Inside RBC and MLS: Reaching New Audiences through Partnership
With 30-plus years of experience in financial services, Sean has spent his career helping institutions, financial advisors, clients, and wholesalers in a variety of roles from customer service to strategy to marketing. He joined RBC Wealth Management in 2017 from Ameriprise Financial, where he served as vice president of interactive marketing.
Prior to Ameriprise, Kellenberger held several other positions within the broker/dealer, asset management and insurance industries, focusing on interactive strategy, social media, CRM, and multi-channel customer experience at companies such as Wells Fargo, The Hartford, Aetna Insurance and Minneapolis advertising agency Yamamoto.
Sean joined podcast host Jim Andrews to explore RBC Wealth Management’s partnership strategies, with a particular focus on its new league-wide sponsorship of Major League Soccer. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: To start us off, can you give us an overview of RBC Wealth Management, such as where it lives in the Royal Bank of Canada system, who the target market is, who’s in the competitive set, how you take your services to market, etc.?
Sean: The Royal Bank of Canada is the largest bank and the largest employer in Canada. It is based in Toronto. As the U.S. Wealth Management division, our division is based in Minneapolis. I lead marketing for that division, which has around 175 branches in 45 states. We have a little over 2,100 financial advisors who serve the needs of high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals on all aspects of financial planning and helping them achieve their financial goals in their lifetimes.
In the U.S., we are a more than 100-year-old company that has changed names multiple times. In Canada, RBC is a household name. One in three Canadians does business with the Royal Bank of Canada. In the U.S., it’s a different story. We are still trying to achieve brand awareness in the U.S., even though we are the seventh largest wealth manager in the country.
So we are more of an emerging challenger brand here and we take that very seriously. We have a fantastic story and just over the last five or six years starting to tell it in the U.S.
Jim: And one of the ways you are telling that story is through sports. In February of this year, RBC Wealth Management announced a new, multi-year partnership in the U.S. with Major League Soccer. I’d love to explore that relationship in detail, as it has quite a few very interesting components. Let’s begin with the backstory, what were the circumstances you were facing that ultimately led to the MLS partnership?
Sean: Historically, serving high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals has meant meeting the needs of an older generation, the Baby Boomer generation now. But as the Baby Boomers age, that money will transfer out, so it is extremely important for us to build relationships with a younger population. I have seen studies that say between $80 trillion and $90 trillion will change hands in the next 30 years. $10 trillion of that in the next decade, so that money is already transitioning. Some of it is going to a surviving spouse or partner, some is going to Gen X, but a large portion of it is going to go to the Millennial population.
That is a group of people with whom we have not had a relationship traditionally and that has different needs and is very different demographically from the Baby Boomer population. Instead of being predominantly white males, they are multicultural. They are digital natives. Women have much more control over the wealth than in previous generations. They are multi-lingual in many cases.
And some of the studies that we have conducted have shown that they are less likely to do business with a financial advisor. That is partially because of younger consumers’ use of new tools and capabilities versus older consumers. But also it is partially because that relationship hasn’t been there.
Recognizing that, one of the questions we kept asking ourselves is, “How do you build a relationship with a different demographic than we have historically done business with?” And soccer was one of the things we started to talk about.
If you look at Major League Soccer fans, for example, they are an interesting demographic for us, one that we have to build a relationship with, but they are also highly educated and they are emerging affluent. They are called in the industry HENRYs: High Earning Not Rich Yet.
This emerging affluent younger population still largely wants to do business with a financial advisor, a trusted source. They may not ever want to walk into a bank or wealth manager branch. They may never want to pick up the phone. They may want to largely use digital tools. But they are interested in getting that same advice.
So all of those things pointed to MLS being a really good opportunity. About 18 months ago we began having conversations, both internally and with MLS about different opportunities and it all came together in February when we signed the deal to become the official wealth manager of Major League Soccer in the U.S.
We couldn’t be more excited about the partnership we have with them. The media rights deal they struck with Apple TV last fall was a factor in that decision: The largest brand in the world plus soccer, which is really continuing to take hold in the U.S., made it really attractive for us. Once people within RBC saw the demographics, the idea received a ton of support.
Jim: Let’s talk a little about the process of figuring out the best vehicle to reach a new target audience. There is no shortage of partnership opportunities, so how did you home in on soccer and MLS and how did the decision to move forward ultimately get made?
Sean: I’ve talked a little about the demographics and how that population was attractive to us, but you are right, there were other vehicles that could have delivered access to the same population.
There were a few things around soccer that really hit home. The first was the commitment to communities in which MLS lives and works. They have a strong philanthropic component to their league and we are partnering with them on a couple of key programs: Soccer for Success and Hometown Heroes Showcase.
Those allow us to impact people who need after-school or summer programming—in the case of Soccer for Success—and—through Hometown Heroes—recognize the people in local communities who do fantastic things but are largely unsung.
The second was the geographic overlay. If you look at the 26 U.S. clubs, they are without exception in locations where we have branches and continue to try to build and enhance our business.
The third requires me to dig into the demographics a bit further. We’ve talked about younger consumers and digital natives, but also the female fan base of MLS was really important to us. We know that the decision-makers in many households are female. Our industry needs to do a better job of working and partnering with those women to help them make decisions for their households and help with financial literacy across all age groups.
Beyond those three elements, the fact that the FIFA World Cup is coming to North America in 2026 was also attractive. If you look back to 1994, the last time the World Cup was in the U.S., the growth of soccer leading up to and after that was really attractive. Couple that with the continued growth of soccer around the world and add, particularly, the success of the U.S. Women’s National Team, but also the Men’s National Team, and interest in soccer has never been bigger.
While this is a deal with MLS and not the men’s and women’s national teams, we think there is a great overlap between general interest in soccer and what Major League Soccer is bringing to bear. The league continues to grow. It just announced the addition of the 30th franchise, so we think that there is a great opportunity to partner with MLS to grow not just the game but our ability to reach consumers and help them with their financial planning needs.
Jim: One of the questions that always comes up with league-wide deals is what are the advantages and disadvantages versus doing team deals in key markets with the local, on-the-ground opportunities and fan affinity that they provide. Did that factor into your thinking and how you ultimately structured the agreement with MLS?
Sean: It did. And it also doesn’t mean we are not having conversations with individual teams. The deal that we struck with the league was important partially because of the access to those 26 mostly large metropolitan areas. We wanted to make sure we had hospitality and activation opportunities with various clubs at different times. Our business is such that we have branches in all of these areas and we wanted to be able to expose them to soccer. If we had struck deals with five, ten or 15 teams, it simply becomes unaffordable to us on the scale we want.
We really like the breadth we received, recognizing that maybe we don’t get the depth with the individual clubs. We like where we landed in terms of the ability to access fans.
It also is interesting to note that the Apple TV deal gives broadcast rights regardless of where you are, not only nationally but internationally. Anyone with a connected device can watch MLS matches, so our ability to build brand awareness with those audiences was really important to us.
In stadium, MLS has a really interesting relationship with the clubs, where it feels like a hub and spoke model. We do get access to individual clubs based on the way they have league-controlled games versus club-controlled games. For example, TV-visible, field-level advertising is something we get at a large number of games throughout the year even without individual club deals. We really liked that component.
The metrics are going to tell us whether we are successful long term, so we are continuing to work closely with Major League Soccer, Apple and our own metrics to make sure that we are hitting all the right notes. So far, we really like where we landed.
Jim: I’d like to talk a little bit more about Apple, since RBC Wealth Management’s was the first league-wide partnership with MLS since the league’s deal to stream all matches through Apple TV+. How did the plusses and minuses of that situation impact your strategy and the ultimate agreements you signed?
Sean: Part of it is, I would never bet against Apple! They get into businesses when they believe there is a really good opportunity. Through the discussions both with Apple and MLS, we were convinced that this would be successful long term.
Part of it is Apple’s commitment. A ten-year broadcast rights deal isn’t a small undertaking. Part of it is the way they structured the package, giving us access to deliver not only streaming advertising, but other ways that we can activate. We have a number of sponsorships within the games that are either in front of the paywall or on MLS Season Pass, including power rankings and player of the week. We get to do some really interesting “bridge programming” during the golden hour in addition to our 30-second spots during the games.
And then there are the special events also. We will play a large role in MLS All-Star Week and we will have a role in the playoffs and MLS Cup as well.
Finally, some of Apple’s original content has performed unbelievably well, so they have the ability and the desire to drive viewership, so I am pretty bullish on Apple’s ability to help us deliver.
Jim: Without casting aspersions on any of our friends at the broadcast and cable networks, are there opportunities with a streaming service, in particular Apple, that you wouldn’t have with a more traditional broadcaster?
Sean: Apple wanted to re-envision the broadcast, so they built a state-of-the-art broadcast studio, brought in new cameras to capture the game in stadiums, etc. The viewership of MLS has never been that high, so the ability to kick it off in a new, fresh way that few companies not named Apple could do was exciting.
The way they do their MLS 360 highlight show is awesome. As a Minnesota United fan, if I can’t watch the entire game, I can spend 20 or 30 minutes and see all of the highlights within MLS Season Pass in a way that is unique from other sports.
Jim: Category exclusivity is an important element of this deal as well, both as it relates to the league and Apple. Can you tell us about your approach to that?
Sean: We felt strongly that category exclusivity was important both for our MLS partnership and really for the broadcast portion of the deal with Apple TV. We want to be the financial services provider and the wealth manager that people think of and get to see when they talk about MLS.
Jim: I don’t want to ignore your other major U.S. partnership for RBC, which is of course the RBC Heritage PGA Tour event in Hilton Head, not to mention individual agreements you have with touring pros. You’ve been in the midst of a lot of change on the Tour the past few years with some players departing and the creation of a tiered-event structure, with the Heritage becoming one of the elevated events this year. How has that all shaken out for RBC?
Sean: We have two flagship Tour events with the RBC Canadian Open in Toronto and the RBC Heritage Classic, both of which have been fantastic for our brand, our employees, our advisors and our clients.
They are premier hospitality events. Our ability to immerse our clients or our prospective clients in these branded activities, both of which this year had fantastic finishes, were well attended, and had fields that were off the charts, so they performed really well.
They also give us the ability to give a significant amount of money back to those communities. That’s something that is really important to us.
We also have our ambassadors. Team RBC golfers that are on our roster are really active in the community. They are fantastic with clients when we do player days or other hosted activities. They are approachable, they are great golfers obviously, men and women who are really great to be around and who represent our brand extremely well.