Note: Thought Starters are responses to hypothetical briefs. Think of them as mental exercises for account planners and marketing strategists.
The Brief: Increase popularity of Major League Soccer (MLS)
In the United States, four sports dominate the entertainment landscape. In order of popularity:
- American Football
Trailing these titans are sports with niche followings, such as professional golf, NASCAR and tennis. But one key exclusion from this list is perhaps the world’s most popular sport: soccer.
Note: I’m going to use the phrase “soccer” exclusively and not “football” for the purposes of consistency and clarity.
According to Nate Silver in his previously linked FiveThirtyEight blog post, soccer actually ranks number five among the big North American sports, but this is primarily due to the popularity of Mexico’s soccer league, Liga MX, among the United States’ Mexican population.
There are many reasons why soccer has taken a back seat to other sports (to wit, pithily), but interestingly the sport is growing in popularity too. With it, the United States and Canada’s primary domestic league, MLS, is also growing in popularity, especially among youth.
Interest in MLS is growing, but its growth is organic and not fast enough for fans eager to see the league get more recognition, both at home and abroad. Here’s our challenge: increase popularity of MLS.
The Brief v2.0: Narrowing the scope
This brief is the bane of account planners. It’s like a soccer coach telling his players that the strategy is to win. In order to actually approach the problem, we need to remember that marketing is all about getting somebody to do something. Let’s start with the “something”:
What’s the action?
Elevating the popularity of a sports league is an enormous challenge, but there are at least a number of paths to measuring popularity. These include:
- Increasing ticket sales
- Increase sales of merchandise
- Increasing share of voice, online conversations, and/or positive impressions
These measures would be appropriate for any league, but MLS does have a unique source of revenue that is a key area for its growth: MLS Live.
For a set fee, fans can use MLS Live to watch most matches live. The only exceptions are a certain matches broadcast nationally or through certain local networks, but after the match is over, you can still watch the full match through MLS Live. MLS Live also includes an archive of previous seasons and condensed 20 minute matches. It is safe to say that MLS has the most robust digital offering of the major sports in the USA–a key selling point.
The action: Increase subscriptions to MLS Live.
Who’s the audience?
Are we limiting our audience to North Americans? Unfortunately, yes. Two reasons for this:
- MLS Live is not available outside North America. This may change one day, but for the moment, there’s no simple way of watching MLS outside the United States. This makes sense. The legal and infrastructure costs of streaming to Asia or Europe would likely outweigh the small amount of revenue gleaned from the small international audience.
- We would be fighting an uphill battle getting attention from international fans. In addition the time zone differences (I often wake up at 4 am on Sundays in Hong Kong to follow matches), MLS would have to compete with more popular European leagues such as EPL or Bundesliga. Without a stronger domestic contingent, MLS simply doesn’t have the star power to steal share of voice from the established leagues. One day perhaps.
So we’re sticking with Americans, so that narrows us down to 314 million people.
Let’s slash that number a bit by targeting a demographic that:
- Has staying power (can convert into being long-term fans)
- Is tech-savvy enough to enjoy the convenience MLS Live offers
This leaves us with young people. Millennials. Bear with me here. Young people are more likely to cut the cord, eschewing television in favor of a digital only lifestyle. And if the Portland Timbers are any indication of the sport’s appeal, the 18-34 age group is a tempting demographic.
So that’s it. We’re targeting 18-34 year old Americans.
The new brief is: Persuade 18-34 year old Americans to subscribe to MLS Live.
The Creative Brief: Finding the insight amid the noise
For those of you unfamiliar with the profession of account planning, the creative brief is a document in advertising that functions as a signpost for creatives to develop compelling, relevant and interesting campaign materials. At the heart of the creative brief–indeed the only necessary part of the brief— is an insight followed by a proposition. It’s defining a gap, an opportunity or a tension which the brand can fill to achieve its own goals.
An example of a successful insight would be the idea that you only think about milk when you don’t have any. This spawned the famous “Got Milk?” campaign. Anyway, back to MLS.
MLS has a lot of things going against it:
- Stiff competition from domestic sports leagues, especially NFL and NBA
- Strong competition for foreign soccer leagues, especially the English Premier League
- Widespread notion that soccer is boring and/or full of theatrics
- The absolutely correct notion that compared with foreign leagues, MLS is inferior. Even Liga MX is superior in quality–to say nothing of many of the top-tier European leagues
- Playoff system unappealing to soccer purists more familiar with European promotion/relegation system.
- Purists similarly dislike the fact that MLS plays in European leagues’ off-seasons (but seriously, you try playing in Vancouver during the winter)
That said, there are some very important factors which work to MLS’ favor:
- NHL and MLB are waning in popularity, especially among young people
- As mentioned, MLS is increasingly popular among young people, which may be partly due to increased sales of EA’s soccer series, FIFA.
- The US Men’s National Team performed heroically during the World Cup, with several key MLS players making names for themselves among the general public
- New teams such as Orlando FC, NYCFC and David Beckham’s Miami proposal represent key milestones for the league, expanding the reach and voice of the league domestically
- MLS plays during the European off-season, representing one of the few options for summer-time soccer consumption
- Few deny that the level of play in MLS is increasing over time
One hallmark of a successful sports franchise is the idea of dynasty. The New York Yankees, New England and L.A. Lakers all have certain claims on dynasty, which give their fans satisfaction and a sense of credibility. I’m not just a fan; I’m part of an institution. The problem with MLS is no team really owns a dynasty yet. This is troublesome for our brief.
Unless it’s not.
You see, the fans with the most credibility are those fans who stick with their teams through thick and thin. They are the fans who continue to watch when their team has a 10 game losing streak or trades away a star player. These are the real fans. They are the true heirs to the dynasty.
To be called a fair-weather fan is a great insult in the sporting world. Maybe that’s our point of entry. MLS doesn’t have dynasties, so it’s hard to criticize anyone for being a fair-weather fan now. Indeed, current fans are watching the birth of dynasties.
Our insight: MLS is full of teams waiting to become dynasties.
We want to leverage the average person’s desire to be part of a dynasty–to get in at the ground floor. That sounds like a proposition:
Watch MLS and be part of a great legacy. Every great story has a beginning. Every great team has a core of loyal fans. Be a part of your team’s history while it’s still being written.
The Activation: Making an Insight a Reality
Generally speaking, an account planner’s job passes the proposition to his or her creative team around this point. But let’s take this a few steps farther.
Given that our audience is young and online, let’s make this a digital campaign. Going by print or out-of-home (OOH) works for FMCG brands, but for a sports league, we’ll need something a bit more involved. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t incorporate some measure of traditional media into this campaign. That type of media would just serve as supporting materials.
This campaign could be called the MLS DESTINY PROJECT. It starts with a video advertisement on YouTube targeting young men in the United States who typically watch:
- Coverage of foreign soccer leagues, especially EPL
- Coverage of domestic sports, especially NFL (which is not a direct competitor of MLS for the majority of the season)
The video would be a call to action, explicitly stating the proposition. Imagine a highly stylized production in the tone and manner of Nike’s emotional tributes to sports, e.g:
The script would hit the following key points:
- For every legend, there’s a page one. [alternating shots of an EPL legend and where the team is today]
- For every dynasty, there’s blood, sweat and tears [alternating shots of other American sports dynasties, then and now]
- For every history, a beginning.
- This story is being written [shots of US Men’s National Team heroes at World Cup and in MLS matches]
- Once history has been written…
- …will you say you were there at the beginning?
- Who will you support? [call to action to second part of campaign]
Using Facebook as a hub, the video would connect users to a special campaign page where they can take short quizzes to see who they should support. Once they complete the tests, they will get two things:
- Links to follow MLS, their new favorite MLS and a handful of key influencers and reporters who will continuously boost the relevance of the League
- A promo code to try out MLS Live to watch a free match for their new favorite team
These tactics, by the way, are a new take on a successful campaign NBC used to get American fans to watch its new coverage of EPL.
There would be a score of other activities designed to lead people to the second activation, such as banner ads and some traditional support, but the main idea here is to get people to commit themselves to a team and give them an excuse to try out MLS Live.
And there we have it. This is by no means a complete or fool-proof analysis of the subject at hand, but it does serve as a Thought Starter. Looking at this challenge is interesting because we typically don’t think about marketing a sports league. Or we quickly look at failures such as the XFL folding. This blog post is a reminder that marketers are in the business of selling anything, ranging from products to ideas. Loyalty to a sports team isn’t just about passion; it’s about good business.
Any other thoughts on how to use marketing to popularize MLS in the United States? I’d love to hear them.
Full Disclosure: I’m a Philadelphia Union fan. I welcome any and all comments on this post, unless you’re a New York Red Bulls fan, in which case you are not welcome here. Go now. Begone.