Over the past two decades, soccer has become increasingly popular in the United States. Beginning with the 1994 World Cup, American sports fans have steadily come to understand that players are full of engaging style even if there aren't a ton of goals, and that a draw can be just as exciting as a victory. These days, there are enough casual soccer fans that a mid-week broadcast of a Champions League match or a big weekend game between two English Premier League clubs can get a pretty solid TV rating in this country.
In fact, the sport is popular enough here that an athlete investing in a successful soccer club can be seen as a pretty intelligent business decision rather than some questionable entrance into foreign enterprise. So it should not be a terrible surprise that Miami Heat star LeBron James(notes) now owns part of the legendary Liverpool Football Club. From Matthew Futterman for the Wall Street Journal:
The deal between Mr. James and Fenway Sports Group will give Mr. James a minority stake in the soccer club Liverpool, which FSG owns. FSG, which also owns the Boston Red Sox, is partnering with Mr. James's sports-marketing firm, LRMR Branding & Marketing to become the exclusive world-wide representative for Mr. James.
The deal marks the first time that a professional athlete at the top of his game has taken an ownership interest in a team with the size and reach of Liverpool, which is one of the most popular and powerful sports franchises in the world.
It also adds yet another dimension for Boston-based FSG, which became a global operation last October when it bought Liverpool for $488 million. The company was founded as New England Sports Ventures nine years ago after Messrs. Henry and Werner bought the Red Sox and 80% of regional sports channel New England Sports Network. In 2007 Fenway became 50% owner of the Nascar auto-racing team Roush Fenway Racing.
LeBron has said for years that he wants to become a global icon on the order of Michael Jordan. And while reaching that level of fame will probably always depend most on whether or not he becomes an NBA champion several times over, business decisions like this one (and, in a more minor sense, the web cartoon series he premiered Wednesday) position him to reach out to an unprecedented number of fans. In return, he will likely help give Liverpool a larger profile among budding fans of European football in America.
Along with Manchester United, Liverpool is historically the most successful soccer team in the United Kingdom, earning 18 championships at the top level of English football and five European Cup trophies. They've fallen on relatively hard times over the past few seasons, but they are an established brand with worldwide recognition. It's extremely unlikely that LeBron will have any say in the club's policy or day-to-day operations, but, as far as marketing ploys go, this is a smart one.
LeBron's detractors are sure to wonder if continual marketing moves such as this one are distracting LeBron from gaining the competitive spark needed to become the best player on a team that wins multiple championships. These concerns are not without merit, but they'll also continue to follow James around until he reaches that achievement. If that day ever comes, LeBron will want to be well positioned to become the most famous athlete the world has ever seen. This relationship with Liverpool gets him closer to that goal. Taken on its own merits, it's a great decision.
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