SBJ/Aug. 3-9/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Garber briefs owners on league’s progress

With a busy 12 months that saw new media rights deals and corporate partnerships all while pushing ahead with plans for expansion, MLS Commissioner Don Garber took the opportunity to review the progress made with the league’s board of governors during its annual midseason All-Star meeting at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver last Wednesday.

Garber, Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott and other members of the league office briefed the league’s owners on the recently signed international television deals signed in conjunction with IMG, as well as future opportunities in the media space, while detailing the league’s new corporate sponsors and renewals.

MLS branding extended beyond Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to downtown Denver.
Photos by: IAN THOMAS/STAFF
With a number of the league’s teams working on stadium projects, as well as incoming expansion franchises doing the same, the board was briefed on the progress being made in existing markets Washington, D.C., and Orlando as well as expansion targets Minnesota and Miami. The board discussed when the current slate of expansion clubs will begin play in the league, as well.

Garber also broached two newer topics:

Changing the format of the
All-Star Game to go back to an MLS-only affair, forgoing playing a European club opponent as the league has done since 2005.

Using instant replay during matches in a format the league is calling “real-time video” review. The U.S. Soccer Federation and FIFA would need to approve such a change.

The MLS board also had the opportunity to hear from the league’s newest media partner, Fox Sports. Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president and COO; David Nathanson, head of business operations; and Peter Rice, Fox Networks Group chairman and CEO, discussed the network’s vision for soccer and MLS, and attended the All-Star Game later that evening.

PLANNING PROCESS: The host Colorado Rapids had less than seven months to plan for the All-Star Game, but Rapids President Tim Hinchey said he was extremely proud of the work his staff put into the event.

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park sits about 15 miles outside of downtown Denver, the site for the rest of the city’s pro teams, so Hinchey said being able to have branding and promotional activity across the city was a boon, reaching an audience the club has had difficulty attracting. With the sold-out All-Star Game bringing in new fans from the region and a renewed interest around the team, Hinchey said the Rapids are expecting a boost for the remainder of the season.

MLS also took advantage of the dual locations, hosting a fan-fest type event in Skyline Park in downtown Denver for five days, as well as the Soccer Celebration event just outside the stadium on game day, providing plenty of opportunities for fan interaction and sponsor activation in the heart of downtown Denver.

MLS sponsors including Microsoft, Audi, Johnson & Johnson, Continental Tire and Coca-Cola all had fan-related activities inside the park, including giveaways, interactive games and other touch points. During the run-up to game day, the park held a concert, a CONCACAF Gold Cup final viewing party and live broadcasts from Fox Sports and Univision.

Continental Tire also held a special event to showcase its “What’Cha Got” MLS campaign, which has MLS players race in an autocross-type competition, with the two fastest drivers facing off for a one-year Lamborghini lease. The competition, which is featured during Sunday night postgames on Fox Sports 1, was promoted during activation at Sports Authority Field where VIPs could try their hand at an autocross course in an Audi A5.

Microsoft promoted its new Windows 10 by featuring players wearing No. 10.
Photo by: IAN THOMAS/STAFF
At Soccer Celebration just outside of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a number of MLS sponsors were activating. Microsoft, promoting its new Windows 10, had an exhibit featuring the jerseys of players across the league that also wear No. 10. Allstate featured meet-and-greets, highlighted by former U.S. national team player Brian McBride. AdvoCare passed out free samples of its sports nutrition products, while Johnson & Johnson had an area where you could “donate” a photo and raise money for various charities, as well as an area to try a number of its health care products.

Wells Fargo had lifesize cutouts of players featured in the All-Star Game, as well as other photo backgrounds that encouraged fans to share pictures on social media with related hashtags.

Coca-Cola activated around its current “Share a Coke with” marketing campaign, with a set of cans featuring the names of the league’s stars playing the game. Audi had a booth highlighting its vehicles, while AT&T had interactive games promoting its “It Can Wait” campaign against texting while driving.

While the league’s two newest partners, DraftKings and Southern New Hampshire University — both announced in the week prior to the All-Star Game — did not have designated activation areas outside the stadium, DraftKings did have ribbon-board advertising during the match.

FAN FOCUSED: Digital also played a big part of the experience during the All-Star Week. Fans were encouraged to register with MLS prior to entering either activation area and were provided a QR code that they could have scanned each time they participated in an activity, for which they could be rewarded with prizes such as autographed items and other MLS-branded merchandise.

The location of Skyline Park also allowed MLS to have a fan-accessible digital headquarters for the first time, something touted by Chris Schlosser, MLS Digital vice president.

In the space, located on the ground floor of a building immediately adjacent to the park, there were a number of digitally focused experiences, such as a virtual reality exhibit sponsored by AT&T, and a large touchscreen activity that challenged fans to try to figure out where a digitally removed soccer ball had been in a picture.

This vending machine was activated by social media.
Photo by: IAN THOMAS/STAFF
One of the biggest hits was a vending machine full of MLS-related prizes that was activated by the use of social media. As an example, fans could interact with the MLS Twitter account and answer preselected questions. They would then receive a prize, including tickets to the game, copies of EA’s “FIFA 15” and signed MLS merchandise.

The digital headquarters also housed the league’s digital operations in the days ahead of the All-Star Game, as well as a dedicated space for player interactions on social media.

Also in the space, the league had a Periscope booth created specifically for the All-Star Game, where players could connect with fans via the application and answer questions in real time. In addition, there was a large area dedicated to other sorts of social interactions, from which Garber participated in a Facebook Q&A.

MLS also experimented with Twitch, the online video game streaming website. The league brought a popular online FIFA video game player to Denver and had him face off in the game versus other online personalities and soccer players live from the digital space, reaching upward of 40,000 viewers during midday shows.

Some of those social tools, like the Periscope booth and a Vine-related booth, made their way to the arena for the All-Star Game, further encouraging players to participate and broadening the league’s engagements with fans.

“Growing social and engaging with fans is a key initiative for us, so the success of these new platforms has been very encouraging,” Schlosser said.

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