U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team: A Case Study in Business Innovation Part 1 (6/11/14)

U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team: A Case Study in Business Innovation

As the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team prepares for its first game in the FIFA World Cup against Ghana there is a buzz about the team that has not been present before. In this two part analysis, we will examine the growth in popularity of US men’s soccer and show how it represents an example of brand and product innovation in sports. We are all well aware that U.S. men’s soccer has under-performed over the past decade; but there is a resurgence of enthusiasm about the team that is trending higher right along with a rise in popularity of the world’s favorite sport in the U.S. The 23 man roster that is set to take the field is a change from the old guard. Instead it resembles an experiment in innovation. In the same way that a company rolls out a new product, the manner in which the U.S. Men’s soccer team has been transformed offers a glimpse into brand and product innovation in sports.

The fundamental ingredients in brand and product innovation include the following:

    1. Investigation-explore initial impressions, likes and dislikes; investigate competitor’s offerings
    2. Development & Refinement-determine ideal features and benefits
    3. Testing-test one or several product prototypes
    4. Validation- confirm and validate product prior to full-scale launch
    5. Launch-bring product to first test market
  1. Investigation/History: In the U.S. soccer has always been overshadowed by football, baseball, and basketball- America’s favorite pastimes. In America, soccer doesn’t garner the same level of fanaticism as it does in Brazil and Germany. Couple this with United States Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) poor performance on soccer’s greatest stage, (i.e. the FIFA World Cup) , U.S. men’s soccer is always the bridesmaid and never the bride.                                                                                                                                                                  Frustration with USMNT peaked when it failed advance out of the first round of the 2006 World Cup. Consequently, US Soccer set about to change the men’s team overall makeup and improve its performance. The first shift came in 2006 with the replacement of Bruce Arena by Bob Bradley. Arena helmed USMNT soccer from 1998-2006. This move represented a conscious effort by U.S. soccer to set the U.S. MNT on a different course. It was also an acknowledgement that there needed to be a sea change if the program wanted to avoid another early round exit as it did in 2006.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Bradley led the team at a critical time in the history of U.S. Soccer. In 2009 the U.S. men’s soccer team captured the attention of the nation with its performance in the Confederations Cup. The USMNT was grouped with Italy, Brazil and Egypt, and yet it advanced into the semifinals by virtue of a 3-0 throttling of Egypt in the final game. The team further captivated the nation by beating Spain, the No.1-ranked team in the world in the semifinals before falling 3-2 to Brazil in the final. The championship match was the furthest the U.S. had ever gone in a FIFA men’s tournament.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The enthusiasm this generated was further bolstered by the U.S. Men’s most memorable moment in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A USMNT’s last second shot by Landon Donovan, the U.S. ambassador of soccer, clinched group victory for the first time in 80 years. The accomplishment raised the profile of the team worldwide and Americans became enamored by its soccer underdogs. This is an example of how exploration and investigation set the background to the launch of a new product.

2. Development and Refinement: After the 2010 World Cup the USMNT’s popularity soared. The team sold out arenas.  Just as soon as the program was primed for success, it began to falter and ultimately stalled. A 4-0 loss to Spain and 4-2 loss to Mexico in international friendlys had the USMNT on its heels.

Sensing the need to recapture the country’s attention and capitalize on its past success, U.S. soccer needed a shot in the arm to propel it forward. As a result, in 2011 it fired Bob Bradley and hired current U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann. Klinsmann was a former standout player and coach for the German national team.  He led the Germans to a third place finish in the 2006 world cup and offered a fresh perspective; something U.S. soccer desperately needed. In the language of business this period in U.S. soccer history represented product refinement.