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What MLS marketers can learn from Beyoncé, LeBron, and the NFL

The surprise arrival of soccer’s biggest star presents an
unprecedented opportunity for MLS teams to build long-term growth.


by: Gupta Media

Published on 07.31.2023

Lionel Messi could be in your arena in weeks. If you’re one of the franchises lucky enough to be on the schedule, congrats: Enjoy the sellout! (And let us know if extra tickets become available—we want the seats!) But how do you avoid this Messi Moment becoming just a surprise, one-time windfall? What can you be doing right now to capitalize on this once-in-a-generation “first” and grow not just the sport but your specific brand—even if you don’t have a Miami/Messi match on your schedule until next season? Based on two decades of data from our work with sports and entertainment clients, here’s our four keys to winning the Messi Moment—to sell more tickets, land more sponsorships, and maximize your audience.


1. Your next 10,000 fans might be Messi fans first.

2. What LeBron's exit can teach MLS marketers about Messi's arrival.

3. Winning the Messi moment by re-engaging your fair-weather fans.

4. FOMO is your friend.


There are some moments you just can’t plan for. When they arrive, the right partner can make all the difference. The arrival of Messi to Miami is about to ignite an organic attention storm unlike anything MLS has seen in decades—the sport’s biggest global star is arriving with an even greater presence and a larger addressable market than the arrival of David Beckham to the LA Galaxy in 2007. And that star-power dynamic means that at this moment, the best marketing tactics may look less like what MLS teams typically execute in-season—and more like what arenas and promoters plan around superstar concerts and tours.

That doesn’t mean you need to break the bank. Even for MLS teams on a fixed budget, there are ways to prioritize your marketing spend without losing out on this historic moment. Because the keys to winning the Messi Moment are all about building your audience for the long haul.

Your Next 10,000 Fans Might Be Messi Fans First.

On the pitch, MLS teams face off against some of the greatest talent in the sport. Off the pitch, the competition is even hotter—teams are competing for attention against professional franchises in leagues with greater reach and more established footprints. That’s why breakthrough moments matter. The Messi Moment means there’s a new generation of fans who are about to experience your brand for the very first time. When that moment comes, the smart way for MLS teams to approach net-new growth is to make your top-of funnel marketing dollars work harder and smarter—by ensuring you’re not spending money to engage the fans you’re already reaching through your organic channels. But you also don’t want to miss out on the deluge of new social media followers you could be adding this year.

In the week following Messi's announcement Inter Miami added 3.8 million Instagram followers, rocketing past the top teams in the MLS.

And then they kept going—by mid-June, 2023, they’d surpassed every team in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey league, and the National Football League. At 8 million IG followers and still climbing, Inter Miami has passed nearly every American sports team that is not the Golden State Warriors, the L.A. Lakers, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This puts Miami on track to match the social-media gains experienced by Messi’s previous club, Paris Saint-Germain F.C., which added 15 million new IG followers after it signed Messi in 2021; today, PSG is one of the top-10 most-followed sports brands on Instagram in the world.

With MLS clients—including, from our current client roster, the LA Galaxy—we usually recommend a full-funnel approach to digital marketing. At the top of the funnel we’re typically targeting a broad swath of potential fans—lookalikes to the current fan base, people with an interest in MLS, soccer fans, fans of the top European leagues, fans of the world’s most famous soccer players. As with any TOFU audience, we’re not looking for them to make a purchase—we’re simply hoping to entice them to click through and move further down the funnel.

But we also realize that some of the fans in these TOFU audiences are already engaging with MLS teams through organic channels. It’s a challenge that’s not unique to sports teams—many of our clients in the entertainment industry have millions of followers across their various social accounts, not to mention lists of fans who’ve bought a concert ticket, an album, or a t-shirt. The last thing any brand wants to do is to spend thousands of dollars on top-of-the-funnel marketing, only to reach fans who are already engaged with your content on a daily or weekly basis.

That’s why we use tactics developed through our work with the world’s top music and entertainment clients, category-defining consumer brands from Amazon Music to Fender Guitars, and sports innovators ranging from the Women’s Tennis Association to FanDuel.

We call it the “Donut Strategy,” and it’s tasty.

In the below example, we exclude core fans—the donut hole—while addressing the net-new audiences surrounding them:

Winning the Messi Moment
Winning the Messi Moment-1

What LeBron's Exit Can Teach MLS Marketers About Messi's Arrival.

Selling tickets to see the best player in the sport? That’s a layup. Selling tickets when you’ve just lost the greatest player in the sport? Now that’s a mission:impossible marketing moment.

When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cavs turned to us to figure out how to keep their seats filled. There were no shortcuts: To win back the audience, we needed to implement brand-new tools and tactics—and what we learned during those campaigns can supercharge your team, too. Here are our top three takeaways: 

Take high-percentage shots. In today’s advertising world, you shouldn’t have to take bad shots. We worked with the Cavaliers to identify key audiences on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the greatest likelihood of driving ticket purchases. We used first-party data, past-purchaser information, and in-platform targeting tools to map out a buying strategy, then turned to our proprietary analytics platform, Report(SE), for real-time, hour-by-hour conversion data to test our assumptions. On each platform, we tracked which ads and targets drove the most revenue from ticket sales. Each day we evaluated performance at the audience level and increased our investment in high-yield areas.

The results? Our ads for the Cavs delivered over 250% ROI, and nearly 100% of attributed ticket sales came from these high-value audiences.

Stay Ahead of the Game. Digital advertising is a constantly evolving industry, and new ad types often provide innovative solutions for marketers with a specific need. When the Cavs were looking to capitalize on a fast-break opportunity—their Black Friday/Cyber Monday ticket-sales push—we used Google’s Promotion Extensions and Facebook’s Offer Ads to break through the noise. Why? Because those ad types were specifically designed to emphasize offers and create a sense of urgency.

The result? Our Facebook offer ads delivered over 700% ROI and our search ads delivered over 300% ROI.

Make the Most of Premiere Matchups. And here’s where the Messi Moment comes in. Every fan wants to be at the game of the year—and for many fans, Inter Miami will now be circled on the calendar. The question is: How do you extend the excitement around Messi to drive further growth? For the Cavs, we created a
series of carousel ads that mentioned their opponents—highlighting not just one big game but several premiere matchups. (We saw 58% of conversions across Facebook and Instagram coming through these highly effective ads with over 650% ROI.) If you’re thinking about ways to incentivize additional purchases around a Messi match, consider building deals and sweepstakes offers that include multiple-game packages.

Winning the Messi Moment by Re-engaging Your Fair-weather Fans. 

This moment is tailor-made for making smart gains among a group that’s hardest to engage—your lapsed fans.

If you’re like many top sports franchises, you’ve built an impressive follower count on social media—but still struggle to reach your fan base with your everyday posts. With organic reach falling year over year, many teams are struggling to turn their organic followers into ticket sales—you might have millions of Facebook fans, but none of them know you have a home game coming up next week. As a result, teams spend a lot of time, effort, and a big chunk of your marketing money at the bottom of the funnel—the email list, past purchasers, previous season ticket holders, premium members—grinding out transactional wins to hit your ROAS goals.

But there’s never been a better time to re-engage with your lapsed fans. Sports, after all, is a unique industry—and fans end up in a range along a spectrum. In MLS, you’ve got the benefit of your fan clubs and hardcore base—no other American sport has the same passion. But teams also rely on fans who are a little more removed. The ones who drift away if the team goes on a losing streak. The passive fans who keep up with the standings but feel it’s not worth going to a game. MLS marketers might have a dashboard full of them: Fans who bought a ticket but haven’t engaged in over a year. Or maybe they engaged last year but not in the past 30 days.

In a normal season, you’d write them off as fair-weather fans. But with a Messi moment, there’s suddenly a chance to surprise and delight those lapsed fans with all the improvements you’ve made since the last time they saw your live experience up close. With our MLS clients, we’ve seen a lot of sales by targeting the lapsed fans with mid-funnel tactics: Focusing on specific players and matchups, or surfacing family-friendly deals and packs.

Now you’ve got the ultimate lapsed-fan revival play: The world’s greatest player, for one night only. The right creative and messaging—and a can’t miss offer—might make all the difference.


FOMO is Your Friend.

The thing about the Messi moment—it’s fleeting. If and when Messi comes to your town, there’s going to be a massive wave of earned media, an orgy of organic engagement … and then the circus will leave town. So how do you maximize your momentum coming out of that extravaganza? What have other franchises done to capitalize on a surprise, once-in-a-lifetime moment?

In early 2022, the National Football League team now known as the Washington Commanders came to us with a highly confidential brand strategy that needed to be executed with equal parts urgency and secrecy. The spectacle of their rebrand was scheduled to be unveiled the morning of February 2, 2022, with star players from the team revealing the new name and branding live on NBCs TODAY show. In the minutes leading up to that moment, all newly branded marketing materials were under lock and key. In the minutes following that moment, millions of ad impressions from our campaign had already started flooding the DC metro area. We needed to dominate the news cycle, to ensure every “water cooler” conversation was about the Commanders that day. We needed to be everywhere at once, and we didn’t have a single minute to waste.

We employed a variety of media tactics to ensure that we reached every fan in an impactful and engaging way. Digital trucks and wild postings grabbed their attention on the streets of DC, Maryland, and Virginia, while premium Connected TV inventory on Hulu reached sports fans in the Commanders’ top-selling zip codes. Programmatic display and video reached NFL fans across a curated list of premium sites, such as and Social media ads tapped into the conversation. The moment that the Washington Commanders were introduced to the world, Twitter Branded Notification ads delivered time-triggered tweets directly to opted-in users, and Google and Microsoft Search ads captured the sudden and fervent interest in the new name.

But that was just the beginning. We wanted to leverage the fan base’s passionate yet transient interest in the brand-reveal to increase sales revenue for the following season.

One answer ended up being a completely outside-the-box solution: A B2B tactic aimed at a B2C audience. In tandem with the Commanders reveal, we launched a highly successful lead generation campaign that built off the momentum of the rebrand.

The result? We delivered thousands of highly qualified leads to the Commanders sales team, giving them a running start for the year to come.

Playing the Long Game

Our current work includes major-market MLS team campaigns on everything from ticketing campaigns to membership sales and fan acquisition. What we’ve found is that MLS marketing and pop music have a lot in common—and even more to teach each other. The tools we’ve built to promote hit singles, genre-defying albums, and sellout concert tours for everyone from Lady Gaga to SZA have also proven adept at helping sports franchises identify, nurture, and retarget the audiences most likely to become long-term, ticket-buying fans.

Some of the same tactics we used when Beyoncé wanted to release a secret album were also relevant to helping the Washington Football Team unveil its new branding as the Washington Commanders. Over two decades, we’ve built proprietary technology that tracks the trillions (with a t) of ad impressions we’ve served for our clients across over a dozen digital platforms from IG, FB, TikTok and YouTube to Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Spotify, giving us unparalleled insight into audiences on a moment-by-moment basis. As performance marketers, we specialize in mission:impossible marketing — using data science and machine learning to unlock marketing magic at scale, and doing it under unimaginable deadlines.

Winning the Messi moment will take innovation, expertise, analytics, flexibility, and creativity. But there will always be new questions. When the Messi matchup arrives on your calendar, how will you prioritize the overflow of old fans, new fans, and want-to-be fans competing to see the world’s greatest player in person? Which persona groups should you be targeting, and what’s the right “football move” to incentivize in exchange for a shot at your most-valuable asset? What should you measure to make sure you’re making the right choices? 

The answers will be different for each team, because no two audiences are alike. For many teams in MLS, the Messi Moment will be an opportunity to reach fans in multiple languages, situated at many stops along the fan’s journey. But that moment won’t last forever: Messi was with PSG for just two years—and the one thing we know about his tenure at Inter Miami is that there’s always a bigger deal on the table, just waiting for the next opportunity. 

The only way to lose, right now, is not to play the game.   

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