WFoA on “Marketing Matters:” World Cup Soccer and Playing Well With Fans

Aired July 16, 2014

The 2014 World Cup captivated audiences around the world; an estimated 3.7 billion viewers worldwide watched the tournament, while the USA-Portugal match became the most-watched soccer game in US history.

With the sound of the final whistle just days in the past, Marketing Matters examined the lessons that the World Cup can teach marketers about engaging and growing audiences. Guests Adrian Hanauer, Co-owner and GM of Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders FC, and Bryan McAleer, ESPN’s Associate Director of Marketing, joined hosts Professor Jerry Wind and WFoA Executive Director Catharine Hays.

hanauer-portraitSeattle Sounders FC have been a resounding success within Major League Soccer, leading the league in average attendance since the club’s debut in 2009 and making the playoffs in each of their five seasons. In addition, Sounders FC is the home club of 2014 US World Cup Captain Clint Dempsey and Defender DeAndre Yedlin.

Hanauer attributes a measure of Sounders FC’s success to the timing of their debut, in that “the NBA team Seattle Supersonics were leaving town and moving to Oklahoma City, the Seahawks were struggling, the Mariners were struggling.”

However, Hanauer and the rest of the Sounders organization have capitalized on that early success by engaging their fanbase, especially the club’s season ticket holders. After a particularly bad loss to rival The LA Galaxy, says Hanauer, “fans went away angry and frustrated, and I called my partner Joe that night and said, ‘Hey, you know maybe we should give our fans their money back for that game. What do you think about that?’… So we basically sent out a press release the next morning giving all of our season ticket holders a credit on their account for the value of that game.”

“It was really a core decision to let our fans be involved in many other aspects of our organization as well,” Hanauer explains, “Whether it’s designs of our jerseys or some of our merchandise, we have various counsel groups that meet on a regular basis with our ownership to discuss what we are doing well and what we’re not doing well.”

At its core, sports involves an viewer’s emotional attachment to a team, and this attachment drives both the marketing of the team itself and of the sponsors that associate with that brand. Pointing to Yedlin, a young player who came up through the Sounders’ player farm system, Hanauer says “he did a local energy drink deal with a small company called Golazo and this company did it before DeAndre had his success at the World Cup. They probably didn’t spend a lot of money but they are now trading off of his success… The better you can associate with winners, the better off you are as a company.”


ESPN enjoyed a 39% increase in viewership in 2014 over its figures for the 2010 World Cup; this viewership was driven in part by promotional campaigns such as “Time Zone” and “I Believe.”

espn fifa logoMcAleer and the marketing department at ESPN spent two and a half years preparing for the World Cup, coordinating efforts among a marketing team, a social media team, and a team of artists and designers.  “It was really about calibrating all efforts towards that 2014 World Cup knowing that this is going to be the pinnacle and this is gonna be the biggest event.” This long run-up to the event allowed ESPN to coordinate its marketing with events like the finalization of the 2014 US World Cup Team: the “I Believe” campaign debuted in April, during the selection process for the squad, and was intended to both capture a mood of increasing anticipation for the World Cup and to contribute further to that mood.

“There were a lot of surprises along the way that were nice validations of our campaign,” McAleer explains. An ESPN-commisioned series of posters of key players drew the notice of Italian striker Mariobalotelli Balotelli, who posted ESPN’s poster of him as his user portrait on Twitter.

ESPN’s three teams stayed on alert during the tournament, functioning like “a newsroom” to respond to events on the field. An example from the early matches was the “Flying Dutchman” image on Twitter of Robin van Persie’s goal versus Spain, which ESPN posted within minutes of the goal, and which was retweeted over 17,000 times.

McAleer frames ESPN’s marketing role as that of  facilitating and deepening the viewer’s experience of the World Cup: “You can fit in that conversation rather than trying to create your own separate conversation. We weren’t using, for example, custom ESPN hashtags on Twitter. We wanted to join fans rather than impose on them.”


Professor Jerry Wind’s key takeaways for this show:

The importance of the fan and the customer.

Having the fans’ involvement is critical; view the brand as a movement. 

Some of the keys to the Sounders’ success have been the demographics and background of the fanbase, the selection of the right partners, and long-term perspective. The long view also comes into play in ESPN’s preparation for the World Cup, and in the timing of its campaigns.

Measure not just impressions, but passionable or emotional impressions.

Passion drives the audience; passion should drive the brand.


This edition of Marketing Matters will be available on Sirius XM On Demand until August 15, 2014. Non-subscribers to Sirius XM can sign up for a free trial here.

The Wharton Future of Advertising Program airs programs monthly on Marketing Matters, a weekly call-in show airing on Wednesdays from 5pm to 7pm on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio powered by Wharton. Listeners can call in during the show at 1-844-WHARTON (1-844-842-7866). Programs will be rebroadcast throughout the month. Full channel information available here:


-Matt Wiegle, WFoA Program Assistant