Only in the US could a pastime with 3.3 billion fans be called an underdog sport, but traditionally soccer has been perceived in America as the athletic equivalent of Jägermeister – fun for some, but for others, hard to stomach.
"I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life railing against the game of soccer, an exercise that has been lauded as ‘the sport of the future’ since 1977,’" author Chuck Klosterman once wrote. "Thankfully, that future dystopia has never come."
Klosterman’s dystopia may still be a bit far off, but the sport has come a long way in the US over the last few years. Attendance is up, TV deals are in place and advertisers are lining up. Still, with scandals marring the sport on the international stage, and wide-scale adoption sluggish among US sports fans, the question for brands is whether MLS is a bet worth making.
For some, the tantalizing demographics of the MLS audience, plus the chance to play on a less cluttered field, justifies moving money out of more established sports to spend on the upstart.
Advertising with MLS offered "a really efficient way to communicate around a shared passion point with an important part of our customer base — young people and the Hispanic portion of our community," said Nick Carey, VP of sponsorships at Wells Fargo.
As the fastest-growing segment of the US population, young Latinos have long been a focus of growth for Wells Fargo, which runs multiple programs promising to help them enter the financial mainstream. In recent years, MLS has become a key partner to Wells Fargo in reaching that audience. The bank participates in the MLS Youth Player Escort program, which lets young kids walk on to the pitch with league players, and the MSL Community MVP Award, which identifies people who use soccer to make a difference in their communities.
Heieneken, which is a big supporter of soccer on the global level, is another brand taking a big bet on MLS. Last October, the brand inked a deal with MLS to become the Official Beer of MLS, taking over for Budweiser, which had let its deal lapse. "They probably took their foot off the gas and Heineken swooped in," said Ben Sturner, CEO of sports marketing firm Leverage Agency.
Patty Falch, head of events and sponsorships at Heineken, sees a groundswell of support for soccer in the US. "I think there’s a change in the mindset of consumers," she said. "The Millennial consumer and really the Mexican Hispanic consumer love the sport and you continue to see it grow." Heineken is slated to present "MLS Rivalry Week," which includes a much-touted New York Red Bulls vs. New York City Football Club match on June 28. The agreement also provides the brand with "prominent placement in nationally broadcast matches, on-site and digital activations, and in point-of-sale materials."
Mondelez signed a multi-year deal to become the Official Snack of MLS this year. The relationship includes visibility for Mondelez’s brands like Chips Ahoy!, Wheat Thins, Oreo and Ritz crackers on MLS-related media, retail and social media. Mondelez is using the latter to promote its year-old #Passthelove campaign[TW1] ,a social media effort that encourages soccer fans to share their personal connection with the sport. Most recently, the brand used the hashtag to show support for the US Women’s National Team during the FIFA Women’s World Cup this month.
"We think that two years ago, the sport was at a tipping point, and now it’s exploding in popularity," said Stephen Chriss, president of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelez. "We believe that the power of soccer to resonate not only with the general market, but with multicultural consumers, is a great place for our brand to be playing." Chriss says his objective with the sponsorship is to put the brand in cultural conversations that are occurring in the US and around the world.
To hear some marketers tell it, the size of MLS isn’t necessarily a drawback, affording them the opportunity to stand out in a much smaller crowd. "From a sports marketing perspective," said Carey, "there’s really few sports marketing organizations with the scale of MLS that aren’t already cluttered with other sponsors."
And besides, though baseball may be considered the American pastime, the truth is American kids are much more likely to spend their Saturdays playing in a soccer league, hence the term "soccer mom" rather than, say, "baseball mom."
Ernesto Bruce, director of soccer for Adidas, says the US is the No. 2 market in the world for soccer equipment, next to Western Europe. "And in Western Europe, it’s all about soccer," he said, noting that there’s a very small gap now between the two regions.
But are those kids watching soccer?
US soccer, by the numbers
The numbers are encouraging, but won’t cause Roger Goodell any sleepless nights. About 21,000 fans on average attend an MLS game. By contrast, the average NFL game draws about 67,000. Despite assertions that Major League Baseball is too slow-paced for modern attention spans and is losing fans, MLB still draws 12 times the attendance of MLS.
TV ratings for MLS are also paltry. This year, ESPN2’s Sunday broadcasts of MLS games are averaging 283,000 viewers, which is up from last year, but pales next to the average for NFL games (17.6 million.)
Finally, the World Cup, which reliably brings in new US fans every four years, is in danger of jeopardizing such goodwill thanks to a high-profile scandal among FIFA, the organization behind the tournament. Last month, the US Department of Justice indicted 14 high-ranking FIFA officials on charges of corruption. The allegations stem around the choosing of the host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups — Russia and Qatar, respectively. Critics suspect oil money played a role in both locations.
Reports have also emerged that workers building Qatar’s FIFA World Cup infrastructure are paid as little as $50 a week in squalid conditions and about 1,200 workers have died so far. The Qatar location also means the games will be played in December to avoid the summer heat.
Sturner says he doesn’t think the FIFA fallout will hurt the sport beyond the confines of the World Cup. "Not on the grassroots side of things," he said. "Maybe it might hurt the corporate side of FIFA." Sturner adds that Russia and Qatar "aren’t advertiser-friendly locations."
"Soccer" vs. the MLS
Despite all the international intrigue, there’s cause for optimism for US soccer fans. The country’s fast-growing Hispanic population — particularly Mexican Hispanics — love the sport. A 2014 ESPN poll showed that soccer was the second-favorite sport of adults aged 18 to 34, next to football. A report by Scarborough Research also noted that some 79 million Americans consider themselves soccer fans.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re MLS fans. As Carl Johnson, the CEO of Anomaly (and briefly the CEO of the New York Cosmos) notes, American kids who love to play soccer want to watch the best in the world, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Because MLS has salary caps, the league will never draw those kinds of names, Johnson says, but will only get A-list players at the twilight of their careers. "More and more kids are playing and all indications are that that will carry on," Johnson said. "The problem is the domestic professional game is not very good compared to what they see on TV, and the more people play and the more people watch world class football, the harder it is to get interested in a relatively poor game by relatively average players. So it’s entirely possible for football to succeed in the US and the MLS to fail."
MLS, which is said to lose $100 million a year, is also taking the long view. Dan Courtemanche, a rep for MLS, says the league is aware of criticism that US fans want to watch the best players in the world, which is why they tune out MLS. He says the league’s research showed in 2006 that fans wanted more European and South American stars to play for the MLS, so the league instituted the Designated Player Rule, which let teams draft up to three players outside the salary cap. That led to the L.A. Galaxy’s hiring of David Beckham in 2007 for a reported $32.5 million over five years.
Beckham, who was 34 at the time, certainly fit the description of a player in his final years, but Sebastian Giovinco, a 28-year-old that Courtemanche refers to as "the most expensive Italian player on the planet," is not. Giovinco plays for Toronto FC.
Such improvements won’t convince everyone that the "sport of the future" is finally taking off in the US, but others are wildly optimistic. Adidas’ Bruce, for instance, believes soccer will soon elbow out one of the lesser of the Big Four. "We’re very confident that [MLS] will be in the top three leagues in this country within a short amount of time," he said.