America wins a foothold in the global game: Michael Marray reports on the obsession stateside spawned by the World Cup

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The Independent Online
As the World Cup folds its tent this morning, the big-money sponsors are wondering whether the tournament will leave any lasting legacy in the US. At Giants stadium in New Jersey the grass has already been ripped out, in time for last night's Pink Floyd concert. Soon it will be back to astroturf and American football, and not even Roberto Baggio's footprints will remain from his brilliant two-goal semi-final performance against Bulgaria.

The next move for the United States Soccer Federation is the formation of a professional league, but so far only seven teams out of a planned 12 have been announced for the kick-off, scheduled for next April. But regardless of the scepticism here over the future of professional soccer, there is one area where the Americans are going to make their presence increasingly felt - the global market for soccer shoes and clothing.

The domestic success of the World Cup, both in terms of ticket sales and better-than-expected television audiences, has only served to strengthen the resolve of US companies to put more of their resources into the multi-billion- dollar soccer kit market. Spearheading the attack is Nike, whose basketball shoe profits have been falling, and Reebok, the American-owned company with British origins dating back to the 1920s.

The Americans are determined to grab a substantial slice of the market from established companies such as Mitre, Umbro, Lotto, Puma, and the reigning world champion Adidas, which trumpeted its supremacy in the official World Cup programme with a blank page and the line 'We'd show you our shoes, but you'll see them on the field.'

During the tournament some of the off-the-ball tussles between the boot manufacturers have rivalled any of the foot-up challenges or elbows to the face that earned suspensions for Mauro Tassotti of Italy and Brazil's Leonardo.

All the old tricks have been on display. Action photographs in advertisements have been airbrushed to erase the distinguishing marks on boots made by rival manufacturers. And individual players, including Diego Maradona, joined the fray by blacking out the stripes on their boots in the absence of sponsorship deals. 'It is a signal that they are available for hire,' explains one marketing man who has been selling soccer boots for more than 10 years. 'I liken it to a hooker putting a red light in the window,' he says.

Ambush marketing - gatecrashing an event which a rival has paid big bucks to sponsor - is also alive and well. Adidas held the exclusive rights to advertise its shoes inside the nine stadia, so at the quarter-final clash between Germany and Bulgaria rival boot maker Puma hired an aeroplane to circle Giants Stadium, trailing an advertising banner behind it.

All the boot manufacturers have been obsessively keeping tally of how many players are wearing their shoes and how many goals their boots have scored, with Nike getting especially excited about the Brazilians Bebeto and Romario, two of its biggest stars under contract. As a measure of the extent of the new challenge from the US manufacturers, Reebok had 92 players wearing its boots - up from zero in Italy in 1990.

'Two years ago we weren't even in the business,' says Peter Moore, vice president of global product marketing at Reebok, which advertised heavily on Spanish language broadcasts. 'We have been very pleased by all the publicity,' he adds.

Reebok's rivals took some pleasure at the disappointing performance of one of its biggest stars under contract - Carlos Valderrama of Colombia, which was eliminated in the first round. Reebok also had a 'head-to-toe' deal with the Russians, obliging them to wear Reebok clothing and boots. The Russians also failed to get through the first round, but their elimination was partly compensated for by the five-goal blitz from Oleg Salenko against Nigeria. Other big-name players under contract to Reebok included Martin Dahlin of Sweden, Dennis Bergkamp of Holland, and Brazilians Branco and Dunga.

Such a roster of names for a new entrant to the market illustrates just how much boot contract money is going to be pouring into soccer over the next few years. Reebok has had a deal with Ryan Giggs of Manchester United since last season, and he was to be their star guest watching yesterday's final at the Rose Bowl. Nike flew in two of its stars, Eric Cantona and Ian Rush, to watch some games, and is also planning to channel more cash into boot deals with well-known players in the future.

In addition to their global ambitions, both Nike and Reebok are also expecting stronger sales in their domestic market. Even if the professional game does not take off quickly, soccer remains a very big game among teens and pre-teens of both sexes in the US. This is the age group where the excitement surrounding the World Cup is expected to leave its mark in terms of dollars and cents in kit sales.

The World Cup television coverage has also given hope to the planned professional league by answering one nagging doubt about the commercial viability of televised soccer - the lack of breaks for advertising. All games were shown with English language commentary on either ABC or its cable sports subsidiary, ESPN, while the Spanish language Univision network also carried the games live.

The advertising dilemma was solved by ABC and ESPN by having a clock and a logo in the top left-hand corner of the screen. Each of the main World Cup sponsors, including Mastercard, General Motors and Snickers, which paid dollars 20m each to be official sponsors of the tournament, got 18 minutes of logo time each, plus verbal introductions from the commentators such as 'this portion of the game is brought to you commercial-free by Snickers'. This is in contrast to four years ago, when games from Italy were interrupted by advertisements during the play.

'It was a very clean solution to not interrupting the game while also allowing companies to advertise,' comments Mart Martin, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, another official sponsor. Coca-Cola has sponsored every World Cup since Argentina in 1978, and sees the tournament as a chance to reach a global audience, but this time the company was also very pleased with the domestic publicity. 'We are extremely delighted with the response - look at the filled stadiums and the better-than-expected TV audiences,' he says.

Data from Nielsen Media Research suggests that 32 million viewers watched Brazil versus the US, with Brazil versus Holland and Spain versus Italy weighing in with audiences of around 15 million each. And Spanish language transmissions had their own large audiences. The numbers are still well below the 100 million or so who usually watch the Superbowl, but none the less the organisers are happy.

As yet there is no television contract in place for the US soccer league, although it was announced on Thursday that Nike has signed a contract to outfit six of the proposed teams. But regardless of the success of professional soccer here, the Americans are poised to mount a serious challenge for soccer supremacy - in kit and boot manufacturing.

(Photograph omitted)