Target Corp. is trading in its racing helmets for soccer cleats.
The Minneapolis-based retailer, which ended a 27-year sponsorship of IndyCar last year, is embarking on its biggest push ever into team sports. It’s chosen to do so through soccer, a sport that is growing in popularity nationwide and especially resonates in the Twin Cities, where Minnesota United FC is joining Major League Soccer this year.
In a multipronged partnership, Target will announce Thursday that it has signed a three-year deal to be an official partner of Major League Soccer; will be a major sponsor of the local team, whose players will soon sport the company’s trademark bullseye on its jerseys, and will be the official retailer for U.S. Youth Soccer.
Rick Gomez, the retailer’s senior vice president of marketing, said Target is focusing on soccer because it has a devoted following among many of the company’s core customer demographic groups, including Hispanics, families and millennials.
It’s a passion, he added, that is reflected in Target’s sales. Last year, the company sold more than a million soccer balls.
“Soccer merchandise — think soccer balls and shin guards — were up 10 percent [in sales] in 2016 versus the previous year,” he said. “That is growing faster than any other sports category at Target.”
Major League Soccer, a 22-team league, has been expanding and adding more teams as the appetite for soccer has grown across the United States. This will be the first year that Minnesota United FC, as well as Atlanta United FC, will be playing as part of the league.
While a new stadium in St. Paul is still in the planning stages, Minnesota United will be playing this spring at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota, where Target will have on-field branding during the games as part of its sponsorship deal. Some of the details about what it will look like are still being hashed out.
A Minnesota United spokesman said the team will have announcements regarding “other significant partnerships” in the near future.
Gomez said that Target, whose name already graces Target Field, home of the Twins, and Target Center, home of the Minnesota Lynx and Timberwolves, is not pursuing naming rights of the new soccer stadium and is focused instead on being the jersey sponsor.
Target declined to disclose the dollar amount of its total investment in the new soccer marketing push or how it compares with its previous partnership with IndyCar.
“This is not just one partnership — it’s a comprehensive, holistic approach to soccer as a sport,” Gomez said. “If you’re a soccer fan or if you play soccer, you’re going to see a lot of Target and the bullseye.”
The change also reflects a larger shift in Target’s overall marketing strategy to focus more on Hispanics. During the holidays, for example, Target boosted its Spanish-language ad buys by 67 percent.
It’s a smart move for companies to consider soccer as an advertising opportunity given its multi-ethnic audience and growth trajectory, said T. Bettina Cornwell, head of the marketing department at the University of Oregon.
“Brands that invest in soccer today will be really happy brands in five years because soccer is growing in popularity,” she said. “As well, soccer holds this promise in the United States with this upward trend and a freshness that you cannot deny.”
Sports marketing in general offers a special opportunity for marketers, she added, since people still like to watch the games live while their other TV watching habits have been changing.
“It’s not something you’re going to download and watch six weeks from now — sports continues to deliver that in an amazing way,” she said.
However, Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, noted that soccer presents some challenges for advertisers because there are fewer breaks in play and therefore fewer opportunities for commercials. “That is a fundamental barrier soccer has faced — there is no break unlike in tennis, unlike in baseball, unlike in football for you to sneak in a commercial,” he said.
Still, the sport has plenty of other things going for it. And in any case, he added, soccer makes a lot more sense for Target to get involved with than motor racing.
“Soccer fits better with the Target brand with its athletic nature and being a brand catered to families and children,” he said.
Last year, Target ended one of the longest running sponsorships in motor racing when it sunsetted its partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing and its winning IndyCar Series team.
The move was one of many strategic shifts Target has undertaken since CEO Brian Cornell joined more than two years ago. For example, the company has refocused its corporative giving strategy from education to wellness.
Target, which reported disappointing holiday sales on Wednesday, has been looking to shake things up to keep its brand fresh amid fierce competition from the likes of Amazon.com.
As part of its partnership with Major League Soccer, Target will get airtime during broadcasts on Univision, Fox Sports, and ESPN as well as opportunities for in-stadium experiences throughout the country. It will also sponsor player appearances. Other major MLS sponsors include Adidas, AT&T, Chipotle, Heineken and Home Depot.
As for its youth sports partnerships, Target will be an official partner and presenting sponsor of the Target United Cup — a traveling event that is the largest recreational soccer tournament in the U.S. Target has also provided a $75,000 grant to the U.S. Soccer Foundation to help it expand a free after-school program.
The soccer marketing push will also likely show up in Target’s stores. The retailer is talking to its vendors to see how they can partner on related merchandising initiatives.