MLS Will Allow Gambling Sponsors for Jerseys and Stadium Rights
Major League Soccer unveiled sweeping changes to its commercial sponsorship guidelines Wednesday that allow its 24 clubs to secure jersey and stadium naming rights sponsorships with sports betting and liquor companies.
The changes, which take effect immediately, put North America’s top professional soccer league far afield of its larger counterparts at the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League when it comes to embracing highly visible partnerships with the gambling industry.
While jersey sponsorships are historically far more common in soccer than other sports, the NBA debuted sponsorship patches on the front of its teams’ uniforms in 2017, and there has been speculation that the NFL, MLB and NHL could follow suit in the coming years.
The new rules also represent a loosening attitude toward liquor sponsors, who were until now prohibited from doing business with MLS clubs in a manner that beer and wine sponsors were not. Like gambling operators, spirits brands can now adorn MLS clubs’ jerseys and also become stadium naming-rights sponsors.
“We want to be viewed as a progressive league, and provide our clubs with an appropriate level of flexibility,” Carter Ladd, the league’s senior vice president of business development, told Fortune. “We don’t want to be restrictive; we want to enable them in a positive way, and that’s why we’re taking this action… We strongly believe this is going to help drive new revenues.”
The revised guidelines do come with restrictions, however. MLS remains sensitive about betting and liquor sponsors marketing to children and young people, and is taking steps to ensure all advertising by such sponsors is directed toward an “age-appropriate audience,” it said. The league will prohibit youth-sized replica jerseys from bearing such sponsors, and will bar them from appearing on the uniforms worn by clubs’ academy and youth players.
MLS will also restrict players under the age of 21 from appearing in any alcohol-related advertising or digital content, and no players are allowed to appear in sports betting-related marketing.
Still, Ladd said the league feels it is “uniquely positioned in the North American sports landscape” to benefit from changing attitudes—particularly toward sports gambling, which he noted has long “been embraced as part of the fabric of the game” in other countries.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year to overturn the federal ban on sports betting, 15 states and the District of Columbia have now authorized the practice in some form, according to the American Gaming Association—and like other leagues, MLS is intent on capitalizing on the fledgling legal sports betting market as both a revenue generator and a fan engagement tool.