A passionate, nearly sold-out crowd flocked to the Chicago’s Soldier Field for a just concluded event. It wasn't a concert they were fired up to see. It was the annual Major League Soccer All-Star Game, where the sport’s top players took on Real Madrid.
On the heels of the 2015 U.S. Women’s Team’s World Cup win and a respectable 2014 World Cup showing for the U.S. Men’s Team, soccer is gaining more traction in America, particularly among millennial and multicultural audiences. And more brands, including Target, Heineken and Allstate, are going all-in on the sport.
"We deliver an audience that’s different and distinct from other sports," said Howard Handler, CMO of MLS. "Brands want to align with a younger, more influential customer that they can build a relationship with over time. All-Star [Week] is an ultimate celebration of our league and soccer culture, so it’s a great backdrop to help build these relationships."
Other brands that present at MLS All-Star Week include Audi, Kimberly-Clark, Energizer, AT&T and Home Depot, all clamoring to reach MLS fans—40 percent of whom are between the ages of 18 and 34, 30 percent of whom are Hispanic and 45 percent of whom are female.
In January, Target became an official MLS partner, inking a three-year deal with the league that includes sponsorship of MLS team Minnesota FC and efforts with the MLS’s youth development programs.
The sponsorship was a no-brainer, said William White, VP of marketing at Target. After all, the retailer sold 1 million soccer balls in 2016, and sales of soccer merchandise grew 10 percent last year, making the sport its fastest-growing athletics category.
White cites the 25 percent growth rate of MLS’s fan base over the last two years as another reason the brand is investing so heavily in the league.
"We looked at the growth of the sport, from the youth to the pro level, and we love the passion of soccer fans," he said. "Soccer hits the sweet spot–it targets both men and women, and it’s multicultural and multigenerational."
Specifically for the All-Star Game, the marketer’s bullseye logo will be emblazoned on players’ jerseys, and Target spots will air during FS1’s broadcast of the game, along with on-site signage, digital ads and a custom, soccer-themed Snapchat filter. Plus, the retail brand’s CMO, Rick Gomez, will make the opening coin toss and present the winners’ trophy.
Soccer’s roots also run deep for Heineken, which had activations at the North Avenue beach soccer games on Saturday, where fans tested their ball-handling skills. Plus, the company will serve its beers during the game and at a pre-game pep rally. Heineken, which has been an MLS sponsor since 2015, counts U.S. Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd as a spokesperson. She appeared in its 2016 "Soccer Is Here" campaign.
"Soccer is our sport. We let the other brewers have football and the rest," said Roberto Ryder, brand manager at Heineken. "Ever since the Women’s Team has had success in the U.S., more women are attending matches and viewing the sport. The soccer audience is one of the only ones that’s growing in the sports world, and it enables us to connect with both women and men."
Another MLS partner, Allstate, sees its All-Star Game efforts as both a local and philanthropic play. This year, the insurance brand signed a four-year sponsorship deal with the league and will have activations at the game. Allstate also refurbished a soccer field on the south side of Chicago at its Homefield Protection event on July 31, which included a goalkeeper clinic for kids hosted by U.S. goalie Tony Meola.
"Goalkeepers really are analogous to our brand," explained Dan Keats, director of sponsorship marketing at Allstate. "We’re the ‘good hands’ brand; we’re all about protecting consumers’ lives, so we’ve clung to the goalie as a way to demonstrate our positioning."
While fun for fans, these big brand sponsorships signify more than free soccer swag.
Roger Bennett, co-host of the "Men In Blazers" soccer podcast, said marketers are wise to capitalize on soccer’s growth.
"Instead of becoming an overnight success, it’s been a slow and steady rise, World Cup to World Cup," he said. "Brands have realized they can come in big, come in early and make a massive impression, as opposed to being one of many attaching themselves to the NFL, where it is almost impossible to break through the noise and grab the spotlight."
Matt Hill, SVP of sponsorship consulting at GMR, agrees. "All signs are pointing in the right direction for the growth of the fan base, expansion of the league into new markets and a growth in sponsorship investment."
This week’s MLS All-Star festivities are an opportunity for brands to reach MLS fans during a relatively uncrowded time on the sports landscape, he added. "When you bring in a team with the global following of Real Madrid, all eyes will be on Chicago, and it gives sponsors an opportunity to take advantage of that visibility, fans coming into town for the game and fans around the world."
(This article first appeared on CampaignLive.com)