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One of the most popular sports franchises in the world is a virtual unknown in the U.S.—for now, at least.
Club de Regatas do Flamengo—a Brazilian soccer club that boasts a fan base of more than 40 million, regularly sells out a 78,000-capacity home stadium in Rio de Janeiro, has won dozens of league, national and club titles and is the cradle of international soccer legends such as Socrates and Adriano and current superstars such as Vini Jr. and Lucas Paqueta—has engaged the international sports marketing agency Sportfive to help it grow the presence of its brand internationally including the U.S.
Flamengo’s goal is nothing short of establishing itself as a global sports superbrand along the lines of Barcelona, Manchester United, or Real Madrid. The effort will be watched closely by sports marketers who say it could test America’s appetite for foreign rooting interests, open up new opportunities for U.S. brands to market in South America, and ride the increasing popularity of soccer as a marketing vehicle. The effort comes as counterparts in other sports like the NBA, NFL and MLB work to export their brands internationally, and entities like Formula 1 auto racing burn new rubber on U.S. roads.
“There’s a fever pitch of sports entertainment consumption, particularly in the U.S.,” said Bob Brennfleck, senior VP, commercial for Sportfive. “I can turn on my Roku any night and look at the offerings, and a huge chunk of them are sports-related. Just look at the growth of F1 over the last five years. They are going from one event in the U.S. to three. The Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’ has done an amazing job building that brand. So, yes, I think there’s an appetite.”
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Sportfive’s other clients include NBA teams the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls; European soccer clubs Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid and FC Augsburg; and the NFL’s New York Jets. All of them share an ambition to grow revenues by expanding their fan base to millions who might never come physically close enough to buy a ticket to a game, or even be reached by a regional sports television network broadcasting their games.
Sportfive announced the partnership with Flamengo only last month. Its executives say it will be years before their efforts create the kind of results the club is seeking.
“The ultimate KPI is revenue, but there’s a journey there,” Brennfleck said. “You can’t enter a new market and on Day 1 expect a revenue impact. You’ve got to do the hard work. You have to spend the time and invest and build your brand so it is relevant in the marketplace. We are very big believers in building the foundational social and digital platforms that one, create a fanbase; and two, allow for reach, audience and engagement.”
Flamengo will pursue a range of ways to reach U.S. audiences which could include scheduling exhibition matches (in soccer terms, “friendlys”) with U.S. clubs or other touring teams; supporting youth soccer programs and other community events; merchandise sales; and U.S. sponsor partnerships. Social media will also be a major part of the outreach, said Karim Fathi, VP of digital, Americas for Sportfive, but that will mean more than simply translating the brand’s current Twitter messages from their native Portuguese to English.
“I’d rather have them do nothing than just translate the content because at the end of the day the message is different coming out of Germany or Brazil than what the American fans want to see,” Fathi said. “Our approach is to take the brand and build a persona that fits specifically to the U.S. market and touches on cultural trends that are here relevant here—the memes and jokes and so on.”
A recent example can be found in the feed of Dortmund, the German Bundesliga club that Sportsfive also represents. Its U.S.-specific Twitter account last month rode the Will Smith Oscars controversy by posting a clip of a Dortmund player playfully slapping the face of a teammate. Such a post may not necessarily make sense to the club’s home-market fans but it was a hit here, earning nearly 5,000 likes.
Seems relevant pic.twitter.com/iqBdB5dN2a
Sportfive’s playbook is similar for most team brands it works with, executives say. It begins by identifying a current U.S. fan base, then expanding its reach to those with an affinity for its sport or league, or an interest in global soccer in general. It will tailor an approach to each of those groups emphasizing equity in the brand, which varies widely from team to team.
For Flamengo, its standing as the New York Yankees of Brazilian soccer—it’s the country’s most successful franchise in terms of league and tournament titles and boasts the continent’s largest fan base—provides a promising start. This differs from Dortmund, for example, which is a challenger to Bundesliga’s top dog, Bayern Munich.
Soccer’s international Big Bang occurred 30 years ago, when a cadre of U.K. clubs broke away from the Football League to create the Premier League and a corresponding broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky Sports. In the years since American fans have familiarized themselves with clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. Similar “superleagues” in Spain (La Liga), Mexico (Liga MX), Germany (Bundesliga), France (Ligue 1), and Italy (Serie A) have since made relevant U.S. brands of clubs like Bayern Munich, Paris St. Germain, Barcelona and Real Madrid. These leagues all have significant television deals bringing their games to U.S. consumers, led by the Premier League (NBC and Peacock) and La Liga, now exclusively on ESPN+.
While international brands compete for U.S. fan attention the domestic MLS has also continued to grow in popularity. Most U.S. fans have four or five favorite soccer teams.
A U.S. soccer boom started with the 1994 World Cup, which was played here, and the subsequent establishment of Major League Soccer followed by the U.S.’s success in women’s World Cup play. The men’s World Cup will return to the U.S., Canada and Mexico next in 2026, providing more domestic momentum.
Whether there is room in American consumer hearts for still more soccer brands is a topic of some debate among soccer marketing experts. Generally, they see ample opportunity for a Brazilian club to win appeal among Latino and Hispanic Americans, especially in cities like Orlando, Miami, New York and Boston with heavier concentrations of Brazilians.
“When I think about Flamengo, I think about a surging Hispanic and Latino community in the U.S. that has significant interest in soccer,” said Jon Stainer, managing director of Nielsen Sports Americas, which is involved in sports media valuation and fan insights. “Liga MX has capitalized on that really nicely with strong broadcast rights, and has co-created competitions with MLS clubs.”
But with U.S. soccer also growing behind a thriving MLS and a lower-tier league known as USL also gaining a footing in smaller cities, “the pie could be getting smaller,” said Fred Matthes, a former DC United executive and founder of FM Professional Soccer Consulting.
“The new MLS team in Charlotte had 70,000 fans come out for their first game. That could make it harder and harder for foreign clubs to come and establish a market for themselves,” he said. And while the level of play in U.S. pro leagues is still below that of its international neighbors—Flamengo would “crush” an MLS team on the pitch, Fathi maintains—the standard of the game is improving as are elements like developmental programs.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea owe much of their reputation in the U.S. to branded academies teaching soccer to American kids, said Matthes.
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International clubs have an edge on U.S. league teams because they are not bound by regional marketing limits, or necessarily by top-down league rules that govern domestic clubs, noted Brennfleck.
“If you’re the Dallas Mavericks, there is a circle around your arena that extends out—a radius where you’re allowed to activate with your partners. It cannot be a national platform by definition,” he said. “European clubs also have complete control of their kingdoms as a franchise: You have control of your player image rights, you have control of merchandising and licensing rights—all those things are tools that the international clubs have and their U.S. counterparts don’t.”
John Guppy, founder of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, an agency specializing in soccer, said he was somewhat skeptical of Flamengo’s ability to be a big U.S. sports brand. His firm’s latest survey of U.S. soccer fans, conducted in November, pegged Flamengo as tied for the 32nd most popular soccer club brand in the U.S. (The top five, respectively, were Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea).
“If you ask the average soccer fan how much Brazilian soccer they’ve watched in the last 10 years the answer is going to be basically zero,” Guppy said. “In the U.S., it’s a four-horse race: There’s the MLS for obvious reasons. Liga MX is by far the most-watched on TV, and then you have the top European leagues: The Premier League and La Liga. All the media investment is behind one of those four leagues.”
Ricardo Fort, a former Coca-Cola sports marketing executive who today runs a consulting firm called Sport by Fort Consulting, notes the Brazilian league’s current U.S. television deal, with Paramount Plus, is “very small.”
While social media and television provide the exposure teams require to expand internationally, the appetite for taking it up reflects new attitudes around sports consumption, primarily driven by younger generation fans, and young soccer fans in general, said Guppy.
“There is a demographic mapping to soccer fandom, where you can draw the line at 40 years old and younger,” Guppy explained. “If you’re 40 or younger, you’ve basically grown up with soccer. You’ve had the MLS, and the international game has been accessible for you. And if you’re over that age, you haven’t. That’s a massive difference; everyone older than millennials is really not in the soccer demographic.”
These younger fans, who tend to follow the NFL and NBA in addition to international pro soccer, “like global narratives, and they like star power,” Guppy said. “They are enamored with the individual athlete. The NBA has been demonstrating that exact thing. And when [soccer star] Neymar moves to a new club, the fans will change their interest.”
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This phenomenon underscores some drawbacks to Flamengo’s marketability, in Guppy’s estimation. Its star players routinely gravitate to top European clubs to chase their dreams, “and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” he said. Flamengo’s roster includes a mix of very young stars and Brazilian professionals whose careers in Europe have ended.
There is, however, a movement afoot to build strength and staying power for clubs in Brazil. According to Fort, interest is building to create a Brazilian league that would be something of a South American equivalent to entities like the U.K.’s Premier League or the Spanish La Liga. Currently, Brazilian clubs are overseen by a national sports governing body similar to U.S. Soccer, and as a result its individual teams are “not as organized or as professionally run as those in Europe and the United States,” Fort said. He is involved in a group with ambitions to bring an investor to purchase 20% to 25% of the commercial rights as a means to kick off an independent league and provide the television coverage that he says is “only a fraction of what it can be.”
American soccer fans differ from their European counterparts by maintaining relationships with multiple clubs, Guppy noted.
“One of the things we hear constantly from our research is if you ask people in England about their fandom they’ll say ‘I’m a Southampton fan.’ If you ask an American they’ll say ‘I’m a soccer fan,’” he said. “They first and foremost identify with the sport, and they’ll go on to tell you how those passions come to life. So they’ll tell you they’re from Seattle and so they like the Sounders. Their favorite player is Messi, so they follow Barcelona and now they’re interested in PSG [Paris St. Germain]. The Premier League is on my house because my kids watch it and so I’m gravitating to Arsenal. They are picking four or five teams on average that they have an affinity for.”
While not revealing what Flamengo is putting behind the effort to establish itself, Sportfive executives shared its big ambitions.
“In four years we have a seven-figure goal for merchandise sales, and a seven-figure goal for sponsorships,” said Brennfleck. The team is considering a U.S. tour as soon as this summer.
Dortmund, which engaged Sportfive in 2018, provides a potential blueprint. When their partnership launched the club’s U.S. Twitter account had about 30,000 followers. Buoyed in part by engaging a U.S. player, Christian Pulisic (who today plays for Chelsea), that following grew to 2 million while topping follower growth and engagement over its Bundesliga peers.
Eventually, Flamengo would like to attract a U.S. sponsor to leverage its assets in North and South America, although the club only recently landed a three-year primary kit sponsorship with BRB, a Brazilian bank.
The lesson of soccer clubs establishing new revenue sources in the U.S.—not to mention the phenomenal growth of the European-born Formula 1 racing franchise, which just announced a third U.S. event to take in Las Vegas in 2023 and whose Netflix documentary-style series grew U.S. viewership by 53% last year—has not been lost on domestic franchises and leagues in sports entertainment. The NBA has been the most successful U.S. sports export, experts say, with teams and athletes finding fertile fanbases in Europe, Asia and South America, where according to Fort, “you’ll see kids wearing NBA jerseys everywhere.”
The NFL in December doled out foreign marketing territories to 18 of its clubs, allowing teams like the Jets, Jaguars, 49ers, Bears and Dolphins to pursue fanbases in the U.K.; the Buccaneers, Chiefs, Panthers, and Patriots got rights to market in Germany; the Rams can market in China and Australia; and the Bears and Dolphins in Spain. The “Home Marketing Initiative” officially gives these clubs the right to pursue activities consistent with their domestic endeavors, including in-person and digital marketing, corporate sponsorship sales, fan events, youth activities, merchandise sales and marketing relationships with other sports and entertainment venues in those markets.
Nielsen Sports research indicates around 20% of the adult population in Germany has shown fan interest in the NFL. “That’s a country of 11 million people,” Stainer noted, “so it’s pretty significant.”
Teams entering foreign markets need to appropriately target audiences and speak to them in a way that makes sense for how they absorb the sport, Stainer said. Critical to driving interest is having a participatory base, which has tended to hamper international baseball in places other than the Caribbean and Asia where the game is played in schools and professionally, marketers note.
The average fan in the U.K. can recognize LeBron James as an NBA player but is baffled by the concept of March Madness, Guppy said.
“It comes down to relevance, and these clubs being clear as to who they are—and who they are not,” Guppy said. “For big clubs that have been around for a long time and are very proud of their history and the passion they see with their fans, there’s a natural behavior to think that exists in other places.”
In this article:
Jon Springer is a Senior Reporter for Ad Age, covering food and CPG marketing. He formerly covered the food retail industry for Winsight and Supermarket News, and is a former sports and features writer for The Cecil Whig, a daily newspaper in Elkton, Md.