Last fall, Major League Soccer (MLS) created a new emerging ventures team focused on three areas: increasing the league’s fan base, driving revenue, and bringing in new and emerging technologies to be utilized by the league and its 28 clubs.
A lot of their early focus, unsurprisingly, has been tied to blockchain and sports betting—two rapidly growing industry trends and technologies being leveraged by leagues and clubs around the globe.
Today, MLS announced a multi-year partnership with Sorare to launch non-fungible tokens (NFTs) for all MLS clubs and players that can be collected and used by the platform’s 1.5 million users across 184 countries in its blockchain-based fantasy game.
“I think (digital) collectibles on their own are a really exciting opportunity, but generally we’re starting to see more and more in this NFT-as-utility space where people want to use their NFTs to do things, and that’s what Sorare figured out early on,” says Chris Schlosser, MLS senior vice-president of enterprise ventures. “Traditional fantasy has only been for one league at a time, so you play MLS fantasy or EPL fantasy, but they built a truly global product so you can play with players across multiple leagues.
“I think that just mirrors the way fandom is going in the sport where if you’re really a fan, you’re connected into great clubs all over the place or you’re watching great young talent rise in MLS or elsewhere, so it aligns so well with what’s happening in the world.”
Launching in the coming weeks, MLS is the first U.S. partner for Sorare, which boasts partnerships with more than 230 global soccer leagues and clubs including LaLiga, Bundesliga, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and PSG. Founded in 2018, Sorare is a soccer fantasy game that runs on the Ethereum blockchain, allowing users to buy, sell and trade NFTs of players via cryptocurrency or credit card to be fielded in fantasy leagues based on their real-life performances.
Sorare raised $680 million in its Series B round at a $4.3 billion valuation in September 2021 led by Softbank with participation from others including Accel Partners and Benchmark, representing the fifth-largest funding round in the crypto industry ever. Backed by sports stars including Serena Williams, Gerard Pique, Antoine Griezmann, Rio Ferdinand, Cesar Azpilicueta and Andre Schurrle, the platform had more than $325 million in sales volume in 2021, up from $7 million the prior year.
“The U.S. is one of our top markets by revenue to begin with,” says Michael Meltzer, Sorare head of business development. “That’s what gets us so excited about the U.S. market, especially where there’s an existing, mature fantasy (sports) market in place. Signing our first U.S. league, MLS, is a huge moment for us as a company because it gives us a great way to expand the brand in the United States.”
Based in Paris, Sorare opened an office in New York City in December 2021. Landing the MLS, Meltzer says, will hopefully pave the way for the company, which is focused solely on soccer at the moment, to partner with other North American-based sports leagues.
“We believe the formula we’ve created in soccer will translate well into a variety of other sports,” he says. “We’re in active conversations with most of the major leagues around the world, but in particular in the U.S., and hope to announce a couple of those in the coming months.”
For Major League Soccer, the partnership with Sorare is another way to not only give fans domestically a further way to engage with their favorite clubs and players, but continue to insert MLS into the global soccer conversation.
Soccer continues to grow in the U.S. with the MLS spearheading its expansion. The league, which is reportedly eyeing $300 million per season for its new domestic TV rights deal, has seen the number of clubs nearly triple since 2004, while club valuations have increased by more than 25x with David Tepper paying $325 million to launch Charlotte FC, which just set the league’s single-game attendance record of 74,479 on March 5 for its inaugural home match at Bank of America Stadium.
Not only is the MLS growing, but its fans are some of the youngest and most tech-savvy in the U.S. The average age of an MLS fan is 39.6 years, ahead of the NBA (41.9 years) and NHL (43.8) making it the youngest pro sports fan base in North America. With Millennials and Gen Zers accounting for 58% of MLS supporters, a partnership based on crypto, blockchain and NFTs makes perfect sense, especially ahead of the highly anticipated 2026 FIFA World Cup being hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
“We have this once-in-a-lifetime five-year period where we can put a stake in the ground and know all the eyes in the soccer world will be on the United States in 2026 and can build our business planning around that,” Schlosser says. “Just think about in life and business, you almost never have a four- or five-year runway to something like that ever, so it’s a remarkable opportunity for us to continue to throw fuel on the fire for the fan growth we’ve seen.
“We’re really confident that the more people get to experience it, the better, and that’s where Sorare comes in—it will expose MLS to folks on two fronts. It will be great for our current fans, and it exposes folks who are really excited about NFTs and blockchain and are participating via that channel. It brings us into this global soccer community both here in the United States and around the world, and that’s only a positive as more and more people start to pay attention to the great things happening in our stadiums every weekend.”