Still being several weeks away from the start of a new season for association football in the US, much of the current chatter surrounding Major League Soccer revolves around the announcement of this summer’s All-Star Game in Philadelphia and, well, oatmeal. Okay, perhaps not specifically about oatmeal, but rather the unveiling of Quaker as the new shirt sponsor for Chicago Fire SC that begins with this video of a morning bowl of Quaker Oats and has continued by sending these rather special packages to not only sports media but also prominent US football bloggers to spread the word. Cynically this could be considered a bit of overkill on the part of the club and Quaker Oats, a relentless marketing campaign to ensure Quaker gets more of its oatmeal at our breakfast tables and its snacks into our children’s hands, but on the alternatively it suggests something rather promising for a rapidly maturing professional league. And, while some football kit purists might wince at the sight of the Quaker Man’s head emblazoned across the chest of Chicago’s players after the club went last season without a sponsor, the bigger impact looks to go beyond smudging up a shirt for advertising purposes to speak to further potential at growth for a league still in its teenage years.
To state that such an extensive media blitz in this instance represents what can be done when a company with a bit of money invests in the league would be a partially false claim. PepsiCo–the large multinational parent corporation of Quaker Oats–has an extended history of supporting Major League Soccer. Going back to the opening season of play in 1996, PepsiCo has been a league sponsor from the off, but its initial visibility was far different than this new venture with Chicago via Quaker Oats. Any observer of MLS in its opening decade will recall nationally-televised matches sponsored by PepsiCo’s soft drink of the time, Sierra Mist, and the odd integration of its advertising into MLS games. On top of having the product’s name placed prominently on screen and mentioned endlessly by the commentators, at specific times during a match the frame of the game would magically shrink in order to fit alongside an annoyingly repetitious set of commercials promoting the beverage; ads filled with offbeat comedians of the period verbally sparring over who would get to drink this hip and edgy new soft drink. In addition to turning the presentation of this new league into a bit of a farce, these early schemes somewhat reduced those televised matches down to rather simple shrill advertisement whoring for a new PepsiCo product that was relatively unknown to the general public and quite frankly, wasn’t that tasty. Those games seemed more so to serve as a selling vehicle for PepsiCo rather than assisting the league in its gambit at becoming acceptable to the North American sports fan.
In this new shirt sponsorship deal with Chicago, however, rests two subtle adjustments future league and club sponsors might be considering. Quaker Oats is a conglomerate that has been in operation since the late 19th century, a long-established company on its own prior to being purchased by PepsiCo in 2001. The face of that Quaker Man now appearing on Chicago Fire shirts is a known quanity not only to the general sports fan but the US public at large. Rather than treating the league or its clubs as a test market for new products, aligning Quaker prominently with Chicago Fire SC suggests PepsiCo trusts MLS with one of its primary brands, a brand that has a reputation it would not wish to harm in any way. This sponsorship, then, represents a wrinkle of thought that MLS is gradually being accepted as a viable player among the bigger professional sports leagues in the US, not only one that can be trusted with being affiliated with a name such as Quaker but further one that can actually help promote further visibility of an already highly recognizable American brand.
It also represents something of a continuing trend toward Major League Soccer clubs attracting more of these ”heavy hitter” sort of companies with respect to sponsor names on shirts. Quaker now joins a league that has German automaker Volkswagen’s logo on the shirt of DC United, Chivas USA sporting Grupo Modelo’s Corona name on theirs, Philadelphia Union finding the Bimbo logo of the large multinational baked goods corporation Grupo Bimbo adorning their tops, along with other internationally-recognized corporate names such as Microsoft in Seattle, BMO in Toronto and Montreal, along with the all-in sponsorship of Red Bull New York. From the first shirt sponsorship deal in 2006 between Real Salt Lake and the relatively unknown Utah-based company XANGO to now with Chicago Fire SC and Quaker Oats, the representative clubs of the league seem to have grown in stature in the eyes of the corporate world.
Herein lies the more subtle difference this new shirt sponsorship entails. Organizations such as Chicago Fire SC have cultivated individual personalities and club identities that corporate sponsors can plug into much more readily today than in previous years. With MLS working to sell itself as a league worth watching in its first decade, the primary selling point was that Don Garber & Co. could spread a company’s sponsorship homogenously throughout their young league. This sufficed at a time when the only thing corporations might have identified was that rather bland league logo of a ball being kicked in anger, or perhaps individual players swimming in squads of anonymity, but now the clubs themselves are more highly visible in their own right, each with unique character and club supporter cultures organically grown.
As an illustration, consider that when some business puts its generic flyer on the windshield of every car in a car park it is hoping at least some percentage of those who have to pull that ad off their windshield will read it and act upon their advertisement. Often, this is brings a low rate of return, as the message is distributed too widely to individuals who care too little and consider the business a bit annoying for forcing them have to take this stupid piece of paper off their windshield before they can drive off in the first place. Now, consider the company that prepares a clear message and identifies a specifically targeted group of individuals their message might impact. Often the rate of success for said company would increase and the benefit to that company might be immeasurably greater as they utilized their resources much more wisely to achieve it.
The second strategy appears to be in play in the case of Quaker Oats, which in addition to Chicago’s shirt will now have a specific “Quaker Corner” seating section within Toyota Park as well as integrating their name and money within the club’s academy and youth system. This has not happened in isolation but is popping up league-wide, as just this week international motor company Mazda announced it has signed on as a sponsor with Houston Dynamo that includes a specific free parking area for fans with Mazda vehicles in the upcoming season. What seems to have transpired, then, is that large companies such as PepsiCo & Quaker have noticed MLS has captured a solid portion of the US sports fan market–as the league is now trails only American football and baseball as the most attended sport per game - and the best way for them to enter into any financial arrangement that grants them any foreseeable profit is by marketing to the fans that fill the stands and kiss the badge.
Has analyzing it in this fashion been overkill? Most certainly, but it’s still early in pre-season training and the All-Star Game is much less interesting.
So, much like that girl back in school no one really noticed later grew up to become the envy of all at your most recent class reunion, Major League Soccer is growing up and the sports advertising wings of the multinationals seem to be looking their way more than before. While some might cry foul at the integration of the game with the corporate world, it is unfortunately the current state of affairs football clubs anywhere must leverage in order to fund their enterprises. In the US, rather than considering a sponsor’s logo a bit of a “tramp stamp” on a club shirt that might have endured a century without the necessity of having to become a sandwich board, the corporate-sponsored shirt is a mark of maturity for those MLS clubs that obtain one and a glaring reminder to those still without one that they might still be stuck in puberty.
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