Go to a few youth soccer games and you'll pick up on a disturbing fact: While almost 50 percent of youth soccer players are female, only 15 percent of the coaches are women.

But that -- and a number of other things -- may be about to change. 

The U.S. Soccer Federation (the non-profit governing body for soccer) just announced a landmark partnership with Volkswagen to be its presenting automotive partner through 2022. The agreement, facilitated by Soccer United Marketing (SUM), is designed to support U.S. Soccer's mission of becoming the preeminent sport in America by increasing participation, developing world class players, coaches and referees, increasing fan engagement -- and supporting programs that develop more female coaches.

Soccer in the U.S. is already enjoying a significant upswing. A recent Gallup poll shows soccer ranks second in popularity only to football among the coveted 18-34 demographic. Average 2017 MLS attendance was over 22,000, third behind the NFL and Major League Baseball. Atlanta United FC, owned by Home Depot co-founder and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, entered the league in 2017 and averages over 52,000 fans per game.

(Yep: 52,000.)

Volkswagen's support will extend well beyond branded training tops.

"When we started our discussions with Volkswagen, one thing was extremely impressive," says Dan Flynn, the CEO and Secretary General of U.S. Soccer. "We presented our framework and plan for becoming the preeminent sport in the U.S. -- the most beloved, and most played -- and they really understood it. It clicked. They understand the infrastructure needs of our game, from grass roots coaching and refereeing all the way to the top level of the sport... ,and they're extremely committed to and excited about making a difference."

Scott Keogh, the President and CEO of Volkswagen America, agrees. "We are absolutely thrilled about this partnership with U.S. Soccer," he says. "Our program is about helping to grow this great sport in the U.S. We're calling it One Goal - and the first step is making it easier for women to stay with the sport and pass on their wisdom and passion and love to the next generation of players."

From a marketing point of view, soccer's demographics clearly appeal to Volkswagen. The bulk of U.S. immigrants arrive from soccer-playing countries. Soccer also continues to grow in popularity at the grass-roots level (two of my kids played high school soccer), which creates a natural source of fans. And the average age of soccer fans is 10-plus lower than that of other major sports like Major League Baseball, the NHL, and NASCAR.

Add all that up and a partnership with U.S. Soccer lets Volkswagen get in front of a new generation of sports fans -- and car buyers. 

"When you think not just about the national teams, but the hundred thousand participants, coaches, etc.," says Carter Ladd, VP of Business Development for SUM Marketing, "the breadth of what the federation can deliver beyond the senior teams is vast. Our goal was to find a brand that can align with U.S. Soccer's unique value proposition -- it's the only property from a sports perspective that can deliver men and women, has local relevance and also a national platform, that competes in global competitions... soccer engages a young, diverse, male and female audience, and it does so year in and year out, and almost year-round."

While obviously the most visible event on the horizon, this summer's Women's World Cup is only be the first step in the partnership. After the Women's World Cup comes the Men's Gold Cup. Then CONCACAF. Then the 2020 Olympics. Then the Men's World Cup in 2022.

And while the initial deal ends in 2022, the 2026 Men's World Cup will be held in the U.S. -- and will likely be the biggest sporting event this country has ever seen.

So will people someday look back and see this as a pivotal moment for soccer in the U.S.?

"We have a really good model, and we look forward to executing within that model," Dan says. While the industry has a lot of moving pieces to it, ultimately it all comes down to participation and performance: Participation in terms of getting people to play and coach and enjoy the sport, to become fans of the sport... and performance in terms of delivering a great experience for youth, for building pathways for elite players to succeed at the international level...

"To make sure kids have a great experience," Dan continues, "the more educated your coaches are about delivering age appropriate environments, the more you can get people to understand the needs of officiating.... That's one reason why we're so excited about our partnership with Volkswagen. They're committed to helping us deliver on that promise."

As Michael Davies of Men in Blazers likes to say, "Soccer is America's sport of the future... and has been since 1972."

But one day we might look back and realize today was the day that future got a little bit closer.

Published on: Jan 14, 2019
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