MLS - The Sponsorship "Sleeper Pick"
For many of us playing youth soccer was a part of life, largely due to the low sign up and equipment costs opposed to other popular youth sports. In North America, the love for playing the game generally fizzles out in the high school years. In 1996, despite nay-sayers and non-believers, the MLS began its inaugural season with the hope that professional soccer would become a mainstay in the lives of North Americans. The league has faced its fair share of setbacks throughout the years, nearly reaching complete failure in 2000. However, it is now heralded by ESPN Sports Poll as the fastest growing league in terms of avid fans from 2002 – 2012, reaching all ages and genders. This astonishing growth should continue to provide an incentive for brands to put sponsorship dollars toward the teams and the league as a whole.
The MLS portfolio may not be as flashy as some of the “big 4” leagues in North America, but there are a few brands that have been there since inception: Adidas, Anheuser-Busch, Aquafina and Pepsi. These brands have proven their loyalty and now sponsor a booming league with 19 teams (21 by 2015) including three in Canada. This loyalty continues to bring new and exciting opportunities. For example, “Jersey Week” will mark its second annual event in partnership with Adidas this year. Each team will unveil a new first, second, or third jersey with a set theme, this year’s being “Soccer, Made in North America.” This is a great opportunity for Adidas to engage fans within their target market, and leverage their long standing relationship with the league. The ability to keep these sponsors believing in the league growth process and interested in the future activation opportunities is testament to the owner Clark Hunt and his team.
Will Big Players, Bring Big Sponsors?
The trend of MLS teams singing big international players began when world famous David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy. At the time he signed a reported 250 million dollar contract, which was eventually determined to actually be 6.5 million/year, for five years. The team benefited not only from Beckham’s play on the pitch, but also managed to sign a five year shirt sponsor deal with Herbalife worth an MLS record, $20 million dollars. The Galaxy’s attendance numbers also exploded with all of the 11,000 season seats and the 42 executive suites sold. Tim Lieweke is known as the man who brought Beckham to the MLS, and is now making a splash as the President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment by signing Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. This created a buzz felt by all in the city of Toronto. MLSE has a number of high profile partnerships, mainly involved in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors. With these big signings and new found buzz, MLSE can offer these partners a major summer opportunity to compete with the Toronto Blue Jays, who essentially own the summer sport scene in the city.
Success in the business world is often measured by your ability to spot an opportunity before your competitors. The league is still growing, but growing fast. The average attendance has risen to 18,611; higher than both the NHL and NBA according to Forbes. There is still an opportunity for sponsors to get in at a low cost. Soccer is a unique sport that gives brands unprecedented access to grass roots players’ families, as well as those who enjoy living a healthy active lifestyle.
On March 3, 2014 Chipotle Mexican Grill became the latest to take advantage of the growing popularity of the league and signed a three year deal, sponsoring the league and 12 of its teams. It was important for Chipotle to be able to engage fans on a personal level and not just slap signage on the field and call it a campaign. With that strategy in mind, they will be sponsoring the Homegrown Game, offering discounts on opening day to consumers wearing MLS gear, among other activations. (For complete details visit -http://bit.ly/NrJEOB)
Chipotle is a perfect example of how brands can take advantage of the low cost, unique fan base and original opportunities the MLS can offer to its partners. Other companies and brands should take note before the league really establishes itself as one of the premier and sought after North American sports leagues.