Pay Attention, Brands: The Future of Marketing Is Soccer
That may feel like a bold statement, but hear me out.
The men's World Cup in Qatar has come and gone. The soccer itself—the talent, the tension and the matchups—were probably the best a World Cup has had to offer in recent history. Messi took things to new heights. Brands showed up in relative force, despite cultural challenges and restrictions. The United States men's national soccer team (USMNT) showed promise, and briefly captured the attention of our nation away from busy holiday schedules, the NBA and the NFL.
But for fans, connecting wasn't easy. Things felt somewhat sterile, artificial and manufactured. In a sense, it was. I am sure that the culture and people of Qatar made it special for those who were there, and I have no doubt it was a polished experience. However, for the 99 percent of us struggling through another monologue on FOX, it was hard to find the energy, passion and celebration, not to mention the fact that the blatant sports-washing was difficult to stomach.
Fear not though, soccer's savior(s) cometh: The somewhat unlikely trio set to host the next World Cup is comprised of Canada, USA and Mexico. Two relative newbies, and an old hat.
World Cup 2026 is prime time.
Of course, this isn't the first time North America has hosted a World Cup, but this time it's prime time—serious business rife with serious opportunities. Since USA '94, soccer has been on a steep trajectory, growing in terms of both participation and fans within the U.S. It deserves mentioning that Major League Soccer was born off the back of '94 and now boasts 29 teams, a revolutionary Apple broadcast deal, billionaire and celebrity ownership and a raft of talent coming through the ranks. There's also been significant infiltration from major European clubs, with affiliate clubs, pre-season friendlies, American ownership, and official club stores in Manhattan. The size of the prize has always been significant, but it's even more compelling now. The future of soccer is here.
Which is why it's not an overstatement to say that the U.S. is experiencing a generational moment in soccer and possibly sport as a whole. The United States women's national soccer team (USWNT) could likely win again in summer of '23, further cementing their place as arguably the most successful soccer team ever. World-class talent will come to, and be produced by, MLS teams. Given that the World Cup in '26 will take over multiple cities, with an L.A.-based Olympics following two years later in '28, excitement abounds.
The World Cup in 2026 will be the biggest sporting event ever by a significant margin. More fans attending games, more viewers tuning into broadcasts, more sponsorship dollars, new hometown heroes and so on. But it isn't the scale of the event that makes it compelling, it's the vibrant, young and diverse audience that's already engaging with soccer in the U.S. that offers the real draw, for brands across sectors.
A recent Morning Consult survey shows that soccer fans are younger and more diverse than any other major sport fans in the U.S: "More than half of respondents who identified as soccer fans were under the age of 45 (54 percent), a greater share than than any of the other sports."
"Soccer also had the most diverse fan base, with 40 percent being fans of color. More than 1 in 4 U.S. adults who identified as soccer fans (27 percent) were Hispanic. Not only that, but "more than half of Hispanic Americans (55 percent) identified as soccer fans, a considerably higher share than among Black (33 percent) and white (31 percent) adults, as well as those of other races (43 percent)."
All to say that this generational shift in the popularity of sports and diversity feels truly representative of modern America and that's worth celebrating. It's also clear that the trajectory of growth for soccer is going to continue.
Marketers should prep their game plans.
Considering that soccer culture in the U.S. is still in its relatively early stages, the situation is uniquely compelling for marketers and brands looking to connect with these kinds of audiences. Brands can credibly help shape and drive this culture forward and the ones that intersect with it—which is something that can't be said about any other sport, league or event. This means that many brands might unfortunately default to well-trodden insights and endorsement deals. But that would be a miss.
From a cultural perspective, soccer is already a beautifully rich and diverse sport. After all, it's the world's game. It comes with hundreds of years of history, rivalries and rituals, and crowns true world champions. So, it's not like it's some underground secret in the U.S., but the lack of success for the USMNT and a relatively young league in the MLS means that full attention, and also opportunity, are yet to be grasped.
MLS is a hugely exciting proposition for world soccer and for brands that want to get involved. It isn't burdened with monopolies, splintered "super leagues," or expectations around who to root for or how to be a fan. It feels built for this age, and built with this new audience in mind—those very cultures, rivalries and rituals that exist elsewhere are being revitalized and reimagined now in the U.S.
For those fans yet to be drawn into the energy of MLS, there is of course that unshakeable national pride that fans of all sports recognize and relish. The U.S. men's national soccer team hasn't played in many World Cups, but that lack of participation and success is behind us. Now, success at the highest level seems inevitable for the USMNT, and yes, I mean a World Cup win in the not-too-distant future. The ball has started rolling. The growth is there. The infrastructure is in place. A high-quality domestic league exists in MLS, and it is nurturing the next generation of homegrown superstars.
Fueling soccer culture on the pitch and off.
And it's "coming home." When it does, you want to be able to say, "I was there!" For the formation of the rituals and cultures, of course, but you'll also want to say you were there for the moment that sparked a rivalry for the ages, for that goal, for a first-ever game, for the trophy lift.
But for brands, it's not just about being there, there is real value in genuine participation. Brands have the distinct opportunity to play a meaningful role in furthering and fueling passion in soccer and, in doing so, actively driving forward culture around it.
When brands get that right, and find an authentic place in and amongst those cultures, it's incredibly powerful. You're able to become a true part of the conversation, to create natural participation with your brand and ultimately get your market to do your marketing. And when that market is rapidly growing, vibrantly youthful and richly diverse, you're credibly placing yourself amongst the next generation of influential consumers in the U.S. That's what we call effective marketing through authentic cultural engagement, and it's always a win-win.