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.

Jennifer Valentine, senior director of Adidas Soccer in North America, said the brand has a “specific and thoughtful focus on the next generation.” The brand drives its Creator Network with socially-powered, hyperlocal content experiences for MLS teams, Adidas supporters and influencers.

“[Adidas] has a unique position in our partnership with MLS where we’ve been able to leverage our expertise in lifestyle and blend it with sport,” Valentine said. “This all helps grow the audience outside of just a pure soccer market.”

A 25-year-old challenger brand

While Adidas has been there from the beginning, Audi sensed the league was starting to gain some serious momentum through some of the broadcast deals that were beginning to pop up, not just in the U.S. but overseas as well.

“What we saw roughly six years ago was when European broadcast rights were secured with ESPN, people started to have a chance to see [the league],” said Loren Angelo, vp of marketing, Audi of America. “Not only that, we started seeing more articles written about MLS, and there was greater commitment and American enthusiasm for soccer in general.”

Angelo also noted the league’s rising attendance, especially at exhibition matches against European teams. (Audi has a long-standing partnership with FC Bayern Munich in Germany’s Bundesliga.)

“MLS was making this charge to be a challenger against the NBA, Major League Baseball and even the NFL,” Angelo said, adding that part of the sport’s draw is its constant action and relatively short time commitment—soccer games are 90 minutes—which is appealing to a younger audience and fits well with the brand’s challenger mentality.

“The young nature of the fan base that [the league] proclaimed in the beginning has continued to pay off, which is a tremendous audience for Audi."
Loren Angelo, vp of marketing, Audi of America

“The young nature of the fan base that [the league] proclaimed in the beginning has continued to pay off, which is a tremendous audience for Audi,” Angelo said.

Audi’s deal runs until 2022, but one way the brand has embedded itself in the tech-savvy culture of the league is through the Audi Player Index, a performance metric that’s now omnipresent during broadcasts.

“It’s been embraced by the networks and MLS and is a huge opportunity for us to bring technology leadership to [the league],” Angelo said.

The new brand on the block

While Adidas is an example of a long-term relationship and Audi is one that continues to evolve, Diageo’s Captain Morgan recently signed on as the exclusive rum sponsor of the league—Heineken is the official beer partner—through 2022. Christina Choi, svp of rum at Diageo, sensed there was some momentum to leverage.

The appeal, according to Choi, was the pace at which the league was growing, its engagement with fans and openness.

The brand recently launched new creative that fits within the communal nature of the sport and league and connects with the brand’s ethos as well.

“We’re a high-awareness brand, and one of the main reasons why we were so excited about this partnership is that it truly is about the crew coming together over a passion point and having the best time of their lives,” Choi said.

Choi is not only excited about the present, but what the future holds, and she looks to some of the league’s more long-standing partners as inspiration.

“Adidas identified this as a growing passion point for consumers in America,” she said, “and the fact that they have been with the MLS and built that relationship over time and constantly refreshing what they’re bringing for the fan community is something for us to aspire to.”

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