USL licensing program could boost revenue
The United Soccer League is launching a centralized licensing program for the first time, a step the second-tier soccer league sees as a major revenue growth and branding opportunity.
The league has hired The Crystal Agency as its licensee agency of record, led by Stu Crystal, who spent more than a decade managing MLS’s licensing and commercial products.
Previously, USL clubs managed their own licensing and merchandise independent from each other and the league. USL does not have an overarching uniform supplier akin to MLS’s deal with Adidas.
While some clubs, such as FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC, have done well in this setup, Crystal said that broader aggregation will only serve as a boon to the league.
“USL per caps are actually very strong and are even comparable to the other leagues in this country, which is great, but the reality is that stems from the fact that fans really struggle to find merchandise outside of games,” Crystal said. He noted that as a percentage of total merchandise sales, most clubs only see low single digits for sales outside of game day or through their website. Beyond the basic items such as jerseys, T-shirts, hats and scarves, very few teams have additional pieces of merchandise for sale, and rarely are those items seen in big-box stores or at airports — all issues that this new program aims to remedy.
USL President Jake Edwards said that the league’s clubs had roughly $10 million in retail sales combined last season, an average of roughly $300,000 per team. Edwards said the goal for this year is to get to $400,000 per club. That would compare favorably to Minor League Baseball, which reported last year that its 160 teams had more than $68.3 million in retail sales, roughly $426,000 per team.
“By instituting a licensing program, getting our team’s products into airports, stores, online and more, as well as working with our teams to improve merchandise point-of-sale inside the buildings, we think this is an incredible opportunity,” Edwards said, adding that he believes the program can quadruple the league’s retail sales “in a very short amount of time.”
While the USL has 33 clubs this season, the program will only include the 14 independently owned clubs. The other 19 teams are affiliates of MLS clubs, and predominantly share the same marks and logos as their MLS sister club. The program will also include incoming USL expansion clubs — six are slated for 2019 — as well as the teams in the USL third division, which will launch next year, and the PDL developmental league.
Crystal said the USL is already in discussions with several licensees spanning key off-field categories such as apparel and accessories, with the aim of signing deals in the next two months and having merchandise available by the start of the 2019 season. The first partner in the program is ball manufacturer Select, which will produce team-branded replica and mini balls.
While finding a broader single-jersey provider for the entire league is not currently in the plan of this program, Edwards said the goal is to build the league’s merchandise business to a point where that may occur.
“We need to drive value in this space in the next few years, but you never know after that — our goal is to build the business and keep on improving it,” he said.