With the 2010 World Cup getting 360-degree coverage 24/7 on network, cable, Internet, mobile and other forms of media, even casual and non-soccer fans could not avoid seeing the heroics of Landon Donovan. Now the 28-year-old California native is on the verge of becoming the most marketable American-born soccer player ever, a goal that his agent, Richard Motzkin of the Wasserman Media Group, says is definitely within reach.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted July 27, 2010)
Disney Co. siblings ESPN and ABC scored record numbers during the recent World Cup, garnering millions of viewers on a daily basis over the month-long event in South Africa. The title game, a 1-0 victory by Spain over The Netherlands, attracted more than 15 million viewers to ABC, the most ever for a men's World Cup game. But close behind was the Round of 16 game between the U.S. National Team and Ghana, which attracted 14.8 million viewers, the U.S. versus England (13.1 million), both on ABC; and U.S. versus Algeria, which attracted an ESPN record 6.2 million viewers.
Landon Donovan, who had three goals during the tournament, including the game winner against Algeria that sent the U.S. into the Round of 16, had already established his credentials as a world-class player. With Major League Soccer, he has eight All-Star Game appearances with the San Jose Earthquakes (2001-04) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (2005-present), three MLS championships and a league MVP (2009). He also has built a reputation internationally with the U.S. National Team, for whom he is the all-time leader in goals, assists and caps; as well as during stints with Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton.
Even with such renowned U.S. National team mates as Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, Donovan's World Cup showing took him to another level. "He's become a real football hero," MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a press conference in July. "MLS needs football heroes, and we have a great American football hero playing for us in L.A., holding the torch for the sport in our country, and that's very important. I don't believe that it's something we can do without."
Donovan is now is a position to become not just the face of U.S. soccer, but the American-born soccer face of Madison Avenue. Even before the 2010 World Cup, the 28-year-old native of California had endorsements with Nike, PepsiCo's Gatorade, Visa, Flo TV and The Wild Soccer Bunch book series. He also has done spots for ESPN's "This is SportsCenter" and the National Lottery in Mexico.
These deals put him far ahead of such all-time American-born soccer stars as Shep Messing and Kyle Rote Jr., who plied their soccer and marketing trade during the hey-day of the North American Soccer League more than 25 years ago; and even ahead of Freddie Adu, a naturalized U.S. citizen who at age 14 turned pro with MLS in 2004 and notched deals that included Nike, Campbell Soup and Pepsi brand Sierra Mist (which included a TV commercial with soccer legend Pele). However, the most marketable American-born soccer player ever remains Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004 with more than $7 million in marketing deals from such companies as Nike, Gatorade, Mattel, Nabisco and Lady Foot Locker.
With MLS entering the second half of its season following the 2010 AT&T MLS All-Star Game on July 28, in which Donovan was on the MLS squad versus Manchester United, his agent and friend, Richard Motzkin of Wasserman Media Group, Los Angeles, spoke about the on- and off-field motivations that drive Donovan, the impact on U.S. soccer of David Beckham and Thierry Henry and Donovan's future as a soccer and marketing spokesman.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What is the status of Landon Donovan regarding new marketing deals in such categories as electronics, consumer goods, restaurant chains, food, auto?
Richard Motzkin: The short answer is that we have been approached by a lot of companies. We are about to announce a new deal, but I can't discuss it until it is official. Landon has always been and continues to be pretty particular about the products he endorses. But from the standpoint of being in demand, he is very much in demand. He is clean-cut, attractive. He has proven to be successful in his sport. He's articulate, well-spoken, intelligent. He is seen as an iconic all-American soccer player. He has an image to which a lot of brands are attracted. We've had a number of inquires and read a number of proposals since the World Cup. There are a lot of opportunities out there. But he is only going to do the things in which he believes in.
NYSJ: Historically, Madison Avenue has not had the opportunity to embrace many American-born soccer players. Do you see him reaching the marketing level of Mia Hamm, who is regarded as the most successful American-born soccer player ever, not only on the field but also in terms of endorsements?
RM: It pretty much has been Mia Hamm, even among all female athletes, since the 1994 World Cup, who has set the standard. Freddie Adu, whom I also represent, got a lot of marketing and publicity as being the youngest professional athlete when he signed with MLS at age 14. The difference between Landon and Freddie is simple: Freddie signed his endorsements before he even touched a soccer ball as a professional player whereas Landon has continued his ascension as a result of his on-field performance in line with his work ethic. Landon is now in a place where he compares in recognition with some of the most visible athletes in this country across all sports spectrums.
NYSJ: Would he compare on a marketing level with Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong, both of whom became successful endorsers by elevating not only their respective sports but also their own images as athletes to a cross-section of sports fans and consumers?
RM: He would, But looking at soccer as opposed to swimming or profession bike riding, Landon is much more likely to be in the public eye if not year-round certainly most of the year. And not just every four years, as with swimming and the Olympics, or yearly if you look at the Tour de France as getting what might be the most attention from people who do not follow the sport. Landon is playing domestically now with MLS, and the season runs March through the [championship game in] late November. The U.S. national team will play as many as a dozen games a year. There is also the 2012 Olympics already in sight, which also puts soccer in the eyes of American fans.
"We've had a number of inquires and proposals since the World Cup. There are a lot of opportunities. But he is only going to do the things in which he believes in."
NYSJ: Do you see more potential deals in Los Angeles with Galaxy marketing partners such as McDonald's, The Home Depot and Herbalife?
RM: I think what he did on the field and what the team did in 2009 [reaching the MLS finals] and what they are doing this season really establishes him as a top athlete to fans in Los Angeles. He understands that it all goes back to winning. So there may be deals, but he's not going to trade time on the field for extended production days off the field. Maybe we would look at these after the [MLS] season depending on Landon's soccer commitments. He has been offered good money to do one-off things, but they are not things that he would necessarily agree with. He's going to be very judicious with whom he chooses to work.
NYSJ: How would this be affected if he signs with a team in England or Europe?
RM: We will talk about that if and when the time comes. He is still very much a part of the Galaxy and the U.S, National Team. But as far as being the face of soccer in this country on the field and off it in marketing, he could take it as far as he wants to take it.
NYSJ: What was his response to how the public reacted to what the U.S. National Team did at the recent World Cup?
RM: Going back to 2006, there was a lot of expectation for the team after it did so well in 2002 [reaching the quarterfinals]. And Landon was one of the guys who was held up as being the focal point. So when the team went three-and-out in 2006 [0-2-1, failing to get out of the opening round], that was disappointing to everyone. Landon always has high expectations of himself. So, like we all do, he learns from experiences good and bad and grows from them. The one thing I know about him that people don't appreciate or recognize is how hard he works. Not only on the field, but off the field as well, with introspective work, taking care of his body and getting a better idea and understanding of who he is, what he is all about and what motivates him.
NYSJ: Obviously there are other key players on the team, but do you see him as being the face of the U.S. team and the face of American soccer moving forward?
RM: I'd say he was the face of U.S. soccer going into the 2010 World Cup. In many ways he had already separated himself from the other players on the team in the eyes of the core soccer fan and perhaps the casual soccer fan in the U.S. I have known Landon for 12 years and have served many roles for him, not only as an agent. He is family to me. I have seen him grow. And to see him have the opportunity to be the one who scores the winning goal against Algeria and help the team advance to the Round of 16, I was proud of him. He deserved it and he earned it. He put himself in a position coming into the 2010 World Cup where he was really focused and prepared. He understands that success doesn't happen by accident. There is some luck involved, but he knows that it takes a lot of hard work. This is all to help explain to a large degree how he performed. Clearly, his performance with the U.S. team in large part is going to dictate how well the team does.
NYSJ: What did his showing at the World Cup do for his place in U.S. sports history?
RM: That iconic sports moment, which clearly will go down in history, has elevated him and given him the opportunity to transcend soccer to become a celebrity to the mass market. The nice thing about it is that he is at a place in his life where knows how to manage it. He knows what it means. He understands the responsibility that comes with it.
NYSJ: How did the American public's reaction to Donovan after the World Cup differ from what you have seen in the past?
RM: I was in New York with him for his media day [after returning from South Africa], I have been with him on those types of media days on multiple occasions in New York and elsewhere. It was powerful to see the masses of people come up to him and congratulate him, share with him their stories about where they were when he scored the goal, how much it inspired them and how proud they were about what the team and he had done. It was very different from any other time I had been with him. Even when he was apart from the media and he got to enjoy a couple of days in New York walking around, his recognition level was significantly increased and off the charts from what it had been. Even traveling around, when we were at the ESPYs in Los Angeles [in July], for example, it's nice to see the reaction from people. It's impressive to see how well recognized he has become. And it's nice to see that at his core this hasn't changed who he is and what he is all about. He remains the same humble, appreciative person that he was before.
"It's impressive to see how well recognized he has become. And it's nice to see that at his core this hasn't changed who he is and what he is all about."
NYSJ: Since you know him so well off the field, have you seen any changes in how he is handling life post-World Cup?
RM: One of the things Landon is clearly cognizant of is that none of this matters without on-field performance. So he is not going to get caught up in agreeing to a lot of things that would take up too much time and require too much travel. We've already turned down a bunch of things that we felt would interfere with what he is doing with the Galaxy and what he wants to do with the U.S. national team. He knows that he needs not only to be on the field, but to be successful and to do what it takes to ensure that his team is successful. He is the captain of the Galaxy and he takes that honor very seriously. He is passionate about the sport of soccer and its growth in this country and that is something he believes in.
NYSJ: Is the Red Bulls bringing in Thierry Henry and what the Galaxy did with David Beckham a few years ago good or counterproductive to getting more U.S. fans interested in the sport?
RM: It's a balance. And it depends on the player. If a player is coming to the U.S. thinking it is a holiday and is not really committed, it is not worth it. But if it is a player who has some juice left and truly wants to help elevate the sport in this country, and show young players what it means to be a professional and bring the right attitude as well as abilities, it is a good thing. Given the economics of the deal with Henry, it is going to be a very good signing for MLS. He is coming in to play and to win. There is no question about his abilities, and he will provide experience to some of the younger players in ways not a lot of other players could.
NYSJ: How would you assess David Beckham's time with MLS?
RM: His signing with the Galaxy [in 2007] was really good for the league. Did it translate the first couple of years to on-field success? No. But personally I believe he created an awareness and visibility to this league that honestly I don't think any other soccer player in the world could have accomplished. He is a global icon who transcends the sport; he is one of the most famous people in the world. Him coming here was huge for the league. Unfortunately, the first couple of years he and the team struggled [he played in just five games in 2007, the team did not make the playoffs in 2008]. But Beckham played well in 2009 and after Landon was given the captaincy back [in 2009 from Beckham, who replaced Donovan in that role in 2007] the team reached the MLS finals. Unfortunately, Beckham was injured again this year and [according to the most recent reports] might not return in 2010. But as far as the question of is the league better with him than if he never played here? No doubt that MLS is far better with him.
NYSJ: Is it too early to tell if the World Cup attracted casual and non-soccer fans to the sport and to MLS? And will that build up to 2014 and beyond as the U.S. bids for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup?
RM: That's a fair question. The key is how do you capitalize on the momentum of the World Cup. It's difficult. The marketplace has changed and continues to change. When I was a kid growing up we had very limited access to soccer. Now you have full-time access literally to every league in the world whether it's via TV, the Internet, your mobile phone, whatever. And you are also competing with all the other sports for the entertainment dollar. Each team has to figure out a way to make themselves relevant in their local market. That's true of any sport.
NYSJ: Is the growth of soccer in the U.S. now on a short time table before people move on to other things?
RM: What happens in our society is that people too often want instantaneous results. But if you step back and look at where soccer is today in the U.S. versus where it was five, ten, 15 years ago, it continues to make progress. As long as you are making progress. Progress can be defined in different ways. Sponsorship dollars, TV money, the number of soccer-specific stadiums, improved quality of play, how many guys have we sold every year out of the league. How are we developing our U.S. team. Look at the number of guys on the U.S. World Cup team who actually started or played part of their career in the MLS. It was 18 or 19 out of 23. To me, that's a great sign of progress. Our national team is much farther along since the advent of MLS. There are a lot of different metrics as to how you measure progress and success. But ultimately we are moving in the right direction and we will continue to.