Major League Soccer signed a four-year sponsorship with Coca-Cola Co. making it the official non-alcoholic beverage of the league and U.S. Soccer.
MLS had been with PepsiCo Inc. since its inception in 1996. The league has doubled in size since then, and attendance has risen to an record high. The Pepsi contract expired in December and Coke won the bid through Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s commercial arm, which also represents U.S. Soccer and the Mexican national team’s American games.
“Why now? I think ’Why not before?’ would be an equally appropriate question,” Ivan Pollard, Senior Vice President of Investment, Connections and Assets for Coca-Cola North Americas, said in a telephone interview. “The sport’s had a real burgeoning growth, and the domestic game and national teams are really attracting young fans.”
Coke’s sponsorship starts this week with the sold out April 15 exhibition between Mexico and the U.S. in San Antonio. The Atlanta-based beverage company will continue to work with the Mexican team, which it has sponsored for more than 30 years.
The deal allows Coke the use of in-stadium signs, MLS and U.S. Soccer marks and player appearances at hospitality events. The company will also use all three properties as part of its original media content, Pollard said.
Coke and Pepsi, the two largest beverage-makers in the world, are competing for sports properties. Coke has deals with the National Basketball Association and international soccer’s governing body, known as FIFA; Pepsi has agreements with the National Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.
Coke started working with FIFA in 1974 and sponsors events from the World Cup, the most-watched international sporting event, to grassroots local events and individual deals with players such as U.S. women’s forward Alex Morgan. Their advertising around the 2014 men’s World Cup in Brazil was the largest marketing campaign in company history.
MLS, U.S. Soccer and the Mexican national team will benefit from uniting their brands with Coke’s other soccer properties, said Soccer United President Kathy Carter.
“In some respects they invented, from a global perspective, football sponsorship,” Carter said in a telephone interview. “They’ve been a critical component to how fans experience the game for decades.”
MLS’s 20th season started last month with 20 teams, and its 19,147 average attendance in 2014 was an all-time high. The league will add four more teams by 2020, and Commissioner Don Garber has said he wants MLS to be one of the world’s elite leagues by 2022.
This is MLS’s fourth major new sponsorship in the past two months. It signed Johnson & Johnson’s consumer division as its official health-care sponsor, Audi as its official automotive partner and Mondelez International Inc. as its official snack.