Recently it was announced that the new MLS team Orlando City FC would be asking for input from fans on the design of the stadium. They are going to crowd-source ideas and then take the ten best ideas and invite those fans who had the best ten ideas to a special meeting and have them help Orlando City FC enact those ideas. This is a fantastic idea and one of many that have come out of MLS and its teams, specifically the newer teams. MLS has made a point of being at the forefront of engaging their fans and it is beginning to pay off. The league’s teams have employed a wide-range of tactics to engage their fans with many new teams having their fans pick the team name and badge.
However, several MLS teams have gone above and beyond just letting fans choose the badge/name. The Seattle Sounders hold elections for their GM and allow fans to watch the teams practices (Ideas which both borrowed from Barcelona). Sporting Kansas City has created a state of the art stadium with fast wifi for fans and the ability to order food from their seats. Those are just two of the many examples of MLS teams using innovation to market their brand and create a close relationship with their fans. In many ways, MLS teams are acting like European club teams who are on the edge of regulation. Whereas European teams who are facing relegation become much more offensive to gain valuable points, MLS teams become much more offensive-minded on the branding/marketing front to gain valuable points in the crowded American sports market.
This mindset is invaluable not only to the MLS and its teams but to the American sports industry in general. In the past, teams and leagues at the top of sports industry were content to rest on their laurels when it came to sports marketing. They spent money on sports marketing and fan acquisition, but they didn’t take risks. There was no need to take risks. Within the past decade this has changed and many team/leagues in the US are beginning to take more risks in order to give themselves an edge. However, a lot of these teams/leagues are so entrenched in the American sports landscape that they are limited in ways in which they can engage their future and current fans.
This is where MLS is at an advantage. By being a young league filled with emerging teams, they are playing with house money when it comes to fan acquisition. MLS and its teams had no fans to begin with so they can use more ingenious methods to acquire fans without having the albatross hanging over their necks that comes with the fear of losing or upsetting already existing fans. Each fan they create now can take pride in being a “founding member” of the team. Within the world of sports loyalty, it’s of utmost importance for a fan to prove the he/she is the bigger fan of a team. What’s a better way to prove that then being one of the original fans of a team. MLS achieves these new fans not only with the promise of founder-ship but also the belief from these fans that the team they are choosing to support values their opinion and happiness.
MLS has a long way to go before it breaks into the top four American sports leagues. It has even longer to go before it breaks into the top four international soccer leagues. However, the inventive ways in which the league and its teams are branding and marketing themselves are creating a very positive base on which they can grow. The league has set high expectations for itself but it has proven that it is not afraid of facing up to those expectations. If it fulfills those expectations then it will have raised the bar of what a sports league is capable of and could revolutionize the way sports leagues/teams market themselves to fans in the future. If it fails then it was a hell of a ride and well worth the price of admission.