Most conversations about soccer between American sports fans will include the comment: "It's the most popular sport in the world — just not in the U.S." That's become a truism over the years, a fact in and of itself without needing even a shred of evidence to back it up. The evidence is there, though. The entire European "football" market generates about $28 billion annually, and that's in non-World Cup years when there's roughly enough revenue to fill Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In contrast, sales of soccer equipment in the U.S. topped out at $400 million in 2015 — not a particularly strong example of a consumer base in waiting.
However, that doesn't mean that organizers of the 100th anniversary of the Copa América aren't going to make a pass at potential U.S. fans since the tournament's games are hosted across the country. The second week of June marks roughly the halfway point for the Copa América, and with games about to enter the knockout stage, brands have been hard at work behind the scenes to tie the fan experience together with a commonly used tool: mobile marketing.
While only hardcore soccer fans may have had their antennas up before the Copa América actually got underway, Jay Berhalter, chief commercial director for U.S. Soccer, told Fast Company that mobile platforms are a potential silver bullet for the sport as it tries to break down traditional fan apathy and inertia towards soccer, especially because many people don't have direct access through cable packages to the games.
"With the convergence of digital tools — Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp — there are no barriers to following any team or player around the world," Berhalter said. "It used to be really tough to find the game in this country, and now, there are more soccer games on TV here than in any other country in the world. Last year, we saw something like 3,500 live soccer games on TV in the U.S. That averages out to eight games a day. And you can watch what you want, when you want."
Providing access is just the first step in a long path to purchase when converting ambivalent fans, but if any international soccer tournament was prepared to carry a disinterested audience along to completion, it is the Copa América. Weeks before the games began, Dunkin' Donuts and Coca-Cola announced a contest where fans could win free tickets to games just by using the DD Perks app on their mobile phones. Moreover, Sprint and mobile engagement group Urban Airship created a mobile wallet pass that automatically gives users entries into a ticket sweepstakes every time their chosen country's club scores a goal during the tournament.
And in a sign of officially making it to the big stage of consumer consciousness, Copa América fans on mobile were also graced with an official emoji pack days before the tournament began.
This full-pitch press on American soccer fans isn't likely to catapult the sport into the top ranks of popularity in the country, but the push that brands have managed to put on in a relatively short amount of time — Berhalter said that most major campaigns for this year's tournament came about in a six-month span — indicates a certain fervor in how brands envision the latent potential of an untapped soccer fan market.
"The fact we'll have 10 or more world-class brand partners get involved in that short time frame, again, is a testament to their belief in the market and competition," Berhalter said. 'When we look at where this takes us, it's an indicator of how bright the future is for the sport in this country."
The U.S.'s next game comes against Ecuador on Thursday (June 16), and a win for the Yanks could mean a windfall in mobile revenue for American sponsors.