Sam Bailey on how superstar footballers are key to growing the game in the USA

Jack Gallagher
Mbappe and Hakimi at an NBA game
Mbappe and Hakimi at an NBA game / Dustin Satloff/GettyImages

Did you spot the graphic darting around Twitter in recent weeks of the most watched TV broadcasts of 2022 in the USA?

Of course you did, it was omnipresent for while on everyone's 'For You' feeds.

Well, even if you just had a quick glance at it you would've noticed that NFL games dominated the rankings with American football - both NFL and College - accounting for 86 of the top 100 broadcasts of the year.

Basketball took up two spots, political programming four, and sandwiched in-between those was football...or soccer as they prefer it to be called.

That's right, football/soccer - the sport that the USA swears it doesn't care about - accounted for more of the most watched TV broadcasts of 2022 than basketball and the nation's supposed 'past time' baseball combined.

This spike of interest in the beautiful game was due to the World Cup, obviously, with the peak US audience for the sport being a whopping 26m - up 9m from the 2018 final - but perhaps crucially, through the sheer thrill of watching two of the game's real superstars going blow for blow on the biggest stage of them all.

Those superstars were the greatest footballer of all time Lionel Messi, and a player who could end up being the greatest football of all time Kylian Mbappe (or 'Mubappay' as NBA legend Charles Barkley likes to call him).

In many ways, that game and those 10/10 performances from Messi and Mbappe may have just shown football how to finally grow the game in the USA, shining the spotlight on the superstars of the game as opposed to the European centric club fandom. And as Sam Bailey, Head of Marketing at Unique Sports Group an eight year veteran of Sports Marketing, explains, learning a few things from sports leagues like the NBA:

"One of the things I got to witness first hand through my experience working for a US company is that the NBA is not in denial about the fact that they are only ever as big as their biggest players. They also go one step further than just recognising it, they wholeheartedly embrace that and make it central to their marketing strategy.

"In the US, there are so many different sports that are always competing for the same fans. Therefore, their point of differentiation is curicial to their success (or failure!). The NBA empowered their players to run the show and other sports around the world should take notice of that.

"People follow stars."

The fact that 'people follow stars' can be taken quite literally nowadays as Sam noted that the huge spike in Messi's followers following his World Cup performances - adding around 100m followers - showed just how keen a US audience are to follow the stars of the game as opposed to following clubs, supporting teams 'based on the best player or the player they like the most.'

Sam, who has experience working in the US market for RocNation and helping some of football's biggest stars navigate the tricky waters of social media, noted that he has noticed a trend where when a club and a player post the same video/graphic/gif etc. the player's post invariably outperforms the club post every time:

"People don't want an anonymous admin behind a company social media account anymore, they want human beings with natural personality and this is a side of athletes that we're only just beginning to see in Europe.

Anchoring the future of the game on its superstars and commercialising the sport could be key to growing football in the USA, but it's a thin line to tow.

While there's plenty of examples of this shift in focus working across the pond, there's also a few examples of it not quite clicking with an already-established European audience. Juventus betting the house on Cristiano Ronaldo propelling them to glory and financial dominance didn't exactly go to plan - they've lost well over £1bn since that signing - while Neymar's move to Paris Saint-Germain didn't really uplift Ligue 1 as perhaps intended.

And there's also the issue with trying to change engrained loyalties for clubs to players, changing the very fabric of football fandom - and that's not something worth giving up.

"You have to look at the culture of fans when talking about UK sport vs. US sport. In the UK everything is built on loyalty to supporting one for life whereas in the US, teams can relocate from one city to another at any point to follow revenue. An example of this is when the NFL's San Diego Chargers decided to move to LA after over 50 years of being based in San Diego. Imagine Man Utd moving to London!

"Over the Christmas period, my American girlfriend's family came over to the UK and I took them to watch my beloved Derby County at Pride Park. They said to me straight away that the atmosphere they experienced was unlike anything they'd seen before in the states.

"It was crazy feedback to hear about a League One club at the time, but then when you think about it and having experienced both sides of the pond myself, there just isn’t really anything as authentic as the atmosphere that you get at a well-supported local football club."

It's a balancing act, one that's required to grow the fanbase for football across the pond, while also ensuring that 'traditional' football fans can enjoy the game as they've always done.

Unique Sports Group (USG) are an elite talent representation agency and are recognised as one of the biggest in world football.

Ranked #16 in Forbes World Sports Agencies (2020), USG are a market-leader within the space – representing over 350 professional athletes and with completed transfers across 12 different countries.

Led by Will Salthouse, Marlon Fleischman, Barry Whelan and Gordon Stipic-Wipfler, USG offer a full ‘360-degree’ management approach with industry experts in every field.