MLS and IMG Arena think data can spur US soccer betting interest

IMG Arena and MLS

Last week, Major League Soccer named IMG ARENA its Official Data Distribution partner. As part of the deal, IMG ARENA will both distribute official data for the league and create innovative, data-driven content for fans and bettors.

IMG ARENA President Freddie Longe and MLS SVP of Emerging Ventures Chris Schlosser spoke with SBC Americas about the scope of the project, what to expect from MLS Event Center, and the potential and growth of soccer betting and fandom in the United States.

You can also hear more about the new partnership at this week’s SBC Summit North America. Schlosser and IMG ARENA’s Brian Clayton will join SBC Americas Editor Jessica Welman for a discussion on Thursday from 12:30 pm -1:00 pm ET.

MLS Event Center a major part of the deal

IMG ARENA already has the Event Center product for both UFC and golf. The sports betting app utilizes official data from these sports to create content and provide an abundance of information to users.

When asked about lessons learned from these initial iterations of Event Center, Longe explained that the product is really tailored for perpetual learning.

“The sector as a whole is constantly crying out for innovation and support in helping them drive value with their customers. We have a tremendous feedback loop with our customers. There is a kind of an always-on policy as it relates to taking in feedback, making changes modifying tweaking to reflect demands,” he said.

As a result, the forthcoming MLS product will feature a robust range of data sets according to Longe:

“We feel that through this MLS deal, through our united appetite and ambition to really move the needle as it relates to innovation, we’ve got some really exciting times ahead. We’ve got the streaming, we’ve got the base layer of three different sets of data, we’ve got the fast path, which is the very light incident feed, we’ve got the event data, passing shots on-target, shots off-target, but then crucially, the tracking data as well that brings a whole set of new ingredients, and then you can start to build on top of those data sets.”

Sports data less about volume and more about what you do with it

Even though there are major differences in betting and engagement across the three sports, Event Center works in each instance because it not only provides data but also distills it down into compelling metrics and narratives. US bettors are clamoring for data and Longe doesn’t claim to know exactly what data will yield winning results. Nor does he think “more data means more engagement.”

“The real art is then distilling those data points down into a handful of comprehensible, universally understood and very, very powerful insights metrics,” Longe explained.

With the growing popularity of analytics among recreational sports fans and bettors alike, compelling data could be just the boost soccer needs to gain more traction among American bettors.

“I think that you will see that as we continue to barrel down the tunnel of the data age of sport that more and more of these kind of metrics will land and start to resonate with a consumer across multiple sports,” Longe said. He cited tennis and Formula 1 as sports that are successfully incorporating data into mainstream broadcasts.

MLS won over by IMG ARENA’s Event Center

MLS is confident data-driven storytelling is exactly what the league needs. Schlosser thinks now is the time and IMG ARENA is the partner to make it happen. After an extensive RFP process, the company beat out other contenders largely because of the success of Event Center.

“There’s been data around the sport of soccer for a long time, but it’s always been really hard for brands to get their hands on it in any sort of meaningful way. And what IMG ARENA has been able to build for golf is really compelling 3D visualizations that take the live real-time data and actually make it accessible and usable for fans wherever they happen to be on their phone or on their computer,” he said. “We think that track record is really powerful. And we’re excited to design with them to take very fast real-time tracking data and event data and display it in all-new ways.”

The data deal is the next step for the league and sports betting. In the past, MLS has incorporated BetMGM odds into content and experimented with prediction games. Schlosser said the league is ready to venture further into betting, but it must be done the right way.

“First off, everything we do has to be built upon a foundation of integrity. We spent a lot of time just making sure that the baseline is in place in all the right ways. But now that that’s in place, as we listen to our fans, they’re really enthusiastic about online sports betting and they want it to roll out into their state,” he said.

Timing could also benefit MLS betting

The MLS season runs from May through October, which could help visibility when it comes to soccer betting in the US. The summer months always see a dip in betting handle after the NBA and NHL postseasons wrap up. With the timing of the MLS season, sportsbook operators could boost bottom lines with more focus on soccer and MLS specifically.

“The summer months are a crucial piece…where there’s not a lot of global football happening. And even here in North America, I think there’s a hunger for sports events. So we’ve always seen that the summer is a tremendous opportunity for the league, and we think that’ll only continue as we build for the future,” Schlosser said.

The growth of MLS and soccer fandom in the United States is a year-round endeavor beyond just the summer. Schlosser is pleased with the growing interest in the league but really thinks the sport will make significant leaps forward in North America with the 2026 World Cup.

“The league itself is growing like a weed with new clubs with records set for attendance and total viewing audience and all the things that you would expect. And we see no sign of that slowing down the World Cup at the end of this year. We’ll only turbocharge that more. And then we know in four years’ time the world’s eyes will be on North America with a World Cup here in the US, Canada, and Mexico. So we feel like we are incredibly positioned from that standpoint,” said Schlosser.

Both Longe and Schlosser are optimistic about the sport’s success in North America.

Longe pointed to tennis as a great example of a sport people thought US fans would never bet on:

“As much as the tennis community may not like me saying this, the reality is tennis is as close to a casino product as you can get. Instead of pulling the one-armed bandit or betting on a roulette board, you’re betting point by point game by game. That’s why we’ve seen a lot of R&D from the US sportsbooks around flash markets, etc. I was told tennis wouldn’t be successful in the US and here we are with tennis being incredibly successful. So I think soccer has as good a chance as tennis to be hugely successful.”

There is still work to be done to make the sport more appealing to bettors in particular though. Schlosser admitted as much, but this new partnership is a major part of the solution:

“We have a lot of work to do with IMG and with the operators to continue to evolve the soccer betting experience and opportunity and to help explain to folks how do they place a bet, what all the terminology means? How do they think about different opportunities? And that’s what we’re really excited to do with both our sportsbook partners and with IMG ARENA.”