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MLS Makes Smart Move with Liga MX Partnership

Major League Soccer is moving in the right direction to build the league with a shift in focus on finding new fans.

Chivas v Seattle Sounders - CONCACAF Champions League 2018 Photo by Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Major League Soccer announced an interesting new partnership with Liga MX (the Mexican top flight professional league). The partnership will consist of three major components:

  1. The Campeones Cup.
  2. MLS All-Star Game featuring Liga MX involvement.
  3. Shared business practices.

A consistent complaint most MLS fans hear from avid to casual fans alike is that “it’s not as good as the Premier League” or “the technical ability and speed of the game isn't like it is in Europe.”

People thinking that the target audience for MLS should be avid, crazed European fans wouldn't be operating under a horrible assumption. You would think those that follow a sport thousands of miles away, waking up at 6:30 a.m. or ignoring work at 2:30 p.m. would kill for an everyday league of their own. But I think — and what MLS is realizing — is that the target for those fans has its serious drawbacks. And namely the quality of the competition.

Additionally, look at the demographics of the United States. I’m sure many of you have heard how the Hispanic demo is increasing year after year, becoming a more prominent aspect of our society. At present, 63.3% of the U.S. Hispanic demographic is made up of Mexican lineage. And its definitely no secret that the sport of choice in that demographic is soccer.

If you’re in the business, you can’t help but come across a job description preferring Spanish in the languages category and there’s a very good reason why. It’s because that’s the target for growth for everyone. Brands, teams, and leagues all recognize the importance of this demographic and are paying it its due.

But why is this the right move for MLS? Take into account this research put together by Gilt Edge Marketing:

Liga MX dominates TV ratings in the U.S. over MLS

It goes without saying that national team matches should lead the way in a TV viewers conversation. But look at the fact that five out of the six most watched featured a Hispanic team, four of which featured Mexico.

The more important piece is the club section. This shows why MLS needs to go after this market in a more effective way. If I went out to any Orlando City match and asked people what they thought would be the most watched matches in the U.S., I would bet everything I would get 95% answering from Europe or national team play.

But, as you can see from the graphic above, Liga MX is crushing MLS. The second-most watched match in the Liga MX column featured 1.12 million more viewers than the MLS Cup final. That Liga MX match? A normal, regular-season derby a la El Clasíco or the Manchester Derby (Liga MX beat both).

And the best part? It’s quality is on par — or only slightly better — with MLS. It isn't watching Barcelona or Bayern Munich. It’s a league that rates in line with MLS on most levels. Bleacher Report did a study in 2017 that ranked the most exciting leagues in the world. Its findings were that MLS ranked eighth and Liga MX 11th. There were many factors, but this brings about the thought that if Liga MX is garnering more viewers with even quality — or perhaps less exciting — play, then why cant MLS “steal” away some of these fans?

There are actually more matches broadcast in Spanish than in English in the U.S., as unbelievable as that sounds:

Multiple leagues have entered into partnerships with the likes of Telemundo and Univision in recent years, looking to garner this market. But MLS has a leg up in this conversation if the league can get to these fans early and that’s a national tie. If you live in Los Angeles and you’re a Chivas fan, there’s no reason you should be an LAFC fan too. There’s only so much time in a day and you can’t watch everything.

So, this parternship is that better attempt to capture this fanbase. The Campeones Cup will feature the MLS champion, Toronto FC, playing one of the two Liga MX champions this September at BMO Field. The MLS All-Star Game and the accompanying Homegrown Game (U-20) will now be against Liga MX instead of European opponents.

These aren't perfect solves. Clearly the dual championship nature of Liga MX causes questions on which to take. And there’s the fact the Liga MX team will notably be in its second month while MLS teams will be gearing towards the playoffs, creating a situation where its not going to feature all the right players.

For fans that were excited about the European teams playing against MLS, that is now gone. There’s going to be a drawback. But ultimately I think this is going to improve the game. Think about the possibilities of players who have switched leagues playing each other. I think that gives a bite to a near meaningless game.

Regardless, all of these moves are set to bring new eyes to the game — eyes that are already heavily invested in North American soccer and just haven't turned the MLS corner. It’ll take some time and tweaking over the short term to see what works and what doesn't. Bringing in more fans in an organic way can only help continue to grow the league in viewership and attendance. It means more money, which means a better product and more growth. I do believe this focus will pay off in the long run for MLS and am excited to see what comes of it.