There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld comedy routine that sports fans don’t root for individual players. They root for laundry — or the hometown jerseys on their backs.
But a new Bleacher Report study of young American soccer fans indicates they think quite differently from traditional football or baseball fans.
The study could have important implications for marketers trying to target 13-39 year-old soccer fans over the next month as the U.S. Women’s National Team guns for its fourth World Cup title. It’s proprietary research that B/R will tout to Madison Avenue as it invests in its B/R Football soccer vertical.
More than 40% of U.S. soccer fans say finding a player they like has made them a bigger fan, according to the “New Age of Soccer Fandom” study released by B/R’s chief executive officer Howard Mittman at Cannes Lions Tuesday.
That’s similar to the mindset of NBA fans. Large portions of both fan bases say star players are more important to them than team locations. Bleacher Report found almost 60% overlap between soccer and hoops fans in the B/R app.
“We’ve been capitalizing on this overlap by cross-pollinating our NBA content with soccer as much as possible. This year, two of the three top soccer posts on B/R’s Instagram had an element of NBA content,” notes Ed Romaine, B/R’s senior vice president and chief brand officer.
“For the Champions League Final this past month we brought out Trae Young and Luka Doncic to help with B/R Football coverage. It’s a formula that we think is going to help build our position as a leader in soccer/world football content and is unique to this fanbase.”
The findings also dovetail with the way global soccer fans follow their favorite players — no matter how far they’re playing from their home country.
As of March 2019, nine of the Top 10 most followed athletes on Instagram were pro footballers. Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo of the Italian club Juventus ranked No. 1 (159.77 million), while Brazilian Neymar of the French club Paris Saint-Germain was No. 2 (112.86 million).
The only non-soccer player to crack the Top 10 list? Try NBA superstar LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 5 (47.98 million).
That’s not to say these fans don’t have club loyalty, according to B/R, which hired Canva8 to survey more than 2,000 soccer fans online.
According to the survey, 86% of fans support the first club they ever followed. The same percentage follow other sports — primarily the NBA and NFL.
Here’s the best news for FIFA, Major League Soccer and their respective TV partners, sponsors and advertisers.
At a time when the NFL and MLB are offering more whip-around, highlight-driven programming, American soccer fans like to kick back with friends and enjoy an entire game.
According to the study, a whopping 63% of soccer fans prefer to watch a full game over highlights.
These B/R findings makes sense to Miro Gladovic, a former pro goalkeeper and agent who founded Soccer Family Agent.
Because U.S. soccer fans are plugged into international leagues, they watch regular season games more closely than their NBA or MLB counterparts.
No matter where they are in the world, fans of England’s Premier League know the club with the most points wins. There’s no playoffs, no Super Bowl. The regular season is everything.
Compare that to the NBA, where many fans don’t care as much about the regular season, notes Gladovic. ESPN highlights are good enough for these viewers until the real “second season” of the NBA Playoffs commands their attention.
“It’s a reverse mentality that international soccer fans have. It’s a completely different wiring when it comes to the sports brain,” said Gladovic.
U.S. soccer fans are also extremely social: 36% of fans aged 26-39 years old became soccer fans due to their friends, compared to 26% of those ages 13-17 years old.
These young American soccer fans “have a hunger to watch these games with friends and make it much more of an event in the company of others,” says Romaine. The study indicates there’s “a core group of soccer fans who evangelize the sport — and want others to join them.”
With TV viewers averaging 40 years of age, MLS boasts the youngest fan base among the major U.S. sports leagues, according to a Magna Global study released in 2018. In comparison, the study reported the average age of PGA Tour viewers at 64 years old.
Among respondents 18-34 years old, soccer is now tied with basketball for the second-most popular spectator sport, according to a Gallup poll in 2018. Among this age group, 11% picked soccer and basketball as their favorite sports to watch. Baseball scored 6%.
Among all U.S. adults in the Gallup study, soccer nearly matched baseball’s overall popularity for the first time. According to the poll, 7% named soccer their favorite sport to watch compared to 9% for baseball. That was the lowest number ever for the Grand Old Game in the Gallup poll (American football remained No. 1 at 37%).
There are now more than 52 million U.S. soccer fans, according to the study. That’s more than the populations of South Korea (51 million); Colombia (49 million); Spain (46 million); and Canada (37 million).
This group is also a marketer’s dream. They’re extremely “brand-conscious” of sponsors that cater to them, according to Romaine. “95% pay attention to what brands are advertised around soccer — and are willing to spend more for a brand they prefer.”
The B/R Football vertical now boasts over 3.1 million followers on Instagram. Look for B/R to continue to invest in a “sport on the rise,” according to Romaine.
“We’ve seen a 53% increase in growth year over year on the B/R app for our MLS team streams. So we see nothing but positive momentum when it comes to the sport and our B/R Football brand.”