Establishing a New Sport Market – Futsal Ready to be “Americanized”
Since the official establishment of futsal as a sport in 1930, most of the next 50 years until first FIFA Futsal World Cup in Netherlands (1989) has passed without significant growth. Reasoning behind this comes from many different versions of small-sided soccer that are being played globally. As FIFA has recognized futsal as an official version of the game in the 80s, most of the world adapted to it by today and USA has just taken their first big steps in that direction.
(USA’s greatest successes at FIFA Futsal World Cup actually come from first two editions. Third place in Netherlands (1989), and second place in Hong Kong (1992).) Even though Professional Futsal League (PFL) is still far from beginning, it already exceeded the number of followers on FB that current top division of US Futsal, Major League Futsal (MLF), has. 7750 compared to 4000 (as of May 24, 2016). This goes to show how there is almost no existing futsal culture within USA and a lot of foundations need to be laid down before it is to start, if it is to be successful.
Looking at the US territory, the most popular version of indoor soccer has historically been 6v6 played in the hockey court with turf surface. Major competition for this version is the Major Arena Soccer League (10,000 likes on FB in May, 2016). Recent nationwide expansion of 3v3 tournaments for youth population boosted “Kick It” organization over 26,000 likes and has attracted the interest of big clubs, such as Chelsea F.C., to use them for talent searching. The question that arises from this is: How exactly can Professional Futsal League succeed in an environment that has barely any futsal tradition?
Except for the US, we have seen other countries that not only had to start from scratch like them but are also less developed and had no existing infrastructure on top of it. Guatemala and Thailand that did not have basically any form of organized futsal before 2000, are now both powerhouses in their region and with the help from FIFA have built the infrastructure that allowed Thailand to host 2012 World Cup, and Guatemala to host CONCACAF qualifiers for it. Even though FIFA’s endorsements mean the world in places like this, USA is a story for itself.
I analyzed the emerging futsal markets worldwide with focus on India’s Premier Futsal along with their soccer Superstar League. In order to get the bigger picture, I also analyzed new social trends and how they affect the sport industry. An example of a new sport entering the US market comes from the rise of eSports that seems to be following the televised poker’s growth. This became a trend due to the increasing number in participants inside a sport, which also boosts the amount of spectators that generate demand for these new sports to become televised.
“With clubs such as Barcelona joining the project, the amount of fans that can be reached by using their social platforms in PFL’s advantage is enormous. Barca has over 93 million likes just on FB, Messi has 85, Neymar has 56. Since PFL’s intent is to be what NBA is for basketball, it is crucial not only to win over the US market but generate interest across the globe.“
% Adults, (16yrs+)
It shows how the shifts inside society and people’s habits, caused by technological advancements, change status quo and introduce new sports that are a better fit for contemporary demographic. In this new era in which convenience is often valued the highest of all attributes for a single product or service, futsal as an indoor sport has a great potential to capture large audiences as it can be played in the evenings or at night when people are off work, regardless of the weather or time of the year.
To better depict where futsal is today, it is enough to look at the list of countries that placed their bid to host the FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2020. Costa Rica, Croatia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, New Zealand and United Arab Emirates come from four different continents and together make the most bidders for a Futsal World Cup ever, as well as one of the highest numbers for a FIFA competition in general. In addition to this, none of the countries above has ever hosted the event before.
The table above shows the growth in futsal participation over just one season nationally, and it is expected that futsal will continue to grow rapidly over future years. These figures were released by the FA to show that Futsal is the fastest growing sport the country, and Leicestershire and Rutland County FA are providing more opportunities than ever before to play. It’s easy to conclude that community was seeking for such opportunities!
Futsal’s venue is small, less demanding on the site, it is easy to carry out in the community, and can be seen as a nationwide fitness campaign which is an important and indispensable part. In comparison to soccer, there is more goals scored on average, and the game has a greater level of excitement considering that there is only 40 minutes of active play in contrast to soccer’s 90. PFL uses this to gain competitive advantage as their official FB’s page description states:
“Professional Futsal League is coming to an arena near you! PFL is bringing the world’s authentic small sided game to the United States on a major league level with a high scoring, fast paced, entertaining version of the beautiful game.”
This is a perfect example of how they are positioning the brand of futsal in US market as more amusing version of soccer, as Americans often find repelling how low-scoring on average the soccer is compared to how long it is being played. For those that don’t grow up in a soccer-crazed society and don’t know much about the game, majority of those 90 minutes passes as it would if they watched poker without knowing what cards each player has, therefore not knowing what is going on. This is where the digital content comes in place, as spectators that don’t have a strong urge to watch a specific sport have to be attracted by offering the greater value through use of multimedia to enhance the sport itself.
Games are played in two twenty minute halves but as the countdown clock is stopped every time the ball is out of play, an average game at international level normally lasts from 80 to 90 minutes. This conforms to the TV standards pretty well as anything longer than this would be hard to fit into the schedule. Considering how sports depend on being televised, this is a major strength that futsal needs to capture in order to get the visibility. As for PFL, there is no better person than Mark Cuban to help them get broadcasted.
The use of existing communications channels
Before mentioned Indian Premier Futsal that was recently presented with Luis Figo as the first president announced last month that their league’s brand ambassador will be Virat Kohli. As India’s sport number one, “borrowing the likes” (28 million likes on FB) of a cricket superstar to promote the game is almost equivalent to the significance that David Beckham’s arrival had for MLS. Favorite sportsman of a country with population over 1.25 billion gives any organization confidence that they will attract great masses, especially youth, to watch the game and try it out.
Virat’s statement at the press conference could perhaps use as a textbook example of how to promote the game by relating it to what people love, which in this case is himself.
“Futsalers display a lot of flair, skill and swag on the field, which are all qualities I relate to.”
Virat kohli, indian cricket superstar alongside Luis Figo, a former FIFA World player of the year
If PFL was to introduce Kobe Bryant as the brand ambassador, who is also known to be passionate about soccer, his words would reach out to those demographics that normally couldn’t be attained and it would give the league a major boost. Due to America’s complexity of 4 big sports, PFL’s management could go even further and approach superstars from baseball, football (American), and hockey.
With clubs such as Barcelona joining the project, the amount of fans that can be reached by using their social platforms in PFL’s advantage is enormous. Barca has over 93 million likes just on FB, Messi has 85, Neymar has 56. Since PFL’s intent is to be what NBA is for basketball, it is crucial not only to win over the US market but generate interest across the globe (example of Audi becoming sponsor for MLS).
As they plan to bring the world’s greatest players, it is key to use those individuals and their existing fan bases to attract greater population as it will boost the amount of people following and watching the sport. Falcao and Ricardinho, two superstars that have been the main icons of the league so far, have 2.6 million and 300,000 likes on FB each (PFL itself is still not at 8,000!). This goes on to attract further investments and sponsorships as the fastest growing sport in the world offers low starting investment opportunities that can produce great results, especially on the long term as the league gets established.
Grassroots marketing – the cornerstone for sustainability
Another good initiative from India was ensuring they bring diverse group of high-quality foreign players and develop their own talent base to include local players. Over 50 international futsalers from 21 different countries are expected to participate and bring in the performance quality. In addition to that, each of eight cities that have been chosen for franchise team launched a talent program to identify five local players that will participate in the team.
AMF (Asociación Mundial de Futsal) vice-president and chief of Futsal Association of India (FAI) Namdev Shirgaonkar, who is also a member of the executive committee of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), said that Premier Futsal will lead to development of talent at the grassroots level in the country and will boost the sport’s future in India. This shows how investing in individual sport improves the whole sport industry and helps people stay active physically which then contributes to the better lifestyle.
Grassroots marketing is key to raise awareness and maximize the number of participants. As PFL has a full year before running inaugural season, they can use India examples in this period to continuously generate content that will intrigue people to know more about the game, want to play it, watch it and finally create a long lasting relationship. Except for attracting future customers and participants, events and showcases before the actual start of the league also attract more investors which ensures that all franchised teams have greater foundations for future success.
Long term strategy for organization of sport itself with all the parties included, alongside with promotional activities to not only educate the neutral spectator but also get them to actively engage through playing, watching, liking, and sharing through social media and word of mouth will ensure that futsal compliments rather than contradicts the growth of soccer in the States. The importance of relationship between futsal and soccer can be seen in Spain’s recent success with soccer at both club and national level. Many experts say that this came as a result of futsal being introduced in youth academies years ago, and it has all paid off now.
“If PFL was to introduce Kobe Bryant as the brand ambassador, who is also known to be passionate about soccer, his words would reach out to those demographics that normally couldn’t be attained and it would give the league a major boost. Due to America’s complexity of 4 big sports, PFL’s management could go even further and approach superstars from baseball, football (American), and hockey. ke understands the power of a great authentic story, and that’s why they sell more shoes.”
USA Futsal will be supporting 1000 courts in urban areas in the Unites States by 2020.
Professional soccer leagues in the United States currently do not allow for promotion and relegation among teams. Even in years immediately after winning a championship, clubs have folded. Unlike other league systems around the world, winning does not ensure longevity. Success on the field needs to be just one of many objectives for any team in such a structure and more importantly it has to create and maintain a strong foundation to base their achievements.
Another opportunity arises from youth potential as most of youth sports in the US rely on school teams, starting with elementary schools all the way to college. This age group between 7 and 24 is the crucial component that PFL has to reach out to and through them build a long-lasting foundations for the sport in the community. Due to increased number of main sports in US, which differentiates them from most other countries, scheduling of sport calendar has limited possibilities as many kids participate in multiple sports and it would be impossible to have them all year long, regardless of the climate. This issue can be seen as another opportunity for futsal as it is an indoor sport.
USA’s current position
YMCA – where it all started in Uruguay in 1930 and the biggest platform to introduce the sport as there is existing infrastructure already is a perfect solution as as they look for sustainable models. Pro teams will still have to invest in youth development, as the youth demographic of USA as of right now is mostly unaware of the sport itself, but as the league grows, there will be continued interest in youth participation as well. Public schools are another link that could strengthen the chain.
PFL – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
The PFL is being headed by President Michael Hitchcock who worked with MLS (Major League Soccer) teams and one of the persons who help start the MLS. The comissioner of the league is Keith Tozer who is also the Head Coach for the USA Mens National Futsal Team, Director of Futsal for US Youth Futsal and a FIFA Futsal Instructor. The main investor of the PFL is Donie Nelson who is the General Manager of the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA. This lineup, together with Mark Cuban, is the guarantee that PFL will elevate futsal to a whole new level.
#PFLNext attracts interest for increased participation and creates a sense of demand for spots in a new arising market. Having participants send in their videos engages spectators and amateur players to actively create content for PFL which allows them to attract large groups of people, especially considering 25 finalists come from 10 different countries. Young players from around the globe want to become the next Falcao or Ricardinho, and have an honor of playing with them. The league creates a sense of urgency already by doing this, as only a very limited number of players are accepted.
All-star showcase serves as a magnet for attracting big number of teams and individuals at the tournaments that improve the perception and popularity of a sport through these special events. An online campaign that they already started works to increase visibility of the PFL as a brand, helps them engage with society across social platforms while also driving future customer acquisitions. Running a Spanish language based campaign as well would secure that big group of Hispanics in US that are heavily involved in soccer both outdoor and indoor gets approached appropriately and gets moved away from arena soccer towards futsal.
I believe that it will be extremely beneficial for them to follow the marketing activities of MLS, and perhaps even form a partnership with them. For example, MLS’ superstars can play a showcase futsal game (and help promote it through their existing communication channels) at one of PFL’s events. In return, MLS will strengthen the youth development in the long term through rise of futsal as it is extremely beneficial for young players to develop their technical and tactical skills – something that is often pointed out as MLS’ gamestyle issue (Andrea Pirlo publicly criticizing MLS for too much running, not enough playing).
In conclusion, Americanization (according to Cambridge dictionary: “to become or make something typical of the US or US culture”) as a term is not very popular when related to soccer, but it is the right business model that seems to be the final step for futsal to capture all of its unused potential. Capital investment that futsal has attracted now has to be realized with adequate promotional activities. Community engagement achieved through grassroots marketing will not only help create a sustainable model for futsal, but will also help diversify soccer. When we have more teams that will not be completely dependent on sport success, the industry as a whole will benefit from it as there will be less fluctuations and more long-term planning.
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