Fans with flags and tifos typically aim to inspire players. Last summer, as MLS executives were searching for a theme to anchor an anticipated rebranding, the supporters in Providence Park’s north stand inspired a league.
Before the U.S. and Belize opened the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup in Portland, Oregon, the Timbers Army and American Outlaws unveiled a massive series of banners that featured ‘Cascadia Sam’ and the words ‘Community,’ ‘Club’ and ‘Country.’
“For a number of us it was this gigantic epiphany,” MLS chief marketing officer Howard Handler told SI.com. “It hit us square between the eyes. This was the very best of what the league can deliver.”
Over the next year, Handler and MLS senior director of brand and integrated marketing David Bruce orchestrated an overhaul that they said is grounded in those “enduring guideposts.” Commissioner Don Garber, owners like Andrew Hauptman of the Chicago Fire and three branding agencies also were involved in designing the new look, which will take effect in 2015. The primary component – the logo – is set for an unveiling Thursday in New York City in conjunction with EA Sports' release of FIFA 15.
Say goodbye to the boot and ball that has served MLS since 1996. Entering its 20th season, the league believes it is on the cusp of a new era. The signing of players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and David Villa, the new TV deal, the pending entry of New York City FC and Orlando City and a “transformative” World Cup summer represent “milestones” that position MLS “for a period of accelerated growth,” Handler claimed.
The old logo is a thing of the past. The new one is “aspirational,” he said.
“As we sit here today we know that it’s actually kind of dated,” Handler explained. “The more modern brands of the world don’t need to telegraph a specific category or line of business they’re in. In many cases, they stand for something much bigger. A great example of that is Apple. They don’t need to explicitly tell you they’re a technology company.”
MLS’s minimalist new logo certainly doesn’t scream “soccer." In fact, it doesn’t scream much of anything. Instead, it’s designed to subtly capture the league’s priorities and ideals. Whether a good logo should require much explanation can be debated, but MLS is eager to tell the story.
The spare design, called the “MLS Crest," comes in the colors of the U.S. and Canada and features three stars that represent the ideals displayed by the Portland tifo – community, club and country. The diagonal line “captures the fast-paced nature of the game and a league that’s on the rise,” and emerges from the bottom of the shield to “create a little bit of extra energy,” Handler said.
The 45-degree line also divides the shield in two – soccer is a game of two 45-minute halves – creating a blank space that can be used as a window or frame for animated elements. And that’s the key. The rebrand is about more than the logo, Handler and Bruce said. It’s part of a more comprehensive system designed to bind together the league’s website, mobile and broadcast platforms, as well as events like MLS Cup, all of which will carry the new look next year. The crest is easier to animate, recolor or deconstruct.
That flexibility is as important as community, club and country. Each MLS team will wear the crest on its jersey sleeve, but in its own colors. Club identity now is more critical than league identity – a theme that will be welcomed by those pushing for more team autonomy within the single-entity construct.
“We’re sending a very strong message that the club marks are the most important. The clubs are really the primary connecting point for our fans. They wear their colors. They declare their loyalty and we want to be able to amplify that and build on that with the way that we frame the league mark,” Handler said.
NYCFC and Orlando are expected to unveil their 2015 uniforms in mid-November. The following month, the league will introduce its new match ball (changing ball designs were another reason MLS wanted to ditch the old logo).
Handler acknowledged that the boot and ball logo might have felt comfortable and familiar, but he also found it archaic and inflexible.
“I’m not sure we’re expecting any real blowback,” about the new design, he said. “I think there’s always going to be people that feel very loyal and connected to that which exists in the here and now … We really felt it was time for a very revolutionary change because of how rapidly we’re growing.”
Handler and Bruce said the rebrand must be experienced fully before being evaluated and appreciated. There isn’t much to the logo on the surface. But they would argue that there isn’t much to Apple’s apple, AT&T’s globe or Nike’s swoosh, either, at least at first glance.
“We’re really trying to position this league now as being very different from anything else out there,” Bruce said. “What we will do with the new brand is build in meaning over time.”