SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

MLS campaign makes good start at putting shine on soccer stars

New sports product success in our media-saturated nation carries long odds. Challenges notwithstanding, Major League Soccer has gone about building its business with a gutsy persistence. And from an advertising standpoint, the new 2001 MLS advertising campaign is a solid step in the right direction.

The strategy behind the campaign is a good one: Create fan interest in star players. The idea is to provide fans with a person (not just a team) in whom they can invest. The effectiveness of using star athletes to build game interest is a proven strategy. It was a star, legendary Brazilian World Cup superman Pelé, who effectively launched soccer in this country. It is a star, Tiger Woods, who has spurred interest in golf. Kids around the world would not have been wearing Bulls gear without the star power of Michael Jordan.

The star strategy was the brainchild of TV sports pioneer Roone Arledge, who enjoyed booming ratings by being the first to take us "up close and personal" with athletes of all kinds. In short, stars sell. So, taking a page out of Arledge's old handbook, the marketing minds at MLS have begun the process of star-making and star-activating: attracting new fans and making current fans feel even closer to players they may already love.

The campaign includes both TV and print ads featuring established and potential breakout players: the Columbus Crew's Brian McBride, Chicago Fire's Hristo Stoitchkov and Josh Wolff, D.C. United's Bobby Convey and the Metro-Stars' Clint Mathis. More multinational work is in development featuring Colombian-born Tampa Bay Mutiny midfielder Carlos Valderrama and Senegalese Tampa Bay forward Mamadou Diallo.

A nice example of MLS's world-sport-feeling campaign is the Bulgarian superstar Stoitchkov speaking in and voicing over his commercial in Spanish. And beyond simply sending a nice message, his spot is strategic as well: Playing to MLS' significant Latino fan base, the league has cut the Stoitchkov spot in versions with English subtitles and in Spanish only. The Diallo spot will be cut in French.

While the league has a strong global feel and ethnic fan base, MLS appears to have designed its initial work with an eye on the Anglo audience it seeks with its Disney broadcast partners, ABC and ESPN. Americans McBride, Wolff, Mathis and Convey play to a mainstream audience and generate a bit of surprise in each spot. Sporting a game-generated shiner, McBride communicates how tough the game is ("You want soft? Go play golf."). Convey describes his meteoric rise to stardom, and then tells us he's only 17 years old. Wolff and Mathis were kids who broke with Georgia tradition and chose soccer over football.

All the TV spots are shot and edited well, with the high-tech, high-energy feel of a "Monday Night Football" introduction. And all were done in-house, managing outside production resources on a shoestring budget, making the accomplishment that much more notable.

The campaign isn't perfect, however. The players MLS has chosen tend not to be very good at delivering a powerful voice-over. The campaign gets a little confused in its messaging by subsuming its tag line ("It's your game") with a bigger copy line that all the players say and is featured prominently in the work ("I believe in Major League Soccer").

The communication problem is not just that the lines dilute the star-making stuff, but that the "I believe in Major League Soccer" line comes off somewhat desperate, as if they are trying to convince themselves as much as they are trying to convince us. The boastful "With my presence, MLS can become the best league in the world" delivered by Stoitchkov comes off as forced and inappropriate. And the MLS print ads' art direction feels a little out of date, coming off rather future-retro, like the movie poster from the film "Blade Runner."

Overall, despite a mountain of challenges ahead, MLS' star-driven advertising approach appears to be a nice effort toward building fan interest in American professional soccer.

MLS                       
Commissioner: Don Garber
Executive vice president, marketing and fan development: Mark Noonan
Production: Tupelo-Honey Productions, New York
Sound design: Cut-Time Music, New York
Graphic design: Atmosphere 13, New York

James H. Harris (jim@thought-step.com) is CEO of Chicago-based strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.

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