Kit & Club: World Analysis - MLS
Major League Soccer recently celebrated their quadrinscentennial season. The league has experienced massive growth since its inception. Increased coverage, higher participation at the youth levels, and more resources than ever before have primed the league for rapid growth.
MLS initially started with 10 clubs. While some have folded over the years, the quest for expansion has never been greater. Consider that by the 2009 season, the league sat at 15 teams having added 5 active clubs in the 13 years since forming. Looking ahead, the number of clubs will have doubled as 30 franchises will vie for the right to be crowned 2023-2024 MLS Champions.
Expansive growth of 15 teams in 14 years is no small feat. This is none more evident within the realm of sponsorship. The league itself boasts market leaders as partners including adidas, Audi, Coca-Cola, and Target amongst others. Within the individual clubs, there has been a steady increase of change and involvement.
Let's look at the original ten teams founded in the league's debut 1996 season and their kit sponsors:
Colorado Rapids = N/A
Columbus Crew = Snickers
DC United = Mastercard
FC Dallas (formerly named Dallas Burn) = N/A
Sporting Kansas City (formerly named Kansas City Wizards) = N/A
LA Galaxy = N/A
New England Revolution = N/A
New York Red Bulls (formerly named MetroStars)
San Jose Earthquakes (formerly named San Jose Clash) = Honda
Tampa Bay Mutiny (*folded in 2002) = N/A
Of those ten teams, only three carried sponsors. And those weren't front-of-kit sponsors. These logos were affixed to the uniform as patches on the left shoulder, right shorts leg, and/or back of jersey at the bottom.
If one looks at the past decade, one can see how the sponsorship landscape has evolved over time.
The biggest initial takeaway is that the 2010's continued to show the burgeoning growth for the relatively young league. Both the number and percentage of teams that did not have a kit sponsor (marked "N/A") dramatically decreased over the first five years of the 2010's.
Food & Drink have remained a fixture throughout MLS history as teams have struck kit sponsorship deals ranging from nutrition, soft drinks, and energy supplements.
Here are a few key takeaways from the analysis:
Four teams, LA Galaxy (Herbalife), New York Red Bulls (Red Bull), Portland Timbers (Alaska Airlines), and Toronto FC (BMO), held the exact same kit sponsor throughout the entirety of the previous decade.
14 teams held the exact same kit sponsors within back-to-back intervals that span five years: the four teams mentioned above (LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Toronto FC), CF Montreal (BMO), Colorado Rapids (Transamerica), DC United (Leidos), FC Dallas (Advocare), New England Revolution (UnitedHealthCare), the aforementioned NYCFC (Etihad Airways), Orlando City SC (Orlando Health), Philadelphia Union (Bimbo Bakeries USA), Real Salt Lake (LifeVantage), and Vancouver Whitecaps FC (Bell Canada)
A few teams got off to a slow start in terms of their kit sponsorship history within MLS. Three of the team's founding teams went over a decade without a sponsor as the Colorado Rapids (1996-2015, 19 years), Kansas City (1996-2013, 17 years), and FC Dallas (1996-2012, 16 years) went a bit before pouncing on partners. A fourth club, Chicago Fire, hit the decade mark as didn't have a kit sponsor for their first 10 seasons (1998-2007).
Local, local, local. Of the 25 clubs with kit sponsorships during the 2020/2021 season, 20 of them were partners that were headquartered in the same country/state as the respective club (or held residence in a neighboring state.)
It's worth noting that MLS teams have a long track record of working with partners in the multi-level-marketing world. The five-time LA Galaxy has sported long-time kit sponsor Herbalife since 2007. The San Jose Earthquakes briefly rolled with Amway Global for a few years while FC Dallas repped Advocare for the better part of the previous decade. Real Salt Lake's uniform history with MLM's can be cut in half with XanGo sponsoring the club's first seven years in the league and LifeVantage claiming namesake for the most recent sextuple of seasons.
Seattle Sounders retained the same parent company (Microsoft) throughout the earlier part of the 2010's. They opted for a more wide-reaching identifier as they switched from XBOX 360 Live to the XBOX brand as a whole.
Sporting Kansas City had a similar situation arise as "Ivy Funds" rebranded to "Ivy Investments" ahead of the 2016 season.
Both New York teams underwent a seismic shift within the last 15 years.
New York Red Bulls, formerly known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars since the league's inception, were bought out by Red Bull GmbH ("GmbH" means "company with limited liability" in German) ahead of the 2006 season. Red Bull GmbH holds ownership stake in multiple clubs around the globe including RB Leipzig (Bundesliga) and RB Salzburg (Austrian Bundesliga).
In a similar fashion, New York City Football Club (NYCFC) came in as an expansion team ahead of the 2015 season. NYCFC is owned by City Football Group who in turn is owned by Abu Dhabi United Group. City Football Group is the holding company of Manchester City. And if you're following along with the first edition of the "Kit & Club" series, you'll note that Manchester City is also sponsored by Etihad Airways.
Bank of Montreal (BMO) holds partnerships with all three of the MLS' Canadian teams (CF Montreal, Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps). Only two claim the bank with a kit sponsorship deal (CF Montreal, Toronto FC). And yet, it is the 2017 MLS Champion Toronto FC that can claim the Montreal-headquartered bank as the naming rights partner of their home stadium (BMO Field).
Ahead of next season, three new kit sponsors will make their debut.
Both FC Dallas and LA Galaxy will no longer rep their nutrition partners, instead sporting B2B technology firm MTX Group and eCommerce/retail company Honey respectively. (*Interesting to note that Los Angeles-based Honey also sponsors the LA Clippers' jersey patch.)
Austin FC has tapped outdoor manufacturing giant YETI ahead of their inaugural season.
The trends of soccer sponsorships will continue to change with the times. An ever-growing league will demand its clubs balance national reach with the investment to back it up. And with sleeve sponsor having been a sellable asset since 2019, it has put that much more emphasis on the importance of bringing in the right club partners.
As the league continues to take up space within the North American sports space, so to will the evolution and direction of their kit sponsors.
Max Simpson contributes a variety of content to The Sponsorship Space, covering areas such as experiential marketing, activation analysis, and illustrating the "why" behind interesting partnerships.