Jan 17, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks before the 2013 MLS Superdraft at the Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Opinion: In Response to Major League Soccer's March to Soccer Address

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber gave his March to Soccer Address Wednesday night over YouTube and Google Hangout with a select audience of reporters in attendance.  He covered many topics from expansion to player transfers.  In the hour long speech Garber built off the idea that MLS has created a great foundation in a gradual way.  He stated that MLS is the seventh highest attended soccer league in the world.  He called the audience a “relevant” one while addressing the 18-34 market.  However, what Garber left out was the next step and absolute proof.  What the MLS has failed to do is be truly authentic and voice an understanding of marketing MLS.  Let’s break down the address a little further. 

After a lot of the administrative points were over, Garber stated that the 10 year goal for MLS is to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world.  He said, “It is not about the past.  It’s about the future.”  Yet the video they showed prior to the speech featured David Beckham as the final player image in the reel.  Passion of fans, relevance of clubs in the market, quality of play, and viability of the league will be the ways to measure the strength of the league moving forward.  This boils down to fan “development” and quality of play.

Garber also stressed the marketing being laid out by the league and how those efforts are “supported by the media and corporate partners.” That includes the March to Soccer month long build up and jersey week that we have been seeing.  This also includes rivalry week.

On expansion, the commissioner talked about continued work with New York in the Flushing area.  There was also mention of areas in the southeast.  Orlando believes that they are one of two markets that are being targeted.  Garber was also questioned about player transfers acknowledging that the league wants more players to come into the MLS and that the league does get involved in the discussion in the best interest of MLS.

The biggest thing that showed through in the message and answers was no measurable goals.  Lofty objectives and use of the market were the main rhetoric throughout, but a goal that I can measure as we move forward over the next ten years is stronger footing.  This circles back to being authentic and more transparent with a willingness to not only market the league as a good, but also a service.

The current 24 hour news cycle and social media begs for authenticity from MLS.  360i.com says that authenticity is about more than selling a brand that allows people to connect with a business on an emotional level.  It is expanding beyond the base product.  It is a way to drive interest and quell suspicions.  Authenticity creates trust and accelerates collaboration.  Collaboration with MLS would mean more fans connecting to the league and finding ways to be invested.  Connecting with an entity comes through marketing and the quality of the product, but this means more than words in a technologically enhanced address.  What MLS has failed to identify is a main point in services marketing; the brand is developed by its consumers and not the company itself.

Garber used the words “training a fan base” in his address that made it feel like the league would use a regiment to add to its base.  You can see that I just read into his comments a bit, but that is what occurs when you do not use measurable goals and you speak to the public in ways that simply appease the fans, rather than empower them.  Salaries are published by the players union and salary cap numbers are not really known and transparency loses out.  Garber even mentioned transparency evolving with the league for all the right reasons.  Of course he meant for the right financial reasons, which again shows a guarded commissioner well versed in the rhetoric of a business model.

Make no mistake about this, MLS is not the only league in the world that tries to control its message and the other major sporting leagues in the U.S. are prime examples.  Just think about the folks that were asking questions.  Aside from the fans that were able to chime in, it was a kind of good ole boys of soccer journalism.  There were two questions asked from an outside perspective, including how MLS is viewed across the world.  Garber skirted the question by saying how the folks in charge at the French Federation spoke highly of the U.S. and Canadian league.  This of course comes after a business relationship between the two were just announced.  There was even a question from someone that bought a house off of Garber.  Can you connect to that from a fan perspective?  Can you utilize this speech as a way to make your friends like the league?

My guess is no, but there are some changes that can be made right now that will help MLS move in the right direction toward authenticity while still driving marketing.

Be more transparent for the right reasons.

Taylor Twellman said this on a roundtable yesterday, so he unknowingly stole some of my thunder.  The fans know the salary caps for the other major professional leagues in the United States.  Knowing the MLS salary cap gives fans an understanding of where the league might fall in attracting the best players in the world, which can increase the quality of play.  This would also mean knowing the allocation money that moves in trades.  You cannot just say that more players come into MLS than leave because in soccer stardom 10 promising players may not equal one superstar in his prime.

Nov 18, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; DC United defender Robbie Russell (3) and Houston Dynamo forward Cam Weaver (15) jump up for a header during the second half at Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sports

This also means providing numbers that we can use as a gauge.  For instance, maybe let the fan base know the revenue figure that is being sought after for the 2013 year.  A great example would be to identify a plan for expansion and release said plan with targeted cities listed by priority.  This would allow the fans in those areas to cultivate the interest.  Periodic updates will spur action in those clusters.

We even saw the disappearance of split stats for home and away performance last year.  Would that allow too many people to convert the standings to a single table thus eliminating one of the things the delineates MLS?  So what?  If that creates a connection for a new fan it is worth it.

Break up the good ole boys network by driving marketing, but not attempting to control it.  

I get it.  There are plenty of woman that cover the sport well, such as Kim Tate, Lizzie Haldane, and Alicia Rodriguez.  This is a euphemism of sorts that indicates the controlled nature and lack of diversity of the media coverage that is hindering the MLS.  In an effort of full disclosure, one of our fellow FanSided sites were denied media access to an MLS team on the basis of being a “fan site” although said site is one of the larger in our division in a major metropolitan area.  Invitation only? The North American Soccer Reporters Preseason Poll gave Conor Casey of the Union a vote for most important Rapids player.  This seems to be an issue.

If you think about how the question about global respect was answered by Garber it leaves you wanting more.  The deflection says that the real answer might not be one the commissioner wants to admit.  This post by L.E. Eisenmenger addresses the lack of discussion across cultures.  Think about a marketing effort led from inside MLS by a culturally diverse group of people to identify with fans all over the world.  Allow the messaging to be interpreted, but use images that promote fun, excitement, intensity, and competition.  Again, this is a staple of services marketing that these images are used to spur an attachment of positive sentiment to an entity.  Perhaps the league could go with something like “This Is Our Soccer: All Are Welcome.”  It allows the league to keep their separation while inviting interest.  It is still a league message and if they embrace a global approach then the brand spreads even further.  Maybe the proliferation of news would not have to be so saturated with stories from MLSsoccer.com.

In some ways the general wish to keep the league dissimilar from those across the world is a contradiction to wanting to be one of the best leagues going.  The single entity idea is the biggest difference.  How do you quantify quality when the business model and operations are so different?

Scarves up for the paying and loyal consumers.

There is more to be said about engaging the fans as well.  We have seen the battle over trademarks in the Cascadia Cup cause confrontation and Garber admits to going about that situation wrong.  Once again, the understanding should be that the consumers drive the brand and we have seen this with large corporations.   Fan engagement that is empowering is key.  The ads on NBC Sports, like the one at the bottom of this post are a small way to strengthen and grow the league.  The Supporters’ Shield tour is another great tactic.  Imagine if the newly redesigned MLSsoccer.com had a page dedicated to the fan groups of its teams giving those groups a presence and a bigger voice.

It is time for Don Garber and MLS to take the next step toward engagement and authenticity.  This is the true path to growing the league and will be solid for the business model.  Giving up a little control, if done in a measurable manner, will be extremely beneficial.  Transparency and precise planning leads to less back tracking and social media backlash.  So by all means Commissioner Garber, run your league, but understand your brand is not entirely in your hands.

Tags: Don Garber MLS Soccer Marketing

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