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Success From Authenticity: Marketing Lessons From The MLS

MLS Soccer Stadium

Marketing anything is a hard thing to do. Most people can't appreciate the efforts that go into even something as simple as a Twitter campaign, let alone trying to market for a multi-million dollar industry across multiple platforms and medias. When someone markets something well, it deserves to be shared.  I’ve always had a strange fascination for commercials, ads, and other aspects of marketing/advertising. I postulate the marketing intent behind everything I see, which makes me quite an interesting person to watch TV with. This mentality inspired me to share the success behind the recent growth of the MLS. But, in order to truly understand their recent successes, we need to revisit their early mistakes. 

Early Difficulties

In 1996, the MLS started its first ever season with 12 teams. In 1998, that number shrunk to 10. Game attendance was declining, and Americans were simply uninterested in the sport. Fans didn’t like certain rules of the game. For example, soccer games often end in a tie and with the vastness of the field, the action looks sparser than it does in traditional American games like basketball and football.

In response, the MLS “Americanized” the sport by adding hockey-style penalty shootouts, getting rid of throw-ins, and getting rid of stoppage time. But these game changes had a detrimental effect on the US style of play, and the Men’s National Team placed dead last in their group in the 1998 World Cup. The United States already had a hard enough time keeping up with the rest of the world of soccer, and it seemed like they made it worse.


Marketing Takeaway: Understand Your Target Audience

Any company can produce marketing content. The real challenge is to create content that your target audience will connect with. The MLS was looking for an easy fix that would make them more attractive in the eyes of the everyday American sports fan. However, the everyday American sports fan has had a generation of American sports, like basketball, football, and baseball to follow. By changing the rules to cater to these fans, the MLS did increase the American perspective of soccer, but they did not account for the outcome of changing the game’s rules. The United States Men's National Team tied for last place in total goals scored in the 1998 World Cup with only one goal. 

By creating buyer personas, marketers understand who the audience is and what their pain points are. For example, the actual audience of the MLS was unhappy with the perception of American soccer as a joke when compared to the rest of the world. The American soccer organization saw this, albeit late, and was able to make the necessary changes. 


Authentic American Progress

After the disastrous 1998 World Cup performance, the MLS decided to make rules consistent with FIFA’s Rules of the Game. With this move, the MLS was free to begin developing young American players. And that’s exactly what happened! American stars such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and DaMarcus Beasley emerged from the MLS as consistently great players that American soccer fans could get behind on both their MLS teams, and on the National Team. In fact, at the 2002 World Cup, the United States advanced to the quarterfinals, to be beaten by a German team that would get second place.


Marketing Takeaway: Understand What Worked and Run With It

Just like certain player’s progression in the sport, you’ll know what campaigns are successful after their performance. Players like Landon Donovan might not have ever had a chance to impact the growing American sport in the way he did if the league was still Americanized. As a matter of fact, Donovan would go on to be the best American soccer player of all time. Without the MLS making changes to their rulebook to mirror the rules of the world’s most popular sport, we could have never had a player like Landon Donovan appear and surprise the entire world.

Results don’t appear overnight, especially with marketing. When they do happen, it is imperative that marketers are monitoring their campaigns to understand why and how they were successful. This way they can set themselves up for success in the future.


Rapid Growth

Fast forward to the 2014-2015 season. The MLS acquired international superstars like 2005’s Brazilian World Player of the Year, Kaká, and Italian World Cup winner, Andrea Pirlo. Not only does the influx of European talent in the MLS bring buzz to the league, it improves the overall quality of soccer in the league. In fact, the league continues to see an upward trend in the amount of goals scored in a season, with the 2015 season totaling 985 goals (as of 11/16/15). More and more youth players are being registered for the sport each year. In addition, the MLS has started creating soccer specific stadiums that allow revenue growth and establishes local significance. Accomplishing these processes allowed for MLS game attendance to rival many older sports leagues, like the NHL and the NBA. 


Marketing Takeaway: Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself

It will be very interesting to see how the MLS will handle future growth. They have plans to include more teams by 2020, but how do they know they won’t repeat the same failures they experienced in 1998? The answer is that they understand their own recipe for success. The MLS looks for the number of youth players in an area, the possibility of building a soccer-specific stadium in an effective, and the team has to be locally popular in order to be considered. Understanding how to be successful is the key to growth. Without this recipe for success, you won’t be able to recreate your past successes.   


What does the future hold for the MLS?

As an avid soccer and local Colorado Rapids fan, I see nothing but bright things in store for the MLS and American soccer in general. International companies that already sponsor worldwide soccer tournaments are focusing on the American sports league to grow their brand as international soccer sponsors. For example, the MLS recently made a partnership with Heineken. The Dutch brewing company currently partners with Europe’s largest tournament, the UEFA Champions League, and last year’s Champion’s League Final was watched by more people than the Super Bowl. 

It took a number of years for the MLS to figure out their recipe for success, but now that they understand how to succeed with authenticity, they need to be extremely careful not to become overzealous.

Creating the right buyer personas can be a hard process to undergo. Where do you start? How do you know if they are the right people to be targeting? It's all about the pain points, and how your business can help them or their company. For a great comprehensive guide to creating buyer personas click below and download our buyer personas workbook, or simply reach out to us