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‘It’s the right sport in the right market’: How St Louis City SC are taking MLS by storm

With two wins from two games and a sold-out home debut, start to life in MLS couldn’t be going better for St Louis City SC. Dennis Moore, the chief revenue officer of the US soccer league’s 29th franchise, explains why it’s the right time for St Louis to have a top-flight club, the impact of its female-led ownership group and how the team plans to revitalise the city.

10 Mar 2023 Josh Sim

St Louis City SC

From the moments before kick-off to long after the final whistle, the sound of cheers and chants echoed around St Louis City SC’s Citypark throughout their home debut.

A packed stadium of 22,423 fans noisily celebrated a 3-1 victory over Charlotte FC on a night that was already a celebration of the club’s long-awaited entrance into Major League Soccer (MLS). Whether it was the eye-catching tifo unveiled by the home crowd or the sight of supporters young and old proudly wearing the team’s signature red colours, the city seized its opportunity to announce its arrival to the league.

For everyone associated with the club, from the ownership group to the grounds staff, this was the culmination of more than three years of work, building from the moment when MLS officially confirmed it would grant the city an expansion franchise in 2019.

Already proving they can hold their own on the pitch, St Louis City are confident they have set themselves up commercially to become one of the league’s most successful franchises off the field going forward.

Why the St Louis connection matters

The ownership group that led St Louis’ successful expansion bid includes the Taylor family, who founded and continue to run the car rental giant Enterprise, as well as Jim Kavanaugh, the co-founder and chief executive of World Wide Technology (WWT). The club and its stadium, which is located in the city’s Downtown West neighbourhood and was completed in November, have been privately funded by the owners.

What connects every member of the group, though, is their St Louis roots. According to Dennis Moore, the team’s chief revenue officer, that local, homegrown connection makes the club’s ties to the city even stronger.

“There are not two family names more synonymous with goodwill and stepping up for the St Louis community when the St Louis community needs it,” he says to SportsPro. “That’s an incredibly important part of our story, that our ownership group are St Louis families, and anytime this community has needed them, they have stepped up.

“So they view this as way more than a soccer club. This is about a civic project bringing the community together through the international sport of soccer. This is about the city, this is about the region and, frankly, creating a renaissance in a region that is so important to their families and their businesses. There’s a deep passion to do that.”

We want the future of St Louis to be just as bright as the history of St Louis.

Dennis Moore, Chief Revenue Officer, St Louis City SC

One reason that MLS’s decision to grant St Louis an expansion franchise was so celebrated was because of the city’s sporting history. Of the starting 11 who played for the US in their famous 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 Fifa World Cup, five hailed from The Hill neighbourhood in the Missouri city. League legends such as Brad Davis, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman are also from St Louis, highlighting the city’s connection to soccer.

While the city has been home to numerous sports teams, the arrival of a top-flight soccer club has been warmly embraced, especially after the disappointment of seeing the National Football League’s (NFL) Rams relocate from St Louis to Los Angeles in 2016.

“This community needs a positive shot in the arm of adrenaline to carry this renaissance of the city moving forward,” Moore continues. 

“It’s the right sport in the right market. To think that St Louis hasn’t had a Major League Soccer franchise up to this point, we’d like to say the timing wasn’t right. But it is right now.

“We’re able to lean into that history in a soccer rich market. The number one youth sport here is soccer. This sport needs no introduction. That’s a critically important part of our selling point.”

The impact of female-led ownership

One of the features that sets the club apart from other teams in men’s sports is its women-led ownership group.

Headed up by the club’s president and chief executive, Carolyn Kindle, the make-up of the expansion club’s leadership is groundbreaking in MLS. Only a handful of women hold ownership stakes at other franchises, including Meg Whitman, a minority owner at FC Cincinnati, and Columbus Crew co-owner Dee Haslam.

Moore calls the group’s presence “authentic”, noting that the Taylor family comprises “a majority of very strong and powerful women who have had incredible business success”.

“Nothing can provide any organisation commercial success better than a dynamic leader,” he continues. “We have that in Carolyn. She’s with us every day and guiding that ship. That’s the most critical thing that we have.”

As well as having female leadership at the top of the club, St Louis City have fostered an inclusive environment at every level of the franchise. Whether it was the appointment of Megan McCormick as academy coach or the hire of Maritza Martinez, the first woman to hold an assistant director of stadium grounds role in MLS, the team has demonstrated a willingness to empower diversity across its operations.

That has also come with commercial benefits. The franchise has been able to strike partnerships with other female-led companies, underscoring how brands are identifying the team as an attractive partner because of its unique story and values.

“The CEO of Purina, our kit sponsor, is Nina Leigh Krueger, so that’s a woman-led organisation,” Moore points out. “Certainly, that was an important part of the conversation as we brought our kit sponsorship together.

“I could go on down the list of powerful women-led organisations in the St Louis community. Having that connection to Carolyn, that is driving part of our brand story that we are leading with, has been and is certainly a critical part of our success.”

The St Louis City sponsorship strategy

On the topic of the club’s commercial partnerships, Moore says St Louis City are in a “healthy” position, having agreed numerous deals with the likes of Purina, BJC Healthcare, Moneta and Cisco.

He also points out that the club prioritised arrangements that would benefit the local community as well as the team itself. As well as working together to provide financial education classes for locals, the MLS outfit and their official banking sponsor Together Credit Union have devised the ‘Saves for Savings’ initiative. As part of the programme, the financial services firm will open a new US$300 savings account for a local student for every save that club captain and goalkeeper Roman Bürki makes.

“From an overall sponsorship strategy, as an expansion club starting with a clean slate of zero sponsors, our goal was to be a top-performing club from a revenue metric in Major League Soccer, but also have one of the smallest roster of sponsors,” Moore explains.

“We wanted to have a very small number of partners, but obviously deliver high value to those partners. A key cornerstone to every one of those conversations continues to revolve around what we are doing in the community that aligns with the mission of the club.

“The majority of our partnerships have come from the St Louis business community and those brands wanting to play a part in the revitalisation of the city and how we move it forward.”

Every save skipper Romain Bürki makes will create a new savings account for a local student (Credit: St Louis City SC)

Despite that, not every commercial relationship has been straightforward. In February 2022, St Louis City announced a 15-year stadium naming rights deal with healthcare firm Centene. Eight months later, the agreement was annulled when Centene decided to cancel its contract following a change in leadership, although it does remain a club partner.

While the search for a replacement continues, Moore indicates that there is no rush for the team to secure a new naming rights agreement.

“Because we’ve had a lot of commercial success, there’s not an immediate pressure to go out and find a brand,” he states. “We’re okay if it’s a long process. That process, like every other partnership we’ve had, it’s most important to us that it aligns with what we’re trying to do in the community.

“The lack of a naming rights partner has no impact on how we move forward as a club. The only pressure is to make sure we find the right brand that’s aligned with our ownership mission of St Louis and creating a renaissance here.”

The club are still searching for a stadium naming rights partner (Credit: St Louis City SC)

What MLS’s Apple deal means for the club

One long-term deal that has been confirmed, however, is MLS’s broadcast agreement with Apple. It was announced last year that the technology giant has entered a ten-year global partnership with the league, with the deal reportedly worth US$250 million per year.

The seismic move will see the majority of the league’s matches shift from linear broadcast platforms to a streaming service, but one of the biggest changes for clubs is that they will no longer have regional broadcast deals for local coverage of games not chosen for national broadcast.

For some clubs, that might have meant restructuring sponsorship agreements that previously included local broadcast integrations, but St Louis City are fortunate in that they have not had their hands tied by existing agreements.

“On the contrary, we actually haven’t had to pivot at all,” Moore reveals. “Because we didn’t have any legacy deals that have local media rights, we were not bundling local media packages into our sponsorships because we didn’t have a previous season.

“Our scenario is significantly easier than a lot of the teams who have already been playing in the league who have legacy deals that have 30-second spots or integrations into a local broadcast. We don’t have to undo anything.

“Nor do we in St Louis have to retrain the market about where to find our games. We now get to go to market with our games on Apple TV. Of all the clubs, I think we have a best-case scenario where we don’t have to change our fans’ behaviour.”

The fact that the league and its clubs are being so deeply incorporated into the Apple ecosystem excites Moore, with the “historic” deal giving fans one destination to watch every game, as well as a live whip-around show, shoulder programming and enhanced coverage of individual teams.

“We’re super pumped,” he continues. “When you think about subscription models and one of the most innovative brands in the world, I couldn’t think of a better partner than Apple to go on this journey with. And I think Apple also saw that in Major League Soccer.

“Seeing commissioner [Don] Garber and [Apple chief executive] Tim Cook together, that’s symbolic of the way Apple’s leaning into this. That excitement and energy trickles down to the team level on how we create content for our team-specific channels.”

Ahead of the start of the campaign, Apple announced it was launching a Season Pass subscription, costing newcomers US$14.99 a month or US$99 per season, with all club season ticket holders receiving access for no extra cost. While some games will be shown in front of the paywall on Apple TV, most will require a subscription for fans to watch their team.

Moore welcomes the move, with season ticket holders said to have responded positively to the free subscription. The challenge he’s now focused on is converting the casual MLS fan into an avid supporter who wants to purchase a Season Pass.

“We’re not too concerned about [the Season Pass] cannibalising the broader market,” he says. “Our season ticket base, from their financial commitment to the club, you’d certainly put them in the avid fan category. I think the challenge is how do you convert the casual fans?

“We’re having internal conversations about how we can drive casual fans to potentially engage in front of the paywall, before then driving conversions to Season Pass.”

Despite the Apple agreement, Moore notes that the club can still ensure a local connection through its radio broadcasts. The franchise recently announced a partnership with Audacy St Louis to air all of its games in English on KYKY Y98.1 FM, with Spanish broadcasts to be produced on KXOK 102.9 FM.

“Because of the Apple deal, we are putting more significance and weight on the importance of who’s in the booth and how that talent brings our brand to life for the local community,” he says. “Radio now is the one local flavour.”

The next chapter

Given the successful launch of the franchise and its operations on and off the pitch, Moore is confident that St Louis City are well positioned to become a household name in the US.

When this is all said and done, I think we will have been one of the more successful expansion or relocation franchises – at least in the United States.

Dennis Moore, chief revenue officer, St Louis City SC

“I can only say that because I believe we have an ownership group that truly is special to this community, and is doing it very intentionally about something bigger than soccer,” he continues. “The club is 100 per cent funded by our ownership group, so we control everything from a construction and fan experience perspective.”

The journey to building the team has not been the smoothest, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the club to push back plans to join the league by a year. Yet despite the challenges, Moore is thankful that interest in the club has remained strong even through a difficult period. Now, he is looking ahead to the future.

“We feel incredibly blessed that the community has stepped up,” he reflects. “Whether it’s the business community, nonprofit community, the community in general, diverse communities, all have shown an immense amount of interest in this club, what our vision is.

“I think the thing we’re all most proud of, I can tell you, is that we’ve far surpassed any commercial metric we had out there. But the thing we’re most excited about is this notion of, ‘have we captured the spirit and the passion of this community?’

“We can all resoundingly say we have started to do what our ownership group has set out to do. So there’s an immense amount of pride in seeing a vision start to come to life and get some traction.

“That’s the coolest part for all of us.”

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