2023 Soccer Marketing Stories to Watch

February 2, 2023

There’s no better way to kick off the year than by discussing some of the soccer marketing stories we’re most excited to keep tabs on as the year progresses. From the FIFA Women’s World Cup to Gerard Pique’s Kings League, there’s no shortage of storylines to follow this year.

It’s a FIFA Women’s World Cup year!

Let’s start with the largest international tournament of the year. The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, held in Australia and New Zealand, is the ninth all-time tournament to crown the best women’s national team in the world. On the field, the FIFA Women’s World Cup will feature, for the first time ever, 32 teams and 64 total games. The U.S. Women’s National Team will look to become the first-ever national team – men’s or women’s – to win three consecutive titles.

What we’re watching

Off the field, we’ll be watching what sponsors get involved with the tournament. FIFA partners adidas, Coca-Cola, and Wanda are sure to be heavily involved, as will New Zealand-based tech company, Xero, and global IT and software development company, Globant. As we progress through the next few months it’ll be interesting to see how U.S.-based brands look to engage fans, leveraging the popularity of household player names like Alex Morgan and rising stars like Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith, and Trinity Rodman.

U.S. Soccer & Warner Media begin partnership

This story is already underway, as both HBO Max and TNT have broadcast U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team games. What have we seen, thus far? Warner Bros. Discovery Sports unveiled the list of talent, which includes veteran MLS play-by-play commentator Luke Wileman, former ESPN studio host Sara Walsh, and a host of former Men’s and Women’s players in DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Martino, Julie Foudy, and Shannon Boxx.

In broadcasts to date, we’ve begun to see how Warner Bros. will approach coverage. One particular advantage for games streamed on HBO Max that we’re particularly intrigued by is the absence of live content or other shows that precede or follow a U.S. Soccer game, meaning pre- and post-game shows won’t be rushed or trimmed for time.

What we’re watching

As Warner Bros. grows into their rights deal, it will be interesting to see how they look to bring more attention to their U.S. Soccer property. Here are five things we’d love to see:

  1. Inside the NBA-type show featuring former MNT and WNT players
  2. Hard Knocks-style, behind-the-scenes documentary for the FIFA Womens’ World Cup
  3. Bleacher Report cartoons that appeal to the more general sports fans
  4. A travel show on CNN that showcases players’ lives abroad, Concacaf nations, etc.
  5. Cartoon crossovers on Cartoon Network to build the next generation of fandom

Like these ideas? Read more for additional insights.

MLS & Apple TV+ begin partnership

From a broadcast perspective, this is undoubtedly the biggest story of 2023. The MLS partnership with Apple TV+ will soon kick off in full vigor, eschewing the traditional sports broadcast structure experienced among the most popular sports leagues in North America. Gone are local broadcasts, multiple English-language national networks, and a Spanish-language national network and in their place is a paid streaming service in partnership with Apple that features no blackouts, English and Spanish-language coverage, as well as select games to be broadcast by FOX Sports.

This approach is certainly a gamble by the league as it makes viewing by casual fans more difficult, but a 10-year, $2.5 billion commitment from an innovative company like Apple looking to make waves in sports coverage is hard to turn down. For more details on MLS Season Pass, here’s a rundown provided by the league.

What we’re watching

While we anticipate it will take some time for Apple and Major League Soccer’s coverage to hit its stride, we’re excited by the prospects of what’s to come on MLS Season Pass. A ‘whiparound’ show in the vein of NFL RedZone, a requirement of in-depth digital media coverage by all teams, a solid still-developing roster of known English- and Spanish-language broadcast and studio talent are all things that have us giddy about the future of Apple’s MLS coverage – which, by the way, will be accessible in more than 100 countries.

On Saturday, February 18, MLS and Apple completed a three-game test run, a week ahead of the league’s kickoff. We tuned in and liked what we saw. While there are things to work out ahead of the official debut, fans should certainly be excited by, among other things, the picture quality and the attention paid to pre- and post-game coverage.

The question still remains, however, how the league will attract new fans and bring them into the fold. Upon the digital platform’s launch we learned six games per week will be available outside of MLS Season Pass, meaning more of the general audience will be able to access, sans paywall, during the first season of the partnership. But will that be enough? We’re also excited to see how Apple looks to drive consumers already in their ecosystem toward the MLS product.

Leagues Cup expansion is here!

In 2019, Leagues Cup debuted and featured four teams from MLS and four teams from Liga MX squaring off in a single-elimination tournament. Fast forward four years and Leagues Cup features all teams from MLS and Liga MX in a 47-team, 77-game, World Cup-style tournament in July and August. In the U.S., Leagues Cup will be broadcast by FOX Spots and TelevisaUnivision (Univision, UNIMÁS, TUDN), as announced by MLS at the end of 2022.

While it adds to the growing list of competitions outside of league play in which MLS and Liga MX teams participate, the schedule congestion is maybe worth it in a true rising tide lifts all boats competition.

What we’re watching

The competition’s expansion was inevitable as the cooperation between leagues continues with each looking to raise their global profile ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup. We’re excited to see how Leagues Cup grows the brands and popularity of both leagues and all teams in 2023 and beyond.

Will Leagues Cup attract the casual soccer fan? It may, but even if it doesn’t, at the very least the competition helps build familiarity and brand growth among fans in the region. The majority of MLS fans are likely to know popular clubs like Chivas and Club America and perhaps Concacaf Champions League stalwarts like Monterrey, Tigres, Pumas, and Santos Laguna. 

Conversely, many Liga MX fans undoubtedly know the LA Galaxy, LAFC, and a handful of other teams which have featured Mexican players or made deep runs in Concacaf Champions League. A competition featuring all teams helps build fan synergy and ultimately awareness – something that will make both leagues and their fans excited.

Other things to keep your eye on in 2023

NWSL TV rights

In 2020, NWSL signed a three-year deal with CBS that has seen the league feature on CBS, CBS Sports Network, and Paramount+. While the partnership has led to increased viewership, the renewal phase between the two entities has expired, meaning other interested broadcasters can bid on the NWSL rights for 2024 and beyond.

With Apple’s big venture into soccer through MLS, does the addition of NWSL as a property make sense? Until there’s empirical evidence from the first few months of MLS Season Pass, that question is hard to answer.

Expansion continues

In MLS, St. Louis CITY SC makes its debut. St. Louis is a great soccer market with a long soccer history, so we’re excited to see how fans respond and support their team. As we look beyond the 2023 season, will any additional expansion announcements be made? San Diego? Las Vegas? All have been rumored as a potential landing spot for the 30th MLS franchise.

Ahead of the 2023 season, Wall Street Journal learned of NWSL’s plans to announce three expansion markets, each with a record-setting $50 million expansion fee. The return of a team in Utah and Boston, as well as a first-ever Bay Area franchise will put the NWSL at 15 total teams as early as 2024. We’ll be monitoring the ownership groups and the evolution of each team’s go-to-market strategy throughout the year.

In MLS NEXT Pro, seven new teams will participate in the 2023 season. Atlanta United 2, LA Galaxy II, and New York Red Bulls II join from the USL Championship, while Austin FC II, Crown Legacy FC, Huntsville City FC, and LAFC 2 will kick a ball for the first time.

In USL, there are no new teams in the Championship, however, new in League One are expansion Lexington SC, as well as One Knoxville SC who joins from League Two.

Ownership changes

We’ve seen an influx of American owners making investments in foreign clubs and we don’t anticipate that will slow down, especially as the valuation of MLS franchises continues to rise and outpace many clubs in Europe. Just look at the Premier League as an example. Americans have joint or outright ownership in 10, yes, half, of the 20 teams at time of publishing during the 2022-23 season, including Arsenal, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United, and West Ham.

With both Manchester United and Liverpool – two of the biggest club soccer brands globally – rumored to be up for sale, it will be interesting to see how those talks progress and what names or groups emerge on the heels of American investor Todd Boehly’s $3.2 billion purchase of Chelsea in 2022.

In domestic soccer, we’ve also seen athletes and celebrities get involved in local ownership groups. Angel City FC, Austin FC, Inter Miami, and LAFC have grabbed the headlines, but the likes of Eli Manning (Gotham FC) and Yo Gotti (D.C. United) have also gotten involved.

We’re likely to see many more Americans invest in soccer both domestically and internationally in 2023.

Copa America 2024

It was recently announced Concacaf and CONMEBOL will enter into an agreement that sees the two governing bodies collaborate in a series of tournaments, the highlight of which is Copa America to be held in the U.S. in 2024. Additionally, the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup will feature four guest nations from CONMEBOL and a new men’s club competition featuring the best teams from both regions.

You can read more details about the partnership here, but what we’re most intrigued to see unfold in 2023 is which stadiums will play host to Copa America. Will it be a test run for 2026 FIFA World Cup hosts? Will markets not participating in 2026 play host instead to spread the wealth?

2026 FIFA World Cup hosts

Speaking of the tournament, we also anticipate the hosts will be announced for the FIFA World Cup Final and Semi-final rounds. If rumors are to be believed, New York or Dallas seem to have the inside track for the Final.

EA SPORTS FC 24 debuts

One of the interesting stories from last year was the dissolution of the relationship between EA SPORTS and FIFA. No longer will FIFA’s name be attached to the very popular gaming series thanks to a disagreement between parties over the cost of licensing.

The 2024 edition of EA SPORTS’ premier soccer game will be called EA SPORTS FC 24 and will continue to feature many of the world’s most recognizable teams and leagues thanks to individual deals EA SPORTS struck with clubs. Will the game be any different without FIFA’s involvement? We’ll find out in 2023 Q3!

Players continue expansion of owned media ventures

With the rise of platforms like Twitch where streaming connects you directly with fans, many athletes have found new audiences. Look no further than now-retired player Sergio Aguero whose Twitch channel regularly features him engaging with his over 4.5 million followers.

In late 2022, Gerard Pique announced the formation of Kings League – a seven-a-side league with unique rules like old school NASL / MLS penalties and drawing of cards that gives teams different abilities throughout the game. The Twitch channel has already amassed roughly 2 million followers and features not only games, but conversations with league personalities and other current and former players. The competitions Final Four event will be held at FC Barcelona’s Spotify Nou Camp stadium in late-March and over 40,000 tickets have already been sold.

In 2023 we expect many players to continue building their personal brand and owning their own narrative through podcasts, Twitch streaming, YouTube channels, etc.

Social media evolution

We’ll end our thoughts on 2023 with three rhetorical questions:

  • Will Twitter’s unpredictability lead to new ways in which we use the product?
  • Will the U.S. government step in and ban TikTok out of privacy concerns?
  • Will Meta find a way to bring more users into the Metaverse?

With social media at the center of how teams, leagues, players, and fans all engage, it will be interesting to see if these questions are answered in 2023.