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

The Allstate Sponsorship: Interview with Allstate Senior Marketing Manager Karen Uhler

As we discussed in mid-February, the announcement that Allstate has signed a four year deal as the official insurance sponsor of MLS was significant for a league that was missing sponsors in a number of major categories.  Like most of the league’s similar deals, Allstate is not simply buying into Major League Soccer.  By buying in with  SUM, Allstate is also gaining a relationship with USMNT, USWNT and renewing a relationship with the Mexican National Team.  Allstate also will have  an exclusive relationship with MLS Cup and the AT&T All Star game.   As part of its relationship with SUM, Allstate will sponsor a series of Hispanic themed events that include the Sueno MLS program.

Karen Uhler is Senior Marketing Manager for Allstate.  She was kind enough to take a few questions from Footiebusiness.com about Allstate’s relationship with MLS, SUM and FMF.  Please see the transcript below.  Thanks to Ms. Uhler.

Footiebusiness.com:  Allstate has a prior standing relationship with the Mexican soccer federation.  Why is now the time to align yourself with MLS, SUM and the US National Team properties?

Karen Uhler:  Expanding our soccer presence as the Official Insurance Sponsor of MLS, U.S. Soccer and the Mexican National Team enables us to share our passion for this exciting and popular sport.  The soccer fan base in the U.S. is at 90 million strong and those numbers continue to grow.  This demographic is an important consumer target for Allstate and we are excited about developing fun and creative programs to bring fans even closer to the sport.  Our new soccer sponsorships will also provide Allstate with an excellent platform to continue to communicate our key brand message of protection, which aligns very well with the sport.
FB: What is it about the MLS fan demographic that makes it a good fit for Allstate?  Did the recent Turnkey Sports Survey showing MLS fans’ awareness of league sponsors factor into your decision to align with the league?
KU: The MLS fan base is passionate and growing.  At Allstate, we want to cast a wide net and reach as many soccer fans in America as we can with messages about our brand and the new MLS sponsorship will help us do that.  The Turnkey Sports Survey did not factor into Allstate’s decision to sponsor MLS.

FB: A number of the programs mentioned in the press release involve the league’s Hispanic fans including Sueno and Futbolito.  How will these programs promote Allstate?

KU: For the past four years, Allstate’s Mexican National Team sponsorship has been an integral piece of our Hispanic marketing strategy and we are excited to renew our partnership for another four years.  Now with the MLS sponsorship Allstate has additional avenues to reach the Hispanic consumer.  For example, Allstate will support Hispanic athletes with dreams of playing in MLS through Sueno MLS, a free tryout program in search of the best undiscovered talent in the U.S.  Specific activation details around the grassroots and Hispanic-focused programs such as Sueno MLS, Socio MLS and MLS Futbolito are still in the works, but they will be a strong priority for Allstate as part of our overarching soccer platform.

FB: How will Allstate activate around MLS and US Soccer?  Should fans expect to see a significant media buy as part of these new relationships?

KU: As part of Allstate’s MLS sponsorship, we will look to engage consumers with creative programs around the league’s two largest game properties, the MLS All-Star Game and the MLS Cup.  Allstate is also planning to activate around select U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team games in 2011.  From a creative standpoint, our plans are still very much in development, but soccer fans should expect to see a strong presence from Allstate on television, online and on the ground at these events.

Soccer Business Bits: Revs New Partner, Weekend Marketing and More

revsLeague sponsor American Airlines has announced a three year sponsorship with the New England Revolution, New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium.  The deal includes stadium signage, commercials, community outreach and gameday events.  Terms of the deal were not disclosed.  The integrated marketing sponsorship will make American Airlines the official sponsor of both teams and the official airline of the Kraft sports properties.

While many fans will argue that the Revs are simply getting dragged into this deal on the coat tails of the Patriots, it is important for the Revs to utilize their relationship with the Pats for their own benefit.  If it means additional money or benefits for the Revs, all the better.  It will be interesting to monitor how frequently the cross promotions mention the Revs and not just the Pats.   American is a major company and a major MLS sponsor, and now they are the Revs official sponsor.

In other sponsorship/marketing news, Chivas USA is promoting a “kids night” where a child under 16 is free with the purchase of an adult ticket.  The promotion is good for the match this Saturday and two subsequent games during the season.  As we have discussed, Chivas is one team that has managed to weather the economic storm this season and increase attendance.  Click here for our interview with Chivas Director of Marketing Alex Gallegos.

Finally, the Fire are promoting their second home game of the week with a $10 ticket offer.    The tickets are good for the supporters sections and corner seats.  The Fire are also promoting a 20 ticket plan that allows fans to purchase 20 tickets that can be used at any home game or playoff game for the rest of the year.  The tickets are selling for $22 per ticket and the package did include 2 free tickets to the Galaxy game.  No sign what will happen now that the Galaxy have left the Windy City.

Soccer Business Bits: MLS Bargains

rslThe MLS weekend starts off with a Friday night tilt at Rio Tinto.  RSL is promoting its Mangia service, which allows patrons to order food directly to their seats.  Mangia allows fans to order food by texting their order to Mangia.  The service has been piloted to a small section of Rio Tinto, but for the July 24 match against Dallas, the service will be available stadium wide.  Moreover, in an effort to promote the service, hot dogs will cost only a dollar and will deliver for free.  This seems like a fairly good idea for a sport like soccer that has no tv timeouts.  It will interesting to see if the service succeeds.

For their July 25th match against the Revs, the Dynamo are contributing $10 from each ticket to Nothing But Nets.  The well regarded charity purchases malaria nets for Africa families and children.  At the same time, the Dynamo are offering a Summer special for the game that includes 4 tickets for $55, 2 chicken sandwiches and 2 Happy Meals.  The promotion is offered in conjunction with McDonalds.

Finally, in conjunction with the Earthquakes’ Saturday night match against DC United, San Jose is promoting its Night of Champions pack.  On August 8, San Jose will play the first half of a doubleheader with Barca and Chivas playing the night cap.  The special offer is a ticket to the doubleheader and the July 25th match for as little as $45 per ticket.  Fans can also apply the deal to a number of other games.  The doubleheader will take place in San Francisco at Candlestick Park.

Interview with Chivas USA Director of Marketing Alex Gallegos

chivasIn a year in which most MLS teams are struggling at the gate, one of the success stories has been Chivas USA.  According to these numbers, Chivas attendance is up more than 6%.   As part of our ongoing interview series with MLS marketing personell, we had an opportunity to chat with Alex Gallegos, the Chivas USA Director of Marketing.  Mr. Gallegos is a graduate of Pepperdine University.  He has spent time as Manager of Street Promotions for DMG Records and more recently, the Director of Promotions for KFWB 980 Dodgers Radio Baseball Netork and NFL Radio Network Los Angeles.  Since 2004 he has been the Diretor of Marketing for Chivas USA.

Thanks to Mr. Gallegos.  Please check out some of our other interviews with MLS marketing executives including Davy Ratchford, Director of Marketing for RSL, Dynamo Senior VP Rocky Harris, Revolution COO Brian Bilello and Kansas City VP of Marketing and Communications Rob Thomson.

Footiebusiness.com: What is Chivas doing differently for marketing in 2009?  How has the economy changed/impacted those efforts?

Alex Gallegos: We have instituted a ton of different programs either marketing, community or sales based, they are as follows:

All You Can eat Section
Stimulus mini- 5 game plan

Practices in the Community

Partnerships with the City of Hope, Special Olympics and the American Lung Association

School of the game

Band of the game

Family and kids packs

All aimed at community involvement, affordable entertainment and fan development

FB: In 2009, many teams in MLS seem to be struggling at the gate.  Yet Chivas seems to be doing quite well, and to date, numbers appear to better than last year.  To what to you attribute that success?

AG: A stronger market presence, diversified advertising avenues

A sales dept that is more veteran and versed in the soccer sales ways

Leadership from our CEO Shawn Hunter

A great team that makes it easy to highlight what we do on the field and off

A stronger presence in the community

Great media and corporate partners

FB: How have Chivas utilized online avenues such as social networking sites, SUM’s new online ad network, etc… to market the team?  Do you find that these efforts increase interest in Chivas or impact attendance?

AG: We have had or launched myspace, facebook, txt message, viral video and online ad programs. We are analyzing twitter and launched mychivasusa.com all to give our fans a better place to congregate, tell more fans and spread our word for us. It is helping little by little.

FB: What unique challenges does Chivas face as one of two teams in Los Angeles?  Most teams just compete against teams in other sports, while Chivas must compete against the Galaxy in their own stadium.  How do you deal with the further segmenting of the potential MLS fan base?

AG: We simply identify what makes us Chivas and let the consumer make the choice, we’re not trying to make anyone chose a side,  we’re open to anyone that likes soccer, that likes entertainment or that wants a fun environment and experience for their family.  We touch on things like our game atmosphere, price affordability, access to our players, community programs, customer service etc…

FB: Is it inconsistent/challenging for teams to target “hard core” supporters, non-soccer sports fans and families?  How do you resolve those inconsistencies/challenges?

AG: We make a lot of invites, we have a lot of guests that we invite to our games on us.  We do this so that they can experience our games and make the decision to come back on their own, more often then not they love our games and really are receptive to coming back and telling their friends. Were building fans through multiple programs, one fan at a time.