American soccer fans, it’s that time of year again! That’s right, the Please Love Soccer And Pick Us As Your Favorite Team goodwill tour and brand-building exercise also known as the International Champions Cup pre-season tournament is underway. Eighteen major European teams will play 27 games in 22 cities across eight different countries, but tellingly, 17 of those 27 games are in the U.S. The participants like Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus may be from different leagues in different countries, but they’re all competing for the hearts and minds of American fans.
For the Italian club AS Roma, a team with a deep history but not quite the global brand size of juggernauts like Real Madrid or Manchester United, playing in the ICC is part of its ambitious strategy to attract a bigger U.S. audience, and eventually earn global brand status. Its first game is tonight, Wednesday, July 25, in San Diego against Tottenham Hotspur, and the occasion offers a glimpse into Roma’s efforts to build up its media capabilities to churn out content aimed at wooing global audiences into its fanbase.
“[The ICC] is great exposure, but it’s really just one little piece of the puzzle,” says co-owner and president James Pallotta. The Boston-bred executive, who also co-owns the Boston Celtics, knows getting his team in front of U.S. fans on TV is a big part of building Roma’s brand awareness and image here. He calls the Italian league Serie A’s U.S. broadcasting exposure over the last few years “bullshit,” but is now upbeat on the prospects over the next few years, since the league sold international rights to IMG for $433 million last fall. Now, games in the U.S. will air on ESPN and the new sports streaming service DAZN (pronounced Da Zone, and run by former ESPN exec John Skipper).
Beyond watching the actual soccer games, content plays a critical role in attracting new fans and keeping existing ones excited and engaged. This is where Pallotta and his team have spotted an opportunity to grow. “There are a lot of teams with global brand aspirations, but how do you go about it? Just producing content for content’s sake isn’t the answer, it has to be good,” says Pallotta. “We produce more content than anyone else, but it’s clear that people are responding to it. There is a lot of lip service being given to content, but you just can’t produce shit and expect people to pay for it or spend time with it.”
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When it comes to content, the biggest clubs are often measured by their follower numbers: witness Real Madrid’s more than 150 million across social platforms. Pallotta argues, correctly, that the metric brands should be paying attention to is engagement. It’s the only way a club like Roma, with about one-tenth the followers of Real Madrid, can realistically compete. Pallotta likes his odds, based on the growth and engagement numbers his team have been consistently generating. According to the club, Roma’s official accounts generated more interactions on Twitter in June than any other Italian team and had the highest engagement rate among the Top 10 clubs in Europe.
Roma has consistently been building an engaged audience over the past few years by focusing on quality over quantity. Just last month, traditionally a quiet collection of off-season weeks, Roma generated 91 million Twitter impressions, up 187% over the same time last year. Part of that is natural World Cup lift, but Roma’s social team also did things like start a World Cup prediction game that pitted its social team against followers in picking World Cup scores with a chance to win signed shirts. It launched a variety of Spotify playlists, from Northern Soul to west coast rap, to promote its upcoming ICC trip and to give fans something for between matches. As the pre-season takes off, Roma has been producing insider video content around everything from team training to interviews with new player signings. On July 14th, the club became the first European club to live-stream an entire game on Twitter, a pre-season match against lower league team Latina, with 100,000 people tuning in.
Pallotta’s focus on engagement appears to be working, with Roma signing a pair of significant brand deals over the last few months, including its biggest-ever shirt sponsor deal with Qatar Airways, worth about $48 million over three seasons, as well as a training shirt sponsorship with the online gambling site Betway.
“At the end of the day, our mantra is everything we do has to be first class,” says Pallotta. “If I see anything that gets put out there that’s crap, I lose it. Fans can get easily jaded if you’re not doing things right, with their interests in mind.”
Aside from the U.S., the club is also working on building more connections in other growth markets such as Mexico, China, and India, but Pallotta says patience is the key to truly connecting with a new market.
“I don’t put pressure on anyone saying, we’ve got to be in India, we’ve got to be in Africa, we need a bigger presence in China!” he says. “I don’t generally have a lot of patience, but I understand that if this is going to be a sustainable project and brand, that it’s really putting in a huge infrastructure over the years that will allow us to systematically gather fans because we’re doing the right thing. It has to be sustainable.”