The CMO Interview: Kathy Carter

Soccer in the U.S. Reaches Its Goals a Step at a Time

Kathy Carter on How MLS Has Survived Recession and Critics

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The world of U.S. soccer is, quite fittingly, at Kathy Carter's feet. The 39-year-old is exec VP of Soccer United Marketing, and oversees all sponsorship, advertising sales and marketing for Major League Soccer, the Mexican National Team, the famed Mexican club team Chivas de Guadalajara's rights in the U.S., domestic Mexican club tournament InterLiga, the SuperLiga tournament and the new Women's Professional Soccer.

Kathy Carter, exec VP of Soccer United Marketing
Kathy Carter, exec VP of Soccer United Marketing
Somehow, with a small staff and big ambitions, she's made it work, especially for Major League Soccer. The MLS kicked off its 14th season last month, disproving critics who thought that American sports fans would not sustain a professional soccer league. Not only did MLS add Seattle as its 15th franchise this season, but Philadelphia comes aboard in 2010, and both Portland, Ore., and Vancouver join in 2011. The league started with eight franchises.

A good deal of that success can be attributed to Ms. Carter's efforts. Since assuming her role in 2003, she has overseen the addition of more than 40 partners, and overall activation against the various soccer properties has more than tripled. In 2008, Ms. Carter's group added Volkswagen, American Airlines and Microsoft's Xbox to MLS's existing blue-chip-client list. It also successfully launched the MLS communications platform: "Football, Fútbol, Soccer, MLS," meaning that while it's called football in Europe, fútbol in Latin America and soccer in the U.S., it all means the same in MLS.

Indeed, the league has players from more than 50 countries -- including the world's most well-known player, England's David Beckham -- on its rosters, a key selling point for Ms. Carter as she goes to market.

Last month, Ms. Carter helped launch the SUM Digital Media Network, where media buyers and marketers can buy soccer-focused advertising at once as opposed to doing dozens of individual deals.

Ms. Carter talked with Ad Age about her role, ever-growing MLS and the rise of America's "Soccer Nation."

Ad Age: In a broad sense, how is MLS doing? The league is expanding; the Los Angeles franchise was able to make the deal that returns David Beckham to MLS this summer; and there have been few, if any, layoffs. From an outside observer's standpoint, you seem to be doing well.

Ms. Carter: Certainly that's a fair statement. We feel fortunate. The one thing is we've been pretty conservative about our fiscal plan and our growth plan. That bodes well heading into unprecedented times. If we stick to what we do, we're going to come out of this just fine.

Ad Age: How do you plan on to make Americans a nation of soccer lovers in the same way they are a nation of baseball and football lovers?

Ms. Carter: We actually believe that a Soccer Nation already exists. There are millions of soccer fans in this country -- and many more are either bringing their families here every year or growing up in the game. The demographics of this country are changing, and they are changing in favor of the sport of soccer.

Ad Age: How do you go to market knowing that, while soccer remains extremely popular for the under-17 set just judging by participants, it's still somewhat far down the popularity food chain of pro and college football, pro and college basketball, baseball, hockey, Nascar?

Ms. Carter: What we've realized is we have a handful of different selling points. Multicultural is the biggest of those; there's no debating that. The No.1 sport in the Hispanic market is soccer. If anybody in multicultural wants a conversation, they need to start with soccer. We've targeted that mark very specifically. And we have a young demographic -- 18 to 34, and in some cases, 12 to 24.

Ad Age: How do you measure yourself against other U.S. team sports?

Ms. Carter: It's challenging because it's not Coke vs. Pepsi. For us, we have another subset, which are the global and international leagues. ... We're only 14 years young. There are lots of metrics we can use, but in 14 years the number of new stadiums, the size of expansion teams buying in, even the level of quality of play -- these are the things we look at.

Ad Age: And how are you measuring/proving marketing ROI?

Ms. Carter: We work with our partners to identify the most effective means to measure success -- whether that's third-party research, on-site surveys or online polls. Research consistently shows MLS fans are extremely passionate, regularly translating that passion to existing league and club-specific corporate partners.

Ad Age: A soccer game might be off the list of consumers' spending priorities right now. How do you combat that? Will you market the fact that you can take a family of four to an MLS game for far less than it would take to see another major sport?

Ms. Carter: This economy is affecting all forms of entertainment -- not just the sports industry. Our average ticket price is slightly over $20, which is comparatively favorable. Fans know that they can bring their families out to the stadium for an affordable night of entertainment.

Ad Age: In what innovative ways are you trying to reach consumers, and which outlets are giving you the biggest bang for the buck?

Ms. Carter: We use social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with our fans. Our teams have their own social networks -- see MyDynamo.net (for Houston Dynamo fans) for a great example. This gives fans a unique way to interact with their favorite athletes. Beyond digital/new media we are focused on traditional grass-roots marketing. Our strategy has multiple prongs: One is to be where the game is taking place, and the other is to reduce the barriers of entry and provide opportunity for kids -- of all ethnicities -- to grow in the game.

Ad Age: How does the new Soccer United Marketing Digital Media Network play into this?

Ms. Carter: It's not too dissimilar from the offline world. One centralized sales force actually helps companies navigate the waters. In the game of soccer, the average consumer goes to six to eight sites to get their information. That can be MLS.com, Goal.com -- any number of sites to get different viewpoints. At the same time, the size and scope doesn't warrant or rate on an advertiser's scale, but collectively it's proven to be a popular conversation. They can get size and scale. The easier we can make it for our partners to navigate, the better the return.

Ad Age: You've gone through a number of marketing strategies and communications platforms throughout the years, but you've settled on one: "Football, Fútbol, Soccer, MLS." Why this one, and why is it going to work?

Ms. Carter: It takes many years to brand yourself. It's an evolution of things we tried and failed on, quite frankly. At the end of the day, we realized the game comes first, no matter what you call it. We have to be credible, authentic and include all those ethnicities.

Ad Age: Is that why you waited so long to put sponsor names on team jerseys?

Ms. Carter: We talked about it very early on, and it was actually [team owner] Lamar Hunt saying we need to establish our teams in our local communities, first and foremost. We didn't go to the front of the jersey for that reason. Also, there needs to be a level of maturity of the league to get to that point. It took us a long time, almost 18 months, to come up with the right model to sell that location, and it's been extraordinarily positive to what's going on in the market. We got our sea legs, built our credibility in the local markets and then moved forward with that.

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