How Charlotte’s new Major League Soccer team is building its brand from scratch
In the college football-crazed Carolinas, team allegiances run deep. You’ll be hard-pressed to find fans that root for both the Clemson Tigers and the South Carolina Gamecocks, for instance.
But when the region’s new Major League Soccer team begins play next year in Charlotte, the franchise is hoping to bridge those divides. “We have the unique opportunity to be the one team that everybody in the Carolinas loves,” says Nick Kelly, president of the club, which is called Charlotte FC.
Kelly—who joined the franchise late last year after a stint overseeing sponsorships for Anheuser-Busch InBev—details how the new club is going about building its fan base, in the latest edition of Ad Age’s Marketer’s Brief podcast.
At AB InBev, Kelly worked on brands such as Budweiser that have been around for decades. Now he must build a sports brand from scratch. MLS awarded Charlotte the expansion franchise in 2019, picking the same ownership group that runs the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers. But the club later had to delay its first season from 2021 to 2022 to avoid complications caused by the pandemic.
Kelly came aboard in December and has had to quickly establish a marketing philosophy and staff up a marketing team. “A lot of the momentum they had just fell off a cliff,” he says. “It’s been my job to restart that momentum they had ... It was literally at a dead stop.”
On the podcast, Kelly discusses some of his moves, including establishing a “Chief Fan Officer” position meant to serve as a liaison between fans and the club’s front office execs. Kelly says he did not want to rely only on fan surveys or fan councils. “As we come back out of COVID, having a direct voice from the fans to ownership and the ownership back to the fans actually helps a lot,” he says, suggesting other MLS clubs are watching how it will work. “Having somebody who is that daily conduit is a really big test for the sports industry.”
So far, Charlotte has signed one corporate sponsor, Ally Financial, which inked a multi-year deal in 2019, but Kelly says he expects to announce more deals later this year. After spending years negotiating deals on behalf of brands such as Budweiser and Michelob Ultra with leagues including the NFL and National Basketball Association, he is now on the other side of the table.
“I’ve seen the good, the bad and ugly about how a deal can come together and what sponsors are looking for,” Kelly says. As a new franchise, finding brands that can help the team build awareness is his top priority.
“We aren’t necessarily the Yankees where our brand is giving all this equity, all this fan affinity, to a brand who partners with the Yankees,” Kelly says.
For the brands it signs deals with, “We get as much out of these partnerships as they do—because we need the visibility,” he says. “So if Coca-Cola is going to put us on packaging and take us across the Carolinas, that is huge for us. Teams that are more established franchises take that stuff for granted sometimes. I do not.”