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The Risk Involved with Promoting Opposing Players

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MLS clubs often promote opposing players to draw fans, but there is risk in that strategy.

MLS: FC Cincinnati at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While Major League Soccer has grown significantly over the past 10 years, there are still a lot of Americans who ignore the domestic league in favor of the top European leagues or Mexican league. This has caused several MLS clubs to market to those potential spectators by promoting the aging foreign talent visiting with an opposing team. However, there are risks with this sort of marketing.

Despite the improvements of the domestic game and the ability to view it live, as it is intended to be viewed, there are still millions of people that prefer to watch the top European leagues from their living room. In an effort to draw more of those people to local games, several former top European, Mexican, and South American players have been brought over to Major League Soccer. MLS clubs attempt to market to these folks by promoting these players that will be visiting as the opposition.

While this may seem like a good marketing plan, and it sometimes is, there are risks involved. Some of these risks include where that player is located. A Western Conference team will only play in a specific Eastern Conference city once every two years. The long travel or turf surface may cause that player to skip that game for health reasons. Other times there may be other circumstances that could derail that plan.

Former Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester United forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic came to the LA Galaxy in 2018 and has been taking the league by storm. Everywhere he goes, people that have never been to an MLS game buy tickets to see the Swedish legend. This Friday, he was supposed to make his first, and probably only, appearance in Orlando, but that will not happen now.

On May 11, Ibrahimovic got into a tussle with New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson that resulted in the striker’s hands around the goalkeeper’s throat. The league decided to hand him a two-game suspension, which means he will miss the trip to Orlando. While some people may have already purchased their tickets, others were likely waiting until closer to the game and will no longer be attending.

Regardless of how well MLS teams are covered, it’s unlikely that they will gain a significant number of fans through television. They need those fans to attend games, experience the atmosphere, and see first-hand the level of play. Providing a good experience for these people that come to see a specific player could influence them to return for another game. Over time, this could result in them becoming a fan of their local club.

Unfortunately, many of these people consider their domestic league as beneath them, resulting in the need of clubs to provide a greater incentive. A star from Mexico, South America, or Europe is likely the only way that you’ll draw these people into the stadium. For that reason, MLS clubs will continue to promote these players through social media and special ticket plans, regardless of how much it annoys their fan base.

Orlando City is using that strategy currently, selling an El Tri Boleta Combo ticket package that will provide tickets the games against the LA Galaxy, Los Angeles FC, and the Philadelphia Union. The marketing plan is to draw fans that will want to see Mexican stars Jonathan Dos Santos, Carlos Vela, and Marco Fabian, who play for those teams, respectively.

The risk in this marketing plan comes with the fact that there is no guarantee that any of those players will play in those games and any news of them missing is likely to be broken before they arrive. This could result in those who might’ve attended a game deciding not to, as the players they wanted to see will no longer be participating.

Part of the purpose of promoting these players is to sell tickets and they may still do so as those tickets may be sold in advance. However, the club would also like to convert those people, which wouldn’t happen if they decide not to attend or to resell the tickets.

Marketing to those who ignore their local clubs is a key part of MLS’ business strategy and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The suspension of Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Friday’s clash at Orlando City Stadium shows the risk involved with this promotional plan.