MLS Branding: Global Design for an American Soccer League

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Major League Soccer. Sure, it lives in North America, co-existing with the other major domestic sports leagues, such as the NFL, NBA and more. But it doesn’t reside solely on one continent. MLS operates in the world’s global game.

“Any brand or organization operating in soccer will be influenced by what is going on in global soccer,” David Bruce, MLS brand specialist, tells HOW Design. “We do pull (design) influences from all around the globe. We take cues from all over the world, but we do it in an interesting way in that we take those and create our own version of what we believe MLS design is.”

Already MLS does soccer a bit different than the rest of the world. They call it soccer, a truly North American moniker. And they have playoffs, again a North American creation. And when it comes to design, MLS wanted to stand out there too. To be different.
MLS_logo_CMYK_gradientThe recent revamp of the league’s entire visual identity—unveiled roughly a year ago after 20 years as a league—was another stab at both a fresh take domestically on design, but also in making an international statement on the “confidence” MLS had in its brand.

“Once you start the design, of course you want to see how you appear amongst your peers,” Bruce says about the international reach of the brand. “When you think about the end user, they are going to see your brand in amongst a sea of others.”Clubs

To get the best feel—call it a temperature check—of how the new mark was stacking up against leagues around the globe, MLS designers mocked it up as it would appear on the front of EA’s popular FIFA video game. “It was an application to look at the brand in action,” Bruce says. “(The game) is such a conduit to developing the fan and getting them excited about our brand. It was a very natural place to start.”


And how did they fare on that checkpoint? “We want to think about ourselves as really defining what a future sports league looks like,” Bruce says. “It is quite revolutionary from where we were initially. We want to be seen as a modern league and modern for millennials.”

And maybe that is where the international influence came to play most. Sure, you have the shield aspect that has proven popular in soccer for decades upon decades, but the idea that the MLS was coming into its own, a continually growing sport, meant it needed to embrace who it was. Bruce says they always tell clubs—MLS teams independently create their own marks, but have access to support and design services from the league office—to look local and create an identity based on their city. For MLS, that was about moving forward and finding their own place amongst a group of leagues, some of which had well over 100 years of history to go with. The MLS mark needed to match that.

Jan 15, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Banners from the MLS teams hang above the 2015 MLS SuperDraft at Philadelphia Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 15, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Banners from the MLS teams hang above the 2015 MLS SuperDraft at Philadelphia Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

MLS took a more modern approach to building a logo, dropping the boot-and-ball look, simplifying the design and making it a logo for the digital age, a 2D logo. And since MLS understands that league marks aren’t what fans fall in love with, they made their new look fully chameleon-like in that every team has their own colors defining the logo and even has options for additional colors to put on secondary uniforms. To sprint past the confinement of a shield, the 45-degree line purposefully extends out of the shield, a forward-moving nod.

The MLS logo took a turn from other North American designs, really from other leagues, in building for the digital age. The flat, free of unnecessary elements look makes it work as a button on a phone, an app icon and more. The elimination of the boot and ball was conscious, knowing that no matter where in the world the brand was seen it would be seen in context, either on a broadcast, a video game or some other soccer-related location.

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Bruce says the main international influence on the MLS design may have come from outside of soccer, looking at how companies such as adidas and Google approach design. “We wanted to react to the world around us,” he says. “Fans want a brand that listens to them, they want to feel like they have a voice and can help shape the experience.

“Consumers can watch other soccer leagues, go to the pub and have a bee or play Xbox. We have taken cues from all over the world—brands, interesting categories.” By taking modern cues from the international scene, Bruce believes MLS was able to “put a bit of a marker in the ground” in international sports, especially with the new logo.

“I loaded FIFA last night on my Xbox and seeing it pop amongst some of the other leagues, I think it is starting to stand out because we are building meaning in it,” he says. “It will only get stronger over time as people create a reference point in their mind as to what it means to them.”

International influence doesn’t stop at the league level, though. As clubs have evolved, they have taken the European heritage of design to heart, as North American fans have started to become more knowledgeable in the game’s history. And with that international flair in everything from naming teams to designing logos, even the ultra-local has an international touch.

While Bruce is quick to point out that every club has such a different market in ethnicity, dynamics and heritage and what may work in New York or Los Angeles will be far different in Kansas City or Denver, there’s still international influence everywhere. The new mark for New York City FC, for example, has a bit of the international flair by using the subway token, a global icon. In Ohio, though, the city of Columbus has deep German roots, a key part of the local character, which was clearly defined in the design of the new Crew logo, Bruce says.

“We are a global sport, so we can reference the sport from every corner of the globe,” he says.

And has MLS has grown up, teams have embraced that they fly the flag for an international game in their own communities. They don’t have to use a ball in their logo any longer, they can design based on a city, based on a community and let their brand discuss soccer along the way. Maybe it isn’t so much about international influence on MLS, but about growth of a global game encouraging communities to embrace international design.

Tim Newcomb covers sports design for HOW Design. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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