By Barry Janoff
July 9, 2010: Landon Donovan is on a marketing track to become the next Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong. First, he has to become the next Mia Hamm.
Donovan scored three goals for the U.S. in the World Cup, including the game winner against Algeria and the lone American goal in the U.S. loss to Ghana. The 28-year-old Donovan, who plays for the Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, has credentials that put him at the top of his game, including the all-time leader in goals (42) and appearances (121) for the U.S. in international play.
From a marketing aspect, however, Donovan is far from being a scoring leader. He currently has deals with Nike, PepsiCo's Gatorade and Flo TV that pay him about $3-$4 million a year, according to analysts. He also has done spots for ESPN's "This is SportsCenter" and MLS, and earlier this year, to help support EA Sports' soccer and World Cup releases, he appeared at the Gillette-EA Sports Champions of Gaming Tournament in New York along with Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and quarterback Matt Ryan of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
But his showing on the World Cup stage now gives him the potential to become the all-time endorsement leader among American-born soccer players and put him on a plateau closer to Phelps and Armstrong, who took their status as America's top swimmer and pro racing cyclist, respectively, to become national marketing figures.
According to analysts, Donovan could "easily reach" the $10 million level, which would put him past Hamm's top annual estimated level of about $7-$8 million. It would also make him the "face of American soccer" akin to what Phelps is to swimming and Armstrong is to pro cycling. Like Phelps, who jumped from $5 million to about $40 million in annual endorsements following his record-setting performance at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Donovan could ride the post-World Cup wave, although analysts do not see him nearing Phelps' level. Armstrong earned about $15 million annually at his height in the years after winning his seventh consecutive Tour de France in 2005.
"Could Donovan become the most marketable American-born soccer player ever? Definitely," said Howard Brodwin, managing director for Team Marketing Systems, a leading marketing strategy and brand development consulting firm based in Los Angeles. "He’s got the talent, the presence, the visibility and he will most likely be the face of U.S. soccer going into the 2014 World Cup."
Among the categories in which Donovan, who is represented by Richard Motzkin for Wasserman Media Group, Los Angeles, could enter are electronics, restaurant chains, automotive and food and numerous consumer packaged goods from such companies as Proctor & Gamble that target kids and "soccer moms."
"The opportunity to expand his stable of sponsorship and endorsement deals is solid," said Brodwin. "I could easily see several CPG, food/beverage and telecom brands taking a long look at Landon. Automotive might be a good opportunity as well: We all know how the 'soccer mom' is coveted by the auto world, and he would certainly be a great centerpiece for a mom-centric mini-van or SUV campaign."
Donovan also has the advantage of playing in Los Angeles in the midst of a major media and entertainment market. There, his presence as the face of American professional soccer would play much better than that of Donovan's more celebrated (and currently injured) teammate, David Beckham, who arrived on the scene in 2007 with international superstar credentials. Some of the Galaxy's team marketing partners that could build up Donovan's presence include McDonald's, Toyota, UPS, Bank of America, Herbalife and The Home Depot, which has naming rights to the team's home field.
Gatorade said it would continue to feature Donovan in multi-media efforts but did not indicate when, or if, they see him becoming a breakout star along the lines of Mia Hamm, the most highly decorated and marketable American-born soccer player ever.
"Gatorade has had a relationship with Landon Donovan since 2002 and he has been activated in many campaigns, including the recent G2 campaign earlier this year," said Jennifer Storms, svp-sports marketing at Gatorade. Donovan currently is featured alongside basketball stars Dwyane Wade and Candace Parker, as well as endurance star Chris Legh, in the launch campaign for the new G Series Pro line of products. "Landon can be seen in digital, in-store and PR executions for this launch campaign," said Storms.
Prior to retiring in 2004, Mia Hamm appeared in several Gatorade commercials, including the classic "Mia vs. Michael" in which she takes on the NBA legend in such sports as basketball, soccer, tennis, fencing and track and field, played out to the song, "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)." She also scored endorsement deals with companies including Nike, Nabisco, Edy's Ice Cream, Nintendo, Mattel, PowerBar, Pert Plus Shampoo, Lady Foot Locker, The Vitamin Shoppe, Icy Hot and Mission Care health & beauty. In addtion, she appeared in print for "Got Milk?" and, like Donovan, did a turn for ESPN's "This is SportsCenter."
Among Hamm's honors are a U.S. record 158 international goals, a 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup championship trophy and gold medals with the U.S. national soccer team in the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics.
Admittedly, not many American-born soccer players have ever captured the national attention of Madison Avenue. Most recently, in addition to Hamm, Freddie Adu, who was born in Ghana but became a naturalized American citizen, sparked national interest when, in 2004 at the age of 14, he signed a pro contract with MLS. That lead to endorsements from Nike, Campbell Soup and Pepsi brand Sierra Mist, the latter of which included a TV spot with soccer legend Pele. Adu, now 21, has spent most of the past three years playing in Europe and was not part of the 2010 U.S. team at the World Cup.
The short-list of American-born soccer players who fared relatively well with endorsements also includes Kyle Rote Jr. and Shep Messing. Both played during the hey-day of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and early 1980s when such international stars as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Giorgio Chinaglia were part of the first major business-driven wave to carve a place for soccer in the psyche of the American sports public.
Upon his return from South Africa, Donovan showed that he could perform on a national stage during appearances on Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America, The Early Show, Live with Regis and Kelly and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He also returned to the Los Angeles Galaxy, with whom he has a four-year, $9 million deal, and had an assist in the team's 3-1 win over the Seattle Sounders at the Home Depot Center.
"Donovan is articulate and at ease in front of the camera – he is a sure fit for brands that embody speed, endurance, finesse, and grit – or any combination of those attributes," said John Meindl, founder and president of sports and entertainment marketing and consultancy SportsBrandedMedia, New York. "With the full package on and off the field, he will secure deals with FMCGs (fast moving consumer goods), just as Mia Hamm, the previous face of American soccer, did."
Ironically, some analysts feel that Donovan might best serve his marketing cause by continuing to score on an international, rather than domestic, platform. He already has done TV spots for the Mexican "Ganna Gol" National Lottery which ran in that country.
"As contradictory as it may sound, I think he’d actually do more for his marketability in the States by playing overseas rather than in the MLS," said Brodwin.
Donovan also has to deal with the fact that international stars have a tremendous following in the U.S., which could affect his opportunity to become a marketing star among ethnic consumers.
"If there was no such thing as the internet, then maybe Donovan would have a chance [to become] most marketable soccer player ever in America," said Brodwin. "But thanks to the power of technology, soccer fans in the States can easily watch matches from all over Europe and South America, catching Messi’s amazing runs, Ronaldo’s footwork and Rooney’s powerful strikes. Nike and Adidas know this better than anyone."
"Donovan is articulate and at ease in front of the camera, He is a sure fit for brands that embody speed, endurance, finesse, and grit, or any combination of those attributes."
Still, his success before a global audience at the World Cup, plus the fact that he has played on loan for such teams as Bayern Munich (Germany) and Everton (England) have put Donovan in a strong position to leave his marketing signature on both the domestic and international soccer journal.
"Landon will benefit as a result of his recent success, from timing and from education," said Meindl. "Today the parents of youth players grew up either playing soccer or familiar with the game – creating a much better educated soccer fan. Beckham came to build his brand. Donovan stayed in the U.S. to continue to build a league and a game. His efforts will serve him well as his play has elevated his status to a global level."