Commentary

MLS takes in the big picture

Updated: July 24, 2012, 7:21 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | ESPN

Portland Timbers fansJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMLS has done a tremendous job of building up strong, local fan bases, but can it find a way to make those same fans care about the league on a national level? MLS' future may depend on it.

This is not your older brother's MLS. As the buzz descends on Wednesday's All-Star Game against Chelsea, America's oft-maligned domestic soccer league has gamely garnered an average attendance of 18,732, witnessed the construction of 14 purpose-built stadia nationwide and become a fixture (albeit an erratic one) across multiple broadcast networks.

Despite this steady growth, the MLS' 17th season has been one of quiet though dramatic behind-the-scenes transformation. The league has emerged from six months spent painstakingly examining its marketing strategies. For the first time it has concluded that it must begin to define itself as a national brand across North America.

In the past, MLS has taken a backseat, consciously leaving its clubs to soak up the limelight, but the league has matured to such an extent that approach now leaves a vacuum. "We have enjoyed success on a local market level but have not achieved national market relevance at all," admitted Howard Handler, who as MLS' recently appointed chief marketing officer is now charged with working out how to encourage Vancouver fans to tune into a nationally televised game which does not feature their own team. "To do that, our league needs to step up and project a nationwide identity by taking control of our own message and articulating it in our own words," Handler explained. "The challenge now is to work out what we want to say."

Handler, 51, brings an eclectic professional background to the task, having worked at Madison Square Garden, EMI Music and in marketing and fan development at the NFL. The thickset former lacrosse player's soccer epiphany came ahead of a Seattle Sounders game. "It was pouring with rain, and marching through Pioneer Square to the stadium in that weather was mind-blowing," he revealed. "In working with the NFL, I thought I had encountered rabid fans at Green Bay or Chicago, but mingling with these [Seattle] fans I realized their support was an expression of their own identities -- a reflection of who they are and what it means to be 20- and 30-year-olds in Seattle."

This feeling was reinforced by Handler's initial interactions with MLS owners. Young investors such as Seattle's Adrian Hanauer or Portland's Merritt Paulson were a stark contrast to those he had encountered back in the NFL. "Sometimes, the executive suite of sports feels more 'big business' than an expression of authentic fan passion," he said. "The new breed in MLS are as much fans and missionaries for the growth of the sport in North America as they are owners."

As a marketing professional, Handler worked quickly to square the gut emotion of these experiences with research and data. In March, a study by Luker On Trends/ESPN revealed the startling statistic that "pro soccer" trailed only the NFL as the most popular sport for Americans aged 12-24. Handler followed up with the pollsters and was relieved to learn "if you pull out MLS alone, it still ranks No. 4, ahead of Major League Baseball and NCAA football/basketball."

Television viewing patterns were Handler's next object of study. He combed through the past three years of Nielsen ratings to challenge the common wisdom that a majority of American soccer fans are, in his words, "Euro snobs who look down their noses at U.S. soccer and MLS." His analysis uncovered an 80 percent overlap between avid Champions League viewers and those who watched MLS, and a 50 percent overlap with English Premier League aficionados.

The conclusion Handler drew was simple. "So much is written about the rise and relevance of global soccer in North America but a true supporters' movement has emerged here in the United States that has not been covered in the national media because our positioning has barely changed since kickoff in 1996 [when the league started]," he said. Frustrated by MLS' inability to make national headlines save a David Beckham tantrum, or an occasional 40-yard wonder goal that can squeeze into the highlight reel, Handler's strategic directive was blunt: "We have to take control of its own destiny and fill that vacuum. If we don't tell our own story nationally, no one else is going to," he said.

MLS has not typically invested in this kind of work, but Handler's insight came during a period of quiet confidence. "We have realized the league is at a new life stage," he said. "For the past few years, we have been focused on building stadia and expanding into new markets. Now we are ready to build our own profile."

[+] EnlargeVancouver fan
Nick Didlick/Getty ImagesMLS fans know how to poke fun at their local rivals. The next step is getting that passion to spill over on a national level.

In Handler's mind, MLS is at an inflection point where it has the potential to take off exponentially if it can conjure a way to make the patchwork of localized fan frenzy spill over and follow the game league-wide. "We have an impressive set of core believers which is growing every week, but we still lack numbers engaging with us on television and within the digital landscape," he explained. "If we can build out the ways fans can connect to the league, we can ensure a local conversation becomes a national one."

Like a hopeful angler casting extra lines into a river to catch more fish, the strategies Handler has incubated seek to compensate for the league's perceived lack of national respect by providing new access points to MLS' storylines. The head office has invested in ambitious new television productions, such as the YouTube partnership, KickTV, or NBC Sports Network's MLS 36, which introduces fans to the personalities of emerging stars such as Fredy Montero or Darlington Nagbe. "To encourage a Seattle fan to watch a game without the Sounders we have to provide more context," Handler said. "The more you feel, the more you care, the more you care, the more you want."

Driving national ratings for live-game broadcasts remains the league's top priority. "We have good partners nationally and locally but we simply have to grow the number of fans tuning in," Handler confessed. Scheduling is part of the challenge. "Right now our matches are all over the dial," he admitted. "Unlike the Premier League, where you roll right out of bed on a Saturday morning, we have not yet created a habitual time slot that spells MLS soccer." A secondary problem is that in contrast to personality-driven leagues like the NBA, the presence of MLS' emerging stars can be fleeting, as their success triggers a move to an elite European club.

The solution came to Handler while he was meeting with hard-core fans at D.C. United who had painstakingly crafted their own banners by hand. "I realized our best assets are our supporters' passion and creativity, and nothing spikes that like their team's rivalries," he said.

MLS is blessed with a number of potent rivalries from the Cascadia Cup and the California Clasico to Los Angeles-Vancouver and New York-D.C. The league forged a partnership with Sid Lee, a Montreal-based brand agency whose clients include adidas and Ajax, to create national mini-campaigns behind targeted big fixtures, backing them with the financing to convey the unique voice and sensibility of each game. "With the league office developing the content and working in a highly choreographed fashion with sponsors, clubs and network partners, we learned we can use physical postering, television ads and digital promos to take our viewership to a whole new level," he said.

Handler excitedly pulls down a bundle of posters from a shelf above his desk to talk me through Sid Lee's distinctive creative for the California Clasico, displaying crude, post-apocalyptic designs in which L.A. Galaxy fans goad their opponents, "We're not afraid of Aftershocks." Every ad in the series reflects the same voice, that of impassioned fans poking fun at their opponents. "We wanted to capture the humor, swagger and handmade value of fandom to get the chatter going," Handler enthusiastically explained.

The approach paid dividends the first time it was tested during June's Vancouver-Los Angeles clash. MLS delivered poster and television campaigns. The broadcaster dedicated pro-bono promotional spots, which the league supplemented by buying airtime on Comedy Central. MLS' combined efforts were rewarded when national viewership was up 37 percent in comparison to the previous year's broadcast.

Handler is realistic about the stiff competition MLS faces. "Our audience have limited time, finite finances, and we have to compete for their attention as elite soccer has become almost omnipresent in North America," but he draws strength from the fact that even games that appear to be competition, can work as allies. A Handler campaign deployed on ESPN2 during the Euro 2012 clash between Italy and England turned the subsequent Portland-Seattle match into the third-most viewed MLS regular-season game of all time with 888,000 people tuning in.

Can the strategy pay off? Daniel Durbin, director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society at USC, is doubtful. "You need persistent coverage in national media that reinforces that the message this is a league of some importance," he said. "MLS is a late bloomer because people's habits for sports on television were seeded generations ago, which is why NHL has not been able to stick. Even NASCAR can't pick up national viewership in the Northeast and the far West."

Durbin applauded the decision for MLS to brand a national identity, but predicted growth would be slow. "Rivalries may be the best available option for MLS to grow," he said. "But they need their star teams to be in major markets like the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Yankees in New York and the Patriots in New England. When your hottest team is in Portland, Oregon, it reinforces the perception you are a fringe sport that will do well to pull a slow build toward a 2.0 rating."

Handler however, remains undeterred. "We have been around long enough for our audience to know MLS exists," he said. "We simply have to give them more compelling reasons to care in order to change the amount they watch."

As I prepare to head out of Handler's office, I momentarily catch him off-guard by asking if he had ever thought about rebranding MLS' logo. The marketer paused for a beat before mumbling that "it has been discussed," before quickly recovering to declare with gusto, "I'm only an evangelist, man! I just tap into something people love and take it to more people."

As he shook my hand, he downplayed his work. "This isn't rebranding," he assured me. "It's just tweaking."

Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.