The Business of Major League Soccer (MLS)
by Jake Kemp
Major League Soccer is the premier soccer competition in the United States and Canada. Since its opening season in 1996, the league has evolved as a popular sporting competition in North America.
27th February 2020, 12:08

Key Stats 

 Background

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the premier domestic soccer competition in the United States. The league is comprised of 23 American and 3 Canadian based teams, totalling 26, although the league has already announced plans to expand this to 30 teams by 2022. The league's regular season takes place between the months of March and October each year, during which time each team plays a total of 34 matches, and teams are split evenly into the Eastern and Western Conferences. At the end of the regular season, the team with the best overall record is awarded the ‘Supporters Shield’ before fourteen teams battle it out in a playoff. 

The MLS playoff sees the top seven ranked teams from each conference qualify. The best ranked team from each is given an automatic bye past the first round, and like other US sports the playoffs ultimately determine the overall champions in a game between the winners of the Eastern and Western conferences. 


The league was originally founded in 1993, under the terms and conditions of the United States’ bid to host the 1994 Fifa World Cup. The league's maiden competition took place in 1996 and was contested by ten teams. Despite struggling in its early years, the league has continued to grow in popularity, helped by the success of the United States national team at the 2002 and 2006 Fifa World Cup’s as well as the arrival of some of the biggest names in world football into the league. 

The league operates as a single organisation, in which each participating team is owned by the league and individually operated by investors. With the league operating its calendar between spring and autumn, the competition does not follow the standard format that is typical in European soccer competitions which run from August to May.

The league's calendar has been set up in this way for two reasons: firstly to help aid play in parts of the country which can be subject to extreme weather climates, and secondly to avoid as much of the potential event clashes with other sports, so as not to compete with the NFL (September to February) and the NBA and NHL (October-June).

As is common practice in the American sporting league system, the MLS operates a salary cap which in 2019 was set at $4.24 million per squad of 20 players. Since 2007 the league has also had in place a ‘designated player rule’ which allows teams to sign up to three players on a wage/transfer that would otherwise see the team fall beyond the fixed maximum salary. This rule has commonly become referred to as the ‘Beckham rule’, following the arrival of David Beckham to the league (with LA Galaxy) becoming the first player to arrive under these circumstances. 


 

MLS Eastern Conference 

 

 

MLS Western Conference 

 

 

Future Expansion Teams 

 

MLS Team Value - 2019 

 

The 2018 MLS champions, Atlanta United, were valued as the most valuable team in the MLS after only three competitive seasons in the league set-up by the ned of 2019. The value of the team stems from its huge attendance figures, averaging over 52,000 (the highest in the league), its relatively new high-spec stadium (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) and record merchandise sales throughout the league.

Behind them are the Los Angeles based teams, with the Galaxy sitting in second, the team perhaps the most well  known internationally and the franchise that is most synonymous with the league. The team’s continued ability to attract ‘celebrity’ players has paid dividends with Galaxy having the highest shirt sales across the MLS. LAFC on the other hand are relatively new to the MLS but have significant value thanks to substantial deals for its shirt sponsorship and stadium naming rights.

On the other side, the Colorado Rapids are currently seen as the least valuable in the MLS, based in a smaller city market and struggling for form on the pitch since being named MLS champions in 2010.

The two new expansion teams for 2020 both have the potential to place highly at the end of next season’s value rankings. Inter Miami will represent a big potential city market alongside the added value from its owners, notably David Beckham. Whilst early signs for Nashville suggest popular support in the region, with over 40,000 fans in possession of tickets for its MLS season opener in March.

MLS Team Front-of-Shirts 

 

The MLS remains primarily targeted at the North American (US and Canadian) fans, with the league still not attracting the same levels of global interest associated with other major soccer leagues, like LaLiga or the Premier League. As such the major sponsors of its league teams is dominated by brands from these two countries, accounting for some 92 per cent of all front-of-shirt deals. The only two teams with deals outside of these nations are the two New York based teams which hold a unique organisational structures, with NYCFC under the same ownership group as English team Manchester City; whilst the New York Red Bulls are one of three major global teams backed by Austrian beverage brand Red Bull. 

Despite being almost totally supported by brands in its domestic market, the league enjoys support from a diverse range of industries with eleven different sectors involved as partners. Of these, the financial services sector is the most actively involved, with six deals, as brands in this space continue to enhance their regional appeal in a highly competitive market place.

Currently the only team without an active front-of-shirt sponsor is the newly formed Inter Miami, co-owned by David Beckham. The franchises unveiled their kit without named sponsor in February 2020, but are expected to announce new partners before the start of the season. Columbus Crew were without a sponsor following the end of its four-year deal with Acura, before announcing a deal with Nationwide Children's Hospital just days before the start of the new season, whilst Inter Miami are a new team in the league but have been linked with a sponsorship deal with the state of Qatar in recent weeks.

Austrian based beverage brand Red Bull serve as the current longest serving front-of-shirt sponsor of any team in the MLS, with its partnership of the New York based team running for fifteen years with the brand owning the team and therefore using that position to develop their presence in the US. LA Galaxy’s partnership with Herbalife stands as the joint second longest running front-of-shirt sponsorship in the league, with the supplements brand having become one of the brands most synonymous with the league.

The 2020 season will see only two new front-of-shirt sponsors, after the San Jose Earthquakes signed a multi-year deal with technology brand Intermedia, having spent the 2019 season without an official front-of-shirt sponsor; and Columbus Crew signed a multi-year deal with Nationwide.


In the MLS brands appear keen to sign long-term deals, highlighting its consistent value as brands look to establish stronger links with individual teams. Of the confirmed length deals, there are three ten-year deals in place with LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and FC Cincinnati, whilst the average length of these confirmed deals coming out at 6.4 years. Furthermore the average partnership length of these 24 teams stands at 6.9 years.


Of the 24 teams with confirmed sponsors (excluding New York Red Bull’s ownership based deal), front-of-shirt (FOS) sponsorship generates $81.8 million a year for teams in the MLS, with the average individual deal worth in the region of $3.4 million annually. The strongest market for shirt sponsorship is Los Angeles, with the city home to the two most valuable front-of-shirt sponsorship deals in the league.

2018 league expansion team LAFC currently boast the most valuable FOS deal in the league, with their three-year deal with online social media brand YouTube worth a reported $6 million a year, with the deal also including English-language media rights to broadcast team games. Second in the rankings is LA Galaxy, with arguably the most famous/iconic shirt in the league, as well as the best seller in 2019, with its long-term partnership with Herbalife generating $4.4 million annually.


Red Bull’s deal with the New York Red Bull’s can not be accurately quantified, with its shirt branding rights part of a larger, reported $100 million deal with the team for naming rights of the club and its venue, the Red Bull Arena, based in New Jersey.

MLS Champions 

 

Of the 24 teams to have previously taken part in a full MLS season, 16 have appeared in an MLS Cup Final, with a total of 13 different winners of the league. LA Galaxy stand atop the list of most decorated champions, with five titles to their name, one ahead of DC United. As well as winning five titles, the Galaxy have appeared in the Cup Final a further four times, making their nine appearances in the season finale double almost every other team. The Galaxy’s golden period of success came between 2011 and 2014, when their ‘dynasty’ saw them pick up three of its titles. 

Of the sixteen finalists, three have thus far fallen short of overall victory after defeat in the Final. Perhaps the unluckiest team in MLS history would have to be New England Revolution, who have lost on all five trips to the Cup Final, particularly enduring heartbreak on three consecutive occasions between 2005 and 2007. 

MLS Cup Final Hosts 

 

Since 2012, the MLS Cup Final is always played at the home stadium of one of the competing teams, with the venue awarded to the team that finishes the regular-season with the highest number of points. 

Last year, the Seattle Sounders announced that it had sold out of tickets for the Final in a matter of minutes, illustrating the popularity of the event and the league. It total attendance on the game day was 69,000, making the last two editions of the Cup Final the two highest attended Cup Finals in history.

The Home Depot Center in Carson, California, home of the LA Galaxy, previously the StubHub Center and now known as the Dignity Health Sports Park has served as the official host of the event on the most occasions.

Regular Season Attendences 

 

Since joining the league in 2017, Atlanta United have ended every regular season as the team with the highest average attendance. The teams impressive following is a result of the teams on-field success, whilst also capitalising on the infrastructure of its new high-tech stadium, which is also used for NFL games featuring the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta’s 2019 average season attendance of 52,510, stands as higher than the average team attendance in the top flight league in France, Ligue 1. Last years champions, the Seattle Sounders, also hold an impressive average attendance record that could easily rival/surpass some of the biggest teams in European soccer, with 40,247 fans.

Chicago Fire last season held the worst the average attendance figures in the whole league, with the team having struggled in recent seasons, having only reached the first round of the playoffs twice in the past ten years. 2020 will see the team attempt increase its number of match day fans, with the team moving away from SeatGeek stadium (20,000 capacity) to the much larger Soldier Field (61,500 capacity).

With Chicago and the leagues low average following of 12,324 however, the MLS’s attendance figures stand up well against the best in Europe, with each of the big five soccer leagues in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain all containing at least one team with a lower attendance than Chicago during the 2018-19 season. 


The MLS averaged crowds of 20,260 in 2019 across the its regular season match days again stands up well against the best leagues in Europe, with its average only less than 1,500 less than the sort of numbers achieved in Ligue 1 in France. 

 

Media Landscape

In the United States, MLS matches are broadcast across three different major national pay-tv broadcasters, with ESPN and Fox Sports, sharing the English-language rights, whilst Univision holds onto Spanish-language rights. All three contracts were signed following the end of the previous rights cycle in 2015, and were signed on an eight-year basis. These new deals served as a huge boost to the MLS, revolutionising its media landscape by offering a more consistent, streamlined television schedule.

The English rights sold are collectively valued at $75 million, with the Spanish rights reported at $15 million, meaning the MLS generates $90 million a year from national US broadcasting rights, a figure which represents an increase of 400 per cent on its previous rights package, valued at $18 million. The deal involving ESPN and Fox Sports guarantees each broadcaster live action from a minimum of 34 matches throughout the season, with coverage of the leagues MLS Cup Final and All Star Game alternating between the two each year.

Further to these national deals, other MLS matches are televised regionally, with all participating teams signed to their own unique media deals in their home market. Examples of such deals sees both ESPN and Fox Sports extend their own coverage of the league in different areas of the country, with ESPN boasting local media rights to 27 Chicago Fire games; and Fox Sports holding rights to 33 games featuring Columbus Crew.


Coverage of the MLS expanded into Canada in 2007 following the addition of Toronto FC to the competition format, marking the first Canadian based team. The current media rights, like the US rights, are split into two sub-language divisions, with TSN holding the English-language rights and TVA Sports boasting French-language rights. These two networks stand as the official networks of the MLS in Canada with both also holding exclusive regional media rights for games featuring the three Canadian based teams – TSN boasting deals for games featuring Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps, whilst Montreal Impact games are shown on TVA Sports. OTT streaming service DAZN, is the other major media outlet within the Canadian borders, with the service holding a 262-game, three-year rights to show games with a 48-hour delay.

Internationally, the leagues media rights are predominantly sold in cycles, with broadcasters like DAZN and ESPN expanding their rights of the MLS outside of North America, into global markets. In 2019, DAZN secured media rights into six international markets, including Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain, whilst ESPN also secured rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is currently no deal in place for British media rights, following the end of Sky Sports’ four-year deal in 2019.

Looking at the leagues prime market in the United States, 2019’s MLS Cup Final saw a significant drop in TV audiences, with ABC’s free-to-air coverage hitting an average of 823,000 for its English-language broadcast. The games average in the States finished at shy of 1.3 million across the ABC, Univision and TUDN channels, which represents a 22.8 per cent drop on the 2018 Final on Fox Networks which averaged short of 1.6 million.

Despite the drop in American TV audiences for its show piece event, the games audience in Canada reached almost the same number as the in the US, at 748,000. These varying degrees of success in Canada and the US can partly be explained by the involvement of Toronto FC, resulting in increased interest in Canada, whilst losing a second local area interest in the States.


 

Sponsorship Landscape 

The current sponsorship landscape for the MLS is made up of 22 different brands. The league follows a similar structure to that of other North American sports leagues, like the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) in signing one big kit supplier deal for the entire league, meaning teams are not able to formalise their own deals, with money evenly distributed amongst the active teams.

The MLS had made significant changes to it sponsorship strategy in recent months, and appears set to further evolve its position in the coming years. This new season (2020) is the first major season of change and new opportunities in the MLS, with the league now permitting teams to sign international partnerships, in a similar move previously made by the NBA. The league has however held onto a few restrictions upon opening up these new partnership channels, with teams unable to partner with global gambling and betting brands. News of these restrictions comes despite the league first allowing domestic brands from the gambling sector to serve as official front-of-shirt sponsors in 2019. 

Another big and most obviously visible change to the team sponsorship makeup of the league starting this season, is the introduction of sleeve sponsors. 2020 kick starts the MLS’ new four-year pilot programme trialling sleeve sponsorship, with news breaking out in October last year that LAFC had become the first team to sign such a deal, partnering with retail brand Target – which already serves as the front-of-shirt sponsor of Minnesota United. To date, there are only three other teams to have successfully struck sleeve deals: DC United (Caesar's Entertainment), Atlanta United (Piedmont Healthcare) and Toronto FC (GE Appliances).

Official Partners

 

adidas – The German brand has been the official kit and equipment supplier of the MLS since 1996. The current deal is signed until 2024 and sees adidas provide all official kit to league teams as well as providing match day soccer balls. Annual Value - $116.7 million

Allstate – Current four-year deal sees the brand serve as the official Home, Automotive, Life and Retirement Insurance partner. First partnered with the league in 2011, when it became its first insurance partner since New York Life in 2003. Annual Value - $4 million

AT&T – Partnered since 2009, the brand is the named presenting partner of MLS’s Decision Day (the final matchday of the regular season). It is also the named sponsor of the MLS Goal of the Week, Month and Year competitions. Annual Value - $14 million

Audi – Current four-year deal sees the German brand named as the leagues official automotive partner. Other naming rights as part of the deal includes title sponsor of the MLS Cup Playoffs. The brand also operates a Player Index which tracks matches to offer the league a range of statistics. Annual Value - $10 million

BodyArmor – The official sports drink of the league in the United States. Its logo features on coolers, cups, bottles and towels. Annual Value - $4 million

Captain Morgan – The official Spiced Rum and exclusive spirits partner of the league, a deal further enhanced by a number of individual team deals throughout the league. The brand is also an official sponsor of the All-Star game, Campeones Cup and MLS Cup. Estimated Annual Value - $4 million 

 

Coca-Cola – Since 2015 the brand has been the official non-alcoholic beverage partner of the league and the national soccer federation, US Soccer. Annual Value - $9 million

Continental – Named as the official tyre partner of the league in both the United States and Canada.  Annual Value - $4 million

EA Sports – Since 2010, the game publisher has been an official partner, retaining exclusive rights to use player, team and league imaging for its FIFA gaming series. The deal also sees its FIFA game used in the e-MLS league series, whilst also collecting and analysing in-game match data. Estimated Annual Value - $3 million 

Fanatics – Has been partnered with the league since 2015, most recently renewing its partnership for the start of the 2019 season. The deal allows the brand exclusive rights to produce all fan apparel and replica merchandise production, something the brand manages across all the major North American sport leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL). Estimated Annual Value - $6 million 

Headspace – Signed on in 2019 to provide app subscriptions to the league players and staff to strengthen mindfulness and meditation skills as the league looks to work on improving its mental health position. Annual Value - $1.5 million

Heineken – Since 2014 the brand has been the official Beer partner of the league. It also is the named presenting partner of the MLS’s rivalry week, which sees rival teams competing against each other throughout the league. Annual Value - $10 million

 

The Home Depot – Its current deal looks at promoting its home appliance product innovation from LG Electronics. Complimenting this deal is an individual partnership with Atlanta United. Annual Value - $2 million

JLab – The official audio partner of the league. On the brands website is a list of official player playlists that help promote the deal with the league. Annual Value - $2 million

Johnson & Johnson – Since 2015, the brand has been named the official healthcare partner of the league. Its most recent deal has also looked at promoting its ‘Donate a Photo’ app which looks at connecting people with global causes. Annual Value - $2.5 million

Kellogg’s – This deal highlights its Cheez-It and Pringles brands as the official snacks of the league, whilst its Eggo brand is named the official waffle. In 2019, Kellogg’s was also named as the official presenting partner of the e-MLS player profiles. Annual Value - $3 million

MGM Resorts –  After the US Supreme Court passed legislation to allow sports betting in the United States, the MLS signed MGM as its first official sports betting partner, joining the NBA, NHL and MLB leagues in adding this partnership category to its portfolio. Estimated Annual Value - $7.5 million 

Post Consumer Brands – Named as the official exclusive cereal sponsor of the league. Targeting sales growth in new markets including Hispanic families and younger millennials. Estimated Annual Value - $2.5 million 

 

SeatGeek – Since 2016 the brand has been the third party selling site of official match day tickets. Its deal with the MLS has created an open ticket network, the first of its kind across the major American sports leagues, allowing for third party websites to also sell MLS tickets on their sites. Estimated Annual Value - $3 million 

Second Spectrum – Announced as a multi-year deal in February 2020, the tech company became the leagues first official advanced tracking data provider. Ahead of the new season, the brand has installed new optical tracking systems around every MLS stadium, so it will be able to track things such as player speed and shot velocity. Estimated Annual Value - $3 million 

South New Hampshire University – Partnered since 2015, the partnership offers all MLS players the opportunity to undertake a degree online at the University, with Jozy Altidore one of the players to have got involved with the college. Estimated Annual Value - $1.3 million 

Target – Has been an official sponsor of the league since 2017, and has further enhanced its affiliation with the league by signing deals with Minnesota United (front-of-shirt sponsor) and Los Angeles FC (Sleeve sponsor). Estimated Annual Value - $2.5 million 

Trivento – Stands as the official wine of the league. The partnership will see the brand promote four ranges of its products through the league as it targets further growth in the United States. Estimated Annual Value - $3 million 

Wells Fargo – Named the exclusive official retail bank and commercial lending sponsor since 2013. Estimated Annual Value - $3 million 

Commercial Activity

 

 

Strategy Breakdown

 

Adidas stands as the longest serving brand sponsor of the MLS to date, with the German sportswear company having been named as a major partner of the league since its inaugural season in 1996. Contrary to adidas’ long-term partnership, the league welcomes only one new major sponsor for 2020, American beverage brand BodyArmor which has become the official sports drink of the league.


Of the confirmed deal lengths, the league average stands at four years, illustrating the leagues strategy of looking to sign relatively long-term deals with its partners, to ensure financial security. The average partnership deal length in the league in 2020 stands at 6.2 years.

 

 

American brands dominate the leagues sponsorship portfolio, accounting for 75 per cent of all active deals. Despite the inclusion of three Canadian teams in the competition, there are no Canadian brand partners of the league, with deals instead associated with brands from Argentina, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The beverage sector stands as the most active in the league, with five unique deals to its name, with the league able to sign of exclusive tags to each brand across the different types of drinks on offer, i.e. soft-drink, sports drink, beer and rum partner. In total the 24 sponsors are made up of eleven different sectors, helping illustrate the diverse appeal of the league to brands.


The leagues sponsorship revenue is dominated by its income from its major kit supplier deal with adidas, which in turn sees the clothing & accessories sector stand as the most financially lucrative sector for the MLS, accounting for 56 per cent of its sponsorship income. Outside of this, the beverage sector also adds significant value, at $30 million a year, it is the second biggest earner, as well as the most prominent sectors in terms of quantity of deals.  

Social Media Following 

 

In the North American sports market, the MLS remains the least followed of the big five sports leagues, without the same level of historical popularity and support as its other four main rivals. Reports and articles in recent years have continued to throw support at the MLS, claiming continued growing support of the league and the sport itself, however its social media following of 8.4 million still remains some way off its nearest rival (NHL – 14.8 million). Despite any reported growth in popularity, the league remains significantly less followed than the two biggest sports on the continent, with the MLS’ following some 13.7x smaller than the NBA.

 

The leagues popularity in context against other soccer leagues look a little more positive, with its online following ahead of Ligue 1, the top tier domestic competition in France. Whilst the league again remains someway off its biggest sports league competitors (the Premier League and La Liga), its position ahead of Ligue 1 in the social media tables illustrates how far the MLS has grown since its inception.  

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