Major League Soccer officially kicks off this weekend, and one of the biggest questions for “What’s Next?” for MLS revolves around global acceptance of the teams, the league and its brands. Leading that charge along with Commissioner Don Garber is Senior Vice President of Global Sponsorship David Wright. The New Jersey resident oversees new business efforts for some of the premier soccer properties in the United States (including Major League Soccer, U.S. Soccer Federation, Mexican National Team, multiple CONCACAF properties and Chivas de Guadalajara; 8 properties in total). In addition, Wright manages a Partnership Marketing team charged with day-to-day management, growth and retention of over 40 MLS / SUM partners. These partnerships, which continue to be the lynchpin to the sport’s growth on and off the field, include industry leading companies such as adidas, Allstate, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Castrol, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gatorade, The Home Depot, Pepsi, Volkswagen and Xbox 360.
We asked Wright what we can expect in terms of growth and acceptance on a global level for MLS this summer and fall:
Q: MLS has made strides every year in the global landscape, and the play of American overseas with top clubs is stronger now than ever before. When does the shift occur where the dollars fit to keep those stars in the States?
A: Soccer is a global marketplace and a sport very unique to other major properties in the U.S. and Canada. It is widely accepted among fans that players come and go. That’s the nature of our sport. There are a lot of factors that go into evaluating and securing domestic and international talent for the League. Over the last number of years, we have been very fortunate to develop and retain promising, up and coming American players. In fact, in the past year, more than 30 players have been signed to a senior MLS roster spot from one of our Club Academies. The reality is that some of those young players will stay, others will go. In addition to our growing pool of domestic talent, we are very fortunate to be home to a number of international stars. Rafa Marquez, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry, to name just a few. Interestingly, this off-season Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry spent time in the English Premier League and made a significant impact with their respective clubs. In 16 short years, it is amazing to see the how far we have come between the white lines.
Q: What is the reaction now in Europe to the level of play in MLS vs. maybe three years ago?
A: Without question, the arrival of David Beckham has helped with the perception of MLS in other parts of the world. Simply put, over the last five years, there isn’t a passionate soccer fan on the planet that doesn’t know about MLS and the LA Galaxy. In addition, there are a number of American players that have and continue to make a tremendous impact overseas. From Clint Dempsey, who began his career with MLS, and is arguably the hottest player in the English Premier League, to Landon Donavon and his incredible return to Everton on loan, there are a lot of great success stories.
I would also argue that MLS’ success within the CONCACAF region has also started to open some eyes. In fact, three of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinalists are MLS Clubs: LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC.
Finally, we have a number of MLS players regularly contributing to their national teams all over the world. Recently we learned that Chicago Fire team MVP Dominic Oduro, who scored 12 goals in MLS play last season, has been called up by Ghana. This young striker is living his dream.
Q: Of all the factors what is the biggest in seeing that increased level of respect?
A: Above all else, it is our long-term, strategic approach to growing the League and the sport of soccer in the U.S. and Canada. It starts with committed owners who have a vision, who deeply believe in the game of soccer and a Commissioner that is a proven leader. We learned early on that there was no lightening in a bottle solution and that you can’t manufacture history. That said, on the eve of our 17th season, we now have a generation of fans that don’t know soccer without MLS. That’s a pretty powerful statement. In addition to a desirable demographic that grew up with the game, the sport’s infrastructure – incredible stadiums, player development academies, commercial and broadcast partner support, diversified ownership – gives us a lot of excitement for the future. We have come a long way in a pretty short period of time. If the next 10 years are anything like the past decade, we are going to be doing pretty well. Needless to say, the sport is thriving and here to stay.
Q: Most of the other top leagues in the States have massive revenue streams outside of North America. How is MLS doing on that front and what will it take to make that stream substantial?
A: Every year the amount of revenue that is coming in from outside of the United States and Canada increases. Last year, MLS Cup, our championship game, was seen in more than 115 countries, including India, South Africa and Japan. As the number of world-class players and overall level of play within MLS continues to increase, I suspect our international distribution will only increase. All that said, we are just beginning to scratch the surface within North America. All of our metrics – TV ratings, commercial support, merchandise sales, participation, match attendance, etc. – continue to grow giving us a lot of confidence for the future.
Q: We recently saw Emirates Airways sign on with the US Open series. What other non-traditional brands do you see engaging on that level in the States in the near future?
A: Global, industry-leading brands are looking to North American sports as a vehicle to get extend their reach. A perfect example is BBVA Compass, which recently secured the naming rights to the brand new soccer-specific stadium in downtown Houston. An urban venue that is located next to Minute Maid Park, the baseball stadium. A decade ago, I’m not sure a Spanish bank would have looked to the U.S. and Major League Soccer as a strategic platform to drive international value. Another great example is Bimbo, a company out of Mexico. They are now the jersey partner of the Philadelphia Union, as their U.S. headquarters aren’t far from PPL Park, where the Union play. Bimbo has long been a sponsor of multiple Mexican clubs and they have recognized the value of soccer in the United States. To support the jersey deal, Bimbo has an overarching League partnership as well. The club and league partnership is a huge priority for their business.
Q: What are the three global brands we should look to increase their engagement with MLS this season?
A: Quaker is one company you’ll see a lot of in and around MLS this year. They just announced a jersey partnership with the Chicago Fire and they have a League deal to complement that. This is a Chicago-based company with a lot of history in the market. As a part of the PepsiCo family, you can expect to see a lot of activity at retail within Chicago and key markets nationally. Bottom line, these guys get it.
Panasonic is another big brand that will continue to make noise in the soccer space in 2012 and beyond. A long-time Olympics partner, Panasonic is looking to the sport of soccer to leverage their global position with the Olympics (Panasonic is a Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer partner). These guys have been strategic supporters of soccer for 10 years and are now realizing great value from the sport’s growth. With tremendous senior leadership support in the U.S. and at their global headquarters in Japan, I suspect Panasonic to continue to push the activation envelop for years to come.
Castrol is a great case study. They are a global FIFA partner that has identified the U.S. as a critical market leading up to and beyond the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Huge enthusiasm for the sport after having great success at retail and in the digital space. In addition, you may have seen Castrol’s MLS Index and MLS Predictor. Using really cool proprietary technology, these tools rank player performance and ultimately predict team outcomes.
That’s just a small sampling. I could go on and on. We are incredibly fortunate to have long-standing, industry-leading brands aligned with the sport.
Q: Olympic soccer has never been a huge priority for FIFA in relation to the World Cup. How valuable is the Olympic soccer movement for MLS?
A: London 2012 will provide a great stage for MLS players this summer. We’ll have players from multiple countries participating in the tournament. On the men’s side, the Olympics utilize a U23 format, so it’ll be a tremendous opportunity for some of our young stars. Every country is allowed to include up to 3 overage players, so a handful of MLS guys will be able to participate under that mechanism as well. Look for youngsters like FC Dallas’ Brek Shea, D.C. United’s Bill Hamid and the New York Red Bulls’ Juan Agudelo to shine in this competition.
Some may argue that the Cosmos…a dormant brand…are still the most recognizable global team name in American soccer. Is that true and if so which MLS brands are doing the best at engaging on a global level?
A: I think the connection to the Cosmos is a fascinating story. We’re talking about a club that was founded over 40 years ago. Similar to my comment about MLS appealing to a segment of passionate fans that don’t know soccer without MLS, the Cosmos played a similar aspirational role for fans in the 70’s and 80’s.
As we fast forward to the present day, soccer is becoming the sport of choice for many generations of fans and our Clubs are well positioned to benefit. We recently received the ESPN Sports Poll for 2011 and it stated that soccer is top of mind for two key groups. Among Americans age 12-24, pro soccer — defined as MLS and international soccer — now ranks as their 2nd favorite sport, behind only the NFL.
Also, pro soccer ranks as the favorite sport among Hispanics 12-24 year olds, well ahead of other mainstream sports.
As far as MLS brands or clubs that are doing a terrific job with branding themselves internationally, you have to look at the LA Galaxy. From their successful international tours to their record 10-year deal with Time Warner, the Galaxy are performing consistently on and off the field. I’d also include the Seattle Sounders. What they have accomplished in three short years is nothing short of phenomenal. Arguably, regardless of the sport, it is the most successful expansion story of all-time.
Q: Does it matter that the MLS season does not mirror the EPL and others in when the full season is played?
A: We receive this question a lot. The fact that we’re not aligned with the international calendar is a question that journalists and fans like to pose. There is a reason we’re not aligned with that calendar right now. Weather is an issue in our climate. It is tough to play games in places like New England, Philadelphia and Toronto in early March. The European calendar would have us playing games in January and February in those markets. At the end of the day, I don’t think this is a big issue for our League. We continue to make progress in a number of areas of our business. During the past 10 years, MLS has added nine new teams, 13 new soccer stadiums, 14 new owners, many blue-chip sponsors – including adidas, Pepsi and Anheuser-Busch, who have been aligned with MLS since day 1 back in 1996 – and jersey-front sponsorships. This year, we also have new broadcast partners: TSN and RDS in Canada and NBC in the United States. Adding those companies to our long-time broadcast partners, ESPN and Univision, we feel like we’re in a good position when it comes to fans being able to watch their favorite MLS clubs play.
Q: What will it take to have MLS take the next big step in global brand engagement, and when will that next evolutionary step take place?
A: At the end of the day, we are just getting started. Over the last 16 years, we have maintained a long-term, strategic approach to growing the game and that will continue for the foreseeable future. From the resources dedicated to developing the product on the field, to our incredible relationships with our national broadcast partners, the support and mechanisms are in place to sustain long-term growth. In addition, all of us here at the League office have the utmost confidence in our senior leadership – Commissioner Don Garber, MLS President Mark Abbott, Soccer United Marketing President Kathy Carter. We have really smart people steering our ship and that’s reassuring. We’re here to stay.