Thursday, April 26, 2007

What MLS Can Learn from the NFL

If there is one pro sports league so wildly popular that it annually dominates the airwaves three months prior to the start of its regular season, then the undisputable champ is the NFL. Never in the history of mankind has there been such a high degree of media coverage devoted to a non-game event in all of American sports than that of the NFL Draft. Flip through the channels and newspaper pages this week, and you'll find an abundance opinions, combine stats and evaluation devoted solely to a weekend’s worth of conference calls, coaches meetings, and giant men dressed to the nines in XXXL Armani suits.

It's no secret that the NFL has effectively steered itself into a marketing director's dream by becoming the year-round sports juggernaut it transformed itself into during the past twenty years. Although the regular season consists of a mere 16 regular season offerings, here were are in April - months away from the first training camp report date - and the sports world is buzzing with talk of Brady Quinn's arm strength, Calvin Johnson's Wonderlic Test scores, and JaMarcus Russell's pocket presence. No other sport can claim home to this kind of absurd rhetoric regarding such esoteric variables.

So how does all of this relate to soccer? I pondered this very question, and tried to come up with what lessons MLS can learn from its media magnate counterpart.The NFL is hands-down, the most marketable pro league sports league in America for a variety of reasons, many of which transpire off the actual gridiron. Within the last twenty or so years, the league’s appeal has exploded, due in large part to advancing technology.
One key ingredient of this explosion is the advent of internet and computer video game technology. While many point to the internet in the proliferation of fantasy sports leagues (and in the process, creating an unquenchable fervor towards the actual sport of interest), the booming popularity of one the most successful video game enterprises- the Madden series - is a fine example of cashing in on what was then an untapped bastion of preadolescent fans and teenagers. What MLS could greatly benefit from is a comparable video game title that kids, teens and adults alike can flock to and play fourteen hours straight, like Madden. Unquestionably, the NFL has greatly benefited from the Madden series, as gamers who puppeteer the their virtual heroes also go out and buy jerseys, hats, tees and football cards bearing the NFL emblem.

That being said, MLS does have a former NFL executive as its commissioner, which in theory, should serve the MLS well with respect to its marketability. MLS should not solely take its marketing strategies from leagues abroad, but rather, step back and take a hard look at how the most successful pro league markets itself here in the States. The appeal should be made to American sports fans, and who knows more about these same fans than the NFL?

Here are some suggestions to get the coal engine stoked:1.

Technology. First off all, I know that the "other" MLS (Multiple Listing System) is a sizeable real estate directory, and thus I think it's fair to assume that "our" MLS (Major League Soccer) may have tried to acquire the domain name at some juncture. works for now, but a change is necessary in order to successfully brand the league.,,, a pattern? MLS must find a way to follow other league's leads with a more-recognizable web URL. I can tell you from firsthand experience that during my formative years as a soccer neophyte, it was a bit challenging finding the MLS website - in fact, I had to google it just to figure it out what the URL was!

Additionally, MLS must get in discussions with the head honchos of EA Sports or even the joint Sega /ESPN studio (creators of the Y2K sports titles), and put out an extremely well-designed, highly-playable (i.e. highly addictive) MLS-based video game. I understand that EA’s current FIFA 07 series is the current Madden of soccer games, however, an MLS-specific game would be much better.

Now I understand the counterargument: there are many Eurosnobs who play the FIFA series who just don't give a darn about MLS, and wouldn’t pick up a MLS-only title. Fine. Let them have their FIFA 07. MLS needs its own successfully branded game. Period. In fact, I’ll even suggest a title for such a game: Wynalda 2008. Now if you'll excuse me, my agent is busy taking calls on this very idea as we speak...

2. The regular prime-time slot. The MLS Thursday Night series is a giant step in successfully branding the sport. With a regular timeslot that only competes with baseball (from April through August) for the sports-viewing audience, this regular national broadcast of MLS can only benefit the league’s attempt to establish itself as a bona fide major sports league.

As part of the Thursday night package, viewers have been treated to a pre-game show and halftime feature - both of which are great ideas, but could definitely use some tinkering. The halftime report should feature current commentator Eric Wynalda and another outspoken soccer pundit (Paul Gardner? Giorgio Chinaglia?) and let them bark back and forth at each other about MLS. Let the pair debate American soccer only -- no EPL, noLa Liga - just MLS, in a point/counterpoint format much like that of ESPN’s "Pardon the Interruption.” Engaging, knowledgeable personalities solely discussing American soccer can only get other people talking about it as well.

3. Colorful players. The NFL has Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, and Clinton Portis. What do all three of these players have in common? All are have oversized and very recognizable personalities. Don't get me wrong - nothing makes me want to toss my cookies than another drawn-out TO press conference or one held by his agent, for that matter.

However, the undeniable truth is that when people are talking about TO, they’re ultimately talking about football. Ok, so MLS doesn’t necessarily need a TO, per se. (Note: I reserve the right to retract this statement at a later time). What MLS does need is more colorful characters to in order to draw the kid wearing the Chad Johnson jersey to say, "Wow, these guys are cool too!" when watching MLS. Clint Dempsey filled the role of talented and flamboyant star incredibly well during his time in New England, and from an overall marketing standpoint, it was a shame to see him go abroad rather than staying here to help cultivate soccer’s popularity.

Now, the league needs someone to fill the shoes Deuce so dashingly flashed on and off the pitch. Better yet, three or four "Deuces" would be ideal. Or maybe even an American soccer player who transforms his status into celebrity – an "American David Beckham", if you will. A high-profile MLS talent that transcends American soccer and thrusts his image and the MLS name into mainstream America would become an absolute dream scenario for the league.

Mind you, these aren't sure-fire ways to make MLS the next NFL overnight. By no means do I think that these steps alone will make the MLS approach the overwhelming popularity of the NFL. But there are fans out there waiting to be made. I cannot think of a more appropriate marketing slogan than the current "You're a fan - you just don't know it" line currently employed by MLS.

Fans are waiting to be made - MLS recognizes this. It should take some pointers from the most successful sports marketing machine in North America if they hope to convert the latent soccer fans. One thing MLS should not do is take its marketing strategies from EPL or any other top-flight league abroad. Because, at the end of the day, who better can MLS learn from than the NFL in order reach American sports fans?

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