You must be doing something right if companies such as Microsoft, Panasonic, Pepsi, The Home Depot and Anheuser-Busch invest time, money and energy into your enterprise. At Major League Soccer, building a solid fan base and adding franchises using innovative marketing techniques is a hands-on proposition.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted June 25, 2009)
When it comes to discussing major professional sports in the U.S., the talk always includes MLB, NFL, NBA and the resurgent NHL. But when it comes to fan, consumer and marketing clout, Major League Soccer is as potent as any of its brethren. For example, the WNBA this season has two teams, the Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks, with marketing deals that will put corporate logos across the front of player jerseys. NBA commissioner David Stern said more such deals would follow and called the initiative "groundbreaking." This season, MLS commissioner Don Garber can boast that 11 of 15 MLS clubs have jersey-front sponsors, including Volkswagen (D.C. United), Microsoft (Seattle Sounders FC), Amway (San Jose Earthquakes) and Herbalife (Los Angeles Galaxy). MLS marketing partners have also invested in soccer-specific venues, such as Home Depot Center (Los Angeles), Pizza Hut Park (Dallas), Toyota Park (Chicago) and Dick's Sporting Goods Park (Colorado); with new venues planned for the Kansas City Wizards, New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes.
And, for better or worse, MLS also has beginning in July another half season with one of the world's best-known athletes, David Beckham. In 2007, Beckham signed a five-year contract estimated at $50 million a year including marketing deals to play for the Galaxy. He brought with him global media attention, The David Beckham Academy for young soccer players at Home Depot Center, record crowds and Hollywood chutzpah as he and wife Victoria rubbed elbows with Tom Cruise, Will Smith and other celebrities. The economy has affected the league, but perhaps not as hard as elsewhere. This year, nine corporate partnership deals were up for renewal, and in each case the companies chose to stay with the league. In addition, MLS, which began play in 1996, added the already successful Sounders this season and will have three more teams by 2011 in Philadelphia, Portland and Vancouver. David Wright, vp-partnership marketing for MLS and Soccer United Marketing (which holds commercial rights to MLS) talked to NYSportsJournalism.com about the dynamics of building and marketing a pro sports league.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How is SUM/MLS and their marketing partners adjusting to the current challenged economy?
David Wright: Clearly, the challenges with the economy faced by teams and fans are real. But all things considered, we are positioned pretty well. We have a good foundation and we expect a lot of good things over the next 12-18 months. From the commercial side, our marketing partners are being a bit more diligent and reviewing how that are spending their advertising dollars. But from an activation standpoint, we are at or even higher in some cases than we have been in the past. In some markets, where companies have been pulling back on some of their resources, they have been increasing [activation] with MLS. At the end of the day it comes down to results. What you are able to give back to your partners. We spend a ton of time developing business solutions that impact our partners' businesses. They see results, and that's why they keep coming back.
NYSJ: MLS has 11 clubs with jersey-front corporate logos. What are the pros and cons of this?
Wright: For us, our sport is a global. And on the international stage having a partner's logo on the front of the jersey has been a standard for quite some time. We have spent a lot of time researching all aspects of our sport. Clearly the first ten years were all about developing the brands of our teams. The next phase has proven to be pretty positive for us. Outside of a team crest there is no stronger position than on the front of a team jersey. Our fans are very open to corporate sponsors and realize how important the sponsors are to the success of their team. So we now have 11 clubs with jersey-front sponsors (full list below) and I anticipate there will be more. I can't speak as to whether or not it will become something accepted in other sports. I can speak to the global nature of our sport and to the history that brands have had with some of the world class teams around the world. It makes sense for us. It has been a very positive involvement for our league.
NYSJ: Given the history of stadiums and arenas offering naming rights, why has MLS been so successful with soccer-specific stadiums and corporate sponsorship?
Wright: I think this comes back to working with blue-chip companies and producing results. With the soccer-specific stadiums in our league, they have become somewhat of an aspirational destination. When you look at Pizza Hut Park, Dick's Sporting Goods Park or Home Depot Center, for example, there are accommodations for youth soccer games, for concerts and at Home Depot Center the David Beckham Academy. So their multi-use purposes are beneficial not just to soccer fans but the community.
NYSJ: Have you heard from MLS fans that there are too many "official sponsor of ..." designations? What are the challenges in balancing what MLS and its partners need to do to keep the league growing and what fans deems as marketing intrusions?
Wright: You need to have that balance between fans and partners, and MLS has done a very good job of weighing commercial needs versus fan expectations. Our model works. At the end of the day it's about bringing your brand to passionate fans and having them all involved in supporting and growing the team and the business. We are fortunate to align ourselves with world-class companies who have been willing to work and invest time and money to increase the value of Major League Soccer.
NYSJ: Can you address the situation with David Beckham both as a player and as a marketing face of MLS? He will return from Europe in July in what appears to be his farewell tour with MLS. There likely will be a big splash in the media when he returns, but how will that differ from his first arrival?
Wright: We are talking about an iconic player, arguably the most recognizable athlete on the planet. He has chosen to ply his trade with Major League Soccer. However, we also have to recognize that he is one of more than 300 players in our league. We will have a lot of great players at the 2009 All-Star Game [July 29 in Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah]. We are very fortunate to have in addition to David Beckham other great international stars as well as young American players who are coming up through the ranks, such as Robbie Rogers, Connor Casey, Kenny Cooper and Sacha Kljestan. They are having an impact, bringing attention to the league and also starting to make waves internationally. I think everyone agrees that David Beckham's time with MLS has given us a push from an on-field performance standpoint. Also what he has been able to give back to the Los Angeles Galaxy community and to the national game is fantastic. We give him a lot of credit for bringing more media attention to the league. Clearly when he comes back there will be a lot of interest, and we look forward to having him back in July.
NYSJ: MLS is in an expansion mode, obviously with the proper fan and marketing support, but what are the challenges of making sure the product itself - including having a top-tier level of play and marketing partners - is not watered down?
Wright: Going in, you have to have a partnership that makes sense for the partner and it has to be a partner that makes sense for Major League Soccer. We have done a very good job of building relationships and aligning with incredible brands that have benefited tremendously from their decision to join with us, and who also have provided great benefits for Major League Soccer. At the partnership marketing as a league, we spend a lot of time inside the walls of our partners so that we can truly understand their business and help them develop business solutions and help the partnership drive value. There is a reason that we went 9-for-9 this year in renewals. At the end of the day everything comes back to the value proposition, delivering on value. And Major League Soccer delivers to fans and to our marketing partners.
MLS Jersey-Front Sponsors
Chicago Fire (Best Buy), Chivas USA (Comex), Columbus Crew (Glidden), D.C. United (Volkswagen), Houston Dynamo (Amigo Energy), Los Angeles Galaxy (Herbalife), New York Red Bulls (Red Bull), Real Salt Lake (Xango), San Jose Earthquakes (Amway), Seattle Sounders FC (Microsoft), Toronto FC (Bank of Montreal). Source: SUM/MLS
Official MLS Partners
Adidas, American Airlines, Aquafina (Pepsi), Budweiser, Chase, Cuervo, Dick's Sporting Goods, Gatorade (Pepsi), Glidden, Makita, NAPA, Panasonic, Pepsi, Red Bull, The Home Depot, US Soccer Foundation, VISA, Volkswagen, XBox 360 (Microsoft). Source: SUM/MLS