Every few years, America falls in brief, furious, two-week love with an unfamiliar athlete from an unfamiliar sport, brought straight to our TVs and phones via the Olympics or the World Cup. This summer's crush looks a whole lot meaner than Kerri Strug, Shaun White, or Johnny Weir, but his commercial ceiling is just as high.
Tim Howard, goalkeeper for the U.S. Men's National Team, can claim a large measure of the Americans' success in the World Cup. And now he's in position to leverage that success into commercial fortune. The trick, according to a new cover story in Adweek, is how to keep Americans caring about a goalkeeper now that the World Cup has run its course.
Howard may not have the long-term national appeal of a Tiger Woods or a LeBron James, but he's got an international footprint that few American athletes can match. According to Adweek, he's potentially just days away from signing several major deals. Plus, his unquestionably strong and memorable play in Brazil is tailor-made for a range of advertising campaigns ... not that he concerns himself with that.
"It's important that I'm a role model, and that the companies that I associate myself with feel the same way about their own images," Howard told Adweek. "I try not to, and I don't think I ever have just jumped at any opportunity because a company wanted me. Just because there was money on the table doesn't mean that I took it."
Howard already has small six-figure deals ("small," of course, is a relative term) with McDonald's and Nike. He's no stranger to celebrity, being a veteran of the English Premier League (he plays for Everton, if you'd like to follow him in his day job starting next month). Even so, he admits to being a touch overwhelmed by the intrusiveness of cell phone-wielding fans. But he understands it's part of the game, and concedes that it's better to have this fame hit him at 35 than at 21: "It's better to be a mature adult who's gone through life experiences," he says, "who's seen some ups and downs."
Much of Howard's longterm appeal will depend on how involved he is with the U.S. World Cup run in 2018, when the American team is expected to contend far longer. Howard's age works against him on that score. A more likely scenario is that Howard will serve as a gateway for U.S. viewers taking a toe-dip into soccer.
They'll find American brands have already beaten them there; General Motors, for instance, will be paying $560 million to place its logo on the jerseys of Manchester United starting later this year. And FC Barcelona, home of Neymar, Lionel Messi, and now Luis Suarez, has deals in place with Gatorade, Intel and Black & Decker.
Every World Cup, the United States cares about its team and its players just a little bit longer than before. Tim Howard may not be the man to break soccer into the American mainstream, but for the next few years, he'll be visible to that mainstream nonetheless.