Selling soccer to the States: The growth of MLS and the beautiful game in the US

Soccer (or football to the rest of the world) is maturing into a sporting force in the US as executives, brands and broadcasters move to put in place the infrastructure to ensure it can bring in the big bucks long-term.

The beautiful game may not inspire the same levels of devotion in North America as it does in Europe, Africa, and Central and South America, but it’s set to do so sooner rather than later, thanks in part to better stadiums, a higher standard of play in Major League Soccer (MLS), and the growing popularity of European leagues. As America becomes less white and more Hispanic, soccer is on an upward trend that suggests it has finally arrived in the mainstream.

A shock loss to Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier would have gone unnoticed by most domestic sports fans and big broadcasters five years ago. When it happened in March there were suggestions that time might up for manager Jurgen Klinsman as fans fretted whether the team could bounce back.

For any other soccer-mad country, that’s a reaction as old as the sport itself, whereas that passion hasn’t existed in America until now. Much of that fire flows from the younger generation, with the country ranked number one in the world for youth participation, while an ESPN poll in 2014 found it to be the second most popular sport after pro football among 12 to 17-year-olds. With more kids playing soccer in the US than ever before, brands and broadcasters alike are circling.

“We’ve seen significant growth in our engagement rates around MLS-specific posts,” says Zola Short, director of soccer sports marketing at Adidas. The business has taken steps to get its social/digital team in lockstep with counterparts in the league, and claims to already be reaping the benefits.

Adidas will no doubt be assessing those rewards as it enters the latter part of an eight-year sponsorship of MLS, ending 2018. Behind Under Armour and Nike in the US, a burgeoning soccer market could be the shot in the arm the German business needs to race past its rivals.

“Our engagement rates around MLS-focused content are significantly outperforming prior years and already exceed expectations,” adds Short. “Because soccer isn’t currently occupying that dominant position within the US sports landscape, we have a certain freedom, to be nimble, experiment, try new ways of thinking and working.”

Under Armour penned a deal with the New York Cosmos in March, marking the brand’s first sponsorship of a domestic soccer team. While the Cosmos play in the country’s second tier — the North America Soccer League (NASL) — the deal is emblematic of the potential rewards sport companies are willing to play the long-game for.

Similar to these brands, MLS’ New York City FC benefits from being part of a globally connected group – City Football Group (CFG) – which allows it access to expertise in its sister clubs and offices around the world. The club had 20,000 season ticket holders and an average attendance of over 29,000 at Yankee Stadium in its inaugural season in 2014 but wants to be the most engaging team in the league both in-person and online.

On the ground, it has its recently launched ‘City in the Boroughs’ events, a rotating series of Town Hall-style meetings where fans from each of the five boroughs are invited to ask the club’s front office, coaches and players questions and provide feedback. Online, the club claims it has a “strong” social media offering with the second most overall followers in the league, including a “number one” ranking on Instagram.

“The New York City market is actually a huge strength for us. We are coming into a space where there is already a strong interest in soccer,” says Jon Patricof, New York City FC president.

“Some of our most diehard and passionate supporters are also followers of international clubs from leagues around the world. We want to get fans who follow international leagues to follow MLS so they can attend games in-person, bring their kids out to our home games at Yankee Stadium and create those special family memories. 63 per cent of our founding members are first time season ticket buyers for a professional sports team. This is extremely encouraging for us. New York City FC fans are soccer fans first and that’s a group we want to continue engaging with.”

Gone are the days when soccer fans would search high and low on a Saturday morning for a bar showing live matches from Europe. Now, US broadcasters are showing more games than ever before. Last season’s Champions League final attracted 2.2 million viewers for Fox Network, while Premier League matches drew an average audience of 425,000. They don’t sound much individually, but aggregated alongside figures from other leagues, the picture looks promising. Even more impressive was the 26.7 million US viewers that watched the Women’s World Cup team beat Japan in the final — the most-watched soccer game in US history.

With all this soccer on TV and massive audiences up for grabs, broadcasters are faced with what leagues to bet on. Back the ever-popular European leagues and they risk stunting MLS before it can reach its potential. Focus too much on the domestic sport, there’s a risk of alienating die-hard fans.

It’s a “balancing act”, claims Phil Schoen, one of the lead sports announcers for global sports media network BeIn Sports. There’s no equivalent stateside to a ‘Clasico’ between Real Madrid and Barcelona or a rivalry as deep as Liverpool and Manchester United, so media owners are having to help establish an identity around MLS and the NASL.

“There’s still work to do and that’s partly because there’s so much soccer on TV now that broadcasters need to work out how to make their coverage stand out from the others,” Schoen continues. “Marketers are starting to realize that soccer has a demographic that they really want to tap into. As a result, I think you’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of penetration and advertising revenue around the sport.”

For advertising revenue to swell even more, there needs to be fundamental change within some larger broadcasters, say observers. “There’s a generation of people in the media who take pride in being anti-soccer; these people, who are white, male and, at their youngest, 50, still control the media in this country to a large degree,” says Rick Liebling, North American strategy director, The Bridge Sports, conducting a study of the sport.

He harbors hope that, once the current crop of budding sports media executives earn their stripes, they “won’t think twice” about giving more coverage to soccer, because they understand “it’s a disservice to say ‘it’s not the NFL’ and isn’t a success”.

That’s not to say all sports broadcasters have failed to back soccer in recent times. All five of MLS’s national partners — ESPN, Fox Sports, Univision, TSN and RDS — are supporting its ‘Stand as One’ campaign launched in February. Devised in partnership with agency The Brooklyn Brothers, the promotional push aims to get fans to show support for their team, focusing on the stories of MLS clubs and offering a glimpse into why the stadium experience is so different to other sports in the US.

“Our fan base is also some of the youngest, most diverse and tech-savvy fans in professional sports. Based on that, we’ve put an emphasis on producing engaging and dynamic digital, mobile, and social content to fuel the levels of fan engagement,” says Howard Handler, chief marketing officer at MLS.

“To sum it up, we see MLS as a movement with the fan being core to everything we do. When you join MLS and become a fan of a club, you are joining something that you can truly be part of and fundamentally influence. Not many brands can offer that to their consumer base or fans. That’s the foundation of our ‘Stand as One’ campaign; we are inviting others to join us and to experience our infectious fan culture.”

MLS is continuing to grow and much of this has to do with the unique supporter culture and match day experience. Adding to the momentum is ongoing development of homegrown talent, global stars joining its leagues, new stadiums, new expansion clubs, and robust domestic and international broadcast media partnerships. There is no doubt that the US is becoming a proud soccer nation.

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