It is fair to say Major League Soccer (MLS) has come a long way in 21 years. Under the steady hand of commissioner Don Garber, North America’s top flight has grown in size and stature to establish itself as a prominent brand in an ultra-competitive sports market.
This year, the rise of MLS has continued. While still viewed, both domestically and internationally, as a challenger brand, the league and the majority of its 22 teams have served notice of their blossoming maturity, with key performance and commercial metrics up across the board.
In Atlanta United, the league’s most recent expansion franchise which debuted this season, MLS has another success story to sit alongside a string of others. Guided by owner Arthur Blank and backed by raucous fan support, the team is expected to shatter the all-time MLS single-season attendance record of 752,199 set by the Seattle Sounders in 2015, having already sold 747,530 tickets in their 16 fixtures at their Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season.
It is now anticipated that the playoff-bound team in Atlanta will end their first season with a total nearer 825,000 after their final game against league leaders Toronto FC, who themselves have become a domestic force since their formation in 2007, on Sunday.
Success stories like Atlanta have fuelled the perception that soccer has come of age in North America, and it is a perception that MLS is capitalising upon commercially. Expansion fees have risen to north of US$150 million, with interest among prospective ownership groups and cities at an all-time high as the league pursues Garber’s target of having 28 teams by 2020. Meanwhile in August MLS underlined its continued development when it signed a six-year, US$700 million renewal with Adidas, the largest commercial partnership in the league’s history.
Shortly after the announcement of that deal, David Bruce, the vice president of brand at MLS, made the trip to SportsPro’s The Brand Conference at Lord’s cricket ground in London. During his visit, Bruce sat down with SportsPro to discuss the league’s status in global soccer, how it is developing as a brand, and David Beckham’s proposed Miami franchise.
SportsPro: Major League Soccer has come on leaps and bounds over the past decade or so, yet it is still perceived to be a challenger brand. How do you intend to develop from that position?
Bruce: I think that there are pros and cons of being a challenger brand. I think that the spirit and the attitude of being a challenger brand inspires us to be scrappy, take risks, push the brand into different places that we might not if we were a brand leader in this space. I think that it is a really good thing - it allows us to be innovative and push the boundaries of what is possible.
In terms of the outside world seeing us as a challenger brand, there are certainly positives and negatives. I think that we probably are [still seen as a challenger brand] only because of where we are in our life stage. We are still very young as a league.
People have to remember that we are only 21 years old, which is nothing for a sports organisation like ours, especially within the context of global football. The main leagues and competitions have been around for hundreds of years if you look at soccer in England, Spain and Italy. So in that respect I think that we are doing pretty well for a league that is only 21 years old.
Where we are at in our growth trajectory is that we are only just getting started. I think that we all recognise that and we are all passionate about getting ourselves to what that next level looks like.
What is that next stage of development for MLS as a brand?
It is more growth. It’s growth in every area of the business from media, digital, social, increased TV numbers, attendances, quality on the field, to soccer eventually getting under the skin of all young Americans. That is really where we want to get to.
We haven’t yet capped the amount of teams and we will see a new team, LAFC, join the league next year. The commissioner has been very vocal about wanting four more teams before 2020, so that in itself will present growth to new markets, new consumers and new fans.
As it relates to the addition of new teams, that is going to be one thing. But as it relates to the maturity of our league and we get more commercial partners on board that are willing to do more to push the league, we will be in a good place.
Expansion club Atlanta United have impressed on and off the pitch throughout their inaugural season.
MLS grew its international audience exponentially following the arrival of David Beckham in 2003. You have continued to attract European stars with varying degrees of success. How important is it to the development of the league that these big-name players continue play in the MLS?
I think that they are important but I don’t think that they are the be-all and end-all. One thing that we have discovered from our research is that these big star players are not necessarily the driver of them becoming fans of our clubs and wanting to visit the stadiums.
What we are offering different here in the US and Canada, in relation to the other domestic sports, is an experience and an ability to attach yourself to a movement and to connect yourself to a global thing that is different to what the other sports are offering.
It is not necessarily about star players that is moving people to consume. There are of course instances when signing these big players is really going to help: we have seen this with [Bastian] Schweinsteiger in Chicago, who joined them when he was 32 and he has been perfect for that marketplace and that team on the field. He has not just been a rallying cry for the fans but as a way to lift the level of the team.
I also think that [Sebastian] Giovinco in Toronto was the light switch for those guys. It was a step-change in that he was in Italy squads and he came over when he was 27 and it was a change for Toronto and they are now maxing out their stadium and they are one of the most attractive teams to watch in North America.
There is definitely a role for these guys and Beckham was obviously the trailblazer; he was the one who broke the mould. However, we are investing more money than ever on creating more homegrown players and academy infrastructures.
We are starting to see the fruits of that through the quality of the US national team and it is a story that is going to get stronger and stronger as we move through our growth. That is where the future really is.
Another so-called challenger brand in world soccer is the Chinese Super League. Do you see that league as a threat, a rival, or just another challenger?
It is really interesting what they are doing and they are doing it very differently to us by buying a lot of top talent form all around the world, paying a lot of money for them. That is their model and that is great but I think that we do it a little bit differently.
We are trying to be methodical, build it from the grassroots up. For us it is not just about buying in top talent - it is all about developing young talent.
David Beckham’s Miami franchise has been inching closer to fruition in recent weeks. How close is he to getting the green light, and how important will it be to have his name linked with MLS once again?
We are working hard on that. It is well documented that as part of his deal with the league he would get the opportunity to buy a club. We are very buoyed to have him back in the league if it works out. There are still some things that he needs to do to make sure that he is part of the league.
Beckham was of course a step-change for the league and the rule that came on the back of that allowed our clubs to sign designated players. He is obviously a guy that transcends sports. We need those types of conversations; we need to be ingrained in popular culture and someone like Beckham allows us to do that.
He was great for the league the first time around and he will be the second time around if we are able to make it happen. We are very hopeful that this can happen a second time around.