On the brink of its 20th season, Major League Soccer is undeniably at an inflection point. In May, the league nailed down a multimillion-dollar media contract that secures its place on the airwaves through 2022, and retaining the services of U.S. Men’s National Team stalwarts Clint Dempsey (Seattle) and Michael Bradley (Toronto) should go a long way toward keeping fans tuned in.
Earlier this month, MLS commissioner Don Garber signed a five-year extension, keeping his hand firmly on the tiller through 2018. And just days ago the league unveiled a Spartan new logo that MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler said was designed to “capture the fast-paced nature of a league that’s on the rise.”
Arguably, none of this would have come to pass if MLS hadn’t long ago embraced the nation’s youngest, fastest-growing demographic at a time when other sports leagues simply weren’t paying attention. As far back as 1996, when Univision began broadcasting MLS games in Spanish, the league has been far ahead of the pack in its efforts to win over Hispanic fans. That’s why MLS, the top professional soccer league in the United States and Canada, will be honored with the Award for Leadership in Hispanic Television in the programming category at the 12th Annual Hispanic Television Summit, at the New York Marriott Marquis on Oct. 2.
Hispanic boosters remain an integral part of the burgeoning MLS empire. All told, the league’s new eight-year contract with Univision will bring in around $120 million (up 50% from the value of the 2007-14 rights deal); more importantly, it will keep the pipeline flowing between the brand and the country’s 54 million Hispanic consumers.
“MLS is not what it is today if not for the shifting demographics in our country and the increase of the size of the Hispanic population,” Garber said. “We knew that from day one and we know it even more so 19 years later.”
While it’s no secret that soccer is the sport of choice for Hispanic Americans — Univision’s broadcast of the June 29 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match between Mexico and the Netherlands delivered a record 10.1 million viewers — the value of the demo transcends mere reach. MLS viewers tend to adhere to futbol above all other sports. A majority — 64% — of MLS fans don’t follow Major League Baseball, while another 60% eschew the National Basketball Association, and 46% turn a blind eye to the juggernaut that is the National Football League, according to Scarborough Research.
Despite the embarrassment of soccer riches now available on broadcast and cable TV networks — aficionados now can keep tabs on everything from La Liga to Serie A to the English Premier League — MLS is holding its own on Univision. Per Nielsen, the network’s MLS package last season averaged 135,000 viewers per game, up 105% versus the 2012 campaign. Moreover, the MLS side’s 2-1 upset of Bayern Munich in this month’s MLS All-Star Game drew 410,000 viewers to Univision’s spinoff channel, UniMás.
“Univision is such a powerful force in our country,” Garber said. “Most people have no idea that in most of the big markets, it’s the No. 1 media outlet in town. It represents the opportunity for Hispanics, and Spanish speakers generally, to connect with programming, particularly sports programming, in ways that they’re used to.”
Speaking after the unveiling ceremony for the new MLS logo, Garber said he is particularly impressed by Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a media veteran who also steers Con Pelotas, a non-profit that has distributed 200,000 soccer balls to underprivileged children. “It’s always been a big priority for us to have a relationship with Univision, even more so today with Juan as the head of sports,” Garber said. “I think he’s one of the best television executives in our country. He gets not just our game, but he gets television…and he really believes that a strong Major League Soccer will help grow his audience even further and will allow us both to be able to succeed and prosper.”
Television aside, the live MLS experience is a testament to soccer’s growing popularity. On average, MLS attendance ranks third among major U.S. professional sports leagues, outdrawing the NBA and the National Hockey League.
If fannies in seats are any indication, the most soccer-happy metropolitan area in the U.S. is Seattle. The Sounders last season drew an average crowd of 44,038, topping every MLB franchise but the resurgent Los Angeles Dodgers (46,506). In fact, the Seattle squad more than doubled the Mariners’ average attendance (21,747). One can only imagine the sort of crowds the Sounders would draw if they played in a market that more faithfully reflected the country’s demographic mix. Only 7% of Seattle’s residents are Hispanic, whereas the national figure is 17%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hispanic fans contribute to around 40% of overall MLS attendance figures.
Looking ahead, next season will give rise to a pair of new MLS franchises, as New York FC will begin its tenancy at Yankee Stadium, and Orlando City will begin play at the Florida Citrus Bowl before moving into its own $110 million facility in 2016. For what it’s worth, metropolitan New York is 29% Hispanic, while one quarter of Orlando’s population falls into the same category.
As much as MLS boasts the highest percentage of Hispanic viewers and fans of any pro sports league, no one is taking anything for granted. As Garber noted, each franchise has outreach initiatives in place, be it D.C. United’s oversight of free kids’ soccer clinics across the Beltway or the Galaxy’s Copa L.A. youth tournament effort.
While MLS and the U.S. Hispanic population continue to grow together, Garber said he sees nothing but clear skies ahead. “Today is about a new vision for our future,” the commish said during the unveiling of the new logo. “[This is] a reminder that our best days are ahead. It’s a reminder that tomorrow is going to be great, but the day after tomorrow and the day after that will be even better for us.”
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