World Cup USA 1994: A Look Back at Sports Marketing and Sponsorship

June 11, 2014

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With the attention of the universe centered on action in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the team that led Sprint’s first foray into sports marketing during the 1994 World Cup looks back 20 years at the intense preparation and execution that went into Sprint’s activation as the official technology provider for the only World Cup held in the United States. Sprint was new to sports marketing, at the time. The World Cup and U.S. Soccer team sponsorships were used to evolve the brand from a domestic brand to international telecommunications provider, and to reach the fast growing audience whose children were playing soccer across the country.

Premier president Mike Goff was director of sports marketing for Sprint in 1994. Vice president Mitch Wheeler was a principal at MAI – an agency partner to Sprint. Through a series of interviews with several participants on the team, Goff recently explored the hits and misses of the effort, the changes that have occurred in the industry since that time and enduring memories from the world’s largest spectator sport. Participants in the roundtable are listed below, followed by the full transcript of the interviews. You can also access the full conversation in this PDF. Also, read Mike’s blog about his memories from 1994.

  • Mike Goff was director of sports marketing for Sprint in 1994. Today, Goff is the president of Premier Sports Management.
  • Mitch Wheeler was a principal at MAI. He currently is a vice president at Premier.
  • Tom Weigman was Sprint’s consumer business unit president. Today,  he is the managing partner and co-founder of Quintessent Marketing.
  • David Grant was the account supervisor for Clarion Performance Properties and currently is a principal at Team Epic.
  • Cathy Griffin was the vice president of marketing for the World Cup USA 1994 Organizing Committee. Today, she is president of Griffin Network.
  • Gordon Kane was the management supervisor for Clarion Performance Properties and is a founder of Victory Sports Marketing.
  • Juan Jose (Che Che) Vidal was the head of technology for the World Cup USA 1994 Organizing Committee. Today he is CEO/partner at Sportnity.

What’s your one enduring memory of World Cup 1994?

Grant: Back then I had no kids, didn’t need much sleep, and the notion of watching what you eat didn’t apply, so non-stop travel and long-ass days weren’t any concern. But after the year-plus of planning, the months of coordination, and the weeks of execution, my most enduring memory is at the end – getting to sit in the Rose Bowl and watching that final match knowing that what we’d been working on for so long was coming to an end. Of course the runner-up in the enduring memory competition was the recap meeting some time later.  After presenting a 300-plus-page document to an excited and appreciative Tom Weigman, his response was “Can you give it to me on one page?”

Griffin: I met great people that I took with me through life that I am still in touch with today. I have memories of wonderful people that have passed – Naoko Imasoto (Dentsu), Steve Childers, the great Tom Kemp, and Bill Alaoglu (WC ‘94 Technology). I also had a near-death accident on a weekend off when we got ticket sales off the ground, and my World Cup friends rallied around me and I came back to a miraculous recovery.

Kane: We had a lot to accomplish and we were aware that this was a major investment by our client – Sprint. Yet my most enduring memory is that every day was fun. My most humorous recollection is the Sprint booth at Giants Stadium being over-run by Irish fans who found out there was a free way to call home. I also remember the July 4th game, the U.S. versus Brazil, and the feeling that this single game could be a tipping point for the sport in this country. The most meaningful was the overwhelming feeling that we were engaged in something significant – for Sprint, for the sport and for the U.S. By the time we got to the final, we were all aware that it had “worked.” The plans we had made had been executed, expectations had been met – in fact exceeded – and now we could relax. I have been enjoying and reliving those moments now for almost 20 years.

Vidal: My most enduring memory of USA 94 is a combination of two feelings: pride and gratitude. The pride and gratitude for having had the opportunity to work in something so close to my heart. And the pride and gratitude for having been part of a team of outstanding individuals that wanted to make history for the sport and the country with the organization of the event. And accomplishing it all while becoming a “family” of friends for life.

Weigman: “Memory” as in singular? Are you kidding me? – Too many things flood back, so I will give you an assortment:

  • Discovering three, or so, weeks prior to the opening game, that there existed a potential vulnerability in Sprint’s Network to abusive international traffic. In order to keep things moving forward, I needed to formally sign a document accepting financial responsibility for any losses that might occur. The principal threat was from drug traffickers in Colombia, and the threat was sized at something like $2 million per hour of exposure. A key member of our Sprint team, Mike Nevels, led a group that worked literally 24/7 to develop a solution, hit on one and got it in place about a day in advance of the opening game.
  • Giving (Sprint CEO) Bill Esrey a tour of the massive Media Communications Center before the final game in Pasadena. I believe it was only then that Bill really understood the magnitude of the communications and world-wide interest around the event.
  • Freezing my ass off in Chicago at one of the early Group Qualifying matches. It was so cold, we needed to go to one of the souvenir stands and buy six to eight jackets for guests whose teeth were beginning to chatter. The forecast had been for seasonably mild weather.
  • Having the Toys-R-Us CEO tell Esrey, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, that this was the first Sprint event he had ever attended, and that it changed his view of the company.
  • Tim Kelly (then Vice President, Marketing for Sprint and now CEO at Zubie) attending his first ever Sprint event – breaking all known records for perspiration at the Italy/Ireland game at the Meadowlands. It did not help that temperatures hit triple figures that day, or that the A/C went out in one of the buses transporting guests from hotels in Midtown to the stadium in East Rutherford. Of note, I came in second in the perspiration tilt.
  • The joyous, colorful, colorful crowds outside the Cameroon/Brazil game in Palo Alto. My son Scott appeared to enjoy the Brazilian definition of short-shorts doing the Samba.
  • How clean our house stayed all summer as we traveled virtually every weekend to World Cup venues to entertain guests. Only a year later – in looking through one of our son’s friends yearbooks – did we discover “Weigman’s House” listed – four times – under “The Best of Times.” Turns out that when the cats were away, the mice played, but had their tracks covered by a group of five that Scott regularly enlisted as a clean-up crew. Cigarette butts in the bushes? Not at our house.

Goff:  Like Tom, I really don’t know that I can boil it down to one memory, so I’ll focus on the oddest memory. The opening match of the ’94 Cup was Germany against Bolivia, at Soldier Field on June 17 and it was unseasonably hot in Chicago that afternoon. I remember sitting there, in heat and humidity, sweating profusely and getting very sunburned. Many of us then scrambled to Midway Airport for a flight to Detroit and the U.S.-Switzerland match that next day at the Pontiac Silverdome.  We discovered, when we got to the airport, that the chase of O.J. and the white Bronco was going on in Los Angeles.  Somebody—I’d still love to know who—broke into the airport’s loudspeaker/paging system and said “Paging Mr. Simpson…paging Mr. O.J. Simpson.”  It was an odd beginning to a month of travel from venue to venue.

Wheeler: The people. We had a great team of talented people who came together under challenging conditions across nine venues over 31 days to accomplish a singular objective.

As a marketer, what have you observed as the key changes in sports marketing in the 20 years since World Cup 1994?

Griffin: Actually, the sponsors we worked with at the time were ahead of the game so if anything, sponsorship now has caught up with those who set the pace years ago. Technology was just coming on and our technology team created state-of-the-art disciplines that others emulate today (of course we had to do it on a dime with two percent of the staff).  Since ‘94 was the first ever World Cup in the U.S. and the World Cup was indeed the largest single sporting event (and by far the most popular) in the world, the challenges and risks were huge and out-of-the-box thinking was a daily agenda.

Kane: Certainly the sports marketing world has become considerably more sophisticated. The ability to utilize analytics to create measurement tools has changed the approach brands have towards sports as a platform. I am pretty comfortable that most of our decisions were correct, and that we worked hard to be able to measure our results – but in truth many of the decisions were more about gut and instincts (and maybe luck) versus the way we would approach the same type of opportunity today.

Vidal: I may be biased, but I believe the key change we have seen in sports marketing since USA 94 has to do with technology. Few people know that World Cup USA 94 represented the historic first-ever event to set up an official Internet portal. Since then, the Internet and all new media have become second only to TV as the marketing mix for sponsors and commercial associates. Not to speak of how the technology legacy of World Cup USA 94 changed FIFA events from then on.

Goff:  Sports marketing has become lifestyle marketing and marketers and brands have become much more sophisticated in using sports, entertainment and causes as platforms for a relationship with their target consumer. 

Wheeler: Technology. Everything we did to organize Sprint’s sponsorship in ’94 revolved around physical notebooks, not notebook computers.  If you lost your notebook, and it happened, suicide often seemed like a viable and attractive option.  A project like World Cup ’94 was massive and trying to keep the multiple project notebooks for everyone involved up to date was a nearly impossible task because various components/details of each of the numerous projects were always changing.

Weigman: I believe I see more instances of strategic matches between the properties and the sponsoring businesses. Prior to this team’s efforts with World Cup, there was an awful lot of meaningless banner and paper hanging. The big change I see is far greater focus and capability in generating interactive involvement. Social and mobile tools just add so much in that regard.

How did your involvement in World Cup 1994 impact your career?

Grant: I suppose it reinforced what I already knew and continue to believe – it starts and ends with the people. Get the right group of people together, add a dash of culture, a dose of vision, and a pinch of leadership, and anything is possible.

Griffin: It took me global, which helped my executive recruiting efforts on many projects I led for clients later in my career.

Kane: It was definitely a seminal moment. I had worked for our agency for about four years and had worked with many major brands and properties – but this was clearly the largest integrated marketing event the firm had ever undertaken. It was a true partnership and that definitely helped me go up the sports marketing learning curve fast. I left the agency in 1996 to go work with the U.S. Olympic Committee in Atlanta (and then Salt Lake) and I am not sure I would have had the confidence to make that move without the Sprint experience.

Vidal: World Cup USA 94 represents my consolidation as a sport technologist and marketer. Not only for what I did during the event, but because it inspired me to create, the first ever official Internet site for an international sport federation (and many others).

Reflecting back on the sport of soccer in the United States, what have been the “hits” and “misses” since 1994?

Kane: Well, the original intent of the U.S. hosting the World Cup was to immediately launch a new league. It took a while for Major League Soccer to finally launch (and so we possibly missed a bit of the window). However, as I look at the league now, with purpose-built stadiums and 16,000 average attendance, and the way the Northeast (Seattle and Portland) has embraced the sport as its own, I am confident that ’94 established the platform that let them flourish. I hoped by now that we would be exporting more of our top players to La Liga, Bundesliga and the Prem. It is a touch disappointing that we do not have more stars at the international level. I think it will continue to hinder our ability to progress in a meaningful way at the World Cup. The bottom line is that the sport continues to see growth and things like the NBC contract to show every Premiership game – and even the “controversy” created by Landon (Donovan) not making the U.S. team – all seem to highlight that there is a growing audience for the sport – and an audience that understands and cares about the nuances of the beautiful game. That all started in 1994.

Goff:  Gordon captured it well—it didn’t happen as quickly as we all would have hoped but Major League Soccer is now an established professional sport in the U.S.  And, while the U.S. will have a hard time exiting group play in Brazil, they now have legitimately improved to where there IS interest among sports fans across the country.

What would you have done differently?

Weigman: While I, at times, cringe looking back at pictures of the events and some of the multi-colored sports shirts, there is only one thing I wish I would have done differently. I wish we had gotten up-front, air-tight calling card permission in our sponsorship contract. One of the “collectible” things I was most excited about was the potential for the 32-country Sprint calling card collection, and I believed that was going to allow us to generate a lot of media attention and buzz. To this day, I believe MasterCard was needlessly protective of its credit card rights, and I bias my own credit card use to Visa cards wherever possible.