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

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Turnkey Sports: MLS Fans on Top

at&TThe Sports Business Journal is once again reporting on the fans of Major League Soccer’s remarkable connection to the corporate partners that support the league.  In reporting the results of the latest Turnkey sports poll, SBJ states that, “MLS sponsors were correctly identified as such by the league’s fans at a higher rate than the companies’ rival brands across all categories, according to the results of this year’s MLS Sponsor Loyalty survey conducted for SportsBusiness Journal/Daily by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment”

MLS fans’ track record of brand loyalty is a recurring theme.  Because of MLS’ relative newness to the sports scene, MLS fans have more “ownership” in the league’s success.  Unlike fans of the NFL, MLB and other mainstream sports, fans of Major League Soccer have real concern about their league and its place on the sports landscape.  Fans work hard to bring friends to games, introduce family to the sport and cheer for MLS teams in international competitions.  This personalized relationship to the sport lends itself to these same fans taking an interest in the corporate entities that keep the league solvent.  Moreover, because the relationships are promoted through means other than commercials (jerseys, signage, etc…), the names of these companies are always prominently displayed.panasonic

Some telling numbers from the survey (as reported by SBJ).   League sponsors such as VW, Gatorade, Pepsi and Allstate generally earned recognition scores in excess of 30%.  One major partner that fell below 30% was VW, at 28.5% .  However, among all sports/leagues, that 28.5% was second to only Chevy’s affiliation to NASCAR in the auto category.  AT&T”s relationship with the league was the biggest mover among all brands in the survey with almost a 16% year over year increase in fan recognition through its MLS partnership.   One final note, Visa’s brand recognition; “more than 44 percent of avid fans recognized the relationship, the highest rate of any of the league’s sponsors among avid fans.”

We will have more on this survey over the next few days.

 

Jersey Sponsors: MLS v. Europe

On January 12, 2011, the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer announced a four year, $12 million dollar deal with Mexican food conglomerate Bimbo.   While the notion of prominent uniform advertisements is foreign in most American sports, MLS has embraced such sponsorships as an important source of revenue.  After the expiration of deals in Columbus and Chicago, six MLS franchises are searching for a primary jersey sponsor,while  the rest of the teams have inked deals worth millions of dollars with world renown companies such as Microsoft, BMO and VW.  Although still in its infancy, MLS’s recent foray into the world of jersey sponsorships provides an interesting comparison to the value placed on such ads in other prominent leagues.

In December, FC Barcelona signed a five year, $200 million dollar jersey sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation.  The deal was especially notable because of the storied club’s prior refusal to carry a commercial sponsorship on their chest.  The team had paid UNICEF for the past five years for the privilege of wearing the charity’s name on its kit.  In England, EPL leaders Manchester United wear the name of Chicago based Aon Corp. on their jerseys.  According to USA today, the deal to replace fallen AIG was valued at $131 million dollars over four years.  According to the same report, the deal was worth more than 17% over the T-Home sponsorship of Bundesliga club Bayern Munich.

Yet for purposes of comparison, these world renown clubs are probably not the best marker for the nascent teams in MLS.  Many of the mid-table and drop zone candidates in European leagues carry deals that compare favorably to their MLS cousins.    Last season, the BBC reported that seven EPL clubs carry sponsorship deals valued at less than $1.6 million dollars. According to a recent analysis conducted by SPORT + MARKT, the 18 remaining teams in La Liga (after Barcelona and Real Madrid are removed), average less than $2.5 million per jersey deal.  Similarly, with all 20 teams accounted for in France’s Ligue 1, the average jersey sponsorship is valued at less than $4 million dollars per team.

With a significant number number of MLS deals worth in excess of 2 million dollars annually (and some valued over $4 million per year), the data shows that once extreme outliers such as Barcelona and Manchester United are exluded, companies are willing to invest similar dollars for a slice of the uniform in MLS and Europe.  While many fans will find these numbers surprising, these figures show the value of the American marketplace and the tremendous growth MLS has made among corporate marketers in the last 15 years.

Soccer Business Bits: TV Ratings, MLS Awards & More

One of the big business stories to come out in the last couple of days was the disappointing ratings of the MLS Cup Final.  According to multiple reports, the match suffered a 44% decline in its overnight rating.  The significant decline can be attributed to a number of factors including the lack of stars, competition from the NFL and a lack of recognizable teams.  Whatever the reason, the low rating (the lowest MLS Cup Final rating in more than a decade), must be cause for concern within the league hierarchy.  The team’s television deals are at a critical point and the poorly rated final will not help the league’s leverage.

We didn’t comment on the league’s announcement of the executive award winners. Notably, RSL won the team PR Award, a fitting honor for the front office that we believe was the most active and effectinve in the league.  As we said when we announced our vote for RSL,  the team started in the offseason with a state-wide campaign to bring the championship trophy to all the counties in the State.  The team is aggressive (perhaps overly aggressive) on Twitter and has effectively engaged its fans on all levels of social media.  The team effectively marketed its Champions League games and drew a huge crowd for the final group stage match.  The front office built upon the team’s success from 2009 and managed to keep fans coming and keep the team in front of the local media outlets. RSL’s front office has managed to make the games a destination and continues to improve the fan experience.

PPL Park will host the 2011 Collegiate Rugby Finals.  The tournament will be televised on NBC.  The game will generate some exposure for the Union and MLS.

In our blog of the Cup Final, we noted the presence of Four Points Sheraton on the sign boards.  The company was the offical hotel of the playoffs and the MLS Cup Final.

The Adidas Deal: Inside the Numbers

The big business story in American soccer over the last 24 hours was the announcement that league sponsor adidas has significantly increased its committment to MLS with a new 8 year, $200 million that runs through 2018.  The deal replaces the previously signed 10 year, $150 million deal signed between the parties in 2004.  With four years remaining on the original deal, adidas has increased its annual committment to Major League Soccer by $10 million per year.

In addition to supplying the clubs and league with merchandise and balls, adidas will remain the the official supplier of uniforms and equipment to MLS youth academies and will increase its advertising presence during MLS broadcasts.  The increase in MLS youth academy presence in affluent and urban areas gives Adidas significant opportunities to reach younger players and familes with an entire line of merchandise.  Moreover, the 8 year deal allows MLS to develop and plan its strategies with the knowledge that these funds are coming through 2018.

According to the Sports Business Journal, adidas’ decision to extend the deal,is based, in part, on the 600% increase (over the last five years) in annual MLS merchandise sales to $300 million per year.

With its FSC contract up this year, the Adidas deal may provide a background for further broadcast negotiations.  With promises from adidas to become a greater presence in television advertising, FSC, and potentially Versus,  may have more reasons to consider signing with MLS.  ESPN may also recognize greater return on its long term investment in the league.

This is obviously a great moment for the league, as it ensures a significant commitment from one of the great merchandise and marketing powers in the world of sports.  At the same time, adidas is shrewdly increasing its participation in MLS at a time when the league is devoting increasing resources to youth development.  We

We’ll let Don Garber have the last word:  “One of the major reasons Major League Soccer has become one of the top soccer leagues in the world is due to the support and commitment of adidas. “They have a clear vision for the sport in North America, and they see MLS as a cornerstone of that vision. Our extension with adidas is a major statement by an internationally respected brand that MLS is increasing in value and that our commitments to stadium construction, strategic expansion, player development and improvement in the overall quality of play are playing dividends.”

Soccer Business Bits: BMO Stays on as Sponsor, Portland Tickets & More

The Sports Business Journal is reporting that BMO has re-upped its sponsorship of Toronto FC through the 2015 season.  BMO will remain on the front of the TFC jersey.  The deal is worth a reported $4 million per year, a dramatic increase over the previous $1 million to $1.5 million.  The deal also puts TFC with the Galaxy at the top of the sponsorship pyramid.   Right now, nine franchises (plus Red Bull) have jersey sponsors with deals ranging from $1 million to the Galaxy’s $4-5 million.

This is good news for MLS.  BMO represents the second renewal for the league (after RSL).  The bank is making a significant statement about their belief in the future of Major League soccer.  However, with a number of teams still waiting for sponsors and a number of renewals are coming due.  The next year will be an important indicator of the league’s attractiveness to potential sponsors.  In the article, SBJ also reports that Canadian broadcasts are averaging 50-100k viewers per game.

In Portland, the Timbers are reporting that ticket sales and corporate investment are ahead of schedule. Merritt Paulson is reporting that more than 7,000 season ticket deposits have been put down.  He also also indicated that the franchise will likely cap season ticket sales at around 12k.

Finally, initial reports are very positive about the PPL Park’s opening. Click here to for one take on the City of Chester’s view of the stadium.

Soccer Business Bits: MLS Pre- World Cup Version

With the World Cup about to start and MLS about to embark on a 2 week hiatus, we thought we would take a quick look around the business of the league before all eyes turn to South Africa.  A while back we reported that longtime FIFA sponsor Continental Tire has signed with MLS as a league sponsor.  The multi-year deal provides signage at all MLS matches, hospitality arrangements at games and commercials on league broadcasts.  As is typical for such league-wide deals, SUM negotiated the deal on behalf of MLS and terms of the deal were not disclosed.  Continental is now the official tire of MLS and will have the right to use league marks in its advertising and product.

Now Major League Soccer’s official website is circulating (via e-mail) a survey targeting its user’s tire preferences.  The survey asks readers for their knowledge of Continental Tire and whether they are more likely to purchase tires from Continental because of Continental’s relationship with MLS.  The survey provides some significant insight in Major League Soccer’s efforts to promote its sponsors.  Recall that Continental Tire, through the MLS website, recently offered a free MLS jersey to any fan who purchases four Continental brand tires at participating dealers in certain Northeast locations.  The jersey can be from a team of the fan’s choice and can be redeemed by submitting certain documents to a designated address. The promotion applies to purchases made between May 15 and June 30.

In New England, injured Revs star is the official World Cup analyst for Comcast Sports Net New England, the Regional Sports Network that carries the Revs. Despite his injury problems, Twellman is a recognizable figure to most Boston ara sports fans and his presence on a station as popular as CSN will likely drive mainstream interst in the Cup.

MLS closes its pre-World Cup schedule on ESPN2 Thursday night with a Seattle home game.  The game gets a lead in from ESPN2’s 2.5 hour World Cup preview and provides a great opportunity to put the outstanding atmosphere of Seattle before non-MLS soccer fans who are watching the preview might tune in for MLS action.