John Guppy on American soccer marketing’s new era, the sport’s flourishing U.S. landscape, and remembering Kevin Payne 03/18/2023
Last month for Soccer Ventures created For soccer from merge with another American soccer-specific marketing and media company, Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, founded by John Guppy in 2008.
Guppy moved to the United States from his native England at the age of 18 and became the captain of New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University), the Division II national champion, in 1989. After earning his master’s degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts during his tenure as UMass assistant coach, he oversaw U.S. soccer corporate sponsorships during preparation for the U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup.
He was also President and CEO of Chicago Fire from 2005 to 2008 and Executive Vice President of MetroStars (now New York Red Bull) from 2000 to 2005.
SOCCER AMERICA: What was the idea behind the merger between Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing and For Soccer Ventures?
JOHN GUPPY: Big picture? I started Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing 14 years ago. I looked around and saw golf specific agencies, motorsport specific agencies, but I didn’t see a football specific agency. So that was the vision: Copy the model that existed for other sports and apply it to football.
SA: What model is that?
John Guppy: It’s everything the Octagons of the World do, but only in the vertical of a sport. Integrated marketing services, sponsorship management, sponsorship negotiations, worlds of experience, digital content, PR – we would only do it for football.
We did that for 14 years. Good for us, we’ve been successful, but I think to answer your question, we’re living in the most important growth decade for football in America right now. What I didn’t want was to drown in a sea of possibilities. That said, there’s so much happening in our sport right now that I thought bigger was better. One plus one makes three. And ensures that we don’t perish but thrive in a sea of possibilities.
It seemed like now was the time to bring the two entities together and create a larger entity in terms of expertise, manpower and relationships. Again, I don’t always believe bigger is better, but I think it is in this situation. For this reason, it made sense to bring the two companies together.
SA: What are the next steps for the new company For Soccer?
John Guppy: We’re very focused on integration right now – the boring stuff, bringing the two companies together, that’s essentially what we’re doing. The most significant real estate development that we hope you’ll see at some point is a women’s property – we haven’t done that yet, but we have some thoughts on how we can do that. Do you see that in six months? Maybe not. Within a year? I hope so.
SA: As a football-only marketer, what can you tell us about the American football consumer? And by that I mean the person who lives in America and likes soccer, because those are two different things, right?
John Guppy: Well, we’re constantly asked, “What is American football culture?” And the simple thing is, there isn’t one. It’s made up of dozens of subcultures, all important but really not homogenous. That’s part of the challenge for the sport. It grows in its range but also grows in different ways. People are fans of different teams and fans of different leagues. I mean even watch the domestic game. There are people who love Major League Soccer and people who just hate Major League Soccer. They are still football fans and no less important than the believers. But they just choose to consume this sport in a different way.
When you add women’s soccer and international soccer, as well as youth soccer, the sport comes alive in so many different ways. That’s the challenge for a brand to really understand the landscape.
Strategy, Arlo, has always been one of the most important things we bring to market. We’ll help you understand the landscape and we’ll help you create the roadmap.
I’ve seen it so many times: brands that get into real estate believing that real estate can do x, y and z – and then reality kicks in. Strategic leadership has always been one of the fundamental things we want to deliver to the market.
SA: If you look back to your beginnings in football marketing leading up to the 1994 World Cup in 1991, what were some of the biggest changes in the football business?
John Guppy: I started when we were playing national team games at St. Louis Soccer Park in front of 3,000 people. We paid to show our games on TV. I remember trying to pitch Mia Hamm to a company and people looked at me like I was from another planet. In those early days, nobody in the corporate world really believed in football. We partied in the hallways when a brand agreed to hold a meeting just to hear our story. That’s not an exaggeration!
What we had was that we were standing at the hip with the World Cup Organizing Committee. We had the opportunity to give corporate brands the opportunity to work with something they kind of understood – the World Cup. In the very early days, we were able to use the appreciation and interest in the World Cup to bring it into the more rhythmic world of US soccer and youth soccer.
You don’t have to do that anymore these days. Many, many brand marketers woke up this morning and said, “Hey! Football’s demographics are pretty amazing. Young, diverse, multicultural, maybe we should see how this sport can help us!’
That’s change #1. It’s about now How as opposed to necessarily Why.
SA: What things are you looking forward to in the next few years?
John Guppy: The Copa America in 2024 will be great. You’ll see a lot of the big, global teams coming to America to get used to the landscape. I think you’re going to see very high-quality friendlies – but I think if the federation can turn a friendly into a mini-tournament, they’ll probably try to do it.
SA: It’s often said in private that American professional football isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the least amount you lose. Apart from a handful of MLS teams, almost all teams are lagging behind. How does this fact affect For Soccer’s marketing strategy?
John Guppy: That’s a good question that only someone so connected to the sport like you would ask. I have no reason to believe that this will not change in the future. But part of what I love about what we do is that we can do whatever we want. Ultimately, it is important for the company to make money, but that is not what drives our decision-making.
We’ve done a lot of projects over the years that didn’t bring us much money, but for some reason we thought they were good initiatives. This will continue. We believe in the base.
Two of the qualities that the guys from For Soccer bring with them are these Alianza de Futbol program and the Dark Star Program that is a little newer but follows a similar model: It tries to facilitate access and opportunities to the Black community.
These are massive projects and a big reason we’re doing them is because we believe they’re valuable expenditures on the football landscape. We have the ability to make them happen.
Kevin Payne (1953-2022) was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame (Builder, Class of 2021) by Cindy Parlow Cone and Sunil Gulati.
SA: Kevin Payne, the longtime football manager, died late last year. Do you have any memories of him that you’d like to share with the Soccer America crowd?
John Guppy: Kevin was the guy that got me my breakthrough in this industry. I wrote a long article that I drafted LinkedIn about it. I started by saying everyone needs a break. And I was lucky that he gave me my first chance.
He was a mentor and believed in me. Put myself in business situations that I probably wasn’t qualified for. His message was, “You got this.” I feel like that’s why I was able to learn a lot from my very young age in this industry.
Kevin did a lot for me and was the guy later in my career who opened the doors for me to be president of the Chicago Fire, for example. When I founded Gilt Edge in 2008, the country was in financial crisis and I started my own company. Most people said, ‘That’s the stupidest thing you can do.’
One of the first to call me was Kevin and his message was the same: “You have this. You have a good vision, you will do great.’
Photos: For Football & National Soccer Hall of Fame.