The European Super League may have been put in the trash for now but Premier League clubs – even those who were not invited to the proposed closed playground of the world’s richest clubs – are still searching for ways to extend their commercial reach around the world.
Everton, crosstown rivals to Liverpool but of little threat to the elite of English football if we are taking into account recent Premier League standings, has unveiled an international strategy to expand its fan base across North America and, by extension, its commercial opportunities. They’re the latest team – from a number of different sports and leagues – to dream of striking it rich in the biggest sports market in the world. But, as always, the question remains: how feasible is that dream?
Included in Everton’s international plan are youth academies, pre-season tours by both the men’s and women’s first teams, and co-opting a Miami-based sports marketing agency to attract new North American fans.
“Our strategy was set out before the Super League was mooted,” says Richard Kenyon, who heads Everton’s marketing, communications, and international departments. “Everton made its opposition clear on the Super League at the time and that proposal has come and gone. Our international strategy is long term.
“We came up with a primary focus on North American and the USA and some other countries where we know there is a growth opportunity – Colombia and Brazil. We asked ourselves where are our fans? Where do we have links already?”
Everton’s interest in Colombia and Brazil is based on a current squad that includes Colombian internationals James Rodriguez and Yerry MIna and Brazilian Richarlison but its interest in North America is more obvious even if former USMNT internationals Tim Howard. Preki, Joe-Max Moore, Landon Donovan, and Brian McBride have seen their names on Everton teamsheets over the past few decades.
The growth of soccer in the US is seen as fertile ground for European expansionism – in whatever form that can take.
According to David France, a Liverpool-born Everton historian who has lived in the US for 44 years, the club’s relationship with North America is a long one. France has written 18 books on the Merseyside club and his latest book Toffee Soccer: Everton and North America – a collaboration with Everton FC media executive Darren Griffiths and football historian Rob Sawyer – untangles Everton’s North American connections.
Toffee Soccer includes a survey of North American Everton fans and asks why they support an arguably underachieving team on the other side of the Atlantic. The survey is of just 100 fans but the responses remain insightful.
“What fascinates me is that these American fans had to pick Everton,” says France. “I was brainwashed as a kid and had no say in it. Everton is in a very poor part of Liverpool, a very poor part of the UK, and a very poor part of Europe but Americans love history and Everton has unparalleled history. American fans are also attracted to the club’s values. One of the things about Everton is that it has never brought shame on the city of its birth and it has conducted itself in an appropriate way.
“The third thing is that Everton is not Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, or Manchester City. Everton fans can’t be accused of jumping on the bandwagon.”
Still, for those exact reasons – Everton does not share the success or name recognition of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, or Chelsea – underlines how making serious inroads into the North American sports market will be a challenge for the club. The metaphorical US sports highway is littered with examples of international clubs and even entire sports that have tried to get a piece of the American pie.
Big name European football clubs have opened commercial offices in the US in attempts to engage potential sponsors while Australian rules football and rugby league have made various attempts to get a foothold in the United States to be met with little sustainable interest.
When an entrepreneur revealed plans in 2017 to launch a professional New York City rugby league team that would compete in an English competition the announcement was met locally with a distinct lack of interest – no matter the star-spangled headlines the concept generated in Sydney or Warrington.
“The American sports market is so saturated right now and there are so many leagues and so many traditions that it is hard for a sport from abroad to break in,” says Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University.
“The US is different to a lot of places in the world in that it is a multicentric sports system. You have three major sports and sort of hockey and sort of soccer as opposed to Europe or South America or Africa where soccer is king. There is not a lot of space to be colonized from the outside.”
“With the exception of MMA, there hasn’t been a new sport that has emerged over the past few decades. It’s a really tight and competitive market. It’s also a market where you have teams with deep roots and deep local followings. Americans are always ready for a new espresso flavor or a new cheese from France but there’s not really a [new] sport that has worked as an import into the US.”
Starn adds that while European soccer clubs have made huge inroads into the US that is not because they have set up marketing offices in North America.
“I have students that wear Barcelona and Real Madrid and Manchester City jerseys – something that you would have never seen on a US college campus 20 year ago. But that’s because we live in a global sports market now.
“For the past 15 years we have had teams like Man Utd come to play an MLS team to raise the profile of their brand but because these big soccer clubs are such iconic global brands they don’t need to set up academies or PR firms.”
Everton, though, is adamant its approach will be different to the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool – and one reason for that is it can’t yet guarantee success on the field. Instead of looking to recruit glory-hunters chasing success, the club plans grassroots engagement with existing Everton fan networks and will target younger fans across America through social media.
“We cannot control what happens on the field but we can control engagement,” says Jurgen Mainka, a long-serving soccer executive in the US whose Miami-based company Pulse Sport and Entertainment will be Everton’s boots on the ground.
“When I told my daughter about my new job with Everton she didn’t look for a website,” explains Mainka. “She looked for a TikTok channel. This is about being where the fans are. It’s not about the 50-year-old who watches 90 minutes. It’s about the new generation. You have to be engaging and funny and talk in their language. Who is wearing your shirt in the music business? Who is the cool graffiti artist in Miami wearing your gear? That is how engagement starts.”
David France admits Everton can’t compete with Manchester United or Real Madrid in commercial terms and, in a global sports market where branding is everything, his club needs to create its own niche.
“Everton can be a special club for special people,” France says while admitting the team also has to have success on the field to make any impact in the US.
“Everton can’t expect to play in Michigan in front of 100,000 people like Manchester United has done but there is no point in doing these international initiatives unless there is some level of success. Americans may like an underdog but they also like winners and entertainers.”
Even if a future Everton team can reach the heady heights of success that, say, gatecrashers Leicester City have had in the past few years, the reality may be that there is just only so much room for soccer success in the US.
“These teams would like it to be a second conquest of the Americas but America has already been colonized by sports,” says Starn. “No society in the history of the world has been more sports obsessed, had so much money at stake, and mobilized such passions and mythologies as sports in the US. The bottom line is that there’s not a lot of uncolonized space to plant your flag.”
Toffee Soccer: Everton and North America by David France, Rob Sawyer, and Darren Griffiths (DeCoubertin) is published on 11 June 2021.