Soccerex USA 2018: Highlights from day two

Soccerex USA 2018: Highlights from day two
Inter Miami took centre stage on the second and final day of Soccerex USA as Jorge Mas, co-owner of David Beckham’s Major League Soccer expansion franchise, outlined his vision for the club.

After much of the talk on day one at Soccerex USA was dominated by the 2026 Fifa World Cup, attention on the second and final day of the event in Miami shifted to the other major soccer story to emerge from North America in 2018.

Inside Inter Miami

When David Beckham does something people tend to sit up and pay attention, and it was no different in January this year when the English soccer icon’s efforts to establish a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in Miami finally came to fruition.  

The excitement surrounding that move was best reflected by the packed room that filled out at Marlins Park to hear Jorge Mas, a co-owner of the recently unveiled Inter Miami team, outline his vision for the club. Currently the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, Mas wasted no time in setting the bar high for the franchise.

“I thought it would be a tragedy if MLS would not be welcome in our city,” Mas said, when asked why he decided to team up with Beckham. “We need to make a project happen that’s unique, that’s innovative, that’s different. It needs to be something that – if done right – can become the capital of soccer in the US.”

Inter Miami cleared another major hurdle earlier this month when close to 60 per cent of voters – or 62,000 residents, according to Mas – gave the green light for the franchise to press ahead with their stadium plans. Mas stressed that he wants the venue to be “fan-friendly” and “technologically advanced”, adding that the stadium will be designed to ensure that supporters “spend hours at the game” beyond the 90 minutes of play.

Mas also confirmed that – with the new stadium not set to be ready in time for the team’s first season – the franchise is already exploring interim venues that will be able to host Inter Miami’s games when they join MLS in 2020.

Above all else, though, Mas added that the overarching goal for Inter Miami is to create a brand and market a team that is a reflection of Miami’s diversity and encompasses the city’s passion.

“When you look at the model of other sports franchises here, when they’re run through the eyes of locals they’ve been very successful,” said Mas, who is a Miami native and has lived in the city his entire life. “We’re trying to capture our bilingual market. I think Miami is a great market, especially for soccer because it’s a lot of peoples’ first sport.

“I think Internacional is a good reflection of what makes up Miami – I don’t think there’s a more global city in the US than ours. We’re trying to build a team that we can market globally and can be recognised around the world.

“We have brought an element to the ownership group of being able to identify with the community. We all share a language, but we share a diversity in our culture. I understand the subtle elements that separate you from being great and being phenomenal.”

Making up for lost time

Fox Sports was dealt a major blow when the United States failed to qualify for this year’s Fifa World Cup in Russia – just six years after the pay-TV stalwart splashed out a reported US$425 million to secure rights to the tournament in the US.

With that in mind, it came as no surprise to hear that Fox is planning to go big with its coverage of next year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup in France, where the US women’s national team (USWNT) will be hoping to defend the title they won back in 2015. Women’s soccer has experienced an undeniable popularity surge in recent years, but there is nowhere that that sentiment rings more true than in the US, where the sport boasts the most successful female national side in the world and benefits from the star power of players such as Alex Morgan and Mallory Pugh.

Mike Petruzzi, senior vice president of sales at Fox Sports, assured the audience on day two that the network is planning to tap into that opportunity to feed a US fanbase that missed out on having a home team to cheer in 2018.

“The US Soccer fan is starved; they’re ready to watch their team competing in an international tournament,” said Petruzzi. “It’s amazing how much the conversation has changed even since 2015. Some of the best female players in the world are from the United States - the fact that we are able to tell that story on such a grand stage is our biggest opportunity.”

He continued: “There’s no other event like it that happens. The power of the World Cup combined with the power of the USWNT is something that can’t be matched. It’s an opportunity for a brand to take advantage of what the conversation is going to be all summer.”

One of those brands will be Coca-Cola, which is a partner of both the Women’s World Cup and US Soccer. Paul Hourigan, the soft drink giant’s director of sports marketing, admitted that the company perhaps didn’t prepare properly for the USWNT triumph in 2015, but emphasised that the organisation wouldn’t be making the same mistake again.

“I think we and a lot of people underestimated 2015,” Hourigan began. “We’d just signed our deal with US Soccer but didn’t quite realise the power it [the Women’s World Cup] had – it became part of popular culture and you couldn’t avoid it.

“In 2015 it was a niche thing for us and was one of the smaller elements of what we had going on that summer. This year it’s going to be a cornerstone of what we do.”

Feeding the content-hungry fan

With the way that fans consume soccer evolving by the day, the responsibility is now falling on the shoulders of clubs to produce content that has a lifespan beyond the games that take place every Saturday.

Indeed, the battle between live sports and original content was on the minds of the first panel after lunch as Phil Lynch, chief executive of media at Premier League giants Manchester United, mused that what once rang true for the concept of ‘live’ is no longer applicable.

“Our job from a media perspective is how we stay relevant outside of those 90 minutes,” said Lynch. “Live is beyond those 90 minutes; live is really truly now. A football match doesn’t start at kick off and it doesn’t end at the final whistle. We start preparing for those matches 48 hours before.”

That sentiment was one soon echoed by Goal’s global editor-in-chief, James Dickens, who added: “The way people are consuming content is different. The game is almost secondary – it’s part of this cycle now but it’s no longer the be-all and end-all.”

In a session that also featured the ever-growing soccer media brand Copa90, the panel was in universal agreement that fans now crave behind the scenes access into what players are like away from the pitch. Lynch, for one, revealed that when United signed Alexis Sanchez last season, the viral announcement video showcased the Chilean’s hobby of playing the piano, generating 75 per cent more engagement than when Neymar signed for Paris Saint-Germain as a result.  

“What fans want is the lifestyle of these players,” said Lynch. “People want the personalities of the players. So the question for us is how do we go where broadcasters don’t?”

What next?

The final words of Soccerex USA went to Landon Donovan, the only individual to ever score 50 goals and record 50 assists for the US men’s national team and a man widely considered to be the best player the country has ever produced.

The 36-year-old was joined on stage by fellow former professionals Juan Sebastián Verón, Luis Hernandez and Louis Saha as the star-studded quartet looked back on their experiences of coming to terms with life after soccer and the difficulties of moving on from the game. 

More pertinent, though, were Donovan's closing thoughts on just how far soccer has come in the US, and how much room remains for the sport to grow.

"When I was growing up soccer was next to nothing in this country, so I didn't have people giving back to me or our communities in relation to the sport," he said. "Other countries have had generations of knowing what to do, how to do it and when to do it.

"Soccer here in this country is now really only 25-years-old. So now there are things that I can do and we can do as a nation to give back to soccer. We are hitting a tipping point where we know we are going to be here permanently as a major sport in this country." 

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