Major League Soccer kicks off this weekend, and I can’t wait. The league did an admirable job in 2020 finding ways to ensure competition prevailed, but the unavoidable, disjointed nature of matches made it a difficult year for fans to follow.
Now, it’s a new year, and new excitement is in the air as MLS takes the field for its 26th edition. There’s so much to talk about, but to simplify things I thought I’d focus on my ABCs of the impending season.
A is for Austin
All eyes will be on the Texas capital as Austin FC becomes the 27th team in MLS. Considered by many to be one of the coolest cities in the country, Austin is clearly primed for the club’s debut. The team has garnered significant local and national attention the last two years while checking all the right boxes:
- Powerful local ownership group that includes a major Hollywood celebrity in Matthew McConaughey? Check.
- Locally owned, globally recognized brand as a jersey partner? Enter YETI. Check.
- Beautiful new stadium?. Welcome Q2 Stadium. Check.
- Sold-out season ticket allocation? Check.
- A bold brand identity and jersey design universally loved by fans: Check.
Austin FC have seemingly made all the rights moves thus far. Now we’re keen to see what they can do on the pitch.
B is for Broadcast
Much of the soccer business discussion in recent months has centered around the changing television rights landscape in North America. Major European league rights, such as Italian Serie A, have changed hands, moving from ESPN+ to CBS/Paramount+ next season.
The shift to put more soccer on emerging OTT platforms makes sense for the broadcaster, but does it actually benefit the sport and the soccer fan? For so many years lack of access to soccer was the biggest hurdle the sport needed to overcome.
Then in the mid 2000s soccer was suddenly everywhere, and fans had unbridled access to literally thousands of matches a year via cable and satellite channels. In 2021, things seem to be coming full circle with premium soccer products finding their why behind restricted access paywalls.
MLS still has two years remaining on its current broadcast agreements with ESPN, Fox, and Univision, and they are focused on using this as an opportunity to maximize eyeballs. This season will see 37 matches (the most ever) broadcast on major network television, exposing the domestic league to the largest possible TV audience.
Building national appeal for individual MLS clubs that drive solid national TV ratings has been a struggle for MLS over the years. Think about it. Real Madrid, Liverpool, and Juventus are not constrained by any geographic allegiances in the US. They are international brands that hold national interest when they play.
MLS clubs don’t enjoy the same status and are heavily tied to their local city. Growing national interest for individual teams will be important to the league’s ultimate success. More games on national TV this year is one step in the right direction, and everyone associated with the League hopes to see some strong ratings performance for these matches.
C is for Campeones
For sure “C” could have stood for Covid, and perhaps it should have. There is little doubt the pandemic will have the biggest overall impact on MLS this year, for a multitude of reasons. Schedule adjustments (the season kick-off has already been pushed back twice), limited capacity attendances, scaled-back experiential marketing opportunities for brand partners, and more.
Oh, and there’s the not-so-small matter of a second year in a row with estimated financial losses of around $1bn. Unfortunately, Covid will continue to wreak havoc on MLS for this season, as well.
But rather than focus on these issues I’ve chosen to highlight “C’ for Campeones.
Why? Because I think this symbolizes where MLS is ultimately going.
2021 will see the return of two relatively new collaborative competitions between MLS and its neighbor to the south, Mexico’s Liga MX. The Leagues Cup is an eight-team (four Liga MX and four MLS) mini knockout tournament that launched in 2019. Campeones Cup is a single-challenge match between the respective champions of each league. Neither event was staged last year because of the pandemic.
Both these ventures speak directly to the size and importance of the Hispanic audience. There are 60 million people of Hispanic descent in the US, almost as much as the entire population of the United Kingdom, and their three favourite sports are soccer, soccer, and soccer.
The significance of the Hispanic audience in the US has long been recognised and its influence over American soccer culture runs deep. It’s a critical point of differentiation and opportunity for soccer.
Initiatives such as the Leagues Cup and Campeones Cup are just appetizers for what may follow in the future: a full-on regional league with US, Mexico, and Canada.
Even Fifa President, Gianni Infantino, was asked recently about the idea of a North American tri-national league. His response? “I think the potential in the United States and Mexico is enormous, each country by itself. But of course, if you could bring those two together that would be incredible and that could quite well be the best league in the world.”
This realization is still a long way off, but the winds of opportunity are certainly blowing in this direction.
So, there you have it. My ABCs of the 26th season of Major League Soccer. Let the games begin!
John Guppy is the president of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, a Chicago-based strategy and engagement marketing firm focused exclusively within the sport of soccer. John is the former president of MLS’ Chicago Fire.