US Soccer CCO David Wright on Making a Pitch for Fans at the World Cup and Beyond
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Making a Pitch for Fans at the World Cup and Beyond
Today on The Future of Fandom, we get out on the pitch ahead of the World Cup with US Soccer to think through their approach to a domestic football fandom, basing the frenzy of international action coming up this winter. And we get to do it with the help of their Chief Commercial Officer David Wright.
Did you know that there is more soccer content consumed in the US than any other country around the world? As David can tell you directly, the sport has seen explosive growth over his roughly 20 years of experience with it—and its rise is only continuing to ascend.
You’ll learn how that’s impacted David’s tactics and approach to the newest generation of fans, the ways in which they innovate, and their plans for 2023 and onward. We also touch on how US Soccer has led the charge in equitable pay and treatment between its men’s and women’s teams and how it can hopefully serve as a model for other sports. So let’s kick it off—finally, that wordplay makes sense!—and predict the future with US Soccer and David Wright.
Connect with David Wright on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daveawright/
Read more about US Soccer: https://www.ussoccer.com/
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Adam Conner (01:28):
David, how are you? Thank you for joining me.
David Wright (01:34):
Adam, I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.
Adam Conner (01:36):
I’m a big soccer fan over the last 10 to 12 years, and I tell you where it really started. It began with the World Cup 2010 South Africa. I’d really never even watched a game, but it was the summer after I graduated high school. I wasn’t doing anything. I was down on the beach and in between going to the pool and the beach and back and forth, I watched that first game and watched as people went nuts as Tshabalala scored the opening goal for South Africa and then continued to watch as Landon Donovan put one past Algeria to send us through. And from that moment I was hooked and in large part, in fact exclusively due to US Soccer. So first off before we get started, thanks for serving at the helm and serving as the steward of that brand, which I love.
David Wright (02:24):
Adam, I love that story. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve actually heard a lot of similar comments from folks as they talk about their entry point to the sport and on the cusp of another World Cup. The beautiful thing about the global game is it’s just that, I mean, it serves as a communal moment and in many cases, and you’re a great example, it sucks people in and we’re delighted to have you as a fan. So thank you.
Adam Conner (02:51):
Well, it’s a real energy. It captures the world and obviously by extension the US during these times. What’s different now that we’re doing it in a different part of the year? Does that change anything about the World Cup planning? Because, listeners, obviously we are in the mid fall here. In a little while, we’re going to be kicking off in the winter (which is something we have not done for a World Cup, at least in my memory ever). I don’t think we’ve ever done it. Does that change the way you plan?
David Wright (03:19):
It’s interesting, Adam. It obviously is a first and with anything that happens for the first time, I think there’s a lot of lessons and key learnings along the way. I think where we stand and how we look at it, Qatar’s going to be an unbelievable moment for our sport globally, for all the obvious reasons. But as we think about it domestically, it’s going to be off the charts. And I point to, I mean just look at the US-England game the day after Thanksgiving. Some of the early reports of viewership are record breaking. It’s predicted to be the most watched game in the history of soccer in this country.
But then when you fast forward, the other interesting part is let’s not forget about the Women’s World Cup a mere six or seven months later. So now you’ve got a condensed window where the global spotlight is on the sport and US Soccer in particular, men’s and women’s national teams are front and center and I think poised to do some really great things. So from where we sit, we love it and it’s a countdown to the first match here in a couple weeks.
Adam Conner (04:27):
I’m looking forward to it. I’m planning on not doing a whole lot of anything there for those few weeks except being glued to the television as most people are or try to get out somewhere and take a look. But your experiences with soccer as a sport extend far before the first time I ever sat down to watch a game. And because of that, you have this incredible tenure of memory with regard to the way that fans have developed for the sport, a fitting tenure for this show, of course, as we look to the future of that fandom.
But before I get to that, let’s start between your beginnings in soccer and then your brief chapter away from the sport. What did you learn in those first, let’s call, I think it was like 15, 16 years, about the way that a US Soccer fan and not US Soccer, not of the Federation, but in this case of Major League Soccer, which is where you were, how did they develop, interact, engage, grow perhaps in relation to the way that people grow up with soccer internationally?
David Wright (05:37):
Yeah, it’s a great question and I think, let me start back to kind of my upbringing. I grew up playing the game and I grew up at a time when I was always the kid that was trying to stand tall and be proud that I played the game of soccer. And I was very fortunate to be able to play in college and fortunate to then go on and go to grad school and to be an assistant coach. And that ultimately brought me to MLS in the early stages of that league, which I think is really important and quite frankly was very important for my development. It was at a time where MLS was incredibly nascent and in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a week that went by where people were questioning the viability of the league, which is important to know because now you fast forward a generation later and no one’s questioning the viability of the league.
In fact, many would argue that MLS is one of the most prominent soccer leagues around the world as you think about just how it’s structured and the success from a business perspective. But in those early days of MLS, it was all about education and informing people that MLS existed, but then really trying to peel back the onion to try to create engagement opportunities. When you’ve got a league that at one point only had 10 franchises, didn’t have any history, that’s a big challenge to create meaningful fan engagement opportunities that bring people in with the passion that you described at the front end of the show.
And so that was really valuable for me to see. And I think one of the things that I learned among many is that there’s no lightning in a bottle switch, you know, you can’t make up history. And when you look at some of the other more established leagues around the world, I’ll use the obvious example in the Premier League, there are generations upon generations upon generations of fan bases that grow up and support a particular club in part because they’re their mother or father or grandfather or grandmother supported that club.
And we haven’t had that history. But guess what? It’s starting to change. And now we’ve got thriving professional leagues on both the men and the women’s side that are now starting to create their own path on their own history. And that’s really important. Which was then fascinating. To your point about my detour, I went to baseball and I specifically went to minor league baseball for a variety of reasons, not the least of which I wanted to prove to myself in the industry that I could help build something other than soccer. And it was about 180 degrees different, as you can imagine. You’ve got 115 year old established property that had still tremendous upside, but you didn’t have to worry about the education piece, you didn’t have to worry about the history. It was already there. But we had to think differently and we had to evolve. And that’s what we did over the five or six years that I was there.
And now back at US Soccer at such a seminal moment for our sport, we call this moment in time, we’re at the very beginning stages of this moment in time and fan engagement is through the roof. And in part because we have this generation of support specific to US Soccer, if you’re a fan of this sport, we truly believe we have an opportunity to meaningfully engage with you, which is pretty powerful and gets me pretty fired up every day as we think ahead.
Adam Conner (08:56):
To give the listener, maybe a newer fan of the sport, somebody maybe who caught onto a World Cup or some other league after 2010, you took that, can we call it sab-bat-ical? Because you went to baseball. Anyway, you had that break.
David Wright (09:11):
Adam Conner (09:11):
You come back. Can you give us a sense of the acceleration of the fanaticism of somebody who was a soccer fan between that time in 2015 and the time that you joined back to the sport five years later? Because I would think that it exploded. I mean, I saw soccer fandom really jump in two ways, one early to mid 2000s, largely through gaming because FIFA really rose to crazy prominence. And then the second was when NBC took the rights to the Premier League and people finally started seeing it somewhere other than some international channel if they weren’t watching the MLS already. So I’m curious, from your perspective, you take that gap, you come back, what’s different?
David Wright (09:52):
Yeah, there’s a lot that has evolved in a really short period of time. It’s almost like technology, right, you think back five or six years and how technology has evolved and will continue to evolve. I think soccer is on a trajectory unlike any other, and you referenced a couple of them. EA and the impact that that game has had on fandom, I can’t tell you how many millions of people are passionate about the sport of soccer and in many cases haven’t played physically. But their entry point was through gaming, and now they’re hooked and they’re diehard fans. I would again go back to some of the other foundational pieces that have seen massive acceleration. On the NWSL front, you know, think about the last number of years and how that league has really found its footing in once and for all. Finally, our country and corporate brands and media are starting to pay attention and truly get behind female sport.
And I think the NWSL from a team perspective and a league perspective is really helping to lead the way. MLS is now on a pace to 30 clubs. And let’s not forget USL, right? USL second division has dozens of clubs around the country. And so why is that all important? Because now you’ve got rubber meets the road in almost every single market and engagement on a 365 day basis that is really surrounding people with the sport of soccer. And then obviously the Premier League and other leagues that have really set their sights on the US as an opportunity. Adam, I’ll give you a little nugget. There is more soccer content consumed in the US than any other country around the world. So you think about that and everyone has that same reaction, but it speaks to the demand. And so when you look at some of the rights fees that are skyrocketing, we’ve got an incredible relationship that’ll kick off in January with More Media, Apple and the great relationship that they forged with MLS.
“You’ve got the NWSL rights that are coming up in ’23 and I think there’s a lot of optimism around the growth there. And then obviously Premier League and what NBC and the network has done with those rights, there’s a reason why soccer rights are exploding, because content consumption is on the rise and particularly in this market is unprecedented. And that really speaks to the demand. And I could go on and on about all the other metrics, but this thing is a rocket ship and it’s not slowing down, which is great. And oh, by the way, you’ve got a World Cup in ’26, you’ve got LA ’28, you’ve got maybe the prospects of another woman’s World Cup in ’31 on US soil. So this moment in time that I talk about is pretty special and is going to have a big impact on the sport.”
— David Wright (11:54)
Adam Conner (12:42):
You could just hear the energy in you talking about it. And I’m getting excited because not only the near term, but what it could mean going forward for my ability to watch and engage with those new commercial deals coming up. And by the way, I grew up in Baltimore where there really was not a soccer presence. There was a little bit of arena soccer like in-
David Wright (13:05):
Adam Conner (13:07):
The Baltimore… Great. Oh-
David Wright (13:10):
There you go-
Adam Conner (13:10):
Perfect. Nobody knows about the Baltimore Blast outside of Baltimore, but now I live in Pittsburgh, shout out the Riverhounds.
David Wright (13:18):
There you go.
Adam Conner (13:18):
David Wright (13:18):
Adam Conner (13:19):
Soccer’s everywhere. And that demand, that statistic was initially like what? I get it because it is exploding and we’ll get to the women’s game in a moment. By the way, listeners, if you’re interested in that, why don’t you stay tuned to early ’23. You might hear a little bit directly from the NWSL on that front, but let’s talk a little bit about the ways in which you are innovating right alongside the way that this fandom has exploded and accelerated. You come back in ’20, obviously there’s a lot going on in the world at that point, but we are getting back on track.
And in that time two things have happened. We have a brand new generation of fans who have come to social prominence in Gen Z and we have had this striking overarching sense of the need to belong in a community which goes right alongside the fanaticism that you might have historically associated just with watching something on the television and never being able to engage otherwise. As those two trends have started to rise and as Gen Z has started to mature into its own, what are some of the ways in which you’ve been engaging as a brand in different and new ways to capture and make sure that you are getting the 18 year old of today or maybe sooner that I was in 2010 when US Soccer first hooked me?
David Wright (14:45):
Yeah, it’s a great question and I think it really starts with our organization’s ethos and core values and what we represent and what we stand for. I mentioned earlier that we firmly believe that if you are passionate about the game of soccer, we have an authentic opportunity to engage with you. So this notion of inclusivity is critically important to our sport, but really is woven through everything we do. We talk a lot about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. And those aren’t DEIB is not a four letter acronym. It’s real and guides everything that we do and in fact informs a lot of our business decisions. So if you look at how we position our property or our US Soccer as a brand, if you look at our actions, it supports this commitment to be a leader in the DEIB space.
And so why is that important? When you talk about Gen Z, you talk about this next generation of fan, at the core, it’s critically important. There’s a ton of research that supports that this generation significantly over indexed on supporting brands that they believe in, that resonate with them, that they feel they can relate to. And I think it starts with that. And then more tactically, we’ve really doubled down on our storytelling. So we have an unbelievable opportunity. Obviously everyone talks about our women’s national team and our men’s national team, but we’ve got 25 other national teams, not many people know that. And we’ve got all of these athletes from Para, to Futsal, to beach, they all have stories. And I think as we think to the future, our ability to tell those stories off the field is really, really powerful.
“I often look at our two kids. We’ve got a son who’s 19 and a daughter who’s 16, both play, but there as interested in what happens off the field as they are what happens inside the white lines. And so as a property, it’s a big area of focus for us and I think you’ll see us continue to double down on the content side of things. We also spend a lot of time really thinking about platforms and I’ll highlight… SheBelieves is an incredible platform. Obviously it’s got a competitive element, the ability to bring some of the top federations over to play against our women’s national team, but it’s so much more than that. It’s all about female empowerment and really showcasing the incredible feats of females on and off the field. And we’ve also seen that as an incredible means to engage with this next generation fan. So those are just a handful of things that as we think to the future, I think you’ll see us continue to really double down and lean into in our quest to truly engage with the masses.”
— David Wright (16:41)
Adam Conner (17:44):
And these masses, as you’ve said, have been values driven more than ever. Not only do they want to feel that they’re part of a community, they want to know that that community that they love also believes in the values that they do. It’s probably the best time then to bring up the fact that you are leading, I mean at the front of the pack when it comes to equity and pay equity and treatment. Now this is something that has been, well, it was deeply in the news and now we’ve come to the sort of exclamation point, which is that the equal pay CBA is here, men and women’s teams now have that equitable compensation treatment in the eyes of US Soccer. You’ve been there through all of that. What was it like in the trenches getting that done? And now that it is, how has that bolstered the message and the impact that you have again, both inside and outside of those white lines?
David Wright (18:47):
Yeah, first I give a ton of credit to our president, Cindy Parlow Cone, who really led the charge and also another individual that was behind the scenes, but equally as influential, Karen Leetzow, our chief legal officer. In short, Adam, it was tough. It was really tough, but actions matter. And to my point earlier about doing the right thing and creating positive change, I mean, what better example of an organization standing tall, leading and doing the right thing? But it wasn’t easy. There’s a reason why it had never been done before.
“Through the resolve and commitment of our leadership, the partnership with the Women’s National team PA, also the partnership with the men’s national team PA, very, very important to the overall partnership. The three entities were able to get together and figure it out. And I think what’s really, really powerful is the impact, not only is it having in the global space within soccer, but more broadly and how it’s impacting culture and other industries. We’ve already started to see that ripple effect. So again, a great example of doing the right thing, standing tall and as we look forward, something that we’re really proud to be paving the way and it’s going to be good for all.”
— David Wright (19:23)
Adam Conner (20:08):
And it’s strikingly important, especially now to have that. But any listener who maybe shares some of my entry into loving the sport can understand the impact that women’s soccer has had on that just as much as the men’s game. I mean, I started this off by talking about US Soccer’s triumph in 2010, that specific moment, it’ll be burned into my memory forever, but shortly beyond it, and I’m a little bit embarrassed to say it, but being surprised in 2011, watching the Women’s World Cup… not really even understand, “Okay, there’s a women’s World Cup. Okay, that makes sense.”
Again, I’m like a newish fan. I’m like, “All right,” see it on the television and watching the US just basically destroy almost everybody to then have them come back the next year, do it again in the Olympics and then just continue on this period of dominance. Man, I cannot think outside of Olympians, really many more female athletes in that time who were as revered and who came to prominence as much as those who starred for US Soccer. So I think that it’s a terribly important social moment, but a fitting validation of their performance and their shine over the last 10 or so years. And I hope that other sports follow as well.
Turning to the future then for both the men, the women, everything US Soccer, you’re on the verge of a pretty interesting change in the way that you can present that beginning in 2023. You’ll be managing your own commercial rights, which is something that is a new page that you’ve turned. In fact, shortly after the release of this podcast, folks, you should be listening to this on Monday, November 7th, if you are timely. On November the 9th, there will be a summit to talk a little bit about that. But I want to get a preview from you as we look ahead to it. What does that mean to you to have that power in ’23 with your own commercial rights, and what do you think that that will mean for the fan?
David Wright (22:12):
Yeah. Adam, I think it’s a great example of our ever evolving organization and we’ve had an incredible relationship with SoccerNet Marketing and SoccerNet Marketing has managed the rights for the better part of 20 years and really has given us the foundation that we’re now ready to build upon. But as is often the case with leading properties, the ability to manage the day in and day out decision making is really important. And I think as we look to the future again during this moment in time, what better time to take control of our business from a commercial standpoint? And so while it wasn’t an easy decision, it was the right decision, I think it was the right decision for the sport of soccer, it was the right decision for US Soccer. And I think we’re going to have tremendous success as we think about growth.
I mean, we are an NGB, national governing body, 501c3, which is really important to understand because every single dollar that is generated gets reinvested back into the business. So we are very, very focused on growing the business because we know that will provide resources for us to be able to compete at the highest level. And so on November 9th, we’ve got a commercial summit that will kind of serve to kick things off. And I think you’ll start to see us be very aggressive. I mentioned our Warner Brothers partnership that kicks off in January. We’ve got soon to be announced Spanish language relationship that is equally as important. But then we also have an incredible roster of corporate partners that are critically important to our success, not only from a financial standpoint, but how they activate, how they bring this property to life is really important.
“From a fan perspective, I think you’re going to see the US Soccer Federation continue to rise in prominence. I think you’ll see a lot more front and center engagement based on increased resource, more active partners, whether they be media partners or corporate partners. And that’s really good as we think about growth in the game. And it is absolutely a new chapter. It’s not going to come without as challenges as you would imagine, as is always the case when your business is evolving like ours, but one that we are incredibly bullish and excited for. And I think it’s going to be, again, really, really good for the sport and really good for US Soccer.”
— David Wright (23:58)
Adam Conner (24:36):
So stepping to one final question, and you know what, I’ll make this a pretty high flying one just because the title of this show is so broad. What do you foresee for the future of the way that any sport, whether it be a league or a franchise, can truly grow and win with these next gen viewers and next gen consumers?
David Wright (24:59):
Yeah. A couple of things, Adam. I think first, the properties that are winning the day are those that are at the core. They know who they are, they know what they represent, and they stick to that. As I often say, you can’t pick and choose when to do the right thing. You can’t pick and choose when you want to stand for this or when you want to stand for that. You got to be really consistent. And consistent meaning when it’s 75 and sunny or when it’s 42 and sleeting out.
And so first really looking inward and understand what do you stand for as a property? And then beyond that, how you are going to bring that to life? And I think what gets me so excited about US Soccer among many things is it’s really clear what we stand for and our partners have bought in. We know that our fans over index with our core values. So I think that’s really, really important for properties to understand who they are, what they represent, and then how they are going to bring it to life and stick to it.
Adam Conner (25:59):
Let me give you one bonus and then we’ll roll out of here. I’ve done this a couple times with guests, but it’s great because I think I’m going to like this better in a sport that I actually watch and follow. It’s a blank, the sentence ends with a blank. “I can tell you for sure that The Future of Fandom will not include ________. Could you take a stab at filling that blank for me?
David Wright (26:25):
Wow, I love that. Well, it depends on the timeline, but eventually The Future of Fandom will not include linear. So as you think about consumption and you think about the evolution of consumption, depending on who you talk to in the industry, that evolution is happening very quickly and how fans are engaging in and consuming content changes by the day. You’re starting to see properties have to really wrestle with, “Do I double down on linear that gives me today the broadest distribution, or do I lean into where the industry’s going, which is through a direct to consumer streaming platform?”
“Right now it’s a bit of a healthy mix. I mean, that’s how we approached it. We’ve got, as I mentioned, our great relationship and it is a healthy mix between linear and streaming, but there will come a day where it will be exclusively a DTC world. And when that is, I think remains to be seen, but properties need to prepare for that and evolve and try to stay ahead of the curve, those that evolve with consumption trends will win the day. Those that don’t evolve I think will find themselves struggling. So that’s what comes to mind with that. Great question, Adam.”
— David Wright (27:05)
Adam Conner (27:42):
Food for thought. Everyone think through that. The future might not be as far away as you think. For coming on and chatting about the beautiful game with me. Again, thanks for being the steward of the sport so far. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up this winter, and of course in ’23. David, very much appreciate your time.
David Wright (28:02):
Adam, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Adam Conner (28:07):
World Cup time is almost here. Do me a favor. If you’ve never watched soccer before, give US Soccer a shot this winter. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the energy and the entertainment and sooner or later you’ll be hooked. Thanks to David Wright for joining us and thanks to you, the listener for exploring yet again The Future of Fandom with us. I’d encourage you to stay connected, so subscribe to The Future of Fandom wherever you listen to your podcasts. Or you can also find all of our content LiveLike.com/podcast. You’ll get all of our episodes back to our launch earlier this year and across social, we’re also on LinkedIn @LiveLike and Twitter @LiveLikeInc.
I look forward to predicting the future again with you real soon. And until then, I’m Adam Conner saying so long and thanks for being a fan.
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