The State of MLS Part 1: Is Major League Soccer Hurting Itself?

In many ways, Major League Soccer is a growing league.  Revenue seems to increase annually, attendance seems to increase annually, and expansion has been taking place every year or every other year since 2004.  The league now has 2 major television distribution deals in ESPN and NBC Sports Network, while Fox Soccer still airs the region’s Champions League tournament.  Also, slowly but surely, quality talent has begun to take the field more prominently around the league with old stars looking to prolong their careers like David Beckham and Thierry Henry, as well as future American prospects like Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo.

However, there are a few major flaws in MLS that hamper its development as an accepted major professional league in this country.

First and foremost their is a huge flaw in team branding.  The league has allowed its franchises to be named in a way that damages its outreach to the largest demographic they are marketing towards: Average Joe American.  How many people actually understand why a team in Utah has branded themselves “Real Salt Lake?”  This particular case is interesting to me because of the history behind the “Real” name.

Madrid FC was the original name of Real Madrid until King Alfonso XIII granted them royal status after they won the league.  Thus the name “Real Madrid” which means “Royal Madrid.”

So Salt Lake City, which has a 75% Caucasian demographic (2010 US Census), decides to name its soccer team “Real Salt Lake” after Real Madrid when there is nothing royal or Spanish about them.  Funny thing is this team is actually one of the better supported teams in MLS, and a lot of those supporters will probably want to cuss me out after reading this article.

But the fact remains the same.  It’s bad marketing.  It’s bad for growth.  How many Average Joe Americans saw that name, rolled their eyes and turned the channel?  I’m not saying you can’t be successful under that moniker (Real Salt Lake has won the league once and finished runner-up in CONCACAF Champions League).  I’m saying it hampers your outside growth around a country that just doesn’t get it.  You’re immediately taking your percentage of possible supporters from 100% down to a lower percentage right out of the starting gate.

Same is to be said for other teams around the league who don’t seem to realize the sport is called “soccer” in America.  This is a fact that “Football Club Dallas” and “Toronto Football Club” fail to recognize.  But when your league is called “Major League Soccer” and your team says it’s a “football club” something just isn’t quite right.

Then there is Sporting Kansas City.  The name “sporting” comes from the days in Europe when teams were formed out of your local athletic clubs, (exclusive membership gyms).  Teams like Sporting Club Lisbon were literally the Sporting Club of Lisbon’s football team that became good enough to become professional and started paying their players and buying others.

So, was Kansas City originally a Sporting Club?  No, they used to be the Kansas City Wizards and decided for a “sexy” name change.  And even if they did have that same kind of background, in the USA they would be called Kansas City Athletic Club.

Fast forward to today.  DC United just announced new shareholders who stated that the aim of the organization is to “become a global brand.”  This is exactly the thinking that leads MLS to allow names such as Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, and Sporting Kansas City.  It’s the desire to jump too many steps at once.  It’s the old American way of “We want it all and we want it now.”  Which is all well and fine, but understand the steps it takes and be smart about your business model.

DC United are not yet a national brand.  They’re barely a local brand.  One could argue the following teams are more important to the people in the actual District of Columbia area: Redskins football, Capitals hockey, Wizards basketball, Nationals baseball, Georgetown basketball, Maryland football and basketball, Virginia Tech football, even Baltimore Ravens football and Baltimore Orioles baseball are important to those on the Maryland side.

It’s purely pompous to say your goal is to become a global brand when you barely have a foothold domestically.  This is just another way the MLS has failed in marketing itself.

How did Manchester United become a global brand?  They developed the brand locally by endearing itself to the community.  First, it was the hardworking, industrial Manchester club.  Then it became the “flower of English football” after the Munich plane crash tragedy of 1958 and its run of success before and afterwards under legendary manager Matt Busby.  But the tragedy endeared the team to all of England and made the people of the country relate to them on a personal and emotional level.  Then the most important thing happened: they won.  They won anything and everything all over the world.

The Yankees did the same thing. They didn’t start off saying they were going to be a global brand.  They just wanted to be the best team in New York.  They wanted to beat the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, then the rest of the league.  Once they won 27 championships and the sport became popular in other parts of the world and coverage of the games were broadcast all over the world, they became a global brand.  But that wasn’t the original goal.  It was to be a fantastic member of their own community and represent New York the best they could while winning and remaining competitive.

When you win, you gain fans. It’s as simple as that.  If MLS wants to start getting more respect overseas, they aren’t going to do it with foreign names and aging stars prolonging their retirement.  They need to focus on developing talent, and help the teams become better so they can win CONCACAF Champions League for the first time.  How can you say you want to conquer the global market when you can’t conquer your region competitively?

So, we have outlined the marketing issues with Major League Soccer and figured out that to actually accomplish the goal of global development, we need to conquer our domestic markets and competitive rivals in the region.  In other words, win CONCACAF Champions League.  How can the league help?  Stay tuned for my next installment on Friday where I talk about the difficulties facing teams in the Champions League and its solutions.