Is The All-Star Game An American Treasure Or A Waste Of Time?

SJ_ASGThis past week,  MLS announced that the 2016 edition of its All-Star Game will be held in San Jose, California at the newly created Avaya Stadium, showcasing the latest and greatest stadium amenities in the league.   In addition to the news surrounding the upcoming 2015 game against the Barclays Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, this announcement raises the often unanswered question: Are all-star games worth it?

All-Star games have mainly been a construction of American (and sometimes Canadian) sports for over 75 years with roots in baseball that spread to virtually all other team sports. According to History Channel, the first ever MLB All-Star Game took place in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair, ironically billed as a one time event to boost spirits during the Great Depression. Instead, it became a yearly ritual and a consistently questioned concept.  The first ever football Pro Bowl took place before the NFL’s existence in 1939 in Los Angeles between Pro All-Stars and the NY Giants.  The first NHL All-Star Game took place in 1947 in Toronto after 3 charity events featuring All-Star teams from 1934-1939, and the first NBA edition took place in Boston in 1951.   Over time, each of these events have not only turned into spectacles for fans, but marketing and broadcasting gold.

Other than being an excuse for advertisements and increasing revenue, all-star games hold little significance in terms of competition.  In most cases, the winning team wins nothing more than bragging rights,  and all selected players win the honor of recognition for their talents.  After the technology boom, fans won more control over proceedings by earning the right to vote online for the players they believe should be in these games. The real challenge for leagues becomes making the game a must-see event, or all sponsorships and broadcasting deals go to waste.

When it comes to making all-star games matter from a marketing standpoint, MLS might actually be at an advantage compared to other sports leagues in the USA.  MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL all have a common theme: they attract the world’s best talent, with few challenges to their authority.  As a result, your typical East vs. West game pitting league’s best vs. league’s best is considered a display of the sport’s finest athletes playing against each other in one big, friendly, heavily sponsored event.   In contrast, MLS does not (and apparently recognizes that it does not) attract the world’s best talent.  With that in mind, an East vs. West game suddenly becomes a sad event featuring some moderately skilled soccer players playing each other in a meaningless game where the points don’t matter. For better or for worse, MLS might be the only major American sports league with the ability to consider foreign clubs as legitimate competition for the league’s finest athletes.

MLS started inviting foreign clubs to play against the league’s best in 2003 with Mexico’s CD Chivas Guadalajara, and has kept this practice in place since 2005.  The sell-out crowds at these events and the AT&T shirt sponsorships (seen below) are a sign of the success.  Games are nationally televised, and for the most part the league gets a positive image from its tendency to win against world powers (The MLS All-Stars are 7-3-1 since 2003 against foreign opponents).


These foreign teams bring a new element to the game unseen in other sports.  The MLS All-Star Game isn’t just another display of the world’s best talent facing off.  In fact, it may feature some mediocre talent compared to the elite teams in this world.  Instead, the MLS All-Star Game serves as a yearly advertisement of the league’s growing legitimacy in a competitive global landscape.

REFERENCES (Photo: Jennifer Kesgard)


The Women’s World Cup: Where is the Buzz?

img_6177_original-croppedThe 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada in less than 2 weeks.  Are you excited? If the answer is no, you probably fall in the majority of sports fans. But the marketing push leaves a lot to be desired. Women’s professional soccer has historically been a tough sell since the memorable U.S. Women’s National Team World Cup victory in 1999, and 2015 is no exception.

During last year’s FIFA Men’s World Cup, Nike and Adidas aggressively fought each other over ad space and staged media events to draw attention to new soccer jerseys and products.  It is very unlikely to expect this level of competition during this year’s event due to the lack of interest building around the competition.  Possibly the most publicity surrounding the tournament came from the controversial choice of colors to be worn by the U.S. Women’s National Team.  For the first time, the team will not be wearing a uniform that resembles the American flag.  Instead, the team will don white uniforms with hints of black, as well as neon green socks and cleats.  The topic was trending nationally for hours.

Fox Sports, the broadcast rights owner of this event has attempted to hype the games through a 100 day, $10 million dollar promotional push.  You can see the video that starts this push below.  The goal of the campaign is to convince viewers that the U.S. Men’s National Team has “passed the torch” to the U.S. Women’s National Team after their disappointing World Cup defeat to Belgium last year because “The U.S. has a score to settle.”

While a 6 venue tournament in Canada will almost definitely have a different feel on television to the surreal scenes we saw in Brazil during the Men’s World Cup, FOX Sports still sees the potential for great success.  5 out of the 16 matches to be aired on FOX will be aired during primetime, including the two group stage matches of the U.S. team.  29 games will be shown on FOX Sports 1.  Time will tell if viewers care about the tournament, and if the tournament can impact the success of the U.S. professional women’s league as expected.

According to SB Nation, the average attendance in 2014 for the National Women’s Soccer League (America’s top-tier women’s league) was 4,139.  If you subtract the exception to the rule, the Portland Thorns who average 13,362 fans per game, attendance decreases drastically to 2,986.  In fairness, the Seattle Sounders of MLS also help boost average attendance figures by acting as a clear outlier to the rest of the league.

Perhaps even worse news is that professional women’s soccer leagues in the United States have a history of folding after 3 years, first with the WUSA in 2003, followed by the WPS in 2011.  This year marks the fateful third year of operations for the NWSL.  As a result, success in this World Cup by the women’s team could be crucial for the existence of the league.  Star power from household names like Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach combined with a U.S. Women’s World Cup victory will need to equate to consistent attendance figures in NWSL games,  or the league might face the same repetitively grim fate of its predecessors.


Nike is releasing its US women’s soccer jerseys in men’s sizes for the first time ever

Is Soccer Being Marketed in the Right Direction?

A plush David Villa toy on sale during an NYCFC game.

Over the past few months, this site has looked at the structure of soccer in the U.S. both on the major league front and the minor league front to develop insights into how long this current system can last.  Our findings have overall been very positive thanks to several marketing efforts that have been implemented by Major League Soccer.

First, attendance is the greatest cause for optimism. With attendance figures growing higher every year, and MLS surpassing both the NBA and NHL in average attendance, the league can draw the attention necessary for better corporate sponsorship deals and better media rights deals.  The league has successfully increased attendance by reaching its target demographic where they live by focusing on sites for stadiums centrally located in downtown urban areas as well as making the experience more enjoyable with better digital connectivity (see San Jose Earthquake’s Avaya Stadium).  Future stadium plans for Washington D.C, Orlando, New York, and New England plan to follow the same model of a downtown facility with 20,000 to 25,000 seats that has seen successful results.

Second, better TV deals increase the league’s exposure and likelihood of sponsorships. This can also be seen with the minor league NASL and its recent agreement to have the majority of its games covered on ESPN3.  Thanks to better coverage by local stations in markets like Salt Lake City, and more consistent national coverage with the 3 guaranteed games a weekend on ESPN2, Fox Sports 1, and UniMas, Major League Soccer is expanding its reach.

Lastly, sponsorship activity has increased thanks to these new activities in attendance and television.  As the league better attracts its target demographics and sponsors see the benefits of using MLS as a springboard for access to a live, captive audience of potentially loyal customers, the league can expect greater investment from bigger partners.  We have already seen this investment start this year from large corporations like Mondelez and Coca-Cola, as well as with shirt sponsors and stadium naming sponsors like Bimbo and Stubhub. Merchandising efforts have already seen massive success this year, particularly with NYCFC which sold out all of its scarves during its inaugural game, many  branded with the logo of primary sponsor Etihad Airways.

Soccer in America has a long way to go before it challenges football, baseball, basketball, and hockey for financial dominance in the sports landscape.  However, these valiant marketing efforts  that have already been initiated by the league could potentially help Major League Soccer achieve Commisioner Don Garber’s goal of being the “world’s best soccer league” by the year 2022.

Shirt Sponsorships

galaxyPutting your company name front and center on a team’s jersey could arguably be seen as a wiser investment than placing your name on the team’s stadium.  In Europe, some teams are finding kit sponsorships even more profitable than stadium deals thanks to increased levels of investment.

According to the research firm Repucom, the British Premier League experienced a 20% increase in shirt sponsorships in the 2014/15 season following a 36% rise in shirt sponsorships the season before.   Chelsea AFC, one of the league’s biggest clubs, recently agreed to a deal with Yokohama Rubber Company worth $61.4 million per year.  Even greater, Manchester United is in the middle of a $70 million per year deal with Chevrolet.  According to CNN, Qatar Airways spends $181 million a year to be the jersey sponsor of Barcelona, arguably the most recognizable soccer team in the world.

Jersey sponsorships do not come without controversy.  In England, Newcastle United has been forced to remove the Wonga logo from its children’s replica jerseys starting in the 2016 season because the company is a payday lender.  In Spain 86% of all jersey sponsorships come form outside of Spain.  While this is excellent marketing for companies looking to increase their international reach, its one less avenue for companies within the country to push their own names.

Jersey sponsorship in MLS totaled $55.8 million, which is higher than the Netherland’s top league, the Eredivisie.  In 2012, 13 teams had kit sponsors and today, 18 out of the 20 teams have sponsors. The team with the greatest deal, the LA Galaxy still only makes $4.4 million per season from Herbalife.  As the league continues to grow in international prominence, time will tell if these jersey sponsorships grow in size and scope. Here is a promotional video hyping  the new Sporting Kansas City jersey, with sponsor Ivy Funds, introduced this past Wednesday.