Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How to establish a U.S. crossover superstar: ‘We have to find a way to develop star power’

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Storylines that sell on social media, prolific goalscoring and a personal desire to do the off-field extras required to transcend their sport. Then add to the mix the potential to sell video games, grab streaming eyeballs and capture that one iconic moment when it counts.

Bring all that together and the United States would have a player capable of becoming a genuine crossover superstar — one recognisable to non sports fans and people without an avid interest in soccer — akin to the NBA’s LeBron James or NFL’s Patrick Mahomes.

That is the verdict of a host of experts The Athletic consulted on how the hosts of this month’s Copa America and the 2026 World Cup can propel football to new heights in the country after the two showcase tournaments.


For Michael Yormark, finding U.S. football’s first crossover “superstar” is key to helping the sport maximise the opportunity of hosting the World Cup.

Yormark, who is president of the Roc Nation Sports International (RNSI) agency, wants to have signed six of the USMNT’s senior players by the time the tournament, held across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, begins in earnest.

RNSI, a branch of the entertainment agency founded by billionaire rapper Jay-Z, recently announced it will represent U.S. Soccer young male player of the year Kevin Paredes, the Wolfsburg midfielder who has three caps for his country.


Wolfsburg’s Kevin Paredes (Swen Pförtner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

It is part of a strategy which London-based Yormark believes is essential if football is to catch-up with NFL, basketball, baseball and ice hockey in the U.S..

“We have to find a way to develop star power in the sport,” says Yormark, whose agency also represents players such as Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, Inter Milan’s Federico Dimarco, Chris Richards of the USMNT and Crystal Palace, and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.

“Look what has happened to the MLS since (Lionel) Messi arrived: the biggest name in the sport comes to America and all of a sudden everyone is super excited. Celebrities want to go to the matches in Fort Lauderdale. You see LeBron James there, you see DJ Khaled and Kim Kardashian. They’re coming to South Florida to watch Messi. We haven’t seen that before.

“The last time anything close to that happened was when (David) Beckham played in Los Angeles. So in America, what drives the popularity of sports in most cases is the star power of the athletes.”

Yormark believes the 2026 World Cup can become the most successful ever and pull in the largest global audience, but the U.S. market has to be “captured” in its build-up.

“We want to make them (U.S. players) true superstars in the U.S. market. That’s what will truly drive this sport,” he says. “I’ve sat down with FIFA numerous times in the last six months to talk about their goals related to 2026 and it is about connecting with American culture through players, events, music and talent ambassadors.

“They understand this is a key moment for football in terms of its continued growth.

“You can’t consider yourself the biggest sport in the world if you’re not relevant in America. Football is by far the most popular (in the world), but once it penetrates America at a high level it can truly become the absolute biggest.

“The next three summers are critical to that and the World Cup will be a shining moment in the sport.”


Yormack greets Sheldon and Sherwin Robinson at the Roc Nation Sports Super Bowl Party in February (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation Sports)

In order to measure the growth of football in the U.S., Yormark — a former president and chief executive of the Florida Panthers NHL side — believes various metrics are significant.

“There are things like TV viewership, expansion opportunities, social media,” he says. “It’s also viewership of the MLS and the world’s other big leagues in America. Many people follow European football, but that needs to grow.

“The more they do that, the more thirst you will have domestically to watch and support the local teams. But I go back to the star power component. Most casual sport fans in America today don’t know who is playing in the MLS outside of Messi.

“I was looking at the social media following of the big four sports in America recently and something shocked me. The NBA has 80million-plus followers on Instagram and the NFL, which is stated as the biggest sport in America, has 30million. What does that tell me? The NBA is more global because their superstars are recognised around the world. You can’t go anywhere and not know who LeBron James, Steph Curry or Kevin Durant are.

“Star power has driven the NBA to its heights today. We need to build personalities in the USA for young people to follow and that’s why Kevin Paredes and Chris Richards are so important to us.“

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His excitement for the tournament is clear, and he hopes FIFA can harness its potential to spread that anticipation to casual U.S sports fans. “You have to lay the foundation and tell Americans the biggest sporting event the world has ever seen will be on American soil,” he says.

“Not only do Americans love stars, they want to be part of big events. If it’s a big meaningful event, Americans want to be connected with it.

“The Super Bowl is a good example. There are a lot of people who watch the Super Bowl who aren’t American football fans. But they think: ‘I’ve got to be there. I’ve got to be there to watch the half-time show, I’ve got to be there a week before to attend all the events and parties.’

“FIFA has an incredible opportunity. It will be the biggest event the world has seen and so, over the next couple of summers, it’s important to tell that story so the American public understands what’s coming. If they get it right it will be beyond huge.”

As for Paredes, only time will tell if he can become the poster-boy of soccer’s U.S. takeover but Yormark feels he has the potential.

“It’s exciting to work with an athlete at the age of 21 who is at the start of their journey,” he says. “I learned about his background and that was extremely interesting. The fact he’s American and of Dominican descent creates a lot of opportunities.


Paredes races with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Willian Pacho (Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“When we look to recruit athletes it’s not only about how they perform on the field but their aspirations off the pitch. In Kevin’s case, it was quickly apparent that his goals and objectives covered both. This is why we were delighted when (FIFA agent) John Calvert-Toulmin from the Shot Sports agency approached us to co-represent Kevin.

“This young man wants to be the best player in the world, build his brand and also impact the next generation of players that come behind him and serve as a source of inspiration and motivation.


Former USMNT international Taylor Twellman believes the overriding quality required is simple — if not easily attainable.

“I think it has to be a goalscorer,” says the 30-cap former New England Revolution centre-forward. “We’ve had the great goalkeeper (Tim Howard) and then a very fast, skilful player like Christian Pulisic. But have either transcended the sport?

“But for me the only way to really breakthrough is to have a top goalscorer — something the casual U.S. sports fan can understand and recognise.

“You could have the world’s best defensive midfielder in the USMNT but a college football fan won’t get that. It’s the premise of LeBron — the guy who puts the ball in the hoop.”


Twellman in his role as an analyst for Apple TV’s MLS coverage (Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For Twellman, now Apple TV’s lead MLS analyst, the immediacy of goals make them a currency that will pull in non-soccer fans.

“I think the U.S. will need its own Erling Haaland. Someone with personality, individuality that shines through on social media but is also brilliant at scoring,” he says. “You need that player to be putting the ball in the net every time there are highlights on. Any sports fan will get the excitement of a goal.

“If an American scored 30 goals for a big top-four club in a major European league like the Premier League or La Liga, then they will have a chance.

“Then it’s big dramatic moments like Donovan’s goal that got the national team through the group in the 2010 World Cup — a symbolic last-second shot that basketball or hockey fans can relate to.

“If the U.S. won the World Cup, the player who scored that goal would be known forever. It’s like the 1980 Olympic (ice) hockey team. Everyone in this country remembers that team and the Al Michaels’ commentary asking: ‘Do you believe in miracles?’”

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The impact of Messi crops up repeatedly as a useful barometer for that elusive crossover star.

Young people are increasingly likely to follow such a superstar as passionately as they would a team, a trend which has become clear from how they play video games.

“The role Lionel Messi has played in the MLS has been profound in driving the growth of the sport,” says James Salmon, who heads up global regional marketing, including in the U.S., for computer game EA SPORTS FC.

“We’ve seen that in terms of engagement in and out of the game. What has set it apart is how, as an athlete, he has pierced through popular culture.


Miami playing for Inter Miami (Chris Arjoon/AFP via Getty Images)

“We worked with Lionel for several years as a cover athlete and ambassador and saw how, at that time when he was in Europe, it let us deliver huge above-the-line campaigns to engage a young and new-fan demographic. So him going to MLS has shown again how an individual can play a really out-size role in driving the growth of the sport.”

Salmon says that, through research, EA have seen an evolution in how Gen Z and Gen A have affinity to clubs. “Specifically, it’s lower,” he explains. “We know nine per cent are more likely to switch clubs, but they are more likely to select a favourite athlete based on one of our campaigns.

“Unequivocally, a USMNT breakthrough talent would drive the sport in America. It’s fair to say Christian Pulisic is an elite athlete and we’ve seen signs of it with him, and there are signs of that with Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith in our team of the year so far. It’s how it bleeds into popular culture and we’re seeing signs of those three having a huge impact on how North American fans are interacting with the sport.

“North American athletes have a huge role to play in the growth of the sport.”


The USWNT’s Trinity Rodman (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images)

Like so many other major brands, Salmon says EA have thought long and hard about the next two years in terms of soccer’s potential in the U.S..

“We will link heavily with popular culture; big moments like our New York launch event for EAFC 24, when we had (NBA side New York) Knicks players and several current and ex footballers,” he says. “The intersection for sport and popular entertainment will be big for us.

“I think the women’s game will have a key role for how we grow EA Sports FC in North America. We’re already seeing signs of it growing. The availability of sport through broadcast, entertainment and Ted Lasso will continue to grow football in the region.”

Unsurprisingly, the nation that gave Hollywood to the world will inevitably demand its potential soccer superstar to have a compelling character arc.

“It’s about players who are interesting and exciting and permeate mass culture — that’s how you pull in non-core fans,” says Michael Jacobson, senior vice-president of marketing and communications agency R&CPMK. “It’s not just excellence on the field. It’s storylines.

“We are 10 years into an era of telling stories via social media which make us relate even more to star athletes.

“Pele became transcendent because of his skill and humanitarian efforts, but imagine Pele at his prime with social media. He would have been even bigger than he was.

“There are shared human experiences attached to narratives of triumphs, losses and relationships that people relate to and make these athletes stick in their minds.

“I don’t have the math for what catapults that one person in a team sport like soccer, which is still growing in this country, into a crossover star but I know the opportunity to break out is there.

“Whether it is a World Cup moment on the team or even a relationship, like we’ve seen with (Kansas City Chiefs star) Travis Kelce, with someone (Taylor Swift), that pulled another big audience in.”


Kelce and Taylor Swift after the Super Bowl in February (Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Jacobson says the U.S. is on the right track to eventually unearth that generational superstar.

“In the U.S., amateur soccer participation rates are growing,” he says. “But it’s still a lot less than that of other countries in Europe and South America where people play and watch the sport from young age into adulthood and are invested long-term.

“It is improving in America but it takes time. Hosting the World Cup helps that a lot.”

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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