It's no secret that landing brand sponsorships for many sporting leagues has become increasingly difficult. (And it can be incredibly challenging for small businesses, too.) 

Just ask NASCAR: While Camping World will continue as the sponsor of the Truck series until 2022 (under the Gander Outdoors branding), Monster Energy's deal as the title sponsor of the Cup series comes to a close at the end of this year and a new deal -- or set of deals -- has yet to be announced. (Plus, Monster paid significantly less than the previous title sponsor, Sprint.)

But then there's Major League Soccer. MLS just announced a four-year extension of their partnership with Audi. As part of the agreement, Audi remains the MLS Official Automotive Partner and title sponsor of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

Why does the partnership work?

"If you think about our fan base, we're the sport for the new North America," says Gary Stevenson, President and Managing Director of MLS Business Ventures. "Between our fans and Audi's commitment to technology, it's a great match. Audi said, 'We don't just want to be a traditional partner; we want to provide a tech initiative that shows your fans how committed we are to the sport.'"

One way is through the Audi Player Index, a real-time statistical analysis tool available on the MLS app that tracks every on-ball action. The goal is to provide soccer fans with sophisticated data and insights that spark deeper conversations about the sport they love. (The most effective and efficient player on the pitch may never actually score a goal.)

Clearly the partnership works well for MLS -- Audi Field just opened in Washington, D.C., and Audi has partnerships with ten MLS clubs -- making Audi a foundational partner. But why does it work for Audi?

For one thing, the MLS fan base. A 2017 Gallup poll showed that soccer ranks second behind football in U.S. spectator sport popularity among 18 to 34 year-olds. MLS is the only North American sports league to enjoy sustained TV ratings growth over the last four years. Average stadium attendance was 22,106 last year, third behind the pro football and baseball and ahead of both the NBA and the NHL.  (Atlanta United averages a staggering 52,000 fans per game, the highest of any sports team in the U.S. other than pro football.)

"Soccer in the U.S. continues to be a fast-growing sport, especially with the Millennial audience," says Loren Angelo, VP of Marketing for Audi America. "Interest in soccer has tripled in the past ten years and MLS allows Audi to reach that passionate and growing community."

"The Audi Player Index is a different connection point for our sport," Stevenson says. "We're investing heavily in technology on our side, so as the tool gets better and better it becomes an increasingly effective way to analyze player performance. Audi is also committed to helping out in the local communities, so we're also working on identifying scholarship opportunities for young players all over the country to go to our academies. If we can identify good players that may not have the means... that's a great outcome."

The primary goal, though, is to improve the fan experience, a challenge facing every business involved in live sports -- and live events period. But it has to make sense; simply cobbling an app onto an event and hoping it will stick is a recipe for failure. 

"Audi is a tech-forward brand that values innovation, so why not bring that innovation to the field?" Loren says. "This one-of-a-kind Index takes stats to the next level by tracking thousands of player movements to create one dynamic score for each player. The Index then evaluates each action on three Audi brand specific attributes: technique, efficiency and dynamics. We're thrilled to see fans using this technology to engage in MLS games to heighten their experience."

All of which makes perfect sense. But how can your small business replicate that success in the partnerships or co-branding opportunities you create? As you can guess, authenticity is everything. 

"You have to make sure the partner is authentic to your brand," Loren says. "If your core values don't naturally align, the partnership will feel 'off' for the consumer. We look for brands that share a passion for innovation and progressive thinking. Without shared values, a partnership could feel forced, or worse, not work."

For Stevenson, providing value is key. "We have a goal of renewing 90 percent of our corporate partners," Stevenson says. "If we're renewing at that rate that means we're providing ongoing value -- and that means they'll continue to invest in our sport. That starts with truly understanding what they're trying to achieve. That's our job as a marketing partner: Help our clients achieve what they're trying to achieve."

Because if you don't, someone else will. That's just as true for startups and small businesses as for sports leagues. 

"It's not should we do it for the fans," Stevenson says. It's we have to do it for the fans."

That approach works for MLS. A few months ago Heineken extended its partnership as the league's official beer sponsor through 2022. And last year Adidas signed a six-year, $700 million extension as the league's official apparel sponsor.

And that's how you should approach your own brand partnerships or joint ventures.

First, make sure your customers will benefit. Then, make sure your partner benefits.

Accomplish those two things... and your business will naturally benefit as well.