Inside MLS’ Digital Strategy and the Impact Zlatan Has Had

The league has benefitted from doubling down on video and the presence of Zlatan.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the type of player that comes around once in a generation. From his ability on the pitch to his flair off of it, Ibrahimovic talks the talk and walks the walk.

So, when Ibrahimovic announced he was joining the LA Galaxy, Major League Soccer knew they had the chance to utilize his star power to continue to help shine the light on what has become one of the fastest growing leagues in North America.

“With Zlatan joining the Galaxy, we didn’t change our strategy,” said Greg Lalas, Vice President of Content at Major League Soccer. “It became more of a question of how you take a personality like Zlatan, who obviously has huge numbers from a reach standpoint, and fold that into your strategy.”

“Zlatan is like a turbo boost for social media.” – Greg Lalas, VP of Content at MLS

When it came to folding Zlatan’s personality into their strategy, Lalas and his team at MLS turned to finding ways to take Zlatan’s personality and leveraging it so it was worthwhile for everyone involved.

“Because he has such a marketable personality, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we double down on getting that personality into the world in a way that is going to be worthwhile for everyone involved?'”

The most important entity involved is the club, Lalas says. His team worked in collaboration with the Galaxy when it came time for the club to announce Ibrahimovic’s signing.

“It was all in collaboration. Everything you saw when it was announced, the lion video etc, we were in lockstep with them,” said Lalas. “We pride ourselves in having a good relationship with the clubs. We feel like we are a family and we are all working towards the same thing, which is to grow this game and make this league into a league of choice for players and fans.”

Then came Zlatan’s two goals in the LA Derby, a moment that Lalas and his team knew was possible, but weren’t exactly expecting.

“For us, when it happened, when he scored that goal, the best indication was that in the moment, right after the goal, one of the people on our social team sent an email to me saying, ‘My TweetDeck just crashed because of the number of retweets that were happening on that goal.'”

TweetDeck crashing was just the start for the MLS content team. As the clock ticked and the numbers piled up, Lalas knew they had captured lightning in a bottle.

“That goal was our best performing post on Twitter and Instagram of all time and the numbers around Zlatan are kind of staggering just in general,” said Lalas. “This year for example, if you look at all of the Instagram posts from the league, the top 57 posts either feature or are about Zlatan. The week he debuted with the Galaxy, their Instagram following grew by 21%.”

As the initial reaction from the moment settled down, the content team at MLS got to work trying to extend the moment, something that Lalas sees as vital when it comes to making sure you get the most out of an opportunity like this.

“There is no such thing as too much Zlatan just because he has that type of personality that wants to break through. It’s infectious.” – Greg Lalas, VP of Content at MLS

“Any time you have a moment like this, we try to extend the story as much as possible,” added Lalas. “We did capture lightning in a bottle, and we recognized that it had a longer tail and that we needed to use that to our best advantage.”

Lalas continued saying, “Some of the things we did is recognize that not everybody in the soccer world knew that it had happened in the moment. That day, you are doing whatever you can to put it front and center of your audience and your fans and trying to cultivate conversation around what this moment means.”

So, what do the numbers around Zlatan actually look like? Buckle up.


#1 performing tweet (based on Interactions) across all clubs for the season


– LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) March 23, 2018

#2 performing tweet across all clubs

Let. Him. EAT. #ZLATAN

– LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) March 31, 2018

– This season, the top 57 posts (based on actions) from club Instagram accounts are about or feature Zlatan (all @LAGalaxy).

– The Galaxy have more followers than most other clubs. So if we do it by “overperforming” posts, the top 16 Instagram posts this season are all from LA Galaxy about Zlatan.

– The week Ibra made his debut, @LAGalaxy IG grew 21.08%.

– Facebook – top 2 posts across all clubs this season are LA Galaxy about Zlatan.


– Top 6 tweets of the season (based on interactions) have been related to Zlatan

– 2 of the rest of the top 10 are from his debut game (but not about him)

– Saw 4.28% IG follower growth the week of Zlatan’s debut

– The highlight of his first goal is MLS’ best-performing post of all-time on TW and IG and second-best on FB (after Women’s World Cup).

– Zlatan-related content makes up MLS’ top three TW posts and top 10 IG posts of all-time.

Outside of Zlatan, MLS has turned to a community-first approach driven by staff that are fans of the game, who understand the nuances behind it and the community that surrounds it to drive their social strategy.

“I think it starts with recognizing that everyone on our staff are fans first,” said Lalas “We recognize that our community is unique. We want to make sure that we are a part of that community and respectful of what that community is on its own.”

“We don’t just want to be a corporate voice. We want to let people know that we are empathetic and sympathetic to what is happening.” – Greg Lalas, VP of Content at MLS

In planning for the new year, Lalas and his team laid out a few goals. Most notably, being as visual as possible and beefing up their video capabilities.

“One of the things we have done this year is to be as visual as possible. I think we have made some really great strides forward in terms of the custom animation we are doing, our graphics have really improved, and we have embraced being visual storytellers.”

Having a studio dedicated to producing video content has helped as well, especially when it comes to content leading into and out of matches.

“From a strategy standpoint, we have beefed up our video capabilities. We launched a studio the end of last year and have been hammering home video content, especially on match night.”

But, at the end of the day, what is a good social strategy without a good distribution strategy?

“We are expanding our abilities and our content for distribution. We are looking into more and more channels,” added Lalas. “From the content side, I’m looking at how we are optimizing everything for distribution.”

When it comes to weaving corporate partners into their content, Lalas is proud of the fact that they have been able to do it organically, thanks in part to the understanding and support of the partners they work with.

“We want to deliver for our partners, but we also want to stay true to the story that is actually in the content itself. We are extremely lucky that our partners are cognizant that authenticity is super important. They are certainly interested in social and digital, but they want to ensure it is authentic and credible. When that happens, you will achieve the engagement you are seeking.”

“Our social strategy is just part of our content strategy overall. What we are doing on those channels has to mesh with what we are doing across all of our channels in terms of tone, voice, and sense of respect.” – Greg Lalas, VP of Content at MLS

Off the pitch, the content team at MLS likes to focus on the culture around the game and highlighting moments that will stick with fans longer than who won and lost.

Doing this naturally takes a group of individuals not only producing and amplifying good content, but realizing what it means to be a fan of an MLS team.

“The culture of our game is so unique. We try to reflect it and be a part of it as much as possible,” added Lalas. “From a content standpoint, we are always trying to make sure that those rituals are showcased and celebrated.”

It’s not the worst job in the world when a player like Zlatan lands on your feeds, but it takes more than one player to drive interest in a league. Thanks to Lalas and his team, @MLS handles are in good hands.

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at

America’s Pastime sure has stepped into the future, as Major League Baseball has transitioned to an entirely digital and social system to conduct its annual MLB All-Star Game voting. The process, which typically begins toward the end of May and early June, has long allowed baseball fans to select their favorite players to be featured in the American League and National League teams’ starting lineups for the Midsummer Classic.

Most longtime baseball fans will look back at this transformation as yet another startling sign of how much the sports business has changed.

Not too long ago, the league would send actual paper ballots to all 30 ballparks – with the corresponding little “golf pencils” old-timers use to fill out their scorebooks – and fans would have to vote for their favorite all-star players by hand. You’d pick up a ballot (or several handfuls) before the game, between innings, and check the box beside the big leaguer at each position that you wanted to see compete in the big event.

Interestingly, this system of fan voting has not always been the case. In 1957, there was a bit of a ballot-stuffing scandal involving the Cincinnati Reds, which forced then-Commissioner Ford Frick step in to correct – and as a response, eliminated fan voting. The entire system was put on the players, managers, and coaches in the league.

After the league noticed a lack of fan interest in the following years, the MLB Promotion Corporation decided to reinstitute the fan balloting in 1970 as a way to “modernize the marketing of baseball.” Giving fans input was thought to be a big driver in restoring the popularity of the game.

The “modernization of marketing in baseball,” and for the game has certainly not stopped there. Toward the end of the ’90s, baseball entered the “Digital Age,” giving fans a new option to vote online. Ballots were still sent out to the stadiums and widely available for all gameday fans, giving voters the option between “paper or plastic” (i.e. hand-ballot vs computer).

As an article in ESPN pointed out, “this combination of online ballots and a growing social media presence will change how teams interact with fans during the All-Star period,” and, boy, were they right.

MLB’s introduction of the “Final Vote,” concept in 2002 really paved the way for the change. The initiative gives fans the opportunity to select one final player to make the All-Star Team based on who did best in the voting, yet just missed making the starting squad after votes were tallied and official rosters were announced.

Shifting to an entirely digital ballot revolutionized the entire system and radically altered how the league, teams, and its players are able to promote themselves and everything surrounding the annual All-Star Game. Online voting and the corresponding introduction of online “campaigns” via social media have opened up an entirely new world, giving the league and its partners instant access to – and the ability to interact with – a passionate, eager baseball fan base.

Teams and players now have the opportunity to fully engage with their “constituencies” via social media with up-to-the-minute campaigns. This social engagement has increased All-Star voting, and makes the entire experience surrounding the game much more robust and compelling.

Here’s one sharp example:

It’s 2:02 PM, which means it’s #VoteNats o’clock!

Send your favorite #Nats to the @AllStarGame right here in DC!

🗳️ //

– Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 18, 2018

ESPN and others have run through a few of the most creative interactions here: #AllStarGameFinalVote

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For some, these clever, witty slogans and hashtags and enthusiasm generated by social campaigns have come to be just as fun and exciting as the actual All-Star Game itself, which is sure to generate plenty of social engagement and digital interaction among fans, players, teams and the league, as well.

That’s the name of the game in the sports business world today: standing out to command genuine and meaningful attention.

LSU’s creative operation is truly an all-hands-on-deck affair.

The university has 21 varsity sports, six of which are ticketed (football, gymnastics, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball, and softball). Each of the ticketed sports has several full-time staffers from LSU Athletics’ Creative Services – all of whom pitch in for the department’s crown jewel: the Tigers’ football team.

Having so many creative staffers in the department allows the program to integrate designers and photographers within a specific sport, which makes for content that feels more personal and passionately made.

“We have the opportunity and the access to tell the story of the team different than just any media outlet,” said Jason Feirman, executive director of LSU Creative Services. “So those creatives have a relationship with the sport, they get to know the people, the athletes, and the coaches get to know them. As a result, you get a little bit better results in content, meaning better video, better photography behind the scenes, you just get that personal connection from the team to our fans.”

While the ticketed sports obviously are a high priority, Feirman and creative services also devote a large amount of time (if not more time than the ticketed sports) to non-revenue sports. This is done due to both effort needed to increase attendance for these sports when compared to football or basketball, but also to ensure that all of the Tigers’ student-athletes get the full LSU experience.

Whatever the sport, though, Feirman and team take pride in providing a deeply personal look at these programs.

“From a content standpoint, we can tell stories that only happen behind the walls. For some sports, the goal would be to approach it as a documentary. Like a nonstop ‘here’s what’s going on today’ or ‘here’s going on at this exact practice.’ But that’s not always the way to go. We could go way overboard, but really it’s about finding those key points of interest that intrigue the fan, promote your program, and in some cases determine whether a recruit chooses your school.”

One of the most impressive aspects of LSU’s approach to digital content is its ability to embrace former student-athletes now competing as professionals. With football specifically, Feirman and team regularly celebrate the fact that well over 300 players have gone on to play in the NFL. This falls into that category of unique aspects of the school that attracts both fans and recruits.

For an example of specific content, recently released an article on NFL cap dollars by college, a figure LSU leads in. The football recruiting team was on top of it and turned this information into a striking graphic.

The grind pays off 💰

We are #NFLSU

– LSU Football Recruiting (@LSUFBrecruiting) July 9, 2018

“Sixty one of our players are going to earn $160 million-plus in the 2018 season. So how can we leverage these numbers? Those are great things, especially for recruits.”

Feirman goes on to explain their thought process with content in regards to the “NFLSU” movement.

“We are constantly trying to have that visual connection to the purple and gold, and leverage the long history of Tigers in the NFL. Any school can just put the NFL shield, but with ‘NFLU’ we’re cross-promoting; making the connection between two powerful brands. We’re so connected with the NFL, with having the most players on active rosters. The amount of players that compete in the playoffs and then onto the Super Bowl and even win championships makes it really hard to not notice another Tiger on Sundays. A big part of all of that is how they were prepared for the league by LSU, our coaching staff, strength staff and the rest of our administration. We are constantly recognizing all of the great things our formers Tigers are accomplishing and connecting it back to LSU so it creates a lasting impression.”

As those in this space will tell you, as fun as offseason content can be, nothing compares to college football game days – especially at a place like LSU. Feirman spoke quite a bit about preparing for the 125th season of Tiger football.

A salute to the greats on and off the field who have worn No. 18. Go check out the launch of the 2018 poster on our IGTV page. #LSU125

– LSU Football (@LSUfootball) July 11, 2018

“My football game days are really starting right now in July. We have been thinking and constantly tinkering our visual look for the upcoming year. This is our 125th season of LSU Football and we have been working on that since late January. We’ve worked with our different departments to develop scripts for videos and taglines like ‘The Glory of the Purple and Gold’ that you’ll see throughout the year. We wanted to embrace our present team and also celebrate our well-known Jersey 18 tradition with this being 2018.”

One of the biggest pieces of preparing for a game, as Feirman can attest, is having an understanding of what the team has the potential to achieve in a given week. That is why the creative department keeps a close eye on the team’s performance on the field and adjusts their graphics/content plan accordingly.

“If someone can move up the record book, we have all those type of notes from our communications staff ready to go. We’ve got to be prepared to highlight accomplishments every single game. It also includes being ready for the preseason national award watch lists and other accomplishments that are garnered throughout the season. We’re always preparing to celebrate our players’ personal accolades whether it’s from the conference or nationally.”

Preseason list time. Football soon to follow. @DevinWhite__40 and @G_Will29 are on the @sportingnews Preseason First Team All-America squad.

– LSU Football (@LSUfootball) July 2, 2018

Naturally, LSU also alters its content strategy by platform and by sport due to differences in key audience metrics. Feirman explains more on this.

“All of our sports are leveraging Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We have a very open-ended policy with our staff because each of our sports have different target audiences. There’s not one thing that works for all. A large segment of our gymnastics audience, for example, is females under 17. So that determines the content we’re delivering. There was a focus on Instagram stories throughout this past season and not as much on Facebook. However, we see some of our largest numbers on Facebook when it comes to other sports.”

Ultimately, Feirman empowers the staffers under his umbrella to be the best they can be through top of the line tools.

“I try to make sure that our staff has the resources they need to deliver great content. They have the cameras, computers, software, servers, and networks in place that we need to get the job done. For example, new technology has enabled our photographers to transmit pictures during events direct to our social accounts in less than 30 seconds.”

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Working in press boxes at LSU since his junior year of high school, Feirman’s passion and cumulative love for the LSU brand comes across beautifully across all of LSU’s platform. But passion alone doesn’t get a young creative to a role like Feirman’s. It comes through something that those in sports get used to over time: practice, practice, practice.

“Your content has to be unique. It’s got to be interesting. You’ve got to make people want to share it. And it just comes with a lot of practice of knowing what works and doesn’t work and watching the numbers. Not just posting it, but actually going back and looking at your Instagram, Twitter and Facebook numbers a few hours later or just even within 10 minutes. With our passionate LSU fan base, we’ve seen thousands of retweets in less than 10 minutes, depending on the moment. So it’s just knowing when to pull the trigger and how to promote it the proper way.”

Facebook is looking to garner a much larger foothold in the sports space – and is turning to yet another household name to drive the bold strategy.

While it’s unclear how far the discussions have gone, as all sides have stayed remarkably quiet about the potential project, Variety and others have reported that Facebook is aiming to produce 13 episodes for the platform, with Ronaldo earning a cool $10 million per installment. That would be Facebook’s biggest original content play by leaps and bounds.

The show would be produced by Matador Content and Religion of Sports, which may have actually played a large role in paving the way for a deal of this magnitude to materialize. That firm, founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan, and Tom Brady is what brought us Facebook Watch’s incredibly popular docu-series “Tom vs. Time.” The show chronicled the life and times of the inimitable New England Patriots quarterback just before the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles, and has generated over 52 million views.

“Tom vs. Time,” in addition to other Facebook Original sports-based content like “Ball in the Family,” based on LaVar Ball, his son Lonzo, and their various shenanigans on and off the hardcourt, have done quite well on the Facebook Watch platform. That show is now entering its third season with its official page gaining over 1.5 million followers to date.

Building on those initiatives, the series with Ronaldo stands to be much more lucrative for the social media giant, as he has global recognition and worldwide appeal unsurpassed by many.

Unlike Tom Brady and LaVar Ball – both big enough in their own right – a name like Ronaldo’s has a much larger impact on a global level. As the world’s most popular athlete with over 322 million social followers and 120 million followers on Facebook alone, Ronaldo symbolizes immense interest from broad sports audiences.

The Portuguese icon also made news recently, as Real Madrid confirmed last week that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner would be leaving the club to join Juventus . Surely, this added drama could have a place in the script.

Coincidentally, Ronaldo is already in business with Facebook, according to the Variety report. The company has ordered a scripted drama series from Ronaldo and Paul Lee’s newly launched studio, for wiip, Facebook Watch . That show is about a diverse high-school girls soccer team in upstate New York that inspires the local community to transcend racial, ethnic and class differences dividing it.

Yet this new potential docu-series would be an entirely different animal, as it stands to be much more sports-centric, reaching a much different crowd – the same audience Facebook is going after with its recently announced acquisition of broadcast rights for the English Premier League to large parts of Asia and the rights to stream La Liga in India.

Between those two big media buys, prior successful content experiments, and the new docu-series with Ronaldo, it’s evident that Facebook is firmly focused on making a concrete, comprehensive strong sports play.

That team is responsible for “working closely with the leading content creators in the world including leagues, teams, media, journalists, and athletes to drive engagement and support the strategic initiatives of the global sports team.”

As pointed out in the article, last year, Facebook reached a deal to stream one simulcast Major League Baseball game a week, but this season, they are exclusively streaming 25 games that can only be watched, for free, on Facebook.

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According to Techcrunch , “live videos on Facebook generate six times more discussion” than recorded videos. In an interview with Karl Kaufman for the Forbes profile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “when done well, video brings us closer together. We’ve found that communities formed around video like TV shows or sports create a greater sense of belonging than many other kinds of communities, but too often right now, watching video is just a passive consumption experience.”

Facebook has much work to do before it can be considered among the upper echelon of sports media heavyweights, but safe bets – such as the Ronaldo docu-series among other projects – is a good start.


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