Major League Soccer—which has long operated in the shadow
of the Big Four pro leagues in baseball, soccer, football and
hockey—is making a strong case that there is room for a fifth
major sport. The MLS broke an attendance record last year, luring
7.4 million people and an average of 21,692 attendees per game,
which is up 40% from 10 years ago, according to MLS.
Sponsorship spending on MLS, U.S. Soccer and other North
American soccer leagues, teams and events grew 9.2% last year to
$333 million, according to sponsorship consultancy IEG. That still
trails the Big Four (the NFL drew the most at $1.25 billion), but
MLS keeps notching significant brand wins. That includes Target,
which in January signed on as an MLS sponsor making what it called
its "largest-ever push into team sports" that included a jersey
sponsorship deal with the Minnesota United MLS team.
Target didn't have to look far to gauge soccer's potential.
Sales of soccer gear grew 10% at Target stores in 2016, faster than
any other sporting goods category, said William White, Target
marketing VP. "We sold 1 million soccer balls in 2016 alone," he
said. "It's not like Target chose soccer. Our guests chose
Soccer also falls well short of the Big Four on TV. For regular
season games in 2016, MLS averaged 277,000 viewers on ESPN, Fox
Sports and Univision, according to Nielsen. The NFL
averaged 16.46 million viewers per game for its most recent
completed regular season, while the NBA got nearly 1.26 million and
MLB had 505,000, according to Nielsen. "Our ratings are still
relatively small, but we have had double-digit increases in each of
the last three years," said Gary Stevenson, the MLS's president and
managing director of business ventures. He noted other metrics,
including a 95% jump last year in MLS social media followers and a
21% increase in sales of MLS licensed products.
Audi, which became an MLS sponsor in 2015, remains bullish on
the sport's TV future. Loren Angelo, VP-marketing for Audi of
America, pointed to the deal MLS in 2014 reached with ESPN, Fox
Sports and Univision to televise matches through 2022 that
broadened the sport's reach. "You have a fan base that can now
follow the sport," Mr. Angelo said. "They don't have to get up at 4
o'clock in the morning to watch a game in Europe. They can actually
follow their hometown teams." Last month, MLS announced a deal in
which Facebook will livestream in English at least 22 matches that
are shown on TV on Univision in Spanish.
Coca-Cola Co., which has sponsored the FIFA World Cup since
1978, signed on as an MLS sponsor in 2015 as a way to "get in on
something that is only going to continue to grow," said Bob
Cramer, the company's group director for
Heineken, which inked a five-year deal with MLS in 2015 for a
reported $50 million, is using the tagline "Soccer is here" in its
marketing to play off the import status of both the game and the
brew. Said Heineken USA Chief Marketing Officer Nuno Teles:
"Heineken was not born here. Soccer was not born here. But the U.S.
consumer is embracing both."