It’s been 36 days since the start of the 20th MLS season.
But with all of the news on the field, two areas of focus light the league up off it… expansion talk and the growth of the product commercially.
Upping their commercial game
On a partner front before the season kicked off, MLS inked a five year, $50 million deal with Heineken to be the headline league sponsor, taking the spot Budweiser had for nearly two decades.
The deal represents a major revenue increase for them – Heineken are apparently set to pay more than three times the estimated value of those rights previously.
And then since the season got under way, work behind the scenes hasn’t stopped – Audi, Mondelez and Johnson & Johnson all signed lucrative multi-year sponsorship arrangements.
Others drinking the Kool-Aid
A clear indication of the health of any sport is not only its’ ability to leverage their own strength with partners like MLS is doing so effectively – but also to harness the power of television especially.
MLS is in the first season of an 8-year, $720 million TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision. A deal which quintupled the value of its television contracts (now worth $90 million annually Vs $20 previously).
That’s just domestic news. Just as big is the scene abroad.
They partnered with IMG to lead the charge to grow its brand internationally by bringing MLS coverage to more fans around the world… and clearly, that deal is starting to bear fruit.
They have been making headway with a range of deals. At the same time which Sky Sports paid £4.176bn for the broadcast rights of 126 Premier League matches per season, Sky also added the MLS to its sports roster with exclusive rights.
And similar to the Sky deal, the MLS has sold their TV rights to companies in Europe, Brazil and the Middle East and North Africa (reaching 25 countries throughout the region).
The great race for MLS expansion
The recent expansion of the MLS sponsorship portfolio coincides with its growth and parallels the aggressive, challenger spirit of the brand.
The MLS opened its 20th season with 20 teams, debuting two new teams in the process in Orlando City and New York City FC. But it doesn’t stop there.
Firstly, the league has a further four new teams to be on the field by 2020. Atlanta are confirmed as joining the fold in 2017; while the MLS hopes to welcome Los Angeles FC (a replacement team for the folded Chivas USA) in 2018; and then last month it was announced that Minnesota would be heading into American soccer’s big-time also in 2018, becoming the 13th new team to join the MLS since 2005.
That takes the number of teams in the league to 23.
The 24th space could very well – and should – be filled by David Beckham’s proposed Miami venture.
Beckham’s conditional Miami club – conditional on stadium financing and location be agreed upon between Beckham and city officials (https://mlsboardingpass.com/2015/02/15/and-they-name-the-teammiami-beckham-united/) remains shrouded in uncertainty.
News from their camp is just that they have been working on putting together the finances to ensure that a Beckham-owned club will be one that makes a real impact. And media news emerged this week of the potential for Beckham to sign the University of Miami as a partner and temporarily using their soccer stadium.
Whatever happens, Beckham’s group need to be quick – Orlando City is making strides to become the “Florida’s Soccer Team.”
‘We need to make a decision in the next few weeks.’ is the commentary from all parties. The league and fans wait with baited breath.
Who looks set to get the inside track to become the 25th…
The ambition is set to go further –”Over the course of 2015, we plan to evaluate potential expansion beyond 24 clubs.” That, from the league’s commissioner.
The league is quite clearly an inflection point in its growth – last year’s attendance hit an all-time high – and now is the opportune time to be a part of the tipping point of its exponential growth.
MLS is apparently considering Sacramento in its latest expansion and has talked with groups in St. Louis and San Antonio. Las Vegas also has a seat at the table as a potential expansion city.
It will; but to what extent should the expansion continue. Worth a watch if you want to be part of the debate:
You have to look back to see how far you have come
And 36 days in and the league is finally breaking out of its own niche. The tide of popular opinion continues to turn towards this game in the US and those inroads continue to expand – rapidly, and across the country at a refreshing pace.
What is critical now is that the on-field product continues to improve, and with the arrival of Gerrard and Lampard still to come, we are due a war of attrition until the end of it.