The evolution of the MLS ad
Like everything in MLS, the advertising has evolved. History has shown us that past MLS advertisements have been cringe-worthy. Since then, MLS commercials have greatly improved. As America has grown more comfortable with the sport, as cultural styles and tastes have changed, the advertising of MLS has also grown up.
When a week or so ago it was written that Don Garber took less money from NBC than he was offered by Fox Soccer, no one complained. A big part of this is how NBC/NBC Sports is handling the advertisements for –and featuring– MLS. The changing of how the league is sold to the public has given everyone hope for not just the league but also the sport as a whole.
From the early horrific, to the cult-like middle group, to the modern classics, MLS advertisements have almost turned into an art form.
1997 You’re Already a Fan, You Just Don’t Know It
In 1997, ESPN was trying –just one season after MLS’s debut– to improve MLS’s abysmal ratings. The way they approached it was, at the time, very innovative. The idea was to compare soccer to America’s three preeminent sports (basketball, baseball, and throwball). As an early advertisement, they were very good. However, the main idea here was trying to sell Americans on the idea of soccer being just like every other sport, which as we all know it isn’t. (The Free Beer Movement has a collection of these commercials located here).
1998 What Rhymes with Cienfuegos?
This is actually the first MLS advertisement that I actually remember seeing on ESPN2. At the time, for whatever reason, people were feeling very nostalgic for Run DMC. Here we have Reverend Run sitting around with a group of MLS players cyphering, before coming to Mauricio Cienfuegos. This commercial, while relatively funny and featuring –as non-intentional as it may be– a celebrity endorsement from an over-the-hill rapper, was not advertising the game nor the league. Instead it was the idea the MLS was cool, and by proxy you too could be cool by watching it.
1999 Soccer It’s Your Game
Perhaps learning from the mistakes of the 1998 “What Rhymes with Cienfuegos?” commercial, ESPN chose to focus on the actual game. A generic early 90s styled pop-music instrumental was placed over some highlights, along with an announcer letting the viewing public know that “Soccer it’s your game!” In actuality, this is a predecessor to the first MLS on NBC trailer. The difference: low quality production value, right down to the aforementioned generic early 90s styled pop-music instrumental. Here, ESPN gets the commercial idea correct, it is just in the production value that they fail.
2007 Who Says…
Skipping a head 8 years –mostly because I could not find a single MLS commercial from 2000-2006 on youtube, vimeo, or dailymotion– there is a continued evolution of the soccer promo. The earliest ads, which were appealing to uninitiated soccer fans, were being replaced by advertisements looking to convert those who already like soccer. And while the ad made some silly claims (Freddy Adu’s a World-Class player? Really?) they were doing their best to win over some, alleged, Eurosnobs. Still, these commercials took a page from David Stern’s very successful NBA promos and were not about the game, and they made the players the stars. They took a page from the Olympics and made it nationalistic. It is a decent shot, though it does come off slightly pleading. The series, entitled “Who Says…”, could just as easily been called “Hey, We’re Pretty Good Too.”
2008 Football. Futbol. Soccer.
You have to give MLS credit, once they stepped in to produce their own ads the quality improved ten-fold. This ad, like the previous “Who Says…”, focuses mostly on the supporters. There are no moving images of the game, but rather still pictures morphing into other pictures and words. It is a very good promo for the league, without actually showing anything for the league. I would go as far as saying that MLS started setting the bar for the upcoming “MLS on NBC” promos, NBC just took the production values to a higher level.
2010 It Only Takes 90 Minutes
This advertisement was shown a few times on ESPN. Unlike many previous ads, it was also produced by MLS not ESPN. It was, even more than the “MLS on NBC” commercial, my favorite MLS advertisement ever. It sells the game perfectly by including heartbreak, agony, success, defeat, victory, supporters, game footage. The quality of the production is, in my opinion, the best that I have seen in an MLS commercial. Like the previous two ads, it raised the bar for NBC. The biggest issue with the commercial, however, is how it was handled. Shown only during ESPN’s “MLS Game of the Week” and once in awhile during a World Cup game. In fact, the biggest success of the next ad in our timeline is that it has already been used to cross pollinate the league with other sports.
2011 MLS on NBC
Truthfully, there is nothing in this promo that was not already done in ESPN’s “Soccer It’s Your Game” or “Who Says…” ads. There are the pictures of some real quality moments, a generic pop beat, pictures of supporters, and an overabundance of bigger named players. The major differences were (1) the overall production value and (2) the placement of the ad. This commercial was played during NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and it did not beg for throwball fans to accept soccer. Instead, it let the game speak for itself. The game was the tool used to market MLS.
2011 We’re Getting Ready
Lost in all the hullabaloo over the latest MLS advertisement for NBC Sports is the fact that it is not an MLS commercial. This, in and of itself, is a bigger deal than the nature of the ad. This is the first commercial that is using MLS –there are also NHL and MMA commercials produced by NBC Sports that do the same– to advertise an entire network. Here we see Todd Dunivant, Sean Franklin, and Mike Magee juggling advertising the new NBC Sports Network. This is NOT NBC selling MLS, instead, it is MLS selling NBC Sports. It is, by far, the highest quality ad I’ve seen so far. And it is why everyone is excited for what NBC Sports and MLS might be able to accomplish together.
And for kicks and giggles, Bonus: 1996 John Harkes, the Predator
It’s an advertisement for Adidas’s Predator, it is not really about MLS, but it speaks for itself in its sheer mid-nineties awesomeness.