This past weekend Manchester United captured the 135th edition of the Emirates FA Cup – England’s famous knockout club tournament. The match was broadcast live on FOX – the over-the-air FOX network that is – not FOX Sports channels. It was also the 8th most talked about sports event of the week on Twitter in the U.S according to Nielsen. In addition to the Emirates FA Cup, other national knockout tournament finals broadcast in the U.S. last weekend were Coppa Italia (GolTV), Copa del Rey (ESPN2), and DFB-Pokal (ESPN Deportes).
My guess is that 50 percent of you reading this article are unaware the United States has its own single-elimination knockout tournament – the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The tournament has been a fixture of the American soccer calendar for 102 years and is older than the NBA, NFL, and NHL. Of the 50 percent of you aware of the U.S. Open Cup, maybe 20 percent of you have actually ever watched a game live or on TV/online.
The simple truth is that the U.S. Open Cup isn’t relevant to more than a small base of people right now. The broad-based American soccer community and sporting community at-large has not fully embraced the history and appeal of the tournament. It could even be said that entire soccer industry itself hasn’t fully bought into the importance of the tournament.
So, ok, I admit it. The title of this article was written to be click bait. I don’t really believe the U.S. Open Cup is the single most valuable soccer property in the U.S. I do, however, believe that (in the right circumstances, for the right brand) it presents a truly unique opportunity. So I hope you continue to read on.
Here are the high level positives and negatives at play with the U.S. Open Cup.
- It’s a legitimate tournament
The U.S. Open Cup is a legitimate tournament with 100 plus years of history. It’s not a made up tournament that will last a few years and then die out. It will be here in another 100 years. In a world where authenticity is priceless, nothing in American soccer has more authentic roots than this event. As a reward for winning the U.S. Open Cup the successful Club qualifies for a slot in the CONCACAF Champions League. This is a big deal that no international friendly match can ever provide.
- It has a totally unique narrative
The allure of the FA Cup is built on the Cinderella stories of David vs. Goliath. The tournament format is designed to embrace all levels of a country’s soccer pyramid, providing a host of potential match ups between lower level amateur sides and the big boys from the top-flight professional league. The U.S. Open Cup includes teams from the USASA, NPSL, PDL, USL, as well as NASL and MLS. On June 15th, for example, either the L.A. Wolves or La Maquina FC (two amateur teams from SoCal) will play against the highest profile team in MLS, the LA Galaxy. What an incredible story this is.
Content is king in the digital age and the U.S. Open Cup is a proverbial firehouse of engaging stories and history that no other sport (or indeed other soccer property) can serve up. The crossover conversation for general sports talk shows is endless. Wouldn’t it be great to hear soccer hater Mike Francesa talk about the Clearwater Threshers vs. the New York Yankees, initiated as a result of a U.S. Open Cup giant killing upset.
- It’s an ownable property
The U.S Open Cup is owned and controlled by U.S. Soccer and has historically been a sponsorship “value add” asset for sponsors of the Federation looking to leverage the Men’s and/or Women’s National Teams. No brand has ever truly put a stake in the ground and activated the tournament. This presents an almost virgin territory for a brand to put an indelible mark on the tournament in the minds of the soccer public. A creative marketer could have a lot of fun developing a fully integrated 360-brand platform around the event.
It’s worth noting that integration of a major corporate sponsor has become a critical ingredient for European domestic cup tournaments.
This is great you may be saying, sign me up. But things aren’t quite so simple, and there are a few fundamental challenges the tournament must overcome.
- Clubs have other priorities
Modern soccer is a crowded space with more competitive demands on Clubs and players (and fans) than there are viable dates in the calendar. U.S. Open Cup matches have been relegated to select Wednesday nights, a slot not the most optimal for driving attendance. Of even greater significance though is the literal size of the prize. The winning team receives $250,000 and the runner up $60,000. This level of monetary reward makes participating in the U.S. Open Cup a money loser for several Teams. Inevitably Clubs must prioritize all competitions and events and unfortunately the U.S. Open Cup often gets pushed down the agenda.
- Minimal media attention
If the U.S Open Cup isn’t a priority for the industry why should it be for broadcasters and media? The knock-on effect is clearly evident here. Last year (and like previous years) the only game shown on national television was the U.S. Open Cup Final. ESPN2 and Univision Deportes Network broadcasted the game, which is an improvement over the Final being on harder-to-find GolTV, but this was the first time since 1999 that an ESPN network broadcasted a U.S. Open Cup game. TheCup.us website provides dedicated coverage to the tournament, but is ultimately limited in its reach. The site is not run by U.S. Soccer or any major media, rather it is the product of a dedicated independent writer and fan Josh Hakala.
- You’ll need a big checkbook
Money doesn’t solve every problem, but in the case of the U.S. Open Cup, I do believe it could solve many of the obstacles at play. To raise the profile of the event you need to start by motivating the participating Clubs. $250,000 plus a place in the CONCACAF Champions League is not getting it done. What if there was a total prize purse of $1.9M with $1 million going to the winning team, $500,000 to the runner up and $200,000 to each of the losing semi-finalists? In soccer parlance, this would definitely move the goalposts.
So where will the U.S. Open Cup be in 10 years’ time? My guess is that it’s unique status as a tournament open for Clubs at all levels of the U.S. Soccer pyramid will ensure its existence, but little more. The only dynamic I see changing the status quo is a significant injection of interest, money, and marketing from a major corporate brand. It’s that simple.
If you are one of the many CMO’s / Brand Marketers that read our newsletter and have the puncheon to think big we’d love to riff on this topic. Like many of soccer’s hardcore fans, we admittedly have a soft spot for the nostalgia of the U.S. Open Cup. With some creative vision and a supporting checkbook this might just be a diamond in the rough.