Where Major League Soccer Fandom Has Been and Where It’s Going as the US Enters a Critical Period for Football ⚽️

    What was your favorite team growing up? Regardless of sport or league, which team captured the heart of your 9-year-old self?

    It’s likely that that favorite team came from a parent or sibling passing it on and/or from the local team that everybody favored in your town. But here’s the thing about soccer in the US — millennials and the generations preceding them didn’t really have much of a favorite American soccer club (Major League Soccer will turn 30 years old in 2023). So if you’re a soccer fan growing up in the States, particularly pre or early-world wide web, your favorite team was kind of random. It’s no wonder MLS has been battling uphill to win lifelong fans and broad relevancy. Kyle Sheldon, who has spent years working in pro soccer in the US, including stints with four MLS clubs, recognizes the challenge pro soccer clubs in the US face.

    “I’ve seen data over my career that soccer fans in the US are more likely to have multiple teams that they follow than just about anywhere else in the world, which makes sense when you think about it,” said Sheldon, who is founder and CEO of soccer-specific marketing and creative agency NAME & NUMBER. “It’s a dynamic country with people from all different backgrounds, and you’ve got really kind of first-generation soccer fans in a lot of cases who are discovering the sport and their attachment to a particular team varies pretty wildly.”

    Without such inherent or inherited fandom, MLS clubs had to act a bit more like minor league teams in the earlier days, focusing on affordable family entertainment than a beacon of the collective will and inborn identity of the community. But as younger millennials grew up and Gen Z came along, MLS teams have, for the first time for many of them, been able to aspire to more coveted demographics. They could earn a spot in the local zeitgeist alongside the other most popular, more deeply rooted teams for American sports fans. Sheldon noticed this evolution for soccer marketing in the States, especially with the newest clubs borne in the last few years. It’s a watershed development and one that many MLS clubs can follow.

    “You started to see a different type of person attend those games and there was a different connection in the city, in the community that just indicated a different opportunity,” said Sheldon, describing the new type of fan being marketed to and won over in MLS that newer clubs targeted. “I think those were really eye-opening moments for people around the league, and a lot of teams are still frankly trying to capture it…

    “Then as you sort of fast forward and you look at — I think it’s a more subtle shift, but you see Atlanta and Minnesota and LAFC and more recently Austin FC have come into the league and these teams are very culture-focused, they’re value-focused, they’re community-focused…”

    Sheldon double-clicked into the importance of penetrating community and culture, alluding to LAFC’s success in doing so. “‘Plug into culture before you plug into soccer,’” said Sheldon, quoting LAFC’s Chief Brand Officer Richard Orosco. “I think that’s a good recipe for anyone. You’re a team and a club that’s representative of a very specific place, and that very specific place has cultural connection points. It has its own creative, community, it has music and design, and just a lifestyle that’s really specific to that space.”

    It is a tall task to earn acceptance, let alone embrace, into the community. To try and be universally beloved in year one is a foolhardy task. And soccer is different, anyway. The most ardent soccer fandoms are just that: fervent, passionate, whatever intense emotion you want to insert. That’s what markets the product (games to attend and watch) better than any messaging about affordable family entertainment — and, as Sheldon called out — MLS clubs mostly can’t market that their league displays the best soccer players in the world, because they don’t. The experience has to sell, Sheldon told me, and clubs need to build that into their overall strategy.

    “MLS has never really had the ability to say come watch the best soccer players in the world, so the experience and the supporters experience in particular is the differentiator for sports viewing or attendance in this country. [But that experience] just doesn’t exist [Sheldon did name a few MLS clubs that are exceptions…

    “There’s nothing like [the European experience]. There’s nothing like the 90 minutes of singing, chanting, drum beating, just raucous atmosphere…I think it has to start with growing supporters culture because that’s the differentiator,” said Sheldon, describing the superfan clubs that do all that chanting and drum beating. “And naturally, if you create something that is experiential, that is raucous, that is interesting to watch, that is enjoyable to participate in, then other people will come, I think, because of that experience.”

    So all you need is a sizable group of die-hard fans that love the club so much that they’ll sing and cheer for 90 minutes straight at every home match. Sounds easy, eh? Creating and building upon such a fan base cannot happen overnight, kind of by design. Teams have to build credibility and consistency; fans can’t wrap their arms and hearts around something unfamiliar. Sheldon spoke first and foremost about teams committing to a north star identity, and then ingratiating that brand into the community. Not every potential fan will respond to the same approach, but that’s okay (consider your own personality and how you activate it differently around different people).

    “I believe in ultimately kind of segmenting your fan base in different ways so that you’re creating content for each. The number of entry points to fandom is vast,” said Sheldon, whose NAME & NUMBER works to help brands and teams in soccer with marketing and creative. “There are a lot of ways people get connected to a club and to an experience. You can’t do it all, especially in a league where there still are limited resources. But to be thoughtful about that and ultimately to ensure you have the right guiding principles as to who you say you are and what your brand is and what you stand for is really what’s most important.”

    Sheldon spoke further of earning credibility as a member of the community. Because MLS teams have to succeed locally, first, he said. It’s great to have fans in Panama that love your club’s Panamanian player, but they’re a luxury; the hundreds or thousands of fans chanting at your games and evangelizing your team are the essential.

    “I think the starting point has to be hyper-local,” he explained. “It comes back to how do you plug into civic pride? How do you plug into the local culture? How do you plug into the local creative community? What’s the hole-in-the-wall taco joint down the street that everybody in the neighborhood knows? How do you connect to them?…

    “How do you connect to culture in such a way that it communicates ‘We know this place and we are a part of this place?’…I think that’s the starting point for sports marketing today. But yes, you have to be relevant locally before you can be globally.” 

    Domestic professional soccer continues to face those generational challenges, but it’s already growing year-to-year and the much-anticipated World Cup in 2026 promises to throw rocket fuel into that growth. The vision of hordes of casual fans coming is seductive, to be sure, but don’t forget that the most important part of building anything lasting is establishing the foundation.


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