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Saturday, June 22, 2024

A Front Row Seat to Soccer’s Massive Growth

Photo via @SanJoseEarthquakes

Photo via @SanJoseEarthquakes

Soccer is taking off in the United States and Jessica Smith has a front row seat to its rapid growth. A year into her role as the Vice President of Sponsorship for the San Jose Earthquakes, Smith has noticed the momentum and tapped into it to build out the Major League Soccer team’s partnership strategy.

Before joining the Earthquakes, Smith built out her resume in the sports industry, starting in Minor League Baseball, before spending time with the Oakland A’s and Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite working for MLB and NHL teams, soccer has been the most exciting landscape to work.

Smith’s career goals always tied her to the sports industry, yet her original intention was to work in it as a journalist, studying the profession in college. An undergrad internship with the Auburn Doubledays baseball team changed her course.

“As a journalism major I was really thinking that I would try and get into sports journalism and land an internship and a news station or ESPN, but [the internship] really shifted my mind to want to work for a team,” said Smith.

It was after that experience that she discovered sales, selling anything and everything in her first full-time job with a single A minor league team in San Bernardino. That role took her to the Oakland A’s as a group sales account manager, where she reveled in organization’s culture, remembering it as family-like.

Photo via @SanJoseEarthquakes

At the suggestion of a colleague, Smith switched gears, and moved to the corporate sales, thriving in her new role. Soon, she rose to be the organization’s top-selling new business representative. Despite this, she felt she needed an additional challenge.

“[I] sat back and asked myself how I was going to differentiate myself from the other 300 top corporate sales representatives across the country?”

The answer was a graduate program at Ohio University, which offered her an extensive network and the opportunity to cultivate leadership skills. The program also led to a job with the Columbus Blue Jackets, where she stayed for two seasons before moving back West to the Bay Area.  

This is when she joined the booming soccer industry.

“If I’m being completely transparent,” said Smith, “the first professional soccer game I saw, was the first one I worked, but with that, I feel like I’m the perfect example of where soccer is going and who it’s starting to attract.

Smith describes soccer as a sport made, “For millennials and generations to follow…Who seek and demand a genuine connection with entities they support.”

It offers a higher action to stoppage and commercial ratio than any other sport. An average game on TV (1 hour and 55 minutes) has approximately 56.7 minutes of “ball-in-play action” per game and only 19 minutes of commercials. The NFL, in comparison, has only 11 minutes of action per 3 hour and 10-minute game, and about 75 minutes of commercials.

Sport Clock Duration Amt of Action % of Action Amt of Commercial Time Est # of 30-second commercials # of commercials/hour
Baseball 2hrs 56mins 17mins, 58secs 10.21% 42.68 85 29
Football 3hrs 10mins 11mins 5.79% 75 150 47
Soccer 1hr 55mins 57.6mins 50.09% 19 38 20
Basketball 2hrs 18mins 48mins 34.78% 45 90 39
Hockey 2hrs 20mins 60mins 42.86% 30 60 26

Source: https://www.nationalsarmrace.com/?p=475

In an age where sports have shifted to adapt to the TV landscape, creating things like ‘TV timeouts,’ soccer has stayed true to its roots, finding creative ways to insert advertisements into the games, without sacrificing the action.

“In past years, the sports landscape has tried to compare MLS to the other professional sports in America. Some seeing it as an outsider to the conglomerate consisting of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. And now, the continued growth and demographics show that MLS is truly in a league of their own. Engaging today’s young, multicultural families in a way that is unique to MLS in comparison to other the leagues,” said Smith.

Fans are embracing the fresh air that soccer brings to the sports landscape, and brands are catching on as well.

Soccer, they realize, is a future major player in the American sports landscape, and the U.S. is finally catching up to countries around the world who have worshiped the game for so long.

“It’s the world’s game, and we are finding our place in it,” said Smith.

Companies like adidas are investing millions into MLS, banking on a future predicted by the apparel brand’s US CEO, Mark King.

“My guess is within 10 years, from a youth participation standpoint, soccer will be the biggest sport. And if kids who play soccer continue to be fans of the sport, then yeah, if you’re talking 20 to 30 years from now, I think MLS can be as big as NFL,” said King, following adidas’ $700 million deal with the league through 2024.

One company in particular Smith likes to point at to indicate proof of growth is Target, who became a national sponsor of the MLS last year and is the jersey sponsor of Minnesota United FC.

“A brand like [Target] that’s investing in soccer reinforces the strength of the engagement of the league because there’s something that they are seeing that will positively impact their business,” said Smith.

From a sponsorship perspective, Smith explained, the Earthquakes are at a unique advantage of being in the Bay Area and San Jose specifically. The interest in the world’s game continues to grow and Avaya Stadium and the Quakes brand offers the experience they crave as a soccer fan in the U.S.

Internally, the team benefits from its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, which has allowed for partnerships with technology companies like Avaya, who owns the naming rights for the team’s stadium, and ThreatMetrix.

Avaya Stadium (photo via @SanJoseEarthquakes)

“Innovation is something we encompass in our brand and continuously push ourselves on,” said Smith. As a result, the Earthquakes formed their Innovation Board, comprised of professionals from companies including Intel, Google, Tesla, and SpaceX, and are able to continue their pursuit of insight as to how to navigate the technological landscape.

Since joining the team, Smith has helped cultivate these partnerships, tapping into her skill set as a leader in the corporate partnerships space.

“I pride myself in having honest conversations with local, regional and national companies to find solutions which benefit the partner, Quakes and fan base alike,” she explained.

Having worked across three different major leagues, soccer culture is the one that fits Smith’s personality best.

“It has the allure of a startup where we know anything is possible, and we are working hard both as teams and a league to earn our place in every family engaged with sports,” said Smith.

As Smith has immersed herself in the soccer world, she’s become a fan as well. Despite never following the sport much before, she now watches MLS and the Premier League, and has planned her family vacation to take in games during an upcoming trip to London and Scotland.

With her first full season in the books and another one right around the corner, Smith is ready for what’s to come. MLS is on the upswing and it’s never been a better time to have a front-row seat.

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