SBJ/June 2-8, 2014/In Depth

MLS makes World Cup theme of messaging

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At a conference table in New York in January, Howard Handler and a team of Major League Soccer marketing executives came to the conclusion that the 2014 MLS season must be linked to this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

“For Club and Country,” the league’s slogan for the current season, was hatched.

The following day, Handler, MLS’s chief marketing officer, traded emails from his laptop on a flight from New York to Los Angeles with David Bruce, the league’s senior director of brand and integrated marketing. Thoughts on how the theme would look and be used were refined.

“It just kind of made sense,” Handler said. “The World Cup is the greatest locomotive you could ever imagine. It always creates a seminal moment for soccer, and MLS players form the nucleus of the U.S. team and are key components of other national teams.”

The "For Club and Country" slogan makes the link between MLS players and national teams.
MLS has come a long way in four years. When the U.S. competed in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, only four national team players were on MLS rosters. Of the 30 players at U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s final training camp in preparation for Brazil, 15 were current MLS players. Ten of those 15 made the final, 23-man U.S. roster, and another five players — Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan from the English Premier League, and DaMarcus Beasley from Liga MX — formerly competed in MLS.

There were an additional 16 MLS players at their respective national team camps outside of the United States looking to make World Cup rosters this year. Overall, 13 of 19 MLS clubs had players at World Cup training camps in late May.

So it made sense for MLS to have “For Club and Country” in all of its messaging, the largest display being a billboard in Times Square. The league’s print and digital ads read, “March to Brazil. It all starts here. MLS. For Club and Country.”

The campaign, created entirely in-house, will run before, during and after the World Cup. The league and U.S. Soccer have co-produced scarves with MLS team branding on one side and “For Club and Country” on the other.
“We are in lock-step with U.S. Soccer,” Handler said.

“MLS Insider,” the league’s flagship digital documentary series, has been focused on MLS players likely to participate in the World Cup. MLSsoccer.com’s video features also have been focused on the World Cup, including “Brazil Bound” (presented by Castrol GTX) and “For the Love of the Crest” (presented by Continental Tire).

A series of posters featuring MLS stars in action with the “For Club and Country” message was created by the league and distributed to fans by the featured players’ respective clubs. There are 11 posters featuring not only stars of the U.S. squad, but also MLS players competing for Australia, Brazil, Honduras and Costa Rica. MLS clubs are hosting a combined 125 viewing parties for World Cup matches, as well.

Every four years, MLS is happy to close its doors for two weeks during the World Cup. Unlike the NHL, which has had reservations about shuttering midseason so its players can participate in the Winter Olympics, MLS embraces the World Cup. MLS has scheduled games on Wednesday, June 11, the day before the World Cup opener between Croatia and Brazil. The season officially resumes with a single game (Montreal-Vancouver) on Wednesday, June 25, but starts again in earnest on Friday and Saturday, June 27-28, after the conclusion of the World Cup’s group-stage games. The World Cup Final is July 13.

MLS is banking on the U.S. national team having a successful World Cup and that translating to an uptick in attendance and television ratings for the second half of the season and beyond.

“The better the U.S. does, the better MLS is likely to do,” Handler said.

Although it won’t be easy, with the U.S. trying to advance past the group stage with three increasingly tougher opponents in Ghana, Portugal and Germany, MLS can use the spark. Ratings from English-language MLS telecasts in the U.S. have rarely been strong. While EPL matches during the 2013-14 season averaged 438,000 viewers on NBC and NBCSN, MLS games on ESPN, NBC and NBCSN have averaged around half that mark. The EPL has taken notice of its rising stock in the U.S., with seven Premier League clubs now playing exhibition matches in America this summer.

But MLS has reasons to believe that ratings will improve. In partnership with U.S. Soccer (which is represented by
Soccer United Marketing, the league’s commercial arm), MLS last month signed eight-year agreements with ESPN, Fox and Univision for broadcast rights.

The deals take effect in 2015 and are for a combined $90 million annually. The broadcast schedule will be structured with Univision having exclusive games on Friday nights, and ESPN and Fox broadcasting games on Sundays.

The league’s upcoming expansion should also aid its television ratings. New York City FC, to begin play in Yankee Stadium in 2015, provides a local rival for the New York Red Bulls. Orlando City (2015), Atlanta (2017) and a David Beckham-owned franchise in Miami (deal pending) give MLS a needed footprint in the South.

Over the last year, U.S. stars Clint Dempsey (from Tottenham Hotspur to the Seattle Sounders) and Michael Bradley (from AS Roma to Toronto FC) have returned to MLS after stints in the top European leagues. With so many MLS players representing the U.S. in Brazil, a big showing — or even just one captivating victory — would be a boost for the league.

“If you get the water-cooler moment, something that shines a positive light on our guys, they’ll come back as heroes,” Handler said. “We have star power in our league. David Beckham and Thierry Henry have been phenomenal for us as global stars, but having home-grown American stars makes such a big difference.”

MLS Digital plans to make sure fans never miss a moment at the World Cup.

“We’re amplifying the link between MLS and the U.S. team,” said Chris Schlosser, vice president of MLS Digital.

While the league had only two editorial employees in South Africa in 2010, it will have a dozen in Brazil, including on-camera analysts and reporters Jimmy Conrad, Nick Firchau and Andrew Wiebe. Conrad, a former MLS and U.S. team defender who played in the 2006 World Cup, is the face of Kick TV, MLS’s YouTube channel for global soccer coverage.

The dozen MLS Digital staffers on the ground at the World Cup are staying in an apartment in Rio that will double as their studio and writers’ workspace. In New York, MLS will have what it’s calling its Responsive Station: a crew of writers, editors and social media team members posting breaking news, analysis, photos and live statistics for all World Cup matches.

“There’s a halo effect from every World Cup, and we expect Brazil to be the biggest one yet, so we need to be at our best to see that a new swell of fans comes into the MLS mix,” Handler said. “Or, put it this way: The World Cup is our Black Friday, but for us, Black Friday lasts for a month.”

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