It’s the kind of promotion that would have fans in any sport abuzz with anticipation. But this particular promo went above and beyond.
In a league being pushed to new and exciting heights by its diverse and diehard fans, word spread that Major League Soccer (MLS) officials were incorporating select fans’ faces into the number designs featured on players’ jerseys.
The mere thought of that type of fan/player connection set hearts fluttering across the United States soccer universe.
As part of the promotion, each MLS club invited certain season-ticket holders to visit a special website, where they were asked to select a number between zero and nine, as well as a location within that number to upload a photo for use in the design. In addition, MLS made the jerseys and other related merchandise available for purchase in team stores.
The promotion, just another in the league’s continued ascent in the hearts and minds of U.S. soccer fans, was similar to marketing initiatives executed by Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and the Mexican national team.
Oh, how time flies. This year marks MLS’s 22nd season in the United States. Whether you’ve realized it or not, these are different days for a league that once sought any type of marketing push it could get. MLS now is gaining traction, with recent announcements such as the additions of Minnesota United FC and its $120 million stadium in St. Paul, Minn., and Atlanta United FC and its estimated $1.4 billion state-of-the-art stadium, which it will share with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. The growth continues to boost the league’s standing in the public’s collective conscience.
And if you’re looking for even more positive reinforcement of its evolution, a 2014 ESPN Sports Poll showed MLS’s popularity finally matched that of Major League Baseball. The poll took the pulse of 1,500 Americans per month and tracked their interest in 31 different sports, finding that both leagues claimed 18% of 12- to 17-year-olds as avid fans of their respective sports. This is an area that stands to accentuate MLS’s newfound presence among U.S. sports fans.
Yes, these are different days indeed. Adding to its popularity stateside, MLS recently inked an eight-year broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox Sports for English television, digital and, possibly, radio rights, as well as Univision for Spanish media rights.
“As our sport, league and clubs continue to rise in popularity, it has a tremendous impact on the consumer products business,” says Maribeth Towers, senior vice president of consumer products for MLS. “In addition, players recognized around the world continue to drive a strong name/number business in-stadium. Also, each season, our new jersey launches drive business at sporting goods retail outlets. New categories and licensees are also helping open up specialty and boutique retail accounts.”
A DIVERSE FAN BASE
Today, Towers says, the two biggest trends driving MLS licensed apparel sales are silhouettes, which remain a very important component for sports fans across all categories, and unique T-shirt graphics and headwear. Given the league’s growing millennial fan base, Towers says it is extremely important that MLS continues to deliver both authentic and fashionable product lines.
“Our current fan base is very diverse — from millennials to families, and from avid to casual — so it’s important that we deliver a variety of items for them to choose the one that fits their unique lifestyle,” Towers says. “The authentic items allow our customers to directly connect with what’s happening on the field, while the fashionable product lines allow fans to showcase their favorite teams in a way that’s relevant and trendy.”
That’s why MLS officials continue to work closely with the retailers and vendors to form strong partnerships that often result in unique promotional campaigns — such as putting fans’ faces on team jerseys — throughout the MLS season.
“We continue to have ongoing conversations with both retailers and vendors on the growth behind our sport and Major League Soccer,” Towers says. “We work in conjunction with our partners to deliver a unique fan experience, while letting them know our retail footprint has expanded beyond the stadium shops. Over the past few seasons, we’ve partnered with Old Navy, Lids Locker Room, Macy’s, Wal-Mart and others to bring player signings, photo booths, ticket giveaways and social-media activation to their customers throughout the United States and Canada.”
UPRISING AT RETAIL
Driven by its commitment to building partnerships, MLS continues to bolster its retail offerings. Take its recent venture with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and sports lifestyle supplier ’47 Brand, which specializes in creating branded headwear, apparel and accessories.
As part of the partnership, ’47 Brand is providing MLS-branded apparel for both adults and kids, including headwear, scarves and gloves. Retail channels will include specialty apparel stores. Also included are U.S. Soccer-branded adult headwear and apparel, non-soccer socks and gloves sold through multiple retail channels in the U.S. and abroad, including boutique apparel stores, department, athletic footwear, specialty apparel, military and sports specialty stores, as well as kiosks, sports stadium retailers and more.
“It’s a great partnership and collaboration between strong brands,” Towers says. “The partnership gives us an opportunity to offer unique product to boutique and specialty retail outlets.”
And along with its efforts on the in-store sales side, MLS recently relaunched its online shop, MLSstore.com. The site is a direct extension of stadium shops, so MLS worked closely with each club to take advantage of local marketing campaigns and drives fans to the club-specific sites. Moving forward, the league will continue to ramp up these efforts.
“Most recently, we launched ‘Scarves Up for Scarftember’ as a platform to highlight the soccer scarf, an item that is inherently unique to our sport,” Towers says. “Signage in support of the campaign was featured across all 20 club stadium shops, as well as on MLSstore.com.”
Winners (one was chosen by each club) received a scarf in their favorite club’s colors. In conjunction, MLS enacted a social media campaign that encouraged fans to capture their own “Scarves Up” moments for a chance to win a gift card to MLSstore.com. Towers says the promotion is expected to expand in 2016 with additional retailer support and activation.
Next year holds even more promise for partnerships and expanded lines. For example, MLS is expanding its adidas on-field and fanwear collections; adding new robust lines from Mitchell & Ness; and working closer with ’47 Brand on a fun infant/toddler graphic tee collection.
“We’ll continue to pulse the market with strong product items and campaigns,” Towers says. “From SuperDraft to March to Soccer to All-Star and MLS Cup, we’ll have something new to offer throughout the entire season.”
Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at email@example.com.