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From previous positions at the MiLB and as the current SVP of Strategy at the United Soccer League (USL), Cory Bernstine is building an aspirational career path through driving relevance, fandom, competition, and revenue in the sports industry. Throughout his career, he has been a part of several groundbreaking opportunities related to the impact of sports and business growth. In his interview, he talks about the growing importance of community in sports marketing, new creative outlets to drive fandom, loyalty, and commerce beyond the game, and what leadership muscle is the most important for his industry. 

Man hiking with daughter on back

What gives me energy outside of work

#GirlDad life, teaching as an adjunct professor, and mentoring the next generation of #sportsbiz leaders.

Every marketer should read…

The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin.

Mentorship programs marketers should know about…LatinX in Sports, Black Sports Business Academy (BSBA), and Sport and Entertainment Equity Network (SEEN).

Future of Marketing

Q: What one thing coming down the pike for marketing are you most excited about?

The growing importance and influence of community in building brand connections are becoming increasingly evident in sports marketing. From a sports marketing perspective, the pendulum is swinging towards creating communal experiences, both digital and physical content, and community-driven partnerships that foster a sense of belonging (aka sports). Successful sports marketers will intentionally build new workflows that sync the community with the organization. I am excited to see those successful tactics replicated to involve the fans in the build better.

Q: What’s a prediction you have or something that you see evolving in the sports marketing space over the next few years? 

More than 90% of fans will never attend a live game or event. Sports leagues and teams are evolving and launching new product lines – beyond the status quo product – that leverage the IP/brand strength and loyal followings to develop stronger relationships with current and future fans. Sports properties have started this process by launching D2C streaming packages, mixed-use real estate developments, fashion apparel lines, and media production companies, which are in direct response to the shifting behaviors, needs, and expectations of sports fans. This shift provides sports marketers additional creative outlets to drive fandom, loyalty, and commerce beyond the game.

Marketing at the United Soccer League

Q: What’s something exciting you’re currently working on?  

We are entering the greatest era of soccer in North America, and the USL is embracing this moment to shape the future of soccer in America. Fandom for U.S. soccer fans starts locally, in their hometowns, before going global. This guides the league’s strategy to identify untapped soccer communities and build the next great markets and fans for men’s and women’s soccer across the country.   

In addition, the USL is exploring unique, first-of-its-kind competition structures within the U.S. soccer landscape, such as promotion and relegation, to embrace the global game and the U.S. sports/soccer fan. 

Q: What’s the most pressing business challenge you’ve faced within the last year, and how have you tried to solve it?  

The league is entering its 14th season, and the most pressing opportunity is to continue building a construct that maximizes business performance due to the incredible runway for the sport of soccer and the league’s growth, fostering innovation to differentiate the product. USL and its teams have taken measures such as creating inclusive spaces with stakeholders to discuss the path forward, co-authoring an aspirational vision to guide decision-making, seeking avenues to diversify revenue streams, investing in the team to meet market needs, investing in tech infrastructure, and embracing a culture of ‘why not?’ 

Career and Leadership Advice

Q: What’s the most game-changing career advice you’ve ever received?

The best way to learn from mentors is not to absorb what they know but to internalize how they think. Collecting their knowledge helps you address the challenges of the day. Understanding their thought process helps you navigate the challenges of a lifetime.” – Adam Grant 

Q: What leadership muscle is most important for marketers to exercise?

Instead of saying, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ the new leadership muscle is adaptability. The sports industry continues to evolve rapidly, facing macro trends of stagnant youth sports participation, the tension between media fragmentation and the viewing experience, the ‘squeezed middle’ of non-Tier 1 sports properties, the rise of athlete-creator brands, and evolved content consumption behaviors. This requires federations, leagues, teams, brands, agencies, and the entire sports ecosystem to embrace change, be responsive to new information, challenge existing practices, and act swiftly. As Hellen Keller said, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”

Marketers to Watch is a recognition series to spotlight highly innovative and forward-thinking marketing leaders in the community. If you have someone you’d like to nominate for the series, apply here.