By Andrea Siedsma
October 2000 - As part of a new five-year business plan, Major League Soccer has launched a multimillion-dollar, grassroots marketing campaign aimed at existing soccer fans, including Hispanics.
"We are in the process of developing a brand," says Mark Noonan, executive vice-president of marketing and fan development for MLS and a former marketing executive with U.S. Soccer and Gatorade.
"We want to continue to focus on revenues, but we also need to develop an identity that's unique to us in the marketplace. With Hispanics, soccer is in their blood. What we have to do is convince them of the credibility of our product."
To do that, MLS has hired employees who speak Spanish and who understand the Hispanic community. Although not a Spanish-speaker himself, Don Garber, the new MLS commissioner, president, and CEO, had the marketing savvy to establish a Hispanic communications department. He is perhaps best known for introducing the National Football League to international markets.
Jeff Scott, co-founder of the Soccer Council of San Diego, California, and a die-hard MLS fan, is confident Mr. Garber can get the job done – provided he continues to concentrate on existing soccer fans.
"I am their demographic dream – I'm male, I'm part Hispanic, I go to games, and I watch soccer on TV," Mr. Scott says. "[Mr. Garber] has gone back to the core soccer community and listened to what they have to say. What's also going to make a difference is the quality of their product. The Hispanic community, the European community, and the hard-core American soccer fans can smell crap a mile away."
To prove its value, MLS has made an effort to attract popular international soccer talent, including Luis "El Matador" Hernandez, hired in June to play for the L.A. Galaxy.
Although some say Mr. Hernandez, a superstar from Veracruz, Mexico, has yet to draw the crowds MLS officials were expecting, attendance for Galaxy matches is up 25 percent this year. Mr. Scott, who attended the L.A. Galaxy season opener, points to Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal, which recently reported that the Galaxy draws a league-leading 22,000 fans per game. (Most MLS games draw about 14,000 people.)
"He [Mr. Hernandez] is starting to play better and he's starting to click with the team," Mr. Scott says. "While he hasn't produced on the field yet, he makes great business sense to MLS. If he does well in L.A., they can sell him abroad for $20 million to $30 million. If he doesn't do well internationally, they can continue to use him as a marketing tool to the U.S. Hispanic community."
MLS also hopes to draw existing soccer fans by participating in more international competitions, says Mark Abbott, the league's chief operating officer. He says the league also intends to help finance the construction of soccer stadiums throughout the United States, such as the one being built at California State University at Dominguez Hills, which is scheduled for completion in 2002.
He says expansion is another part of the MLS strategy. The league plans to form at least two more teams by 2002, and MLS officials are in discussions with potential investors for expansion into Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Sacramento, and Rochester (New York) by 2004.
To reach more fans, MLS – which has more than $135 million in corporate sponsorships – has signed a multiyear TV package with ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, and Telemundo. One of the league's newest TV programs is "Soccer Saturday" on ESPN.
"We're pleased with the progress we've made with television, but we still have a long way to go," Mr. Garber says. "We need to continue to look at creative ways to present the sport on television and bring the game closer to our fans. We realize the league needs a larger focus on building stars, and we will continue to develop ways to make our players more well known and present them as inspirational heroes to the millions of soccer fans in this country."
As part of the league's grassroots marketing strategy, one of its sponsors, Pepsi-Cola, plans to expand its "Takin' It to the Fields" youth soccer program, which is expected to reach up to 50,000 youth soccer teams in MLS markets. This season, MLS also created a $5 million marketing campaign titled "It's Your Game," which was launched in March with a TV commercial. MLS stadiums also feature "It's Your Game" field boards in Spanish and English.
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