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Volume 22 No. 8

Research and Ratings

MLS’s official sponsors were more likely to be identified as such by the league’s fans, according to our 12th annual MLS Sponsor Breakthrough survey conducted for SBJ by Turnkey Intelligence. In fact, in seven of the 10 categories surveyed, MLS partners topped their nearest competitor by double digits.

Leading the way was fourth-year sponsor Coca-Cola, which was recognized by half of the fans in the study. That’s 11 percentage points higher than Pepsi received in its 19 years as the league’s official soda. Coke gained exposure as a sponsor of Atlanta United, last season’s league champion, and the brand’s six percentage point improvement over 2017 also may have been bolstered by its significant presence as a major sponsor of last summer’s FIFA World Cup.

Recognition compared to 2017

+2% points: Audi — Partnership must be working as the carmaker signed on for four more years.

+2% points: Etihad Airways — Contract extension includes title sponsorship of MLS Flight Path.

-4% points: AT&T — Despite the drop, still holds a massive lead over its rivals.

-3% points: Allstate — A partner since 2011, this was the brand’s third straight decline.

Other notable findings from the data:

■ Heineken replaced one of the league’s founding partners in 2015. Thirty-seven percent of the fans knew that the brewer makes the league’s official beer, 4 percentage points higher than 2017. Budweiser, Heineken’s predecessor, generated a 38 percent awareness level in 2012, its highest level in our annual study.

■ Wells Fargo enjoyed an eight percentage point increase in awareness, following its first full season as presenting sponsor of the new MLS Works Community MVP contest and a digital content series focused on MLS fans. The bank signed a four-year extension in 2017 that also expanded its activation in the U.S. with the Mexican National team.


Ad effectiveness

Turnkey draws from its database of more than 400 ads to analyze the impact of creative spots running on MLS and other major league programming.

Grade: 7 (good)
The Seattle Sounders’ Clint Dempsey expresses appreciation for his parents and their willingness to drive him three hours from Nacogdoches, Texas, to club soccer practice in Dallas when he was young. The approach resonated well with fans from a likability perspective, but the modest Continental brand presence resulted in relatively lower branding scores, according to Turnkey. The spot aired on TV only 18 times during the season but generated more than 125,000 online views, according to


Grade: 9 (excellent)
Fast-paced and MLS highlights-driven, the ad, which spotlights the brand’s Player Index statistics app, earned a strong likability score among fans. The MediaCom-created spot touts Audi as being a leader in technology and innovation and features MLS players Graham Zusi and Diego Valeri.

Since 2007, Turnkey Intelligence has been benchmarking detailed sponsor performance and breakthrough metrics for Sports Business Journal across Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, NASCAR, PGA Tour and NCAA. Presented here are the brands, per category, that were most likely to be selected in our recent MLS study.

It’s not often that you can say you were there when a major sports league was founded, but myself and many others in the industry share that privilege.

Founded in 1993 and prior to the U.S.-hosted FIFA World Cup in 1994, Major League Soccer had its first season in 1996. Anheuser-Busch was one of those early sponsors extending “our” voice around the game of soccer.

Thanks to early owners and leaders like Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, the league was able to stay solvent and grow over time. Don Garber was named commissioner in 1999, coming directly from NFL International. Twenty-two years later, with 24 teams and counting, we see strong participation from fans and sponsors of this global sport. The evidence of this is seen in the excitement and enthusiasm around newest champion Atlanta United FC.

One may not be surprised that as an official league partner and headquartered in Atlanta, Coca-Cola had the highest recognition as a sponsor (50 percent) and posted a 6 percentage point improvement from the prior year. In addition to its activation with MLS, Coke’s decades-long support of soccer through the World Cup builds a strong connection to the sport.

As we look at the other recognized sponsors, we see partnerships that build programs.

Heineken, Audi and Wells Fargo all enjoyed increases in awareness due to strong activation efforts.

Target, a sponsor newly added to the study, saw strong sponsor breakthrough (28 percent). Target utilized a fully integrated marketing program — league sponsorship and Minnesota United jersey sponsorship, as well as TV support on Univision, Fox Sports and ESPN.

As any brand needs to stay true to itself and build upon its foundation with the consumer, one could argue that MLS, with support from sponsor marketing activation, is growing with a young, diverse consumer of the future.