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Ernesto Bruce, the head of soccer for Adidas North America, remembers the moment just before Graham Zusi scored for the United States against Panama in injury time of the final round of World Cup qualifiers — saving the fate of a team that wasn’t even on the same field: Mexico, which was on the brink of missing a spot on soccer’s biggest stage.
“I was like, ‘Oh, s---. They’re out,’” Bruce said. “They were out — and until the 94th or 95th minute, I was sitting down in my chair going, ‘Now I have work to do,’ because I’d told everybody that they were qualifying and I literally wouldn’t even talk about plan B.”
Why was a sports-outfitting executive in Portland, Ore., so concerned about the soccer fate of another country? Because for Adidas and numerous other vendors, a World Cup without perennial North American powerhouse Mexico would have been unthinkable — and remarkably costly, even in the United States.
Adidas had just launched a new Mexico jersey featuring a superhero-style lightning motif and anticipated selling 1.5 million of them this World Cup year. But the Mexican team, “El Tri,” has been less than super, and sales projections were set to take a huge hit had Mexico missed out on the quadrennial tournament.
No one wants to wear the outfit of failure.
El Tri eventually secured qualification on Tuesday night, defeating New Zealand 9-3 in a two-game playoff, but such a comfortable margin disguised the fact that they had sneaked into the playoff by the skin of their teeth and had to rely on the most unlikely of saviors — a U.S. player — to do so.
Graham Zusi had never scored with his head when he rose to nod home a cross, with the U.S. trailing Panama 2-1 in Panama City in the final game. At the same time, Mexico was trailing Costa Rica, meaning Panama was set to claim fourth place in the North and Central American region’s qualifying tournament.
In such moments, fortunes are made and lost. Zusi’s winner for the U.S. kept Mexico’s chance alive while the Mexican players failed to win for themselves in Costa Rica.
“I exhaled hard when Graham scored that goal, because I’ve done a lot of interviews with people asking ‘What are you going to do when they don’t qualify? What’s going to happen to all your products? What’s your plan?’” Bruce said. “And I said, ‘There. Is. No. Plan B. We’re going all in. They will qualify.’”
Mexico last missed out on a World Cup in 1990, after being disqualified for fielding ineligible players in a youth competition. But the global game and its attendant marketing, TV and sponsorship deals have transformed beyond a point that a comparison to that time would be meaningful. For example, Nike, which makes the U.S. soccer jersey, saw its total annual soccer revenue jump from $40 million in 1994 to more than $1 billion in 2008. The company’s first-quarter forecasts this year showed it anticipates making the same amount in Brazil alone in 2014.
For Nike’s rival Adidas, the absence of Mexico — one of the top five revenue-generating teams in the world — would have been devastating. There were 1.2 million Mexico jerseys sold worldwide during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was Adidas’ best-selling jersey of the tournament, and a significant proportion of them were sold in the U.S. In fact, there were as many Mexico jerseys sold in the Unites States as there were U.S. jerseys. According to a Bloomberg report citing Mexican sports-marketing specialist Rogelia Roa, the estimated cost of Mexico’s absence from the World Cup and its subsequent impact on TV ratings and advertising revenue (not just for Mexican media but also for U.S. partners such as ESPN and Univision) would have approached $600 million.
Add to that the fact that for North American marketers, the 2014 World Cup being held in Brazil represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach new audiences, and Mexico’s qualification becomes even more crucial.
“It’s in a similar time zone, and it’s going to be right at the sweet spot. I think games are going to be at noon, 3 and 6 p.m. Eastern time,” Bruce said. “It’s perfect viewing. So viewership is going to go up tremendously, and all of that helps.”
And of course, the World Cup’s relative proximity to Mexico will also be a boon for both the Mexican and the Brazilian travel industries. Marcos Leal Raposo, Brazil’s ambassador to Mexico, recently said, “We expect 600,000 foreign tourists, of which 50,000 could be Mexicans.” Some 15,000 Mexicans traveled to South Africa for the cup, at a cost of at least $10,000 each.
For those still at home watching on TV, they’ll be watching some relieved announcers — Mexican channels Televisa and TV Azteca paid a reported $100 million to broadcast next year’s tournament and are heavily involved in supporting all tiers of Mexican soccer. Any financial shortfall for them from a Mexican absence could have had dire consequences for the domestic game.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Univision paid $325 million for Spanish-language rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups — banking on the fact that its Spanish-language broadcasts routinely bring in more viewers than English-language telecasts do in the U.S. A record 2.2 million people watched the last U.S.-Mexico qualifier on ESPN, while Unimas (an Univision channel) drew 3.5 million.
In a reflection of changing demographics in the U.S., Mexican soccer is a significant player on American television. A 2012 ESPN poll confirmed that in the key 12- to 24-year-old demographic, soccer has surpassed basketball, college football and Major League Baseball to become the second-most watched sport after pro football. But among all age groups of Hispanics in the U.S., soccer’s anticipated edge was even more pronounced than expected (almost nine percentage points higher than the second-place NFL), prompting ESPN to buy the rights to English-language broadcasts of Mexico’s pro soccer league, Liga MX. English-language ESPN and ABC broadcasts of the last World Cup saw the U.S. team peak with just over 15 million viewers, versus Mexico’s peak of 5.5 million. But Spanish-language broadcasts of Mexican games on Univision averaged 6.1 million viewers, with a peak of 8.7 million when Mexico faced Argentina in the second round. This suggests that in terms of U.S. media, Mexico’s presence in the World Cup is at least as important as the U.S.’s.
All of which amounts to Zusi’s goal having saved much more than Mexico’s soccer team.
Did Adidas send him a thank-you gift?
“We actually secretly sent him a Mexico jersey with his name on the back ...” Bruce said, before adding more reflectively, “Good for him for scoring that goal. I thank him, because it helps our business tremendously.”