US Companies Kick Around Idea of Soccer Sponsorship

`SOCCER, why sponsor soccer? It's boring.''

That's the question United States corporations wrestled with before the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament. But the World Cup has left behind a surge of interest in the sport among Americans, and US corporations are taking notice.

``Soccer got [a] cool [image] in the last 30 days,'' says Lynn Berling-Manuel, editor in chief of Soccer America Magazine, the country's leading soccer publication. ``What the World Cup has done is given [soccer] visibility.''

The biggest response in the corporate sponsorship arena so far has come from Nike Inc. The Beaverton, Ore., athletic equipment manufacturer announced July 14 that it would be the uniform-and-footwear supplier for six of the 12 teams in Major League Soccer, the US professional soccer league slated to debut next spring. Nike is the first to sponsor the new professional league.

Ms. Berling-Manuel says she sees Nike's decision as part of a natural progression. ``If [corporate sponsors] don't stay on board in soccer after the Cup is over, I think they are not maximizing the investment they have already made,'' she says.

Businesses contributed a record $298 million for the rights to associate their products with the 1994 World Cup, says Jim Andrews, editorial director of the IEG Sponsorship Report. According to Mr. Andrews, that is more than the $236 million that companies chipped in to sponsor the 1994 Winter Olympics.

Mars Inc. (Snickers) is the first of the 11 1994 World Cup sponsors to jump on the soccer bandwagon in the US. The company signed a 20-year contract with the US Youth Soccer Association to sponsor a youth soccer tournament in the US called the Snickers Cup. The finals will be held July 27-31 in Blaine, Minn.

Other corporations that have not been World Cup sponsors are riding the new wave of soccer euphoria. Chiquita Brands International Inc. has been a longstanding sponsor of youth soccer in the US and is now increasing its level of involvement in the sport.

Chiquita is sponsoring a women's competition featuring four of the world's elite teams: Germany, Norway, China, and the US. The tournament, called the Chiquita Cup, will be held in six Northeastern cities July 27 to Aug. 7, according to Mark Brickley, managing director of SportsLink, a sports marketing firm in New York that handles Chiquita's soccer promotions. ``While some sponsors will undoubtedly drop out and have utilized the World Cup for whatever global marketing objectives they have,'' Mr. Brickley says, ``Chiquita felt it important to make a statement immediately after the World Cup that they are one of the ones committed to [soccer] for the long haul.''

The Walt Disney Company, which had no previous affiliation with soccer, is sponsoring the Disney International Youth Soccer Cup. The tournament started yesterday in Pasadena, Calif., and includes some 400 youth teams from around the world, says Vicki Shannon, manager of events marketing. Disney will also host an adult soccer tournament in September at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The company is discussing sponsoring a professional soccer team in the US, as well as a future World Cup, Ms. Shannon says.

Soccer's new mainstream, family image is part of the current appeal for companies. ``A lot of the negative stigmas that were attached to soccer have now disappeared,'' Brickley says, referring to the violence often associated with the sport. But Mark Mandrake, associate editor of Soccer Digest in Evanston, Ill., contends that the World Cup ``is not a good barometer of how successful soccer will be in the long run in the US.''

``A lot of companies don't want to put their foot down now and say, `Oh yes, we'll be behind this,' because they might have to eat those words later,'' Mr. Mandrake says. ``Soccer has its best chance for success right now. Whether it does well on that chance is another story.''

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