Major League Soccer Taps Findlay as First CMO

PepsiCo, Unilever Vet Must Translate Attendance Gains to TV Success

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Major League Soccer has its first chief marketing officer.

The 15-year-old U.S.-based league has named J. Russell Findlay as the CMO of both the MLS and Soccer United Marketing, the umbrella group that holds promotional and marketing rights to the league.

J. Russell Findlay
J. Russell Findlay
Kathy Carter, who previously handled marketing in her role as exec VP of SUM, was promoted last month to president of Soccer United Marketing.

Mr. Findlay is a marketing veteran, including stints with PepsiCo and Unilever. His appointment comes at a critical time for MLS.

Heading into its 16th season later this spring, the league is facing an interesting dynamic. Its financial picture is strong enough to allow for an ambitious expansion of franchises -- three new clubs in each of the last three years, with Vancouver and Portland on deck for this season and Montreal set to make its debut in 2012, which would give MLS 18 teams. Attendance cracked the 4 million mark last year for the first time in league history, with the average per game up 5.5% (largely due to the raging success of the Seattle Sounders, which average more than 36,000 fans per game, 15,000 more than the No. 2 franchise).

But TV ratings are troubling. The league should have seen something of a bounce last year thanks to the World Cup, but while it might have at the gate, it didn't on TV. The website Sports Media Watch reported that ESPN suffered a 12% decrease in regular-season ratings for MLS games in 2010 compared to 2009, and that the 0.5 rating for the MLS Cup championship match between the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas was down 44% compared to 2009's MLS Cup between Real Salt Lake and the L.A. Galaxy.

So how is a guy with beverage and retail marketing experience going to change that? More marketing.

"You would think it's the polar opposite at first blush, right?" Mr. Findlay told Ad Age about working for PepsiCo and Unilever. "But it's similar: MLS will market their brands and marks to consumers just like Pepsi and Unilever. Understanding the consumer, shaping their mindset, there's a lot of similarity there. We have great momentum, solid growth, and we're continuing to expand. All of that paves the way for us to focus more on marketing. For me, it's to take that good marketing and drive it deep within the clubs, and propel that awareness of the league and drive fan loyalty."

At Pepsi, Mr. Findlay, 45, spent eight years in various high-ranking positions in marketing and brand management, including director of marketing for all soft drink innovation, director of marketing on brand Pepsi, heading the launch of Diet Pepsi Max, and VP-field marketing for Pepsi Bottling Group. He also helped launch and ran the $1 billion Sierra Mist brand.

While working on advertising and media for the various brands he led, Mr. Findlay oversaw numerous Super Bowl advertising campaigns, two of which won Effie awards for effective advertising.

"My experience in the beverage business with its network of bottlers, it's similar to the league office and the clubs," he said. "I have a pretty clear look at how marketing decisions are made, funded and executed."

"Our business has evolved to the point where we felt we needed a C-level marketer focused on building the MLS brand and developing a deeper connection with our fans," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "Russ and our marketing group will serve as a major resource in all areas of corporate strategy, whether we are deciding on what segments to target , strategic partnerships, future expansion markets and many other aspects of our business."

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