Chipotle Mexican Grill has signed a three-year deal to be an official restaurant sponsor of Major League Soccer and 12 of the league’s teams.
Throughout the 2014 MLS season, the fast-casual Mexican chain will run several promotions with the league and its teams, and during the MLS All-Star Week in August the brand will be the title sponsor of the Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game, a youth all-star exhibition.
Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said the sponsorship is not the first partnership the 1,600-unit brand has entered with a sports property, but he added that it would be bigger and more integrated than previous efforts with individual MLS teams and a cycling team that competed in the Tour de France.
Chipotle MLS Homegrown 
“[The sponsorship] has all the visibility and awareness elements that people buy into sports to get, but there is also the participatory aspect,” Arnold said. “When you have a sport that is more participatory in nature — like when we sponsored a Tour de France team, the people following that tend to be cyclists themselves — you get greater engagement, and then it’s not just about getting a logo on a sign in an arena.”
With its MLS sponsorship Chipotle could reinforce a lifestyle message that tangentially connects to the chain’s “Food With Integrity” positioning.
“The gist of it is the values that drive our decision-making around ingredient quality are similar to those of people who enjoy a more active lifestyle,” Arnold said. “The MLS was a good way to connect to that audience.”
Previously, Denver-based Chipotle’s highest-profile marketing initiatives reinforced the “Food With Integrity” branding that emphasizes sourcing sustainable ingredients, such as the “Farmed and Dangerous” series on Hulu . Before that, the brand demonstrated its stance against factory farming with digital short videos “Back to the Start ” and “The Scarecrow ,” the latter of which was based on Chipotle’s game app for smartphones and tablets.
Arnold emphasized that the short films that support the “Food With Integrity” brand message were one part of a three-part strategy, which also includes traditional awareness marketing and local-store marketing very likely to benefit from the MLS sponsorship.
“Not everything we do falls into the ‘Food With Integrity’ category, though it’s certainly important,” he said. “This partnership falls into the top-of-mind bucket and the local-store marketing bucket, and in some ways it’s a roll-up of successful, smaller-scale programs we’ve had with MLS clubs. It’s also one that still has lots of good activations.”
One such activation is the Chipotle Youth Homegrown Athlete program, which will honor one young athlete during one of 10 home games for each team. The honoree will receive four tickets to the game, special recognition during the game, a meet and greet with coaches and players, a free dinner and an opportunity to host a fundraiser at his or her local Chipotle.
The brand also will host a “March to Soccer” promotion in 12 MLS markets, offering a buy-one-get-one deal to any fan wearing the gear of their local MLS teams on the date of their home openers.
Chipotle has selected LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team playing this summer in the 2014 World Cup, to be the first spokesman of the partnership. Arnold said the spike in interest in soccer expected from the World Cup, as well as a rise in MLS’ popularity over the past few years, made this year an opportune time to partner with the league.
According to a Forbes article , the league’s average attendance rose more than 35 percent to 18,600 per game in 2013, increasing from its lowest average of 13,700 per game in 2000. Two new expansion teams in New York City and Orlando, Fla., are set to enter the league next year.
Other restaurant brands to partner with professional soccer include Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc., which signed a sponsorship deal with Liverpool FC of the English Premier League in January , as well as Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John’s Pizza, which partnered with The Football League through its subsidiary in the United Kingdom.
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] .
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