The MLS season kicked off this weekend with a lot of fanfare, with the introduction of new teams (‘franchises’ ergh) and new marquee players. Kaka, David Villa, and Seb Hines are amongst the new superstars to grace the pitch in the land of the free and home of the brave. Seb Hines? That would be ex-Middlesbrough defender Sebastian Tony Hines (note to editor, that’s my Boro reference, I’m allowed one a post). These big names are slightly eclipsing some other new additions to the American soccer scene, mainly the major sponsorship deals.
Audi of America are now the competition’s official auto supplier, and have paid a pretty penny for the right to be the presenting sponsors of the play-offs. Rumours have it that this is Audi’s largest ever U.S. sports marketing expenditure. This is just one of a few deals that the MLS has managed to attract in the last year, the American’s interest in the beautiful game typically fades following a major tournament, but the scale of these sponsors and with Heineken, Chipotle, Etihad Airways and Advocare amongst those involved, has the MLS and American soccer in general, finally found some staying power?
Big media companies and social networks have played their part in helping American soccer fans maintain a conversation following the usual World Cup ‘bump’. This continued awareness coupled with the new franchises in Orlando and New York means brands involved in the MLS have a legitimate messaging route/platform to real consumers. Orlando City and New York City are both much more carefully introduced and marketed, particularly compared to the ill-fated franchises of NASL. Market research and greater awareness of their own demographic, now make individual franchises a much more viable option for sponsors.
Perhaps it makes sense that sponsors and the commercial side of the MLS are excelling, compared to soccer on this side of the pond, it has a much stronger footing. English football is centuries old, and has an infrastructure that runs from Sunday league grass-roots right through to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League. The MLS was born into a commercial-savvy sporting environment, it thought through the geography, demographics, market environment, brand image, cultural identity and business benefits of its franchises. To put it simply, perhaps they’re better at football than us. Well, not actual football, when it comes to actual football, we win! YEAH!
A few questions remain however, will the strength of the new sponsorships lead to a stronger division? Rather than being viewed as something of a novelty in Europe, could it be a viable landing spot for non-American players? Will this help continue the growth and legitimacy of the American national team? Grass-roots participation in soccer is relatively high amongst America’s youth, but will it now be able to contend against the NFL and Baseball when it comes to recruiting the country’s best, young athletes?
Only time will tell, but with Golden Balls heading to Miami (maybe) and Seb Hines already lighting up Orlando, watch this space!