Major League Soccer has seen a significant increase in viewership and attendance in recent years, with season ticket sales and revenue up 15% and 25%, respectively, over the same time last year.

While it would be easy to put this all down to the arrival of Lionel Messi to Inter Miami, it is worth noting that 24 out of 29 MLS clubs have seen an increase in season ticket sales since last year, proving the league's approach to growth is multi-faceted.

Among these facets is tech giant Apple launching MLS Season Pass in 2023 after securing a 10-year global media rights deal for rights to stream every match from the 2023 season.

Apple is also airing the Leagues Cup, the annual competition featuring clubs from the MLS and Mexico’s top-tier Liga MX, with the competition itself a growth method for the league.

Along with MLS and Leagues Cup, MLS Season Pass also airs matches from the development leagues MLS Next Pro and MLS Next, two of its methods of reaching a younger audience, on top of its 2023 deal with TikTok that sees league-related exclusive content, in-app programming, and match highlights added to the short-form video platform.

These initiatives can be seen as successful, with MLS ranking higher than the other four major sports leagues in the US and Canada in having the youngest average age of fans and the number of fans under 44.

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However, MLS faces a challenge over North America’s upcoming potential soccer saturation, with Copa America, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Gold Cup, and the Olympics all coming to the continent in the next four years.

But Jen Cramer, MLS executive vice president of partnership marketing, explains how this is a huge opportunity for the league to capture a wider audience while the global focus is on soccer in the US.

MLS sponsorship revenues hit record numbers in the 2023 season, how did that happen, and what are the plans to continue this growth?

Last year was really transformational for us and we had some really great momentum. Obviously, Messi, arguably the world's greatest player, chose the MLS. Our partnership with Apple last year was its first season, and for the first time, all of our matches were available globally, with no blackouts.

And then we launched Leagues Cup, which was the World Cup-style month-long tournament in the middle of our season with Liga MX and that was hugely successful.

So that just talks about the momentum and tailwinds that helped spur this growth. But I would say the third thing is the World Cup. It's coming to North America in 2026 and that means that soccer is going to be on a global stage.

The last time the World Cup came to the United States, interest in soccer grew by 33%, and we're expecting even more this time around. So when you think about brands, they're taking notice of all of this and they want to invest in soccer, and so they see MLS as a way to align with soccer and connect to our fans even after the World Cup leaves the North American territory.

What is your partnership strategy and how will that change moving forward?

When we think about our partnership strategy and our partners, we don't have a one-size-fits-all approach. It's really about having an open dialogue with our partners, in which we try to understand their goals and objectives. We want to make sure that whatever we do, we're tailoring solutions and we're delivering value for them and us. We look at partners that want to activate MLS, we work with them if we need to customize something or to change a strategy.

The example I'm going to use is Audi. They've been a partner for close to 10 years, and their strategy has actually changed. Last year they came to us and told us that their corporate and strategic priorities revolve more around the idea of social impact. So what we did is we reimagined what was formerly our MLS Humanitarian Award, and we created this program called the Audi Drives Progress Impact Award. This is an award at the end of the year and it's given to a player who drives positive impact and enriches the lives of others. Alejandro Bedoya was the recipient last year, and it was hugely successful.

What is your globalization strategy?

It's multi-pronged. Our deal with Apple made our matches available anywhere in the world, with no blackouts. This offered us unparalleled reach, scale, and access. So that was one, just making our matches available globally.

Two was just the fact that we're attracting global talent. We talked about Messi, but there are others that have come into MLS recently, so we're attracting this generational global talent. And we believe that this provides a halo effect from their international appeal and cements our status as an international league.

The third prong is the partnership with Liga MX on Leagues Cup, which was immensely successful for a variety of different factors, not only Miami Messi, but most of all it brought new fans into our funnel.

What is your modernization strategy and how do you plan to attract a younger audience?

The other North American sports are much older – baseball has been around for over 150 years, the NFL reached 100, and the NBA is 75 years old, but we're only 29 years young. So when you think about it, we have a much younger audience and can adapt. We're nimble and can do more. We can experiment more and be more innovative.

MLS has the youngest and most diverse fans in North America. Gen Z and millennials make up the majority of our fan base.

We became the first mover in the streaming space. Streaming is the future of sports consumption and we've partnered with what we call the best in the business because we believe that no one understands consumers the way that Apple does.

When you look at MLS Season Pass, the Apple subscription product, the audience is much younger, so it aligns with our existing audience.

Secondly, I would say we invest a lot in player development and youth with both MLS Next, MLS Next Pro, and our newly launched youth recreational league, MLS Go.

The third and fourth are blended, it's the distribution of our content on key platforms. For that one, I would point to TikTok, which is a proven channel to reach a young, digitally savvy audience.

We have some major partnership benefits. One is that we have this dedicated hub that aggregates all of our content, and it also can be sponsored. So we have sponsored content along these trending topics and videos and we have a creator network that's dedicated to club content. Most fans are not just fans of the league, they're also fans of their individual clubs. So this creator network will give access to behind-the-scenes for all of our clubs.

We also tap in to what we're calling 'social playmakers', people who we think have a really deep knowledge of our sport, and they have a trusted voice, and they're able to spotlight MLS growth throughout their social channels.

What are the challenges you anticipate facing this season and how do you plan to overcome them?

Our challenge is that the runway of global soccer in North America is a little bit crazy. In the next four years, we have an unprecedented amount of global soccer events coming to North America.

We have Copa America, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Gold Cup, and even the Olympics. For us, it's not necessarily about overcoming, but it's thinking about how we capitalize on the interest.

We believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, so the more people who consume soccer here, any type of soccer, that's better for us. Because the global tournaments are here, we surround and bookend them, we're still that sustained, consistent presence.

That's what we need to focus on. To remind everyone that MLS is constant and consistent behind all of soccer, and at some point, all these sexy tournaments are going to leave, but we're here to stay.

How much has the Messi effect helped to boost the commercial value of MLS?

Messi’s arrival was significant, no doubt about that. He just had a massive impact and we saw all these significant increases in exposure, ticket sales, merchandise, etc. But as important as he is, there was all that energy and momentum even before he arrived.

We had already been working up to that with Leagues Cup and our Apple partnership, but not just that. It's been 29 years in the making. I've been in the league since 2015 and at the time, there were 15 clubs. In the past 10 years we've launched 10 clubs, all of these hot markets throughout the United States.

We’ve seen all these new stadiums being built, so you have teams that are investing in stadium and infrastructure like Miami or New York City FC. It's also interesting when you think about the surge of international transfers, which almost demonstrates that increased player interest.

Messi was the cherry on top. You think that he has catapulted the league, but when we did the Apple deal, that was before Messi so all the excitement was really around Apple and Leagues Cup, and all of a sudden Messi came over, which was good for us.

What are the future challenges and opportunities for the sports sponsorship industry?

It's going to be fan engagement and retention. How to keep them engaged through experiences, content, and community building, especially as attention spans are decreasing and you're seeing competition from all of these other options, whether it's sports, non-sports, or other entertainment.

How do we set our sights on doubling our fan base? We're really focused on not only expanding what we call the entry points for fans, similar to what I said about Leagues Cup, but also about fostering that engagement and making sure that we're cultivating loyalty because we don't just want to bring them in. We want to bring them down the funnel and to be able to connect with them and help them on the consumer journey.