It’s good to be MLS.
2017 has brought the American professional soccer league unparalleled growth in attracting and generating sponsor dollars. From inking a sponsorship deal with Target to signing an extension with adidas valued at a reported $700 million, the 22-year-old league is becoming a key partner for corporations looking to leverage their brands through sport.
The question, though, is why now?
A perfect storm of generational factors has placed MLS in a unique position to begin courting the attention—and receiving the benefits of partnership—from some of the world’s greatest brands.
After spending the last decade working to understand millennials’ buying preferences, marketers are now deciphering the buying preferences of Generation Z. Born between 1996 and 2000, Generation Z’s 60 million members outnumber the millennial generation. During their lives, Hispanic population growth has outpaced the U.S.’s general population growth by 400-percent. More than ever, members of this generation play soccer, with U.S. youth soccer participation up 89-percent since 1990. When they aren’t on the soccer pitch, Generation Z’s members are on their smartphones. 96-percent of the generation owns a smartphone, with half spending ten or more hours per day online.
These factors are at the forefront of corporations’ strategies to entice Generation Z and its reported $44 billion in buying power to their brands. For corporations once focused heavily on other sports leagues, MLS presents a unique marketing proposition.
In January, Minneapolis-based Target signed a multi-year deal with MLS to become the league’s official partner. Target’s sport sponsorships are wide-reaching, with touch points in MLB and the NBA. However, in July the brand announced it would not renew its 16-year NASCAR partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing. Numerous factors drove Target to shift its sport sponsorship strategy to include MLS.
“So many things drew us to soccer. It’s multicultural, watched and played by families and is growing immensely in popularity. Our guests absolutely love soccer, so we saw an opportunity to become deeply involved at all levels of the sport. In addition to being an official partner of Major League Soccer and the presenting sponsor of the MLS All-Star Game, we’re partnering with national youth soccer programs to grow the sport nationwide through a partnership with U.S. Youth Soccer and charitable support of the U.S. Soccer Foundation. We’re also the official partner and jersey sponsor of our Twin Cities hometown team, Minnesota United FC. We’re proud to now be one largest supporters of soccer in the country,” Target’s senior vice president of marketing, William White, told THE HUFFINGTON POST.
While American brands like Target and Kellogg’s Snack Brands have inked deals with MLS this year, MLS has also seen a boost in international brand sponsorships. Three-years ago the league partnered with German automotive manufacturer, Audi, and Dutch brewing company, Heineken. Experts believe soccer will become a touchpoint for international brands’ growth and exposure in the U.S. as the nation’s demographic factors shift.
“A lot of brands that have used soccer as a global platform, but haven’t necessarily activated in the U.S., have changed their view on partnerships here as soccer has continued to grow in the U.S. As the game has grown in the U.S., we’re going to see international soccer advertisers see MLS as their platform in the U.S.,” said Rob Parker, the vice president of marketing partnerships for MLS’s Orlando City Soccer Club.
MLS has benefitted from this shift in sponsorship dollars, but experts are quick to note it won’t be the only soccer brand to benefit financially.
“Soccer really pops for this next generation of consumer. It’s all levels and types of soccer; not just MLS, but international soccer, too. To create engagement and activation for brands to reach their consumers, soccer is an excellent platform,” said Wasserman’s executive vice president for brands, Heidi Pellerano.
Within North America, Pellerano believes brands have growing numbers of opportunities to engage consumers through soccer.
“Brands want to show their commitment to soccer in the U.S. They are sponsoring MLS, but also the men’s and women’s national teams. Some partners are also very committed to the Mexican national team, which has experienced amazing growth,” she remarked.
With more corporations pouring sponsorship dollars into the North American soccer landscape, will soccer sponsor revenue soon plateau? Orlando City Soccer Club, which launched in 2015 as an MLS expansion franchise, has seen sponsorship revenue grow between 20 to 30-percent annually.
“With the demographic and population shifts, what’s most exciting about soccer, is despite experiencing explosive growth for the last seven to ten-years there’s another 15-years of growth ahead. It’s not like soccer grew, peaked and sat at the mountaintop. Especially if the United States gets to host the 2026 World Cup, there will be many more growth points for the sport in the U.S.,” Orlando City Soccer Club’s Parker said.