Rebranding Leagues Cup, one of soccer’s newest tournaments

This year’s event marked the first time Leo Messi played with his new team, Inter Miami, but his presence wasn’t the only reason for the hype.
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Leagues Cup

· 5 min read

When the Leagues Cup—an annual tournament between the clubs of Major League Soccer in the US and Liga MX in Mexico—started in 2019, it got off to a bumpy start.

For starters, some sports outlets described it as “meaningless,” while others called it a “cash grab” on the part of its organizers. Then Covid hit, and the 2020 event was canceled.

This year, its organizers made some changes in hopes of improving its stature in the world of soccer. The competition now includes all teams across both clubs, and the top three teams qualify for the Concacaf Champions Cup (a qualifying tournament for the FIFA Club World Cup) while receiving prize money—over $40 million in total this year. Both leagues also paused their regular seasons, allowing for multiple games a day.

“Part of the evolution in trying to make this very meaningful was to make it part of the global soccer ecosystem,” Camilo Durana, EVP of Apple partnership, properties, and events at MLS, told Marketing Brew.

But all that work would have been for naught without a marketing plan to make sure fans knew to watch.

The audience

MLS was looking for an agency that understood both MLS and Liga MX audiences, according to Durana, and found it in Industry, a creative consultancy that has done work for brands including Nike, Lego, and Converse.

Co-founder and ECD Oved Valadez was born in Mexico before moving to the US when he was 13, which gives him a unique understanding of the tournament’s target audience, he said.

“There’s this beautiful consumer group in the middle,” Valadez said, explaining that the tournament is primarily trying to reach second-generation Latinos in the US who might prefer to root for an MLS team over a Liga MX one. “No one is really talking to them, and no one’s bringing these worlds together.”

That group of 18- to 25-year-old general soccer fans were the “bullseye” audience for the campaign, according to Valadez. Still, Industry didn’t want to “alienate” the core fanbases of both leagues or potential new fans.

The plan

To target such a wide range of fans while keeping that core demo top of mind, Industry put together a three-part rebranding campaign with the core message “our story begins,” or “nuestra historia comienza” in Spanish, Valadez said.

The manifesto was meant to appeal to all fans, he said, while also being particularly “inviting to this new consumer group” at the center of the campaign. Some of the messaging—slogan included—was written in English, Spanish, and even Spanglish to help convey “the duality of the two leagues,” he said, while also emphasizing unity.

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Phase one started last fall, meant to “tease” the new and improved Leagues Cup, Valadez said, with assets like out-of-home and newspaper ads, as well as a series of videos announcing and explaining the tournament. The messaging in those videos was more keyed to preexisting fans in an effort to relay the new stakes.

Phase two kicked off this January with posters and infographics for teams and players to share, NCAA-inspired brackets, and a second round of OOH ads in Times Square and key cities where matches were set to take place, according to Valadez.

Phase three went down around late spring, Valadez said. It was designed with the “outer circle” audience in mind, he said, aka new fans who might be drawn in by influencer-types helping legitimize the tournament, and consisted of an anthem recorded by American regional Mexican band Fuerza Régida, a partnership with streetwear designer Guillermo Andrade—who designed merch for the tournament and served as its creative advisor—and nods to one very famous player who joined MLS just in time for the Leagues Cup.

Leagues Cup 2023 promo

Leagues Cup

The results

That player is, of course, Lionel Messi, who played his debut game with Inter Miami during the Leagues Cup. “It immediately jump-started the tournament in a way that we didn’t anticipate,” Durana said. Inter Miami ultimately won the tournament, which took place across stadiums in the US and Canada and wrapped up on August 19.

During the Leagues Cup final, “Messi” and “Inter Miami” were in the top five trending topics on X worldwide, and “Leagues Cup” cracked the top 10 during the match, according to MLS. MLS, Leagues Cup, and Inter Miami saw more than 47 million engagements across TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, with all of the top posts featuring Messi.

Valadez said “breaking the internet” was a key goal for Industry. MLS was tracking ticket sales and viewership, Durana said, and was ultimately happy with performance on both fronts.

The tournament drew about 1.3 million fans, with average attendance across matches at over 16,500, according to MLS. It averaged 680,000 viewers across Fox Sports and Univision Networks, with Messi’s debut game becoming the most-watched game featuring an MLS club on linear in Spanish. Durana said he couldn’t share Apple viewership numbers, but described them as “incredibly impressive.”

Ultimately, Durana said MLS was looking to “create a really good foundation” to grow the tournament even more in years to come. He said the league is already getting calls from sponsors who are interested in next year’s tournament after seeing this year’s “incredible momentum.”

“We believe in this tournament enormously,” Durana said.

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