Sports Beyond Borders: Positioning Brands from Sailing to Soccer

Category: Culture, International Business

Sailing and soccer have wildly different audiences and participants. While many of the rarefied fans of sailing may earn as much or more than the sailors, soccer is in many ways a great populist sport, where the price of entry is as low as a ball and a little space to kick it. Many fans of professional sailing may have never experienced the thrill of an AC72 skimming across the water like a Formula One race car, but you can bet your average soccer fan has some sense of mixing it up on a field, from a dusty scuffle in a Central Africa town to the suburban lawns of Illinois.

The teams themselves (like today’s successful companies) are multicultural melting pots of the best global talent management can assemble. Oracle snubbed Cup tradition by having a multinational crew run against the largely Kiwi team — a decision that looks better in light of the improbable come-back victory. And the Red Bulls have brought in international stars like Thierry Henry (formerly of Arsenal and France) and Tim Cahill (formerly of Everton and Australia), which helps the field performance and expands the fan base which in turn sells tickets and attracts sponsors. In addition to pursuing the best talent available, cross-cultural teams bring diverse perspectives needed to develop and support global products and customers.

So what does this mean in the context of positioning your brand internationally? In some senses, sailing navigates toward niches. A survey of the sails in the San Francisco Bay this year tells an expensive story. What was supposed to be twelve teams this year was narrowed down to only three with major corporate sponsors. Survey the sails and you’ll see the brands clustered around wealth and big business; Prada for Italy’s Team Luna Rossa, Emirates airlines for New Zealand, and Oracle for the U.S.A. (Sweden’s Team Artemis skipped corporate sponsorship altogether and was financed by the Swedish oil trader Torbjörn Törnqvist.) The brands of the America’s Cup seek to align themselves with an exclusive audience.

If sailing is a billionaire’s sport, soccer is the sport to reach billions. According to data compiled by KantarSport on behalf of FIFA, the 2010 FIFA World Cup reached 2.2 billion viewers, based on viewers watching a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes of coverage. The average in-home global audience for each match was 188.4 million. While soccer’s World Cup is a major media spectacle, there’s no shortage of interest in professional league competition. England’s Premier League remains one of the most watched in the world, broadcast in 212 territories with 80 different broadcasters.

With the exception of Emirates, brands backing the Premier League teams differ with broader consumer appeal and include technology, insurance, gambling, and even payday loan companies. Ten of the shirt sponsorships have gone to companies in the UAE, South Korean, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, China, and even the U.S. In a controversial and record-setting deal, GM recently agreed to a 7-year, $559 million sponsorship position with Manchester United. When Man U. puts Chevrolet’s gold bow-ties on their jerseys, GM will be the first major American brand to hold sole jersey sponsorship of one of the league’s most followed teams. While the premium GM’s paying for the privilege may a subject of debate, the move acknowledges the need for U.S. brands to position themselves in front of global audiences if they hope to compete for international mindshare.

As I listen to the bilingual Spanish/English player substitutions at Red Bull Arena and watch Oracle’s team battle back to take the “Auld Mug,” I’m reminded how our future is increasingly beyond borders. Both business and recreation crosses oceans and places us on the same pitch every day. The teams that keep this in mind will undoubtedly save themselves from elimination.