How advertising its biggest competitors is paying off for America’s soccer league

It’s a foot race!
It’s a foot race!
Image: USA TODAY Sports/Craig Mitchelldyer
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It’s rare to see a business competing in a global market go out of its way to advertise a competitor’s products—but that’s exactly what Major League Soccer, the US domestic league, has been doing all summer, capped with last night’s upset win by a group of MLS all-stars playing an exhibition game against German Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich.

Even as the MLS season proceeds apace, Bayern, along with the top teams from the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, and Spain’s La Liga, have been playing tournaments and exhibitions across the US as part of a lucrative pre-season tour designed to capitalize on America’s growing interest in the sport. This week, a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid broke the US record for attendance at a soccer event with 109,308 spectators.

But, in a time when global media is increasingly giving fans access to the best teams in the world no matter where they play, MLS’s warm welcome to foreign competition has led some to question whether the league is knee-capping itself. While the quality of MLS play is rapidly improving, it doesn’t yet match what is seen in Europe—so why heighten the contradictions at a time when global leagues are scrambling for fans and market share in the US?

The MLS subscribes to a grow-the-pie theory of soccer marketing, with fans who come to watch international games getting hooked on the soccer experience. “Some leagues use bobble head night, and trust us, we have plenty, but we use international soccer as a marketing tool,” David Courtemanche, MLS’ spokesman, told Quartz. “It really is using soccer to promote more soccer.”

One data point in his favor is the results of last year’s premiere league season, which was widely aired on standard US television packages for the first time by NBC. Rather than see MLS TV viewership go down, Courtemanche says, cross-promotion between the two leagues led to improved ratings in 2013, and MLS signed new TV contract with Fox, ESPN and Univision in May that is reported to provide $90 million a year to the league.

That’s a big jump over the previous contract, and more than the $80 million to $85 million annual rights fee paid by NBC for the Premier league, though well below the $1.5 billion-plus annual fees commanded by Major League Baseball or the $5 billion in TV cash earned yearly  by the National Football League.

The league has shown the ability to convince European investors that the US makes sense as a soccer market. David Beckham, the former English star who capped his career with a stint in MLS, has bought a team, and Manchester City, the top club in the English premier league last year, also purchased a club, New York City FC, which will begin playing in MLS next year. At a Manchester City exhibition game in New York this month, the club’s CEO, Ferran Soriano, explained his thinking to the podcast Men in Blazers (autoplay):

It’s not a competition, this is synergistic. I was in Japan, and I was talking to one of the key directors of the Japanese league, and he was telling, me this is a competition, when European leagues come to Japan, I have a problem, because they are taking my audience, my sponsoring money, this is a zero-sum game. This is wrong, completely wrong—it is totally synergistic. Fans are coming to this stadium to watch Manchester City play. But Manchester City is going to come here once a year, and you need to go to the stadium to enjoy the local passion for the club every week.

And there, at least, MLS can take some pride—its attendance numbers are better than the NBA’s or the NHL’s, averaging about 20,000 spectators a game across the league. And, from Courtemanche’s point of view, they are getting what they paid for. “It wasn’t that long ago that international clubs would come to the US and only play each other, thinking MLS teams were not going provide them an appropriate level of competition,” he says. “Now, MLS clubs win these matches.”

Despite the after-glow of last night’s victory, the real test for MLS will be in November and December, when its end-of-season play-offs are competing with the European league season—not to mention the American football season and the baseball play-offs. The league’s ability to capitalize on those games will show whether it’s getting an assist from international play, or tapping in an own goal.