Major League Soccer Is Using World Cup Fever to Score New Fans

CMO Howard Handler lays out his game plan

Since rolling out in 1996, Major League Soccer has struggled to gain prominence in the U.S. But thanks to World Cup fever, the spirited U.S. team and its hero Tim Howard, the energized league may finally get the bump it needs to gain traction with sports fans.

The momentum will help fuel MLS’ comprehensive TV deals with ESPN, Fox and Univision that will bring in $720 million over eight seasons—or five times more per year than in 2007. The networks are giving MLS, which suits up 22 World Cup players, enviable weekend time slots. But while things are looking up, MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler knows that scoring points with fans won’t exactly be a free kick.

Despite all the World Cup excitement, many fans of other sports here in the U.S. contend it’s boring. How can you change that mind-set?

Some people in their 40s, 50s and 60s still scratch their heads about the sport; although the numbers that we saw for the U.S. men’s games, as well as just World Cup in general, where you have millions and millions of people, would suggest [the sport] reached everybody in America. And I think that, generationally speaking, time is on our side. A good bit of our organic fan growth has been with millennials, who are coming of age and having kids.

MLS launched an ad campaign called “Here” over the weekend. Tell me about it.

It celebrates the fact that everything World Cup that you experienced over the last few weeks—the passion, the great moments, the stars—is all here in Major League Soccer. The effort will be supported by our television partners, all over [paid and earned] digital media and expressed locally through our member clubs. 

Channel surfers may have been surprised to find MLS Sunday afternoon games on ESPN. But ultra-modern and packed arenas in places like Portland, Ore., and Kansas City were likely an even bigger surprise.

How did these small-market teams come to pass? Kansas City, for instance, built one of the most technologically forward stadiums—not just in soccer but also in all of North America. The fans love it, and it sets an example for the entire league. That was the vision of one of MLS’ founders, [legendary NFL owner] Lamar Hunt. And today, we have 14 soccer-dedicated stadiums. Any club that joins our league is now required to deliver a soccer-dedicated stadium. It’s a much better [in-person and TV] experience seeing the sport played in a soccer stadium versus a big, cavernous [American] football stadium.

MLS’ new team, the New York City FC, kicks off next year. Does the club stand a chance against the Yankees, Jets and Knicks?

It is probably the most competitive market in the world, but there is an enormous passion for soccer there. New York City FC’s very first signing is [Spain great] David Villa, which sent a message to the entire area that this team is very serious about being successful.

The NFL, NBA and MLB have grown impressive digital properties. Has MLS also arrived as a producer?

Very much so. We’ve got 50 people on the editorial staff, and we have blue-chip [advertisers] such as Allstate, Kraft, Gatorade and Anheuser-Busch.

What do you do about cable commentators like Ann Coulter who diss your sport? Does such attention hurt or help?

Everybody’s free to share opinions. What we’ve seen is an incredible embrace of soccer in America, with our stars like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard becoming household names. Soccer is not a fad. And so the fact that there are some dissenting voices and some debate that’s out there—it’s all good.