Three summers ago, the U.S. Men’s National Team had something of a coming-out party. They were drawn into that year’s Group of Death with sneaky-deadly Ghana, early contending favorites Portugal and eventual champions Germany. Hopes of their advancement were low, outside of the truest of believers. Of course, they did advance, and in doing so triggered another round of “here comes soccer, finally” speculation.
There were naysayers who argued that America can only ever be a soccer country every four years. But, since then, American soccer fans have stuck with the sport. They followed the recent triumphs and embarrassments of the women’s team, the men’s team’s disappointing fourth-place result in the U.S.-hosted Gold Cup and the firing of head coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
In the meantime, while the quality of the U.S. National Teams has gone down measurably, interest hasn’t waned. In fact, Americans are watching soccer in record numbers across all leagues and competitions — Champion’s League, Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga. Even our domestic league, Major League Soccer, has become a product anyone would be proud of.
It’s boom times for soccer in America, and while the play overseas may still nab the lion’s share of attention, the expanding league at home is growing by leaps and bounds. This weekend’s opening matches saw the addition of two new clubs, Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United FC. It might shock those who haven’t been paying attention since that last World Cup to find that along with Minnesota and Atlanta, many of the stars of that last USMNT campaign also saw the pitch for MLS action this weekend. These stars recognize that the league’s talent level (and increasingly competitive pay) means they no longer need to venture overseas and duke it out in Europe’s less glamorous leagues to prove their mettle.
Continuity, quality and consistency are three words that you can now safely use to describe MLS. The league is having a moment. It’s a great time to be a fan. And because it’s a great time to be a fan, it’s a great time to be a marketer, too.
Teams at the top of the heap are accustomed to having a target on their backs. For new entrants Minnesota United FC, they’ll be getting used to having one on their chests. They join the league with, perhaps, one of the league’s strongest new partners — hometown retail juggernaut Target. They’ve pulled out all of the stops to make a meaningful impact in the sport, pledging in their initial press release to have brand integration “across all platforms, including broadcast, digital, video, content, in-stadium and on-site activation at marquee MLS events.”
While Minnesota United FC is comprised partly of a group of guys who once played in lower leagues, their fellow maiden campaigners in Atlanta are joining from scratch. That didn’t prevent 30,000 fans from signing up for season tickets before the first whistle blew, a number that nearly every NBA team would desire.
So it’s no surprise that other massive metros are excited to punch their MLS tickets. Just last month, 12 different ownership groups in 12 different U.S. cities submitted bids to join the league, as MLS looks to add four more clubs in the coming years, not including the David Beckham-led Miami franchise.
What the new fans, new clubs and new marketers will find this year is a league far more mature than just a few short seasons ago. It is a league that boasts competent talent top to bottom, rabid fan bases and clubs with organic, proud traditions. It’s still anyone’s game — 11 of the league’s clubs have hoisted the MLS Cup, while just as many have won the Supporter’s Shield. It could be your club — or your brand — that wins big this year. There’s still time to put your mark on the fast-growing league, but you better act quickly to make an impact.
And what of those naysayers in 2014 who said America would shortly resume its “every four years” love affair with the beautiful game just moments after our boys’ heartbreaking loss to Belgium? Normally, I hate to say I told you so… But this time, I love it. It’s clear that more and more people feel the same way.