MLS President says Web, mobile important to growth

By Carolyn Braff
With World Cup fever now gripping nearly every nation in the world, the question of when the soccer revolution will hit the United States has become far more prevalent. For Mark Abbott, president of Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, that moment is already on the horizon. Abbott, who was MLS first employee when the League was established in 1993, believes adamantly in the League s future, especially in the wake of the ongoing World Cup buzz.

Anything that increases the popularity of soccer in the US benefits MLS, Abbott says. As people become aware of what a beautiful game soccer is, they are more likely to seek out more soccer.

The 2006 edition of the World Cup has made that seeking-out process all but unnecessary. Soccer fans can view World Cup matches almost anywhere, at any time, on any platform, and MLS organizers understand that their league must keep up. Anchored by the MLSnet.com portal, MLS offers fans a wide range of ways in which to dive into the world of American soccer using television, Internet, and cellular phones.

Obviously the emergence of these new media technologies has allowed sports leagues to provide fans access to content that was not previously possible, Abbott explains. We re aggressive in using our website to provide fans the ability to access whatever information they re looking for on a time frame that works for them and on a device that works for them.

In addition to free video highlight clips from each of the League s games, MLSnet.com offers a $4.95 MatchDay audio package, which gives live and on-demand audio commentary from every match throughout the season. Fans can choose audio from the home team or the away team, and for most games, have a choice between Spanish- and English-language coverage. Fans can also purchase MLSLIVE.tv video packages, which allow users to watch the entirety of any game in the season, both live and on-demand. MLS offers single-game views ($3.95) and season packages ($19.95).

I think the best features are really the ability to access video of games at any time. It gives the fan the ability to sit and look at the goals of the game or the great saves of the game, Abbott says. I think that s what s of most interest to the fans.

Young demo keys growth
Providing extensive online coverage of MLS games not only makes the sport more accessible, but it caters to the League s target demographic on its preferred platform.

Soccer hasn t gotten the same level of coverage as some other sports in this country, and this is a way to reach fans with content that they may otherwise not have access to, Abbott explains. Soccer has a very young demographic, so the very people who are using the web are our fan base. There s a great match-up there.

MLS also provides television coverage on five different networks: ABC Sports and ESPN2 will cover the playoffs and a few other games; ESPN will broadcast the All Star game in August; HDNet broadcasts selected games throughout the season; and nearly every game is broadcast on the MLS Direct Kick television package, available for purchase through satellite and cable providers.

MLSnet.com offers fans the opportunity to download team logos for their cell phones, but the League has not yet ventured further into the field of mobile technology.

Mobile is becoming more and more important, Abbott says. We have not done a lot of distribution of our content on mobile yet, but I think in the next year or two, there will be a lot of growth in that area.

Abbott explains that in addition to keeping pace with technology, the League must keep growing its fan base, and a key part of that initiative is the League s aggressive program to build more 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadiums. Currently, five of the 12 MLS teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, a sixth is set to open in 2007, and at least two more teams are actively looking to build new homes. That has really enhanced the fan experience, Abbott says.

Capitalizing on the Cup Even though Abbott does not believe that World Cup momentum is essential to driving the League s popularity, MLS is certainly using the event to its advantage, running ads during national broadcasts to increase awareness of the League within the American soccer audience.

A number of our players are also active participants in the World Cup, which means that after the Cup, fans will have the opportunity to see them play here, Abbott says. Eleven of the 23 players on the U.S. team play for MLS clubs, and Abbott says MLS will keep the spotlight on those players both throughout the Cup and when they return home to finish the MLS season.

The popularity of soccer among the Spanish-speaking population is an important part of MLS s marketing strategy. The League is expanding to include teams like Chivas USA, the sister team of one of the most popular soccer clubs in Mexico. Along with offering its entire website in Spanish, MLS supports non-profit organizations like Fundaci n Chivas de Coraz n USA, which cater to Spanish-speakers, and has created programs like the MLS Footbalito amateur tournament, aimed toward growing support for the League in the Spanish-speaking population. In addition, MLS will soon announce a Spanish Language TV agreement that will hopefully solidify Spanish-language support for the League.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of building a soccer league in a nation that has historically snubbed the sport is impatience and underestimation on the part of the public.

The league s only 11 years old at this point, Abbott explains. Other leagues are in some cases over a century old. Given how young we are, it s really taken its fair place.

Where that place will be in the next 11 years, only time will tell.