SBJ/September 5-11, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Adidas bolsters MLS partnership to include youth teams

Adidas wants the next generation of U.S. soccer fans to think of Major League Soccer first instead of international soccer.

So in the year since it added $200 million and eight years to its MLS sponsorship deal, Adidas has broadened its partnership to include the league’s network of youth academies and development teams.

“We want to get kids in the United States to potentially choose MLS teams over Champions League,” said Ernesto Bruce, MLS category manager for Adidas.

Adidas now outfits all teams that fall under Major League Soccer’s youth development umbrella with uniforms and soccer balls. Each MLS team has a reserve team and two academy teams, as well as regional youth affiliates. FC Dallas alone has more than 130 affiliated youth teams in Texas.

Adidas also hosts at MLS Cup the Generation Adidas Cup tourney for under-17 teams, which it is positioning as the premier tournament for American teen soccer players.

The focus on MLS youth programs comes one year after Adidas ended its 15-year partnership with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association, the nation’s largest network of youth soccer teams, with 3.2 million players. Bruce said Adidas switched its youth soccer focus to MLS because the professional league creates an aspirational angle for young players.

“We’re trying to showcase to our fans and consumers that MLS is a major part of our soccer portfolio and is on the same level as major international teams like Real Madrid,” he said.

Javelin Group President Jeff Bliss said the move shows Adidas is targeting quality over quantity in the youth market. MLS affiliate teams funnel talented players to the academies, which feed players into the league.

“USYSA is a huge behemoth, but you have a mass of players being coached by volunteer parents,” Bliss said. “From Adidas’ perspective, would they rather focus on the masses, or go after the elite and let the message trickle down?”

MLS had not yet fully developed its youth and development system in 2004, when Adidas signed its first deal with the league. At the time, the 10-year, $150 million deal was the largest in the league’s history.

Doug Quinn, former president of Soccer United Marketing and the current CEO of FC Dallas, said the growth of the development system changed the marketing abilities of the league. Quinn said Adidas specifically asked for rights to the academy system during the negotiations in 2010.

“Beyond the value of a growing league and more retail opportunities, [Adidas] bought the best soccer infrastructure in the country for youth development,” Quinn said. “These kids are the key influencers in the sport.”

Adidas representatives declined to say whether they have seen growth in the youth sales market. Bruce said total sales rose 12 percent from 2010. According to the Licensing Letter, a publication that covers consumer product licensing, apparel accounts for nearly one-third of the retail sales of licensed merchandise for MLS. The Licensing Letter estimated for 2010 that MLS apparel sold roughly $105 million.

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