In 2021, the appeal of the U.S. Open Cup rests largely with the hardest of hardcore fans. However, this could very easily change.
I’m not a huge college basketball fan, but a trifecta of converging factors drive the appeal of March Madness with millions of casual observers like myself. Mix unique Cinderella stories, David vs. Goliath narratives, the drama of single-elimination competition, and the pop culture influence of bracketology and you have a winning formula.
Will the U.S. Open Cup ever have the status of college basketball’s crown jewel? No, it won’t. Yet, the playbook is there and, if done right, I don’t see any reason why over time U.S. Open Cup interest can’t have mainstream appeal.
There’s no aspect of the sports industry that won’t be affected by the legalization of gambling. March Madness benefits incredibly, of course, from its long time “soft, betting-friendly” participation status.
Once again, I’m not suggesting the U.S. Open Cup can replicate the influence of March Madness, but there is something uniquely intriguing about betting on single-elimination contests. For example, one of the biggest bets placed on this year’s March Madness was for 12-seed Winthrop to win it all. The U.S. Open Cup can lean into similar narratives to create a compelling betting proposition for fans.
It’s an ownable property
Perhaps the most enticing element of all. No brand has ever truly put a stake in the ground and activated the tournament. Unlike so many naming rights deal in sports, the U.S. Open Cup represents essentially virgin territory for a brand. The opportunity to leave an indelible mark on the tournament in the minds of the soccer public exists.
Challenges facing the U.S. Open Cup
This is all great, but what about the inherent challenges? Well, there are two and they are both big.
U.S. Soccer needs to think big. Establish a new tournament vision built on creativity, ambition and commitment. The current landscape is jam-packed with Club and Country competitions with deep competitive and commercial considerations. Truth be told, soccer has other priorities and the U.S. Open Cup remains low on the pecking order. For a brand to invest, they would need to see a clear growth plan from U.S. Soccer that represents a dramatic shift in how the competition is viewed.
There’s also the small matter of cost. While U.S. Soccer could drive the ambition, the harsh reality is they will need a truly committed brand partner to infuse much of the funding. A lucrative prize purse with financial rewards layered throughout the tournament is required to motivate participating Clubs.
Budget is also needed for marketing and promotional activities to drive awareness and engagement. For a brand to realize an ROI from this investment they too would need to have a vision built on creativity, ambition, and commitment.
Where do we go from here?
Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing is an agnostic engagement agency, meaning we don’t sell corporate partnerships for any property. Rather, we provide our clients with independent strategic perspective and develop engagement marketing programs.
In all honesty, the closest I think we’ve come to “selling the virtues” of any individual property is this blog post.
Like many soccer fans, we admittedly have a soft spot for the nostalgia of the U.S. Open Cup. But as marketers, we also recognize the unique position of the tournament within an evolving soccer landscape.
“We see the U.S. Open Cup tournament for what it could be – not merely what it is today.”— John Guppy, GESM
The time is right to realize this tournament’s true potential. A creative vision and commitment from U.S. Soccer and ESPN plus the right brand partner are the ingredients needed.
If you are one of the many CMOs / Brand Marketers that read our newsletter and have the puncheon to think big we’d love to riff on this topic.