KAI RYSSDAL: Turn down the radio if you're a soccer fan. There's a World Cup spoiler coming up. Should last about 12 seconds or so. OK, ready? It was, to be kind, an inauspicious begining for the US World Cup team. Playing in Germany today the Americans lost to the Czech Republic 3-0. Or three-nil if you like. They played badly. But don't expect rioting in the streets. The World Cup is the world's biggest sporting event, in other parts of the world, not here. So why are US companies spending so much money this year targeting soccer fans in the States? Nate DiMeo reports.
NATE DIMEO: Nelson Rodriguez would like to clear up a common misconception. He says there are soccer fans in the US. Millions of them. They're passionate. They're knowledgeable. They live or die depending on how well their team does in the World Cup. They just don't root for the Americans.
NELSON RODRIGUEZ:"There's a new America that's emerged, and the team that they follow the most, is the national team of Mexico."
Rodriguez works for a company called Soccer United Marketing that brings the Mexican National team north of the border to play exhibition games. Sixty-thousand people packed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for one of these games, right before the Mexican team left for Germany and the World Cup. It's the same scene every time the team plays in American cities. The waving flags; the cheering faces painted red, white and green; the incessant hum of thousands of plastic horns droning like cicadas. Idae Caranza's family came from Mexico to the US almost 40 years ago. She says she doesn't miss an opportunity to support the team from her parent's country.
IDAE CARANZA:"I am a true Mexican fan. You have to stand true to where you come from, because it will always be there for you."
And when you get millions of people like Idae Carranza supporting one team, a lot of companies want to make sure they're seen showing their support too.
HENDRICK SCHOUTEN:"We knew that this was an opportunity to touch on a passion point, soccer, and plug in directly to the larget single group among Hispanics in the United States — Mexican Americans."
Hendrick Schouten is the director of Hispanic marketing for Cingular Wireless. He says before Cingular started its relationship with the Mexican national team, it had less than 2 million Hispanic customers. Three years later it has nearly 6 million. He says Cingular now has the largest share of that market as a direct result of the company's sponsorship of the Mexican national team.
SCHOUTEN:"We've used player appearances at the opening of Hispanic stores, these bilingual stores — drawing in a crowd of sometimes 500 people to get autographs — and those stores have just taken off and out-perform our general market stores by about 45 percent."
And with the World Cup upon us, American companies like McDonald's, Home Depot, Anheuser-Busch, even Wal-Mart are hitching their corporate hopes to fans of the Mexican national team living in the US. But Schouten says his company has no plans to make the same sort of investment in the other team some people care about here. He says interest in the US men's soccer team just hasn't reached a critical mass. The non-Hispanic American sports fan is too occupied with Barry Bonds and the NBA finals. Soccer analyst Steven Cohen says companies like Cingular are placing the right bet in appealing to Hispanic fans of the Mexican team.
STEVEN COHEN:"Because it's a sure thing. The American football fan, or soccer fan, is a very fleeting thing. They might get excited for the World Cup every four years, but they're gone. They're done and dusted once it's over. The Mexicans, it's in their blood."
He says it takes heroes — like Brazil's Ronaldihno or England's Wayne Rooney — to connect players to fans and fans to products. And despite the strides of the US in the World Cup and of soccer in the US in general, the stars that a company can build a successful ad campaign around just haven't come out yet. In fact, the most prominent ad portrays the US team as a more or less faceless group of plucky underdogs who get ridiculed and abused as they travel the world. Steven Cohen says there's only one thing that could change that.
COHEN:"I've always said that I thought that the growth of football in this country are inexplicably linked to the success of the US men's national team. And from that perspective I fear for it right now, because they've got such a hard group in the World Cup. The problem is, if they get out of this group, and they come second to say Czech Republic, Ghana or Italy, they're going to get Brazil in the next round."
OK, what he means is that, well, see, in the first round of the World Cup, the 32 teams are placed through a weighted selection process into groups of four teams that then play each other once. But, y'know, the fact that I have to explain this probably says it all.
In Los Angeles, I'm Nate DiMeo for Marketplace.
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