Down to our last few weeks of 2019, there’s no better time to look back on the year that was and highlight our top soccer stories and moments. From the FIFA Women’s World Cup to MLS Cup and VAR to gambling, 2019 had its fair share of marquee moments to keep soccer fans and soccer marketers buzzing.
Our countdown of the top 10 storylines of 2019 is the first of two recap stories we’ll feature in the dying days of our latest trip around the sun. In our next newsletter we’ll discuss the top stories of the past decade.
TOP TEN SOCCER STORIES OF 2019:
10. American market focus continues to grow for European teams, leagues
The United States remains a major focus of international expansion for leagues and teams across Europe. Both the Premier League and La Liga have ramped up their efforts in the U.S. market over the last 12 months. Here’s just a sampling of some of the marketing initiatives. The Premier League and NBC will have hosted three fan fests in 2019, drawing tens of thousands of fans in attendance. La Liga partnered with a celebrity chef to open their “official Home of La Liga in New York” at the Mercado Little Spain. La Liga continues to try and bring an official league match to Miami, but multiples attempts have been blocked.
On the club side, back-to-back PL Champions Manchester City joined four other teams with U.S.-specific Twitter handles. Meanwhile, Chelsea played a friendly against MLS side New England Revolution to raise money and awareness for anti-semitism and recently launched an official U.S. podcast. We’re sure 2020 will bring even more growth opportunities stateside from European teams and leagues!
9. VAR remains a controversial topic
The arrival of Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) has been controversial around the globe. MLS implemented the technology several seasons ago and has had hiccups along the way, but overall the integration has been rather smooth. The league is even looking for a sponsor to own VAR. The Premier League’s debut of VAR during the 2019/20 season has not gone over nearly as well, as fans, players, teams, and other stakeholders are less than impressed. Why the difference in results between the two leagues? One of the biggest contributing factors relates to differences in broadcast camera coverage for MLS games versus Premier League games. More cameras equals equals more opportunity to scrutinize.
The criticism reached a fever pitch at the end of November when the league admitted key decisions across four recent games were incorrectly overturned after being reviewed by VAR. The technology will continue to adapt, with the league leading a consultation with fans and other stakeholders about how to make improvements in the coming seasons. According to the league, however, the mistakes are simply growing pains that will get better with time. VAR isn’t going anywhere, so it will be interesting to see how the league and its referees adjust during the second half of the season and beyond.
8. eMLS helps bring league to new audience
Major League Soccer’s foray into esports kicked off in 2018, but things really stepped up in 2019. One of the questions we’ve always had is if / when brands will get involved. Early in 2019 Kellogg’s became a partner of the league’s efforts – a sign that there’s long-term belief in the property. It was also recently announced that the 2020 eMLS Cup will take place at SXSW and 25 of the league’s teams will take part next season.
Continued efforts in esports will introduce MLS to new audiences. In 2019, there were 45 million unique players of the FIFA video game across PC, Playstation 4, Switch, and Xbox One. More and more fans are citing playing FIFA as a reason for why they follow MLS. 65 percent of avid MLS fans highlight FIFA as a driver of interest. Simply playing the sport in real life isn’t nearly as important to grow the fanbase for the league with the youngest fan base of major pro sports in North America.
7. Volkswagen becomes Presenting Partner of U.S. Soccer
The inclusion of this topic admittedly strikes close to home for us [we manage VW’s program activation] but its importance deserves recognition. At the Detroit Auto Show in January it was unveiled that Volkswagen had become the Presenting Partner of U.S. Soccer – the first time the Federation has had a Presenting Partner. After a almost a full year of driving something bigger, here are just a few partnership highlights, thus far.
VW supported the U.S. Women’s National Team in the lead up to their FIFA Women’s World Cup journey. At each Send-Off Series activation, VW called for fans to snap a photo and socialize to #VW4USWNT to complete a mosaic fan wall dedicated to the players. VW also provided over 50+ America SCORES kids – an after-school soccer, poetry, and community service program – an opportunity to walk out with the Men’s and Women’s National Team during pre-match ceremonies at various matches. Select America SCORES coaches and participants were also selected to ride the championship float at the Victory Parade in New York City on behalf of VW. VW also hit the road visiting 30+ youth soccer events across the country to showcase the 2019 Atlas and Tiguan.
6. MLS expansion kicks into high gear
It’s been a banner year for MLS expansion with one new team beginning play, two others building rosters (and stadiums!), and three expansion announcements with potentially one more before the year’s end. While FC Cincinnati’s play on the field did not live up to expectations, it did not stop fans from piling into Nippert Stadium to the tune of 27,000 fans per game – good for third-highest average attendance in the league. Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC begin play in 2020 and are currently building out their rosters.
Where 2019 may have the largest impact on the league, though, is the announcement of three new expansion franchises in Austin, St. Louis, and Sacramento as well as the Chicago Fire’s move downtown and rebrand. But wait, there’s more! According to sources, Charlotte may be announced as the league’s 30th team as soon as Friday, December 6th. It has been a whirlwind year of unprecedented growth for Major League Soccer. As the year ends and a new one nears, it will be exciting to see these new clubs begin to form as their debuts beckon.
5. Gambling & liquor sponsorship opportunities in MLS
After the fall of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018, professional sports leagues in the U.S. have the ability to partner with gambling entities. Fast forward a year and MLS signed a partnership with MGM Resorts making the Las Vegas-based entertainment company the Official Gaming Partner of the league. The league partnership was the first domino to fall – the second came in June when MLS opened up the ability for individual teams to negotiate jersey and stadium sponsorship deals with gambling and entertainment companies. No official deals have been announced to date; however, D.C. United is reportedly in talks with Caesars to open a sportsbook at Audi Field.
Also of note, MLS opened up the ability for teams to negotiate jersey sponsorship deals with liquor companies as Americans shift drinking preferences from beer to liquor.
4. Pulisic takes England by storm
Christian Pulisic finally made his highly anticipated move from the Bundesliga to the Premier League this season after joining Chelsea FC in January for a reported $73.1 million – the most ever paid for an American. With the high price tag came high expectations and the young forward has excelled in spite of intense media scrutiny. The successful move gives the club a massive advantage in the U.S. by creating a natural connection for the neutral soccer fan or USMNT supporter to start following Chelsea. Not only will Chelsea gain more fans and sell more jerseys as a result, but the Premier League will also benefit from its budding star, setting them apart at a time where other leagues such as the Bundesliga and La Liga are investing more and more into the territory. Who knows, maybe he’ll make a guest appearance in the club’s new American-focused podcast, too.
Not surprisingly, brand interest in Pulisic has kicked into gear with companies such as Nike, Hershey, Gatorade, Player’s Tribune and Panini being some of the early few signing on for the ride. Keep a close eye on Pulisic in 2020 and beyond, as he very well just may be primed to take this sport to the next level in the United States.
3. The ever-changing broadcast landscape
The annual shuffle of broadcast media rights continued in 2019. ESPN+ launched in 2018, but after adding a myriad of soccer properties, including the Bundesliga, to its offerings, the streaming service now boasts over 3.5 million paid subscribers. In spring, Univision Deportes rebranded as TUDN and broadcasted over 350 games from June through October, dominating the airwaves as the channel with the most matches in that timeframe. More recently, CBS [quite surprisingly] was announced as the future home of the UEFA Champions League. The networks will take over for the incumbent Turner and Bleacher Report in 2021.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the broadcast deals gone sour in the past year. FloSports signed several local streaming deals with MLS teams, including D.C. United and FC Cincinnati. In both markets, several issues were met with strong criticism by fans and the teams themselves. D.C. United ended up terminating its 4-year deal with a reported $12 million.
2. U.S. Women’s National Team win on the field and in pop culture
Arguably the single biggest moment of the year came in mid-July when the U.S. Women’s National Team lifted the FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy at the conclusion of a record-setting tournament during which the USWNT home jersey became Nike.com’s all-time highest-selling jersey in a single season. The trophy lifting is the story everyone will remember; however, leading up to the marquee summer event, U.S. Soccer used several campaigns and cool moments to build hype.
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) March 2, 2019
During the SheBelieves Cup the USWNT players each wore jerseys with the names female idols – from Doris Burke to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – emblazoned on the back. The goal? Highlight powerful women who inspire current and future generations. In May, U.S. Soccer unveiled #WNTEverywhere, which saw 11 murals painted in WNT hometown cities across the country. The entirety of the 23-woman USWNT roster was also commemorated in poster form.
Also of note, during their 6-0 defeat of Belgium in April at the Banc of California Stadium, U.S. Soccer had several A-list female celebrities at the game to show their support of the USWNT. Eva Longoria, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Chastain, and more were all on hand to celebrate female empowerment.
1. Stands and brands – increased attention on women’s soccer
The legacy impact of the USWNT and World Cup stands atop our list. Following the FIFA Women’s World Cup there were considerable bumps in attendance around the world. Domestically, the NWSL saw a league-wide increase, including a league record 25,218 fans in Portland. In Mexico, several Liga MX Femenil clubs continues to get great attendance numbers, including over 41,000 fans at the Tigres-hosted first leg of the Apertura final. In Europe, England recently hosted Germany at Wembley in front of almost 80,000 people.
New highs in attendance point to signs of increased popularity and attention, but without support from brands and sponsors, the viability and sustainability of leagues like the NWSL remains in question. In 2019, we saw a ton of activity in this space that is hopefully a sign of things to come. Deloitte signed a multiyear partnership with U.S. Soccer to be the Foundational Partner of the SheBelieves, including being the title partner of the SheBelieves Summit. Following the FIFA Women’s World Cup, P&G and Secret Deodorant purchased thousands of NWSL tickets to get more fans into stands around the league. Luna Bar promised to pay an additional $31,250 – the disparity in roster bonuses awarded to the men’s team – to each player selected to participate in this summer’s marquee soccer event.
However, no other brand was more active in its support of women’s soccer in 2019 than Budweiser. They became the presenting sponsor of the Women’s International Champions Cup. They promised they Won’t Stop Watching women’s soccer following the conclusion of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. They also launched a campaign entitled Future Official to help NWSL attract more sponsors.
Will domestic womens soccer be in a much stronger place in 12 months time as a result of this summers activities? We think it will.