Going inside the 'home of the braves'

Dr Michael Goldman

Posted: June 8, 2014

Tagged: brands / coaches / fans / television

“Make us something we can show our children and grandchildren.” This was the challenge put to ESPN’s Roger Bennett and his co-producer Jonathan Hock by a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team as they began working on an in-depth behind the scenes World Cup documentary about the team’s preparations for Brazil.

The six-episode ESPN series, “Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil,” was borne out of Bennett’s long-held desire to nurture an emotional connection between both soccer and non-soccer fans and Team USA, something that the team has lacked in previous World Cup campaigns. To do this, the producers are developing the personalities and individual public profiles of the men who have sacrificed so much to represent the U.S. at the highest level, thereby strengthening the associations that fans have of each player. Star players have long been recognized as contributing to the overall attractiveness of a team, and features strongly in the Team Association Model developed by sport management scholars James Gladden and Dan Funk to measure the most important sport brand association dimensions. As the series shines a spotlight on the excitement and build-up to the first game against Ghana on June 16th, it is likely that more of the millions of non-soccer fans will be attracted to the individuals, not just the team, competing for the 18-carat gold FIFA World Cup Trophy.

The never-before-seen broadcast perspective from within the team’s World Cup preparation camp comes at a time when soccer is on the rise in a country that many believe has an unquenchable thirst for sport. A 2011 survey by ESPN ranked soccer as the second most popular sport for 12-24 year olds in the U.S. (behind gridiron football), while 40% of the Major League Soccer TV audience is under 34. As John Guppy, the founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing told BloombergBusinessweek: “Millennials are the biggest driver of the sport right now… they are looking for their own identification… soccer fits that bill”. This belief is supported by previous research on German soccer fans by Hans Bauer, Nicola Stokburger-Sauer, and Stefanie Exler, who showed how team identification is strongly related to team attributes such as star players, as well as to team history, traditions and performance. This optimism about soccer in the U.S. also led to Gary Stevenson, the president and managing director of Major League Soccer’s Business Ventures to recently refer to the “growth of a soccer nation” and then go on to negotiate an eight-year broadcast deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision worth $90 million annually – a five-fold increase on previous TV rights.

The growing soccer nation is increasingly online. Facebook announced earlier this year that the U.S. had the second highest number of soccer fans on their platform at almost 50 million, with half of these tuning in to the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, up 44% on the 2006 final in Germany. ESPN will be hoping that by exploring what is at stake for each athlete vying to make it into the final World Cup squad, these soccer fans will feel increased attachment to the team.

In the season premier of the ESPN series on May 13th, coach Jurgen Klinsmann discussed what he learned about coaching the “American way” from observing great U.S. coaches, such as previous LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. The former World Cup winning German striker spoke about inspiring positive self-belief, especially in the face of unlikely odds. This self-belief is echoed in the personal stories that Bennett weaves into a compelling narrative of star players fighting for the “respect of their nation”.

About Michael Goldman

Michael(@michaelmgoldman) is an Assistant Professor with the University of San Francisco’s Sport Management Master’s Program and an Adjunct Faculty member at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. Michael assists students, managers and clients to enhance their abilities to acquire, grow and retain profitable customers.