How US Soccer is keeping fan enthusiasm high after the US' exit from the World Cup

The US Soccer Federation's message to fans: there's more to the US men's national team than just the World Cup.

CHICAGO: With the US men’s national soccer team out of the World Cup, the US Soccer Federation is educating fans about upcoming tournaments and building fan bases for its players.

"Soccer isn’t just about a month-long tournament every four years," said Neil Buethe, director of communications at US Soccer, via email. "There’s an entire two-year build-up to qualify for the World Cup that is as intriguing and unique — if not more."

He added that a top priority of the federation is to tell its player-development story. US Soccer launched its development academy seven years ago to help young players improve with the hopes of eventually joining the national team, said Buethe.

"The fan base is growing, which we saw during this World Cup, and we want to make sure those fans know what we are doing to catch up to the best teams in the world and eventually win a World Cup," he said.

US Soccer is reviewing what worked well during the World Cup and what it could have done differently to develop its communications strategy. However, Buethe said the federation feels it has "the foundations in place to continue to connect with our fan base in interesting and unique ways."

During the World Cup, social media played an integral role in how the federation communicated with fans, some of whom were new to the sport, he added.

The US team’s World Cup matches drew high TV ratings during its run. The squad’s June 22 match against Portugal was watched by an average of 24.7 million people on ESPN and Univision. Its elimination-round game against Belgium fell just short of that number, but was still the second-most-watched match in US soccer history.

FleishmanHillard, US Soccer’s PR agency partner since 2009, collaborated with the federation’s in-house team and creative agency Stone Ward on social efforts.

Jim Woodcock, SVP and partner for sports at Fleishman, said the main platform the firm leveraged was Twitter, but it also worked on Facebook and Tumblr.

A main strategy for using Twitter was "simplicity" in hashtags, he added.

The first hashtag used during the match against Ghana was the US Soccer slogan of #OneNationOneTeam, followed by #SeeYouSunday before the game against Portugal. For the match versus Germany, Fleishman used the hashtag #LetsDoThis, then #AreYouReady for the game against Belgium.

"Sometimes you can over think marketing themes, and the answer is how you feel right now or what you want to say right now," said Woodcock.

After noting that fan excitement grew on social media before each match, the firm plans to leverage that anticipation for other upcoming tournaments, such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer.

"I feel that anticipation is one of the real jewels of marketing and sports marketing, and probably isn’t taken advantage of enough," Woodcock added.

He said the organization will also use the US’ rivalry with teams from Mexico and Canada to connect with fans for the Gold Cup, noting that "US sports fans in general appreciate and gravitate toward rivalries."

During the US’ run in the World Cup, Fleishman reached out to celebrities, professional athletes and teams, and members of the media to get consumers excited about the tournament. One way it did so was by creating digital jerseys with customized graphics for influencers to share on their social platforms.

Celebrities and influencers who supported the team on social media included actor Josh Duhamel, the Rockettes, various NBA teams, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and President Barack Obama.

Engaging key influencers will remain a strategy for US Soccer and Fleishman, but Woodcock said the group has to be careful not to overuse celebrities and athletes and only connect with them when it’s appropriate.

A team of eight staffers worked on the World Cup efforts for Fleishman, which has a year-to-year contract with US Soccer.

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