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Volume 22 No. 34
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Heineken deal adds buzz to MLS Rivalry Week

Bolstered by its new television deal and a new partnership with Heineken, MLS is building out its featured Rivalry Week matches, set to be played this weekend.

The league introduced the rivalry concept in 2013, hoping to add a level of excitement to regular-season play, said Howard Handler, MLS chief marketing officer. But for this year, MLS is “taking it to another level,” he said.

“As we contemplated what opportunities we had to further scale our fan base and build our commercial business, we really wanted to supercharge our calendar and provide a bigger opportunity to create ratings spikes, build buzz, create new platforms for sponsor engagement, and make some new brand statements for the league,” Handler said. “This sort of thing came real natural for us, as over our 20 years we have authentically and very originally created some really great rivalries.”

Heineken, which signed a five-year deal valued at $50 million with the league in October and replaced Microsoft Windows as the presenting sponsor of Rivalry Week matches, is a big part of the enhanced effort.

“Rivalry Week gives us a unique opportunity to not only focus on soccer, but also focus on the passion of the fans and enhance their experience, whether that’s at the stadium or in their cities,” said Pattie Falch, director, sponsorships and events at Heineken USA.

Arguably the marquee matchup of the weekend will see New York City FC host the New York Red Bulls for the first time at Yankee Stadium, and the beer company is looking to capture the buzz around that game in New York. Heineken plans to have its pop-up fanfest, Heineken House, open Friday through Sunday in the SoHo district of Manhattan over Rivalry Weekend, featuring soccer-related games and activities as well as watch parties for other MLS matches. The company also is supporting viewing parties at bars frequented by supporter groups in the four home markets of the away teams: Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston and, for the Red Bulls, New Jersey.

RIVALRY WEEK MATCHES

Friday: Houston Dynamo at FC Dallas (UniMas)
Saturday: LA Galaxy at San Jose Earthquakes (no national TV)
Sunday: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC (ESPN)
Sunday: Seattle Sounders at Portland Timbers (Fox Sports 1)

Nationally, MLS’s campaign for the weekend includes asking fans “Where do you stand?” in regard to the two clubs that are facing off in the particular matchups.

“We wanted to put that question to fans as a bit of a rallying cry, so that avid fans would stand up and want to be counted, but casual fans could also stake a claim,” Handler said. “When a fan declares a favorite club, that’s paydirt for us, and asking where you stand hopefully will prompt that.”

In New York, the result of that question will be very visible. Through a social media campaign sponsored by Microsoft Windows, fans can wage a hashtag war of Red Bulls red and NYCFC blue that will have the winning team’s colors light up the Empire State Building the night before the match.

The league also will have content, including videos, that it will roll out on its digital platforms through the week, highlighting fan culture and specific players — such as a three-part series on San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski titled “Bau Daigh Warrior” that will focus on his Native American heritage and his road to competing in MLS.

MLS’s network partners are playing a role in the enhancement of Rivalry Week, sharing a graphic bug across the three networks showcasing matches: ESPN, Fox and Univision.

For ESPN, which moved the broadcast of Sunday’s New York matchup to its prime network from ESPN2, home to a weekly 5 p.m. Sunday MLS match, the Rivalry Week effort is also a chance to attract more eyeballs.

“MLS has a healthy fan base that is there day in and day out,” said Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president of programming at ESPN. “Now, with these tentpole-type events on the calendar like Rivalry Week, we’re trying to highlight for the broader sports fan what the unique proposition of MLS is and drive a broader audience to the weekly programming.”

In addition to its game coverage, the network will have a 30-minute pregame show that will highlight each of the Rivalry Week matchups.