Does MLS really promote flashier clubs over less glamorous ones?

Graham Ruthven on 14 March 2018

There are few better in world soccer at marketing its own product than Major League Soccer. North America’s top flight has exploited, to a certain extent, a market many always believed to be there. But while MLS does a good job of selling itself, what duty does it have to sell each individual club in the division?

This was a question prompted by findings published on Twitter this week illustrating the number of times MLS’s official Twitter account has mentioned each and every club in 2018. It showed Los Angeles FC to be the most mentioned MLS team over the past two months, with the Portland Timbers somewhat surprisingly the least mentioned. The New York Red Bulls were the most retweeted, with the New England Revolution the least.

Upon closer examination of the findings, there is a colossal gulf between the number of mentions some teams receive from the league’s official account. LAFC, for instance, received three times as many mentions as Portland between 1 January 1 and 2 March 2018. Combining both posts and retweets, Atlanta United and Toronto FC come out above all else. The Revolution, again, don’t come out so well.

Of course, some of these results come with caveats. LAFC, for instance, are an expansion team, an ambitious one in a major market at that, and so it’s to be expected that MLS would produce and promote a lot of content ahead of their first fixture. But taking these findings as a depiction of a wider strategy, is it fair that some clubs are pushed with more gusto than others?

The question, in this case, carries added pertinence given MLS’s centralized structure. The concept of centralization has always caused some confusion, particularly for those more accustomed to European sport. Some have rather confused, muddled notions of what it really means. They have visions of sporting communism, but, of course, MLS is still very much a capitalist division, even if all player contracts are between player and league rather than player and club. Like most American sporting leagues, the team owners are the ones in control, at least when it comes to the important decisions. Don Garber still answers to them.

Where MLS does differ from the rest of the footballing world is in the way it is covered. The league itself is its own biggest media outlet. While in England and around Europe there are myriad mainstream media outlets committing plenty of coverage to the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga et al, the same eco-system doesn’t yet exist in North America. There are strong pockets of local soccer journalism – and Fox Sports, ESPN and TSN televise live games across Canada and the US – but in terms of day-to-day, in-depth national coverage, there is a lack of media giants.

This is why MLS feels the need to control its own message, to produce its own coverage. is the predominant online destination for soccer fans in North America, with the MLS Live online subscription service the primary way many fans followed the league until this season, when streaming rights were folded into ESPN+. MLS is a league that takes its own marketing seriously, through the Soccer United Marketing arm of the business, and its media strategy, particularly its online media strategy, has been a key part of its growth over the past decade or so.

But this duty that MLS has given itself, as its own media outlet, muddies the responsibility it holds as a league body. As in any sporting division, there are bigger and smaller clubs, and some clubs are more interesting than others. Some attract more attention, more clicks. An independent outlet would, consciously or not, seek to exploit those larger audiences. There’s a reason you read about Manchester United more than West Brom, for instance, but much of MLS coverage isn’t independent, it comes from the league directly, and with this comes a blurring of lines.

The findings published on the league’s Twitter mentions prompted a predictable reaction from some. “Seems like the goal is to make people forget about the Crew to make it easier to move the team to Texas,” tweeted one fan in response, referencing the controversial plan to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, implying MLS’s social media strategy is somehow influenced by a conspiracy straight from central office. Others used the results, inevitably, to bring up the neverending debate about promotion and relegation.

Like fans across the world, MLS supporters think the national association, the commentators, the referees and the rest are biased against their team. In a strange way, this paranoia is a good thing: it shows fans care, so MLS shouldn’t be worried by such accusations. There is no grand conspiracy to screw the Columbus Crew or the Portland Timbers out of Twitter mentions. MLS, at least on social media, doesn’t actively seek to favour one team over the other.

And yet it’s important that North American soccer’s top flight ponders what its true role is as a promoter. Being centralised in the way that it is, MLS is bound by different rules and responsibilities. All leagues promote themselves, but not all leagues couple that promotion with a fully-fledged media outlet. It might not matter, in the grand scheme of things, how many times they mention each member team from their official Twitter account, but has MLS reached the point where the distinction between promotion and coverage must be made?

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