On the Way to Its 25th Season, MLS Continues to Build a ‘League for a New America’

A younger, more diverse audience drives its success

Soccer players warming up on the field in a stadium before a game
The Portland Timbers warm up for their home opener against LAFC.
Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

Last month, the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer (MLS), reopened their stadium, Providence Park, after $85 million of new construction and renovation. The 20-month project was a crowning achievement for the franchise that, when they entered the league in 2011, played in a baseball stadium that was built in 1926. Over time, owner Merritt Paulson continued to invest steadily in improvements and infrastructure and now, the venue is among the envies of the league.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Portland Timbers

“It’s certainly one of the most intense MLS atmospheres I’ve experienced,” said Graham Ruthven, a Scotland-based freelance soccer writer who attended the Timbers’ stadium reopening match against LAFC.

In some ways, the Timbers’ story may be analogous to MLS itself. Paulson, like other owners, has been methodical and thoughtful in how he has approached growing his franchise. Next year, the league celebrates its 25th season and its evolution is a combination of a steady approach and smart strategic moves. MLS currently has 24 teams and is bringing on two more in Miami (led by soccer legend David Beckham) and Nashville next season, with plans to expand to 30 teams in the early 2020s.

But the real power of the league is the type of fan base it has built and nurtured. It’s not a flash in the pan. It’s younger, more ethnically diverse, not going anywhere and brands continue to take notice and consider MLS a sound investment whether on the national or local level.

According to Gallup, soccer is the second-most-watched sport (tied with the NBA) among 18- to 34-year-olds. Per a Magna study, the average age of the MLS viewer is 40, two years younger than the NBA and a whopping 10 years below the NFL average. In a Simmons report, MLS had 39% of the coveted 18-34 demo, seven points ahead of the NBA and 12% more than the NFL.

For MLS commissioner Don Garber, one of the most exciting things is developing MLS as a “league for a new America,” with Hispanics accounting for 33% of its audience, the highest among all pro leagues, according to the league, and driven in part by its many players from Central and South America. Portland, for example, has 14 players from the region, which accounts for half its active roster.

"Not only do we have partners that have been with us for many years, but [more are coming] on board because we're delivering value."
MLS commissioner Don Garber

“We have the youngest fan base of any sport in the United States [and] it’s very diverse,” Garber said. “Not only do we have partners that have been with us for many years, but [more are coming] on board because we’re delivering value.”

Dave Rosenberg, chief strategy officer of sports marketing consultancy GMR in San Francisco, said brands need to look at the long-term value of the sport and their association with it because it’s growing across the board, from the community level to the pros. “That’s where the value is to sponsors,” he said, “aligning yourself with a sport that not only has a good base today but has the most optimistic base for tomorrow.”

All in on soccer

And indeed, brands are paying closer attention. For example, Target entered into a multiyear agreement with the league in 2017, moving its investment away from Nascar and focusing on soccer as a leaguewide partner and uniform sponsor for its hometown team, Minnesota United FC.

“If you look at our business over the last couple of years, we have seen dramatic growth in our soccer sporting goods business in the same way that the sport of soccer has been growing,” said William White, Target’s vp of marketing told Forbes.

While Target’s inclusion in the game is relatively new, some sponsors have longer-standing relationships. Adidas, for instance, has had a considerable impact since it began its partnership with the league in its first year and in 2017 signed an extension for a reported $700 million that ends in 2024. The sportswear giant outfits all teams, but its presence is felt far beyond what the players wear.