brand commercial Major League Soccer (MLS)

Inside the MLS’s strategy to become the ‘sport of the North America’

28 December 2018 08:07 ET

Up until recently, there were four sports considered to be mainstream in America. These were football, baseball, basketball and hockey. Now, in some parts of the country, I woul dare say hockey doesn’t resonate with the populace, and they would have replied the fourth sport is NASCAR.

As the French say “Chacune a sa merde.”

Today’s professional team in the United States are giants that are worth millions of dollars and even more, according to annual surveys published in Forbes.

However, there’s a new mainstream sport.

Welcome to Fútbol, America.

You see, the rest of the world fell is in love with soccer. A global survey from Nielsen in 2017 estimated that four out of 10 people are soccer fans. As a result, Major League Soccer (MLS), the US and Canada’s top level professional soccer league, is now playing catch-up. This involves building clubs, fanbases, attracting commercial partners and investing in the grassroots future of the game.

Major League Soccer was founded a season before the US hosted the World Cup in 1994. The establishment of a professional football league was one of the prerequisites FIFA imposed in awarding the World Cup to the US.

The Strategy To Become The Sport of North America

Recently the Drum had an interview with Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures, who is tasked with the unenviable job of building an operation that can rival the other “American” sports.

Stevenson, who is a verteran of the NBA and PGA Tour, recently told The Drum that the popularity of soccer has tripled in the US in the last decade. The average game-day atttendance in MLS in 2017 was 22,106 – lower than England’s Premier League (35,870) but higher than France’s Ligue 1 (21,199). A Gallup report ranked the MLS as the US’s second most popular spectator sport, lagging just behind the NFL.

What is important to MLS suits like Stevenson is that MLS has the highest millennial audience of any major US sport. This comes at a time when interest in the NFL, regarded as the king of American sports, is declining. In the same Gallup poll its popularity fell from 43% in 2007 to 37% a decade later. It is still the more popular sport, but it’s dominance is ripe for challenging.

According to Stevenson, soccer is growing in North America due to these factors:

Immigration. As much as the current president like to incite hatred towards immigrants, those hard-working people just so happen to adore soccer. This is a phenomenon not unique to the Unites States. Soccer’s popularity has risen astronomically in Canada since my days living in Montréal, due to increased broadcasting for sure, but also to increased immigration from soccer-loving countries. The same effect was seen in France.

France’s squad benefited from immigration this summer as the team won the World Cup.

“This is truly the sport of the new North America,” Stevenson says. “It is a new, interesting, fast-paced alternative to what exists. Some of the sports that are popular in this country either require expensive equipment, a long time, a lot of people… This sport? You just need a patch of turf, a ball, and four pals.”

An inclusive, uninterrupted, experience

What strongpoints can take that global passion and bring it home?

For one, compared to TV broadcasts of other sports in the US, the MLS is fast-paced and is not as saturated with ads.

“The sport is compelling to watch, it is not interrupted by commercials,” Stevenson says. “In the US and Canada, our sports have commercials throughout the entire game. The millennial audience finds the fact that there are two uninterrupted halves in soccer very appealing.”

Stevenson says the time it takes to play a soccer game is short enough even for millenials, who are accused of having short attention spans. Stevenson calls it refreshing that the “viewing experience [of MLS matches] is done in two hours, unlike the four or five hours of other traditional North American sports.”

European football media looks increasingly towards short-form content.

The international nature of MLS

MLS draws players from more than 70 countries, and that means that MLS is more likely to reflect is fanbase in a way that other homegrown sports may not.

As to this point, Stevenson says: “Soccer is in the DNA of so many people that come to the country. It is ingrained in the culture, it is a flower that is blooming.”

“The diverse composition of our clubs is similar to that of the younger fanbase. We have spent a lot of time here making sure that our fanbase and potential fans feel welcome in our buildings. Inclusivity is a big deal for us. Your race, creed, colour, sexual preference doesn’t matter, you are welcome in our buildings.”

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People who do not follow other sports might be inclined to follow soccer just because of the atmosphere at the games. “They like the experience of being there, being part of the ritual, the traditions, and the songs. It is a fun experience.”

Marketing International Signings

Stevenson thinks signing high-profile players help to boost the international growth of the MLS, including activations around those exciting players.

Over the years, the league has hosted superstar names (usually near the back-end of their careers) such as David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa. Currently, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are drawing attention to the competition with their eye-catching performances for DC United and La Galaxy.

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Big signings do help get the fans’ attention. As an example, Real Madrid’s Facebook page lost 1m followers are Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Juventus this summer. The Italian side, on the other hand, saw its Instagram following boom 3.5 million.

Content, Content, Content

Stevenson said there was a need for MLS to improve its storytelling, and video distribution (especially on social media). Their ability to do this has definitely helped build new fans. In the last five years, the MLS has gone from producing around 2,000 videos a season to 20,000.

Stevenson says this about the content: “Our fanbase requires us to be the most innovative league because of the way they consume media and so we work hard at finding new ways to serve our fans. We have players from more than 70 countries around the world [and] it is important to tell fans where these players are from. Global fans must also have an opportunity to watch live games and highlights. This is why we spend so much time innovating.”

MLS inked a three-year partnership with Twitter. The social network approached the league with a plan for attracting more viewers and increasing interactivity and fan engagement. Most recently, Twitter set up a camera at the corner flag during a fixture. Users who tweeted the bespoke hashtag were sent pictures live from the game, a personalised effort that brought fans closer to the action.

“Twitter is effective at news and events,” Stevenson says. But Twitter also carries live broadcasts. Univision gets the Spanish language stream (big business in North America and further south) and Twitter gets the English language stream. The figures on these streams have been “quite encouraging” according to Stevenson. We’ll have to take his word on it, though, as those figures are not made public.

“We find that it also helps build the fanbase, it is an additive opposed to a subtractive.”


The MLS has been active in alligning with brands, and believes there is a mutual benefit. in exchange for helping to build the game, brands gain access to a passionate, young, diverse and engaged audience. Adidas, Heineken, Audi, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Continental, EA Sports, Tag Heuer, Kellogg’s, Target and Etihad Airways are among the current partners. Furthermore, the value of these partnerships appears to be rising: in 2017, Adidas extended its partnership to 2024 for a reported league record of $700m.

The advantage to MLS is financial also. The brands all have marketing budgets that far exceed that of the league.

“If we are good at solving the brands’ problems, then they will spend more money. That way we can tap into our partners’ marketing dollars and they can make our sport, league and players come alive. We can never have that amount of marketing dollars to do something similar. We’re reliant on them to build the sport.”

The league creates big event days as a means for the brands and league to work together. For example, MLS boasts its All-Star fixtures, the #MLSisBack celebration and Decision Day, the last Sunday of the regular season when the final playoff berths are on the line. It is analogous to Europe’s transfer deadline day. Additionally, there is the cleverly branded Heineken Rivalry Week which sees all regional rivalries scheduled and played out at the same time. These derbies are manufactured to create buzz around brand partner Heineken.

“We invest money in that, Heineken then supports it and amplifies it by making it loud in the media, they sell beer and we are more visible,” Stevenson says. “It truly is a partnership and the best testament of that is whether they renew with us or not.”

Comparisons with Europe

Stevenson expresses pride in MLS’s growth while freely admitting there is a long way to go before the league can compare itself with established European leagues. Stevenson expressed an admiration for the Premier League in particular.

“We only hope one day that our league will be recognisable as theirs. They had a headstart, the relationship that its clubs have with the community is enviable. Premiership clubs have been around for a couple of hundred years and ours have only been around for 23 years, so we have to catch up faster.

“If I had to highlight what we do well, we approach innovation, technology and relationship-building in a unique way.”

He pointed at some of these innovations; MLS was one of the first leagues to test VAR, it placed microphone on goalkeepers and interviewed them during games, it granted access to players before and after the games, it mounted cameras on referees and corner flags and is intent on creating digital experiences to impress fans. He also outlines how fans attending matches could buy and leave with a replica of their favourite player’s jersey after a goal is scored, just with a couple of button presses on their mobile device.

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By Ken Russo

While my background is in the legal industry, the skills acquired and fine-tuned in law practice are now applied to focus on the sport of football. Russo Soccer aims to inform, educate and engage on news and relevant issues in the game.

Um advogado por formação, concentro meu trabalho nos negócios, comunicações e operações de equipes no futebol mundial. | Abogado con fundación avanzada en comunicaciones, enfocado en los negocios del fútbol y las comunicaciones. | Je suis un avocat experimenté dans les affaires de football.