Howard Handler was named Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Soccer in early 2o12. In that capacity, Mr. Handler oversees marketing, strategy, communications, digital, events and club services for the League. Prior to joining MLS, Mr. Handler served as executive vice president, marketing and sales at The Madison Square Garden Company. He has also worked for Virgin Mobile, The National Football League, MTV, Saturday Night Live and The Quaker Oats Company.
Earlier in the week we posted Part I of our interview with Mr. Handler. Part II looks at the league’s decision to move the MLS Cup Final to the home ground of the highest remaining seed.
Footiebusiness.com For the first time, MLS Cup was held at the home ground of the highest remaining seed rather than a long planned neutral site. What logistical challenges did the league face in implementing this change? What types of items/events cannot be organized until the site is known?
Howard Handler: In the early days, a neutral site gave us more time to plan and sell more tickets. Having a competitively determined site is a statement to the confidence we have in the size and intensity of our fan base, truly one of the distinguishing aspects of MLS today.
FB: Similarly, MLS Cup is a showcase event for the league. How does the new format impact the league’s ability to promote the league to sponsors, potential sponsors and potential investors?
HH: In 2012, we learned that a competitively determined destination for MLS Cup was the best possible experience for fans. The electricity and noise were amazing, and you could cut through it with a knife at the Home Depot Center. It was unbelievable, and I know the players, fans and partners felt it.
There are certainly challenges with people having only two weeks to plan around the final destination, and everybody has very busy schedules, especially at that time of year. But, ultimately we are putting our fans and our Clubs first. We think that’s the best thing we can do to ensure that it’s the best environment for the players and clubs. Commercially, it’s also the smartest thing we can do to drive the best possible rating.
FB: Does the new format increase the importance of the All-Star Game as an annual event with respect to creating an opportunity for league officials, sponsors, media, team officials and fans to gather? Will the MLS Cup still play a role as a central event off the field?
HH: There is no doubt that MLS Cup is the crowning event of the season. Everybody is gunning to be the champion, so we think that MLS Cup will continue to grow over time. We’ve got one of the best Special Events teams in the industry and we will get even better at the logistics. As our popularity and fan base continue to grow, it’s just one of those things that becomes a given. It definitely creates the opportunity to make All-Star a much bigger deal, but we have been doing a pretty good job over the past several years of making All-Star special. We have been able to find ways to layer on more content, more promotion, more surprises and more value for everyone involved.
The real headline I think relates to March to Soccer, our new season launch platform. March to Soccer is a bigger, multi-faceted event. It stretches over a five week period and there are plenty of ways for everyone to get involved. Our partners acknowledged that, even when it was a concept on the drawing board. The calendar is always a great source of leverage for our league. We have those three big anchor events — March to Soccer, All-Star and MLS Cup — but we also have rivalries and other exciting matches that exist within the schedule. Over time the big rivalries and some of the international friendlies will all take on greater importance.
FB: How will the new format impact promotion and coverage in the market where the game is held? What efforts will the league make to connect with mainstream and sports media in the host city? How did that go with Los Angeles this year.
HH: The host markets have done a great job with MLS Cup. Media today is built to react to the breaking story with the “got to see it now” mentality. With competitively determined places, as in the World Series, journalists know that they will be spending time in both places, and with us, it’s one or the other. I think the experience in Los Angeles was amazing actually. We had a little extra sizzle from David Beckham’s last game and the repeat potential that Los Angeles fulfilled. We had a lot of support from AEG, which is an amazing supporter and a great owner.
HH: The new format in part was adopted based on our confidence that attendance would be one of the real highlights. What was interesting this year is that you had a couple thousand people travel from Houston. It’s not inexpensive and not uncomplicated, but they wanted to be there. It made for an even better environment. When you looked into the stadium, you saw an entire sea of orange next to the gigantic LA Supporters section.