In soccer and marketing, central Pennsylvania player becoming worldwide force

FRANK FITZPATRICK
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Chelsea's Christian Pulisic warms up ahead of the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and West Ham at Stamford Bridge, London, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Catherine Ivill,Pool)

It was telling that for his recent GQ Sports photo shoot, Christian Pulisic, the squeaky clean 22-year-old phenom from famously happy Hershey, was posed like some heroin-chic '90s model, reclining languorously on a beaten-up sofa in a pair of vintage jeans and a tank top, his face — the face of American soccer — unshaven and brooding.

That new, edgy image heralded the commercial maturation of a major figure in the lucrative world of sports marketing, one whose appeal, both here and abroad, is already deeper than any previous U.S. soccer player's.

Once a shy teenaged prodigy whose endorsement reach didn't go far beyond candy bars made in his Pennsylvania hometown, Pulisic has promotional clout that has grown in tandem with his development from boy wonder to full-blown soccer stud.

That commercial promise, along with his athletic prowess, explains why a top English soccer club, Chelsea of the English Premier League, paid a $73 million transfer fee — a record for an American player — in 2019 to get Pulisic from a German club. It's why such companies as Nike, EA Sports and Gatorade have brought him on board.

"He's got so much marketing potential," said Mike Koeshartanto, marketing manager for Chicago-based Gilt Edged Soccer Marketing. "He's attractive. He fits the mold of the modern, young, engaged athlete. It's easy to see why he's picked up so many endorsements.

"From Chelsea's perspective, he's helped on the field, helped with their marketing and helped capture the U.S. audience. And he's done it at a time when soccer interest is at an all-time high here."

Chelsea's Christian Pulisic, center, tries to dribble past Leicester's Youri Tielemans, left, and Wesley Fofana, right, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Chelsea at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Leicester City won the match 2-0. (Tim Keeton/Pool via AP)

Well-timed emergence: With the sport making steady headway among mainstream American fans, Pulisic's ascension to a star both on the pitch and as a pitchman has been as well-timed as any of the slick passes he makes as one of Chelsea's primary weapons.

Last year, after decades when you had a better chance of finding a marbles competition on TV, there were more than 3,000 soccer matches broadcast in the United States, an average of more than eight a day. Merchandise sales are soaring here. Interest in the 25-year-old MLS ( Major League Soccer) has increased 27%since 2012, according to Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink. In a 2018 Gallup poll of 18-to-34-year-olds, soccer tied with basketball as the second favorite sport, behind only football.

Those trends, plus Pulisic's ability to capitalize on them financially, should only intensify as the U.S. Men's National Team, likely with him as its captain, tries to get back to the World Cup next year, and four years after that, when North America hosts the event.

Other U.S. stars — Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey — have played in England and enjoyed commercial success. But Pulisic, the son of two college soccer players, may already have eclipsed them. Some marketers compare him to Yao Ming, whose signing by the Houston Rockets in 2002 helped the NBA boost its popularity in the lucrative Chinese market.

Chelsea hopes his signing will pay off in USA: Chelsea hopes its substantial investment in Pulisic — in addition to the transfer fee, they signed him to a five-year, $49 million deal in 2019 — will deepen its footprint in America, where Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have long been the most popular clubs. And companies on both sides of the Atlantic see the young star as a way to tap into the U.S. soccer awakening.

"The average age of U.S. soccer fans is among the youngest for any sport, somewhere around 34-35," said Koeshartanto. "They have spending power. They're tech-savvy. And with globalization everything is now at their fingertips."

In Pulisic, those fans also now have an authentic homegrown star to cheer. He's already a two-time U.S. player of the year. And the Pennsylvanian's 2019 Chelsea debut against Manchester United set an NBCSN ratings record for soccer. He's the youngest-ever captain of the U.S. men's national team; the youngest player to record a hat trick in Chelsea's 115-year history; and the youngest foreigner to score a goal in Germany's Bundesliga soccer league, where he played for Dortmund as a 17-year-old.

"He can change a game instantly," said Gregg Berhalter, the men's national team coach. "He can split the defense, make the big pass."

Social-media chops: The talent he displayed early on and the American hunger for that first homegrown superstar have burnished his social-media chops. In 2018, in perhaps the ultimate on-line compliment, Lebron James, who has 86.7 million Twitter followers, posed for an Instagram photo wearing a Pulisic jersey. Pulisic, though he rarely Tweets, has 3.4 million followers.

Although he can't yet demand the money that such established superstars as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can, it's estimated that Pulisic's endorsements added at least $5 million to his income last year.

"In an era where individual player personality is so impactful, he's clearly the top guy to connect with both soccer fans and the mainstream sports fans who will tune in for the World Cup in 2022 and of course 2026 when that tournament come to North America," said John Guppy, Gilt Edge's owner.

In addition to his deals with Nike, EA Sports and Gatorade, Pulisic also has agreements with Chipotle, Tag Heuer (watches), Panini America (cards and collectibles) and — least surprisingly — hometown Hershey's, for whom he helped launch Reese's Outrageous bar in 2018.

"It's not very often that a superstar hails from your own backyard," said Suzanne Jones, a Hershey vice president

Tough and fearless: Reserved, good-looking with what GQ described as "the fulsome chin of an Action Man figurine," Pulisic, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 155 pounds, is as tough and fearless on the field as he is magnetic off it — a combination that has many marketers drooling.

"He's from Hershey, Pa.," said Koeshartanto, "and he's almost exactly what I would expect every person from Hershey to be like."

Pulisic lives alone in the tony London suburb of Wimbledon. When he's not practicing or playing, he's likely to be at home, on the video-game console or eating a burrito. In fact, it was his cravings for their burritos that led to the Chipotle's deal.

"That was one he manufactured himself," said Koeshartanto, whose company counts Chelsea among its clients. "There are only about 40 Chipotle's outside the U.S., mostly in Europe, but he would always find one and post pictures of himself while at Chipotle's. He's their first international endorser."

Getting coveted No. 10 jersey: Chelsea awarded him the No. 10 jersey that traditionally goes to the team' top offensive player. And in 2020, the only jersey that sold more than that one in the U.S. was Messi's.

Pulisic is also someone who interacts on-line with athletes from different sports. Among them is the Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell, to whom Pulisic sent a jersey, helping to convert the NBA star into a soccer fan.

Research that Gilt Edge conducted in 2020 revealed that Pulisic was by far the most popular player among American fans, 10 times more so than Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley. Among that same group, his popularity also exceeded that of such familiar international superstars as Mo Salah, Kylian Mbappe and James Rodriquez.

"He's the most popular U.S. player, no doubt about that," said Koeshartanto, "and he's probably top five across the world. It was always going to take a generation or two for soccer to take hold in America. Now, thanks in no small part to Christian, we're seeing that."