Fresh Paint: Soccer’s Cup Runneth Over

World cup headline

In America, we do love our football, don’t we? In 2021, 75 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts in the United States matched two NFL teams. Add in college football and you’ll find that 82% of the top 100 were football games.

That’s American football, of course. The kind where you’re allowed to use your hands. But when it comes to football without hands—“soccer” as we call it here in the colonies—that’s another matter. Not one of those top 100 broadcasts was a soccer match.

But that could soon change. Even if soccer is not about to threaten the NFL’s hegemony, you’d better start paying attention, starting with this year’s World Cup in Qatar, perhaps. They’ve been saying it for decades, but we suspect that it’s finally true: Soccer has finally arrived in the United States.

Need to know soccer

More Super Than the Super Bowl

Let’s put this in terms everyone can understand. The top-rated television broadcast in the US every year is the Super Bowl, right? Well, in 2022, around 99 million US viewers tuned into the Big Game, with an estimated 208 million viewers worldwide.

By comparison, the last World Cup final (in 2018 between France and Croatia) reached an average live audience worldwide of 517 million viewers, with more than 1.1 billion people tuning in during the game’s 90 minutes. Over the course of the tournament, more than 3.5 billion people watched the World Cup last time around, and this year they’re expecting around 5 billion—more than half the people on earth.

So yeah, the World Cup is more than kind of a big deal.


Growing Fast

As a spectator sport, soccer still has lots of room to grow in the United States. US viewership of the last World Cup final attracted “just” 18 million people (English and Spanish broadcasts combined). Not bad at all—about what you get for an average NFL broadcast—but still puny compared to the worldwide numbers.

But that is changing. Soccer recently passed hockey to become the fourth most popular sport in America behind football, baseball, and basketball. Of greater importance to marketers, The Morning Consult reports that soccer fans are younger and more diverse than your average sports fan, with more than half under the age of 45 and 40% from non-white cohorts. Put simply: If you are interested in appealing to young consumers, or if you find yourself worrying more and more about your Hispanic marketing plans, you probably should pay attention to soccer.

Broadcasters have certainly taken notice. To illustrate, last year the UK’s Premier League—“the most viewed soccer league on Earth” according to The Athletic—sold its US broadcast rights to NBC/Comcast for $2.7 billion over six years. That’s roughly $460 million per season—almost eight times what NBC paid just a decade ago when it first started broadcasting the Premier League in the United States. NBC reportedly beat out eight other entities, including ESPN, CBS, FOX, Turner, and Amazon, to secure those rights.

And with the 2026 World Cup scheduled to be played in the US, Mexico, and Canada, you can bet that the attention (and money) paid to The Beautiful Game will continue to climb.

Fifa parnters

Big-Name Sponsors with Big Time Privileges

Some of the biggest brands in the world—including Hyundai/Kia, Coca-Cola, and Adidas—have paid big bucks to become official partners with FIFA, soccer’s worldwide governing body. Other brands like McDonald’s and Budweiser have joined on as official sponsors of World Cup 2022. FIFA’s sponsorship revenue for this year’s World Cup in Qatar is estimated to be around $1.5 billion.

That’s a lot of euros. So it’s not a surprise that FIFA is aggressive in defending its exclusive partners and sponsors from marketing interlopers and wannabes. In fact, it has a webpage all about brand protection and 27-page document outlining its Intellectual Property Guidelines to help marketers understand what they can and can’t do in and around this year’s tournament in Qatar.

Not Many Options for Everyone Else

FIFA’s exclusive deals leave non-partners and non-sponsors with few options if they want in on the World Cup frenzy. Here’s a short list of things they are NOT allowed to do:

  • Use any of FIFA’s protected trademarks, including the official World Cup emblem, the mascot, graphic representations of its trophy, the official slogan (“Now Is All”) or any of the following word marks: FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, World Cup, World Cup 2022, Football World Cup, and Qatar 2022
  • Use any official Qatar 2022 logos, national team logos, designs, images, or footage from the tournament
  • Retweet or share official content on any social media platform for commercial benefit
  • Use official hashtags for commercial benefit
  • Use protected IP on mobile apps, websites, domain names/URLs or blogs
  • Create competitions, prize draws, raffles or games using protected IP
  • Use match tickets for promotions, competitions, or customer incentives
  • Distribute branded items in the area surrounding the tournament

They also don’t want you creating a replica match schedule or playoff bracket, so keep that in mind as you put together your office pool.

Finding Work-arounds

So what can you do? Not much. Here’s what you can get away with:

  • Use general football terms and imagery
  • Use general Qatar-related terms
  • Use national flags
  • Produce editorial or descriptive content, as long as there is no likelihood of confusion of a commercial association with the official event

Over the years, bold brands have used a variety of ambush marketing tactics to gain exposure in and around the World Cup, with varying degrees of success (and occasional legal ramifications). A more straightforward approach, of course, is to participate in the excitement and chatter while still steering clear of the FIFA brand police. A recent spot by Dr Pepper (primarily about American football) manages to also give a wink and a nod to soccer fans—Hispanics in particular. In its typical fashion, Nike released its own 4-minute World Cup spot (and a corresponding online “footballverse”) featuring a staggering array of the most famous male and female footballers from across the globe (and not a single mention of the upcoming tournament). Within the first day of being posted (less than a week before the World Cup), the spot generated over 3 million views.

A Primer for Those Who Don't Pay Any Attention to Football, Er, Soccer

If the Olympics are your point of reference when it comes to international sports, or if you’re thinking that the World Cup is like the Super Bowl but with a different ball, there are some things we should tell you about the World Cup so that you’re not unnecessarily confused:

1. There are no opening ceremonies. Or closing ceremonies. Or any ceremonies, for that matter. So if you were hoping to see that shirtless flag-bearer from Tonga, sorry.

2. Over 200 nations participated in the last Summer Olympics, but World Cup 2022 is limited to just 32 qualifying countries. It’s one of the reasons your Italian cousin has been in such a bad mood since March.

3. If you watch the Super Bowl just to see the commercials, you’ll find the World Cup very disappointing. A soccer match features a running clock, with 90 minutes split into two 45-minute halves. That is to say, there are no timeouts. No commercial breaks. If the game is tight, you dash off to pee at your own risk.

How the Tournament Works

The 32 countries in World Cup 2022 are divided into eight groups. During the initial Group Stage, each team will play the other three teams in their group. Ultimately the teams are ranked within their groups based on the outcome of those games, with three points awarded for a win and one point for a draw. Ties within the group rankings are broken based on overall goal differential in each team’s games to that point.

Group play

At the end of the Group Stage, the top two teams in each group qualify for the 16-team Knock-out Rounds, a standard single-elimination tournament format that fans of March Madness will know well. The one difference is that the two teams that lose in the semi-finals will face each other in a third-place game the day prior to the championship final.

Unlike the Group Stage, during the Knock-out Rounds there are no draws. If two teams are tied at the end of the standard 90 minutes of play, they play an additional 30 minutes to try to break the tie. But it is not a “sudden death” overtime period. The teams play the full 30 minutes whether or not one of them scores. Should the score still be tied at the end of the overtime period, the victor is determined by a shoot-out, with the teams alternating a minimum of five shots each from the penalty spot.

Some Final Words of Advice

If even after watching Ted Lasso you remain a soccer skeptic, but you want to get a feel for why billions of people might tune in to a game with very little scoring, we urge you to spend at least a little time watching a World Cup match on Telemundo. There you’ll likely hear a game called by Andrés Cantor, the Argentine-American sportscaster known for his iconic declaration of "¡Gooooooooooooool!” every time someone scores. Es tremendo. Pay attention to the energy and ardor of the fans, the passion of the players, the intensity of the atmosphere in the stadium. And then bask in the emotion that explodes in the stands and on the pitch when the ball goes into the back of the net. Perhaps then you’ll start to get a sense for why fans call soccer The Beautiful Game.