June 26 (Bloomberg) -- David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds, has a scheduling conflict.
Kelly is delivering a speech to JPMorgan Chase & Co. employees today at 1 p.m. New York time, just as the U.S. national soccer team starts the second half of its World Cup game against Germany. As he speaks, other colleagues will gather in the lobby of the bank’s midtown Manhattan headquarters to see what might be the most-watched soccer game in American history.
“I wonder if we should bend to the inevitable and postpone the speech,” joked Kelly, 50, an Irishman who said he’ll root for the U.S. team today. “People on Wall Street can be quite imaginative when they want to watch something, so I’m sure people will be able to find some way.”
Kelly’s predicament is one that soccer fans face every four years during the world’s most-watched sporting event, when games often air live during business hours. As ratings records fall and social media influence rises, U.S. companies are taking new approaches to the prospect of employees keeping at least one eye glued to the games.
“I’m way more interested than I used to be,” said Neil Vogel, chief executive officer of About.com Inc., which has just under 200 employees in its New York office. “It seems very culturally relevant now.”
The website, owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp., showed the June 12 tournament-opening game on about “250 inches worth of televisions” and the World Cup hasn’t been a productivity concern, Vogel said in a telephone interview.
“It’s more important that the guys working in tech are sitting around with the guys working in sales,” he said. “People who usually don’t interact much get to sit together and watch soccer for an hour and a half.”
The U.S. can secure a spot in the knockout round with a win or a tie against Germany, which FIFA ranks No. 2 in the world. The Americans can still advance with a loss, depending on the outcome of the Ghana-Portugal game.
As at many businesses across the country, Ladenburg Thalmann Financial Services Inc. employees watch games on flatscreen TVs in the firm’s New York offices.
“Audiences around the world are watching these games, and it’s having a direct impact on the market,” said Philip Blancato, 46, CEO of the company’s asset-management division.
During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, trading volume in Latin American countries dropped an average of 77 percent when their national teams were playing, according to the European Central Bank. Trading volume in Africa dropped 63 percent; 43 percent in the U.S. and 38 percent in Europe.
Through the first 32 games of the tournament, ESPN’s coverage drew a 50 percent increase in viewers compared with the same point in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and twice as many viewers as the 2006 tournament in Germany. The American team’s 2-2 tie against Portugal on June 22, a Sunday, was the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history, with an average of 18.2 million viewers on ESPN.
From June 1 through June 22, the World Cup had more Twitter mentions in the U.S. than the next four closest countries combined, according to data compiled by SAP AG. The U.S. team was the fourth most talked-about on the social media site, trailing Brazil, England and Spain. Twitter says 77 percent of its user accounts are outside the U.S.
The interest was noticed by Columbus, Ohio-based steel company Worthington Industries Inc., which yesterday changed the start time of its quarterly earnings conference call to avoid conflict with the U.S.-Germany match.
Heineken NV, the world’s third-biggest brewer and the principal sponsor of the UEFA Champions League since 2005, turned workplace productivity concerns into a marketing opportunity. It created a video that featured Heineken USA Chief Marketing Officer Nuno Teles urging employers to allow their staff a “#BrazilianNoShow” for World Cup games.
Teles, a native of Portugal, said in a telephone interview that he created the campaign because of the company’s ties to the sport, his own passion for soccer and Heineken’s branding message of going beyond established norms to fulfill desires. Teles said he moved to the U.S. in March after four years in Brazil, and his expectations of American soccer enthusiasm have been surpassed.
“I was very positively surprised by the excitement,” Teles said. “This is going to be a growing trend over the next years as the emotional engagement is there.”
Outside the U.S., many employers have gone one step further. Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza declare holidays when the national team plays, and financial markets close two hours ahead of the games. At General Motors in Brazil, the largest South American subsidiary of Detroit-based General Motors Co., employees receive vacation days when Brazil plays, said Cristi Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the automaker’s Chevrolet unit.
Embraer SA, Brazil’s biggest jetmaker, negotiated with unions at the start of the year to add a few extra minutes to each work day in exchange for letting employees off early to watch Brazil games, said Nelson Salgado, vice president of institutional relations, in an interview earlier this month at Bloomberg’s Sao Paulo office.
Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, owned by the Chilean state, installed giant video screens at its Santiago headquarters and outside mines across the desert. Employees, except those essential workers on shift, are encouraged to watch the World Cup games.
Not everyone takes this approach. GM’s vacation policy in Brazil does not apply to its American offices. Brian Summers, a sales manager at Colonial Life and Colonial Voluntary Benefits in New York, has warned his employees about straying from their desks to watch the match.
“I tell my staff, ‘The World Cup isn’t paying your wages,’” Summers said in an interview. “If you want to dodge out for a game, someone else will pick up your sales.”
Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas estimated that if today’s audience matches the 16 million that watched the team’s June 16 win over Ghana, U.S. employers would lose about $390 million in wages. That figure is calculated with the assumption that half of those watching are at work, and the average American makes $48.76 every two hours.
John Challenger, the company’s chief executive, said allowing employees to watch the games, as opposed to discouraging it, might boost productivity in the hours before and after the game.
“Smart companies are thinking we might lose a bit of productivity but we gain from creating tighter relationships,” Challenger said in a telephone interview.
JPMorgan employees around the world have been invited to view important games on big screens -- some 12 feet (4 meters) high -- in the lobbies of a number of the bank’s offices, including New York locations on Park and Madison Avenues. Company spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli said today’s U.S.- Germany match will get the same treatment.
That means Kelly, who works in the Park Avenue offices, won’t need to go far if his speech ends before the game.
“It is unusual for people to be this interested in soccer in America, but it’s a good thing,” Kelly said. “When you think about it, all the other things going on in the world, it’s nice to see countries fighting it out on the soccer pitch.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York at email@example.com; Mason Levinson in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org; Jacob Barach in New York at email@example.com
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