Leagues / Marketing / Teams


Expanding soccer

Author Francesco Naccarato, University of San Francisco

Posted: May 2, 2017

Tagged: Brand equity

Over the last 15 years, the Major League Soccer has gone through a period of growth thanks also to the success of its expansion clubs. But now, the league is preparing its next phase, after receiving 12 bids from interested ownership groups, the MLS is moving into a sizable expansion.

Jonathan Kraft, owner of the New England Revolution, said “Getting to 28 teams, I think that very much makes us a national property” (Thomas, 2017, para. 17). Gladden (2014) emphasises how building a brand is a time-consuming job, because “brands are not static, rather they are continually evolving over time” (p. 7). MLS commissioner Don Garber stated “Expansion represents growth, and to drive that growth, you have to have more and more touch points in more and more cities” (Thomas, 2017, para. 12). In order to be successful a team’s brand should match, enhance, and build on a city or region’s self-image. However, after the initial excitement about the awarding of a franchise, it is important to establish a strong connection between the team, its players, and its symbols and the community. Dalakas and Rose (2014) explain why the Seattle Sounders are a perfect example of a positive launch: they actively promoted a community partnership with the Seattle Seahawks, which leveraged existing equity from that team, and they enhanced a close connections between the team, its players, its fans, and its community. In his speech concerning the league’s expansion, Kraft added “Know we’re going to get a great city, know we’re going to have a great venue and most importantly know we’re going to have a really strong ownership growth, ultimately that’s what it comes down to if you’re going for long-term success” (Thomas, 2017, para. 19).

Public relations and community involvement are also essential in order to build long-term, unique and strong associations between a team and its fans. Where the sport entity has awareness, brand management efforts can focus in “on brand associations” as the main tools to achieve brand loyalty (Gladden, 2014, p. 7). Branding can strengthen these associations by enhancing fan involvement, promoting fan traditions and rituals, such as rivalries. For example, the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC, they have only played six times, but it “feels like they’ve been playing for years”; Mark Abbott, president and deputy commission of the MLS, said also “That has helped raise overall awareness and interest in the league not only in this market but the entire league, and rivalries are a core part of the league and drives a lot of interest” (Thomas, 2017, para. 28).

Gladden (2014) discusses how brand-building activities in the sport context should evaluate the players/coach acquisition in relation to their ability to build “unique, favorable, and strong associations” (p. 8). While MLS has had a reputation for being a retirement league for European stars, the success of younger players like Sebastian Giovinco in Toronto as well as the investment in young talent by several teams “has begun to change that narrative” (Thomas, 2017, para. 25). The first was David Beckham, who had a huge impact on the MLS when he moved to the LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007, adding legitimacy to the league, and blazing the trail that Keane, Giovinco, Henry and others would later emulate.




Dalakas, V., & Rose, G. (2014). Developing brand identity in sport: lions, and tigers, and bears oh my. In M. P. Pritchard, & J. L. Stinson (Eds.), Leveraging brands in sport business (pp. 109-122). New York, NY: Routledge.

Gladden, J. (2014). Brand equity. Management and measurement in sport. In M. P. Pritchard, & J. L. Stinson (Eds.), Leveraging brands in sport business (pp. 3-20). New York, NY: Routledge.

Thomas, I. (2017, March 6). How next expansion will change the face of Major League Soccer. SporsBusiness Journal, 19(44). Retrieved from http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com


About Francesco Naccarato, University of San Francisco

Francesco is born and raised in Milan (Italy), where he graduated from the Catholic University with a Bachelor of Economics and Business Management. Following his biggest passion, he had some sport related experience in Italy, including working for the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final. Francesco moved to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in Sport Management at the University of San Francisco. He is currently working as an Event Manager in the Stanford University Athletic Department, and is contactable via LinkedIn.

This is an edited version of a paper Francesco prepared for Professor Michael Goldman‘s Sport Marketing course at the University of San Francisco.

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