Part II: Chat With MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler

celebrationHoward 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. fireworks

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.

galaxyFB: Finally, does the league believe the new format will have an impact on match attendance?  Does that question depend on the city?

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.

Chat with MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler

mlsHoward 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.

Mr. Handler was kind enough to answer a few questions from Footiebusiness about a wide range of business topics including television ratings, partner relationships and the impact of the new ASG format on sponsorship activation. Part I of the Footiebusiness chat is below.  Part II will follow on Thursday.  Thanks to Mr. Handler.

Footiebusiness.com: You have significant experience growing businesses in other industries, from wireless services to entertainment giants.  In what way is the business of soccer different? similar?

Howard Handler: MLS is connected to many of the other brands that I have worked on, as I have always been in the consumer marketing business in the broadest sense. The discipline of thinking about of who your target audience is, what makes them tick, why they care, what they are concerned about, what draws them to you and what prevents them from engaging with you, is very similar to the types of things we thought about at MTV, Virgin Mobile and the NFL. The difference with MLS is that we are earlier in our stage of life. We have succeeded on many fronts but we still haven’t planted our flag at the top of the mountain and that’s what drives all of us. We want to be one of the best leagues in the next 10 years, and we have a lot of work to do in order to achieve that milestone.

FB: You also have substantial background in television.  MLS has managed to grow its gate and is now one of the most attended live sports in the country.  Yet television ratings, if not stagnant, remain disappointing.  The league has two prominent English language television partners.  What is the plan to significantly grow those ratings?  With the television deals coming up for re-bid/renewal, is there urgency significantly move the ratings needle?

HH: Building a national TV audience takes time and a dedicated effort.  We’re very happy with our progress here.  First and foremost, it’s about the quality of the product that exists between the white lines. Throughout the last several years, we have brought in big time, world class players like Beckham, Henry, Keane and Cahill, and we’re seeing many great American players come of age, like Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, Chris Pontius and others. The quality of the play, an attacking style and goals make the product our greatest asset in terms of bringing in a national audience.  We’ve also got a first rate set of broadcasters: ESPN, Univision, NBC in the US and TSN/RDS in Canada.  They work hard to entertain, to help you see more, to understand the stakes and to keep you coming back.  Our Network partners, the League and our Clubs use every available asset to promote our telecasts.  As a result, we’ve seen lots of growth in the 18-34 demo, very attractive to advertisers.  We’ll continue to grow our TV audience. panasonic

FB:  In the recent Nielsen insert to SBJ, it was reported that the regular season national tv ad buy for MLS in 2012 was $7.5 million, more than double the $3.4 million in 2011 and significantly higher than the $4.5 million in 2010.  To what do you attribute the significant increase?  Do you expect this number to increase in 2013?

HH: We have placed a high priority on building our fan base and reaching more people with our message. The real step up that people observed from 2011 to 2012 related to very dedicated promotion around our big matchups and our rivalries. Our ability to communicate will never be measured by paid media because we’re not a big spender compared to most traditional brands. Our  impact will be the result of the way we use our owned media — MLSsoccer.com, our database, our field boards, social media etc. – and our earned media – the different stories we pitch to media outlets, the way we create a conversation and a sense of urgency with social media.  Is our content so compelling that people are going to share it and be messengers for us?  We’ll continue to work hard across paid, owned, earned and partner media. If you approach this area in a thoughtful and coordinated fashion, you can really pack a powerful punch and get your message to a lot of people. 

FB: In 2011 the league announced Panasonic as the Official Consumer Electronics Partner. Other recent league-wide, major category, sponsorship announcements have included Allstate and Four Points.   Do you anticipate any league wide sponsorship announcements in 2013?

HH: Yes, we do. Sponsors are a critical part of our business. They have helped build the league and fulfill a good part of our vision thus far, and they will be a very important part going forward. Sponsors bring tremendous resources, not just financial, but distribution channels, media content, and their consumers and fans.  We are thrilled with Panasonic and all the existing ones that we have had before. They can help us go a long way, and without them we wouldn’t be as successful.

good handsFB: In a November interview with Sports Illustrated, Commissioner Garber indicated that you were working on “a great vision we’ll be launching soon on our rebranding of the league and tapping into the real supporters culture that exists”.  What can you tell us about that rebrand and that vision?  What should league fans expect to see?

HH: We started the soft launch back at All-Star with “This is Soccer,” which is our call to action. It’s a confident declaration of what makes us special and what typifies MLS versus all the other options people have for spending their time. You can see it all over our website, social channels, within all of our owned media, and our clubs are embracing it.  We’ve got lots of additional aspects of this campaign rolling out during the 2013 season and beyond.  By having a focused message, tone of voice and marketing plan, we are confident that we will reach and inspire the next wave of fans.

Thanks to Mr. Handler. Don’t forget to check back on Thursday for part II