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Millennials & Soccer: When MLS went social

In the arena of sports marketing, is there anything larger than the NFL’s annual Super Bowl? For the event’s 50th anniversary a few weeks ago, the NFL reported 112 million viewers worldwide and a $5 million price tag for a 30-second advertisement.1,2 Professional football must be the benchmark of the sports world, right?

Actually, it’s soccer. While a TV audience of 112 million is impressive, it pales in comparison to the 2014 Men’s World Cup finals, which drew 3.2 billion viewers worldwide.3 But while fútbol is clearly the world’s favorite sport, US soccer teams have struggled to generate the same kind of loyalty.
That is, until they decided to go after millennials.

In the last five years, Major League Soccer (MLS) has been turning heads with the staggering growth of its fan base. Since 2009, attendance has increased 35 percent, while most other professional sports leagues are losing fans or staying flat. Last year alone, 7.3 million fans attended MLS games across the 20-team league in the United States. This is an average of 21,574 fans per game, up 12.5 percent from 2014.4

This growth is the result of a coordinated and direct marketing approach that is aimed at building long-term loyalty, not just ticket sales. Teams have made the strategic decision to invest in millennial fans—to understand and focus almost exclusively on them, not worrying about other audiences. What they’ve been able to do in terms of selling tickets, filling stadiums, and creating social buzz is worthy of imitation by other professional teams and leagues.

The main focus of MLS teams has been building authentic fan loyalty, centered on the two types of “social” millennials enjoy: the traditional human connection and digital social media.

Several years ago, MLS committed to social media marketing in a way that few pro leagues have. They created a league-wide position of Director of Social Media, with the singular goal of growing the fan base. One of the key efforts of this position was to craft highly visible and publicized content about the European soccer tour throughout the United States, right before the kick off of the 2015 MLS season. As part of the tour, MLS created original content for every social channel – Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vine, and YouTube – and set up a social media headquarters at the tournament sites, employing popular players as real-time content creators.5

This strategy drummed up so much excitement for the tour that it drew 109,318 fans to Michigan Stadium – the largest stadium in the US and second largest in the world – to watch Manchester United play Real Madrid. It was the largest crowd in American soccer history and accelerated the country’s growing interest in professional soccer.6

MLS’ second key focus has been to understand the social behavior of millennial fans in order to create the ultimate game-day experience. Knowing that millennials are increasingly urban and car-free, teams are building stadiums in walkable/bikeable city centers, near bars, restaurants, and public transportation. (One study estimates that an MLS match loses 260 potential fans for every mile the stadium is located outside its nearest urban core.7) Knowing that millennials want to be a part of the brands they love, team owners are partnering with leaders from their core fan base to cultivate superfan groups like the Brookside Elite, Mass St. Mob, and Omaha Boys from Sporting KC.

The result of MLS’ focus on both aspects of social is impressive in terms of attendance and ticket sales. The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Sporting KC all boast enviably long season ticket waiting lists, and sold-out stadiums. There are now five MLS teams that outdraw their respective city’s “big four” teams (MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL)—the Timbers, Columbus Crew SC, Orlando City SC, San Jose Earthquakes, and Real Salt Lake.8 And MLS shows no sign of slowing down, as cities like New York plan new stadiums and three new teams prepare to be added to the league.

The Takeaway

If you’re responsible for growing the fan base for your team, there are several key takeaways from MLS’ success. First, make an effort to understand your core fan base and ask for their input. Next, speak directly to them in the right voice and medium. Focus 100 percent of your efforts on building their loyalty and have faith that ticket sales will follow.
Want to learn more? Join us for our webinar on Thursday, April 7 for an in-depth look at this and other issues related to sports marketing and millennials. Register now!