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Struggling for a Foothold

Despite World Cup Setback, Firms Teaming Up With Soccer and Galaxy

July 02, 1998|GREG JOHNSON

As soccer fans around the country comb the wreckage of the United States' World Cup disaster for clues as to what went wrong, marketers targeting soccer-hungry Latino households in Southern California are shrugging off the national team's last-place finish.

"Things couldn't be working out better for us," said Harlan L. Rimer, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Four-S Baking Co., which earlier this week unveiled a Galaxy soccer ball promotion tied to its Weber's bread line. "We were looking for something that would appeal to [Latino] kids . . . and soccer does that."

The Four-S promotion got an unexpected boost when Mexico's national team advanced to the second round. Said Rimer: "Mexico being there in round two made me look like a genius."

But as Galaxy executives and their marketing partners hold up World Cup fever as proof of the sport's increasing popularity in Southern California, sports marketers say the U.S. team's early exit failed to help the sport gain ground in broader markets.

"Every time there's a World Cup there's a movement to get the U.S. behind it, to get fans to embrace it and be excited by it," said Chicago-based sports marketing consultant Darcy L. Bouzeos. "So, could a good showing have helped? Absolutely. There's nowhere for soccer to go in this country but up."

Major League Soccer executives counter that while the national team's implosion was disappointing, it was, at most, a temporary setback.

"It was a missed opportunity for soccer in this country," said MLS Executive Vice President Randy Bernstein. "But it was not a major blow for this sport's future in the long term."

Soccer remains the undisputed king of the sports world outside of the U.S. Nike and Adidas, which view soccer gear sales as an increasingly important part of their revenue, spent heavily to outfit the world's top national teams. Nike also has signed a $120-million, long-term sponsorship agreement with the sport's U.S. governing body.

Many marketers are convinced that the sport will one day join basketball, football and baseball in the U.S. sports pantheon. Until that day, though, soccer will continue to serve as an effective tool for reaching fast-growing Latino markets nationwide. The nation's 28.4 million Latinos have $325 million in disposable income, reports Dieste & Partners, the Dallas-based advertising agency that handles MLS' English- and Spanish-language advertising. Dieste also notes that the Latino population is expected to soar to 42 million by 2050.

With these things in mind, the Galaxy's owners looked at players' marketing potential in addition to their athletic ability when they began assembling the team that took to the field three years ago.

"We built up an international roster with players from Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil and Mexico," said C. Patrick O'Brien, the Galaxy's vice president of corporate sponsorships. "We knew from the start that it was important to go after the Hispanic market."

Corporate sponsors have largely followed the Galaxy's lead.

Los Defensores, a Los Angeles-based legal clinic, incorporates Galaxy players Mauricio Cienfuegos and Paul Caliguiri into its commercials. The familiar faces "let people know we're supporting the Hispanic market in L.A.," said Nereida Casarez, general manager of San Pedro-based Walker Advertising, which handles the law firm's advertising.

McDonald's Corp., another Galaxy sponsor, is readying a pair of soccer promotions--a $1-per-ticket donation to Ronald McDonald House and a discount voucher good for an upcoming Galaxy home game. McDonald's also aired a World Cup commercial on Spanish-language television broadcasts that shows the Arc de Triomphe morphing into a soccer scene and then morphing into its familiar Golden Arches.

"With soccer, our primary Los Angeles market effort is aimed at Spanish-speaking consumers," said Tito Zamalloa, McDonald's assistant marketing manager in the chain's local region. "Our brand is enhanced by our association with a sport that has so much relevance with the many families who are our customers."

Rimer allied his bakery with the Galaxy shortly after taking over as Four-S president and chief executive in 1997. "We know that we have a real strong core base in the Hispanic community with our Weber's bread," Rimer said. "So I began looking for something that would appeal to Hispanic kids--and that's soccer."

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