SBJ/March 19-25, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

MLS signs ad agency, ramps up marketing

Major League Soccer has hired Montreal-based Sid Lee as its new advertising agency of record. The move is part of an overall marketing ramp-up by America’s top professional soccer circuit under Howard Handler, who is still carrying the interim chief marketing officer title since joining MLS in January after a consulting gig with the league.

Howard Handler is leading changes to the league’s marketing department.
Photo by: MLS / PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Handler said Sid Lee was developing a new campaign for the league and its clubs, along with supporting brand work. However, Handler said it was too early to say when consumers will see new creative work.

“We’re at an interesting point right now — we feel like it’s just before a lot of growth and we want to be in the right place as a brand for that,” said Handler, who identified “multicultural Gen Y millennials,” roughly 20- to 30-year-olds, as the league’s biggest opportunity.

While the league and agency plan further research on its fan base, Handler’s most encouraging statistic is from an ESPN Sports Poll that shows professional soccer is the second-favorite sport of 14- to 24-year-olds, after the NFL. Of course, that response includes European football, the world’s most popular team sport.

“The overall charge for the agency will be to grow the MLS footprint and develop the stature and breadth of the brand,” Handler added.

Without revealing the size of the planned campaign, Handler said it will include paid media buys outside of MLS rights holders.

Sid Lee also handles advertising for the new MLS Montreal franchise, along with Adidas, MLS’s exclusive uniform licensee and one of its largest business partners. The selection echoes the NHL’s use of DraftFCB for its newest brand campaign (SportsBusiness Journal, March 12-18) since that agency also works for MillerCoors, the league’s largest sponsor.

Handler said he was impressed by Sid Lee’s work for Red Bull, another MLS corporate patron, along with the agency’s Cirque du Soleil creative. “They showed us the beginnings of a vision, of how we can build to where we want to be,” Handler said.

The new agency assignment comes as MLS is making changes in its marketing department. Handler said that he will soon hire four new positions at or close to the vice president level, with separate responsibilities for strategy and planning, research, brand development and club services.

Earlier this year, the league reshuffled its licensing and merchandising under SUM President Kathy Carter, bringing in Maribeth Towers as its first senior vice president of consumer products.

The influx of new hires in marketing follows the recent completion of the sale of an equity stake in Soccer United Marketing to Providence Equity Partners, which also owns portions of the YES Network, Univision Communications and World Triathlon Corp.

Dentsu America was the most recent MLS ad agency, debuting creative during 2010 to coincide with the FIFA World Cup that year.
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