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La Liga Looks to Seize Opportunity in U.S. Soccer Market

As international soccer matches flood the U.S. TV schedule, La Liga has a plan to host one of their own on American soil.

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Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

La Liga isn’t shy about its ambitions for a long-term presence in North America.

“La Liga is motivated to go and develop the brand here and invest in it, rather than just get in and four years get a better TV deal,” said La Liga North America CEO Boris Gartner at a South by Southwest panel about growing international soccer in North America.

The Spanish soccer league is renowned for being one of the world’s premier competitions, featuring trademark clubs including Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. But its reach does not match up to that of the English Premier League, whose 15-plus year investment in a United States presence has catapulted it to a global behemoth. Now, after La Liga tightened up its domestic infrastructure and likely maximized its revenue at home along the way, Gartner believes its next challenge is to plant a flag in the United States — and, in so doing, catch the EPL.

READ MORE: Univision Deportes Plans to Dominate US Soccer Viewership

It’s a lofty goal, one which Gartner said is buoyed by a natural language to the United States’ nearly 60 million Hispanics. But the true centerpiece begins in taking live stadium play across the Atlantic ocean. One of La Liga’s partners, Relevant Sports founded the International Champions Cup and exhibition tournament between European club teams with the goal of showcasing top-notch European competition outside of the continent.

“We wanted to formalize competition, big club against big club,” Relevant Sports CEO Daniel Sillman said. “We don’t latch onto the term ‘friendly.’ Sports is about pride and winning, so we wanted to create a journey you can follow.”

La Liga has been one of the competition’s most visible participants. In 2017, ICC featured La Liga’s Real Madrid and Barcelona playing the famed “El Clásico” fixture at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium– just the second time in history the fixture has been held outside of Spain. For that match, Sillman said they wanted to create an entertainment experience American soccer had never seen before and use it to grow the game. The festival-like atmosphere was loaded with musicians, athletes, fashion brands in an exhibition that was far removed from the typical European soccer experiences, too. Based on the success of the ICC game in Miami, La Liga officials believe in the live game attraction for new fans. The long-term goal would be to one day hold a competitive match in the U.S.

“We strongly believe having an official league match, fighting for three points, would be more appreciated and an evolution of international soccer in the U.S.,” Gartner said. “We knew it’d be tough to get through, but that’s our moonshot idea.”

The efforts are not dissimilar to those by U.S. leagues like Major League Baseball through scheduling regular-season games in Tokyo and London, or the National Football League’s in Mexico City and London. But it also would involve significant red tape. To make a league match happen in the U.S., La Liga would need the approval of the Spanish soccer federation, UEFA, USA Soccer, CONCAFA and FIFA. The league already failed in its first attempt to secure it but Gartner said he’s determined to one day make the match a reality.

“It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” Gartner said. “It has to happen. We’ll try and again and keep doing it until people get tired of us trying.”

The arguments in favor of and against an international league game in the U.S. are many on each side, said Tony Meola, a Sirius XM soccer broadcaster and former U.S. National Team goalkeeper.

“From an MLS standpoint, I don’t want ICC or La Liga. We’re fighting for dollars,” Meola said. “[But] personally, I think there’s room. Not every city has an MLS team. There’s a market for it. I’m a fan, I just love learning about the game.”

READ MORE: Bundesliga Is Ready to Take American Growth to the Next Level

On the La Liga side, there’s a belief that a collective effort can build soccer in a ripe underserved market, Gartner said. La Liga isn’t alone in its belief the U.S. holds a bountiful potential for international soccer. Gartner said a large contingent of teams and leagues see an opportunity, a fact highlighted through the sheer number of games broadcast each weekend on cable from international leagues such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Liga MX.

Still, he said, “I don’t think there’s anyone else doing it with a focused and strategic. It’s more sophisticated and tough and takes investment. You can’t just sit down in an office and expect the rights to go higher.” 

Instead, it takes the right sort of big ideas. Gartner and La Liga hope theirs is exactly that.

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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NHL Keeps Running On Dunkin’ With New Deal

Dunkin’ became an NHL league-level sponsor in 2017, which was the company’s first-ever national sports league partnership.

Ian Thomas

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NHL Dunkin' Deal
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Dunkin’ has signed a multi-year extension of its deal with the NHL, continuing its position as the official coffee, donut and breakfast sandwich of the league in the U.S.

The deal, expected to be announced tonight prior to game five of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston, marks the twelfth major partner that the NHL has signed or renewed its deal with in recent months.

Dunkin’ became an NHL league-level sponsor in 2017, which was the company’s first-ever national sports league partnership. Over the course of the last two seasons, the partnership has seen Dunkin’ become one of the NHL’s most active corporate sponsors in terms of its presence at major NHL events, partnerships with local teams, marketing campaigns and other fan-facing efforts.

READ MORE: Following NBA’s Lead, NHL Taps Massive Chinese Market for Fans

NHL Group Vice President of Partnership Marketing Evin Dobson said that since becoming a sponsor, Dunkin’ has ranked at the top or in the top three of the league’s internal metrics regarding fan awareness or engagement of its partners.

Dunkin’ has been front and center this Stanley Cup Final as well, as its national advertising campaign starring Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak has been heavily featured during NBC’s television coverage of the playoffs. The campaign was created by BBDO Worldwide, which was named Dunkin’s new agency of record in April 2018.

“When you have an advertising campaign that even the broadcast talent is talking about on-air, you know you’re creating great fan engagement with what you’re doing,” Dobson said.

Tom Manchester, Dunkin’ U.S. senior vice president of integrated marketing, said much of the deal with the league will be similar to how its current deal is structured – it will continue to hold exclusive rights in those U.S. categories, it will activate around the partnership at NHL league events and it will have a presence across broadcast, digital and social media channels throughout the season, which includes a multi-million dollar partnership with NBC Sports for custom in-game features during games. Dunkin’ will also activate alongside the NHL’s esports tournament, the NHL Gaming World Championship, which will hold its final in Las Vegas later this month.

However, the new deal will see Dunkin’ adding two new local team partnerships in the deal, with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Vegas Golden Knights. Dunkin’ now has 15 NHL team-level deals.

READ MORE: NHL Turns to Corner Ice Placements to Grow On-Ice Ad Revenue

Dunkin’ will also launch a new activation around the league deal ahead of next season, Manchester said, declining to comment further as those plans have only just started.

“Over these last two years, the idea that coffee and espresso is a big part of the hockey world and hockey family’s lives has only been reinforced for us,” Manchester said.

Dunkin’s NHL deal also serves as “the centerpiece” of that outreach to hockey families, Manchester said.

In addition to its league-level NHL deal in 2017, Dunkin’ has also made additional investments into hockey, signing a deal with USA Hockey in 2016 as well as the NWHL in 2015, becoming the women’s league first corporate sponsor.

While both of those deals have since lapsed, Manchester said that on the NWHL front, the company is in talks with the league about renewing it. He noted that Dunkin’ views “women’s hockey as just as important as men’s.”

However, Dunkin’ is not planning on more broadly renewing its partnership with the U.S. governing body. Manchester said that while Dunkin’ had activated heavily around the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team and players like Meghan Duggan during the 2018 Winter Olympics, it had nothing in place with USA Hockey at the moment – although he said Dunkin’ could potentially do something around the team or its players heading into the next Olympic cycle in 2022.

Both Dobson and Manchester declined to comment on the financial terms of the deal, other to say the multi-year deal’s investment level is in line with the previous deal. Fenway Sports Management, who is Dunkin’s sports marketing agency of record, negotiated the deal on behalf of the company.

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Concacaf Unveils First-Ever Women’s Soccer Plan

In August, Concacaf appointed its first-ever head of women’s football – former Canadian women’s national team player Karina LeBlanc.

Ian Thomas

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women's soccer
Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of the start of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, Concacaf has rolled out its first-ever strategic plan to grow and develop the game of women’s soccer.

In August, the confederation appointed its first-ever head of women’s football – former Canadian women’s national team player Karina LeBlanc.

LeBlanc, who presented the plan in Paris this week to all confederation’s 41 members that includes all of the soccer federations across North and Central America and the Caribbean, said that even with two of the top five ranked women’s soccer teams globally coming from this region in the U.S. and Canadian national teams, there is still an opportunity to do even better.

“The mission we’ve set out on is to improve the lives of women and girls throughout our region through the sport,” LeBlanc said. “We need to change perceptions, grow participation and build a sustainable foundation so that we can do just that.”

Concacaf has designed its strategy to grow the sport of women’s soccer around three main pillars – communicating the importance of women’s soccer and advocating for key issues affecting women, development of the sport and creating pathways to develop and empower players both on and off the field, and through commercial means that will build a self-sustainable growth model for the sport.

LeBlanc said Concacaf’s vision for growing the game somewhat mirrors FIFA’s, who launched its own first-ever global strategy for women’s soccer in October. FIFA is holding a two-day women’s soccer summit in Paris, featuring executives and federation officials from across the globe aiming to “make the most of this new era of women’s football,” which FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in his opening remarks at the summit on Wednesday morning.

Other goals for 2019 set by Concacaf include leveraging the hopeful success of the region’s national teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, creating a women’s coaching mentorship program and develop a commercial strategy around the confederation’s women’s soccer brand, which is called Concacaf W.

“We believe we can hit some of these targets very quickly, but it was important to create something like this plan so that everyone is on the same page,” LeBlanc said. “We all agree it is critical that we create growth and opportunity for women in the sport.”

LeBlanc said some of the long term goals include creating new women’s soccer competitions across the region, assisting in the creation of women’s soccer-specific digital and social channels for all the federations to help inspire fans, and encouraging the launch of more women’s clubs across the region.

READ MORE: Budweiser Signs On as Presenting Partner of Women’s International Champions Cup

“From our standpoint, we are looking at ways to influence clubs to take a leap of faith and if they already have a men’s team, to also have a women’s team,” LeBlanc said. “Our goal is to change the mindset that women’s football is just a cause.

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MLSPA and REP Worldwide Teaming Up to Promote MLS Players

The Major League Soccer Players Association has taken back control of the MLS players’ group licensing rights from the league, signing a new agreement with REP Worldwide to serve as the exclusive partner and strategic advisor for those rights.

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MLS players group licensing rights
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Major League Soccer Players Association has taken back control of the MLS players’ group licensing rights from the league, according to industry sources, signing a new agreement with REP Worldwide to serve as the exclusive partner and strategic advisor for those rights.

The PA had reclaimed those group licensing rights in the league’s first CBA in 2004, but had since licensed them back directly to the league. In the past, MLS has marketed the rights for both the league and the PA, with proceeds of licensing deals split on a percentage basis that varied by category. Now – the PA will take a more direct management in the marketing and administration of those rights, with REP Worldwide as its exclusive partner and advisor.

REP Worldwide – an acronym for Representing Every Player – was launched in 2017 as a first-of-its-kind group licensing representation business offering licensing and brand management services to athlete-driven sports properties. The NFLPA is the majority shareholder of the company, working in collaboration with its founding partners the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA) and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA).

This new partnership will see REP Worldwide structure and manage MLSPA licensing partnerships on behalf of the MLS player pool across categories that include digital, apparel, experiential and hard goods, which typically includes things like toys and sports equipment. those MLS group licensing rights cover instances where four or more players appear on a single product or within a brand or product line. That can include the usage of their names, numbers and likenesses, but not team names or logos – rights held by the league.

READ MORE: Budweiser Signs On as Presenting Partner of Women’s International Champions Cup

The aim for the MLSPA is that this new arrangement will not only open new revenue for the MLS player pool, but also serve as a brand builder for all of the players, collectively and individually.

All of the other player associations in the major North American professional sports have control over their group licensing rights, with the NBPA being the last to do so in 2017.

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