Soccer Business Bits: Even the Yankees are Hurting?

mlsWe have posted about 2009 MLS attendance struggles on multiple occasions (in fairness, this past week was much improved) without focusing much on other sports.  Multiple media outlets have reported on the challenges facing the New York Yankees in selling premium tickets to their brand new stadium.  While some of these seats sell for as much as $2500 per game,  vast expanses of empty blue behind home plate have definitely changed the Yankees’ way of thinking.  The team has just announced a massive repricing of these premium seats.  In some areas, prices are being slashed by half, while season ticket purchases in other areas entitle the buyer to a large quantity of additional seats free of charge.  These are dramatic steps for MLB’s premier franchise.

The MLS connection?  Don Garber drew the ire of Yankees President Randy Levine when he referenced the seat vacancies while discussing the challenges of selling seats in this marketplace.  Levine fired back and stated that the Yankees outdrew the entire MLS in 2008.  He is correct.  Despite averaging more than 16k in 2008, MLS couldn’t touch the Yankees 50k plus over 81 home dates.

The Yankees are of course not alone.  In the NBA, the Detroit Pistons took the unusual step of e-mailing Cavaliers season ticket holders to offer tickets to the Detroit/Cleveland playoff series in Detroit .  Meanwhile, in the NHL, despite a good year for the League overall, teams like Carolina and others are not selling out playoff games.  Between the economy and now Swine Flu worries, attendance may continue to suffer.  MLS had a nice week at the gate (two dates in Toronto and one in Seattle certainly helped).  Will it continue this week?

Interview with Davy Ratchford, RSL’s Director of Marketing

 

rsl

Over the last few weeks we have posted a number of interviews with MLS Team executives regarding efforts to market their Clubs in the current economic and technological climate.  Each team has unique circumstances that make their marketing and fan outreach efforts fascinating fodder for discussion and analysis. This week we touch base with Davy Ratchford, RSL’s Director of Marketing.  RSL is in their first full season at Rio Tinto Stadium and brought huge crowds to their playoff games at Rio Tinto last year.

Thanks to Mr. Ratchford.  Check out our other recent marketing interviews with Revolution COO Brian Bilello, Kansas City VP of Marketing and Communications Rob Thomson and  Dynamo Senior Vice President Rocky Harris

Footiebusiness.com: What is RSL doing differently for marketing in 2009?  How has the economy changed/impacted those efforts?

 

Davy Ratchford: Everyone is operating on tighter budgets.  We’ve focused our marketing efforts around a segmented marketplace.  Our mass media is focused on research driven statistics telling us what stations our prospects watch and listen.  Although we are doing well, it is easy to see the economy’s effect when it comes to discretionary entertainment spending.


FB: RSL opened Rio Tinto Stadium last year.  How does the presence of the new stadium change/impact marketing efforts?  Is the stadium experience a
marketing tool?

 

DR: Absolutely, when we opened the stadium at the end of the 2008 season, we had fantastic attendance which helped us both on the field and off. The experience that people had was captured and bottled into our 2009 pre-season marketing “where you there” campaign.  We tried to remind people of what those few games’ magical moments were like.

Having a home to call our own brings a level of optimism in our marketing.  But at the same time, we don’t want it to be just about the building.  Our players and fans are the soul of our organization and the building helps us showcase that.


FB: How has RSL utilized online avenues such as social networking sites, SUM’s new online ad network, etc… to market the team?  Do you find that
these efforts increase interest in RSL or impact attendance?

 

DR: We actually do quite a few online promotions.  We have a steady following on Facebook and our sales pods keep their clients informed via twitter.  These avenues are the right price “free” and allow us to communicate to our fans in their comfort zone.  We do a lot of online banner ads and have tracked some fantastic click through numbers.


FB: Unlike other MLS franchises, RSL plays in a city without competition from multiple “big four” sports franchises.  How does that impact RSL’s
media exposure and ability to generate interest through “free” exposure?

 

DR: The Jazz have been a great anchor for professional sports here in Utah for some time.  As have the college sports teams at BYU and The University of Utah.  Real Salt Lake is rebounding from some years of losing seasons and the media has started to embrace a 2nd professional sports team.  We’ve negotiated some larger broadcast deals that allow us more coverage on local networks.


FB: Is it inconsistent/challenging for teams to target “hard core” supporters, non-soccer sports fans and families?  How do you resolve those
inconsistencies/challenges?

 

DR: I think it does become a challenge, but a good one to have. In our marketplace we have a certain market segment that is young, male and single.  We also have married with 3 kids and we also have grandparents and grandkids.  Having a broad marketplace does cause us to stretch our budgets across the spectrum to reach these differnt targets.  The key is creating a good media mix that is atrractive to all of these groups.  And to have a strategy in place to move them along in their commitment level towards us.  We are happy to have folks come to one or two games a year, but our goal is for them to experience us and increase their connection to us.

Soccer Business Bits: Beckham is Back and More

galaxyIt’s been a while since we’ve discussed David Beckham in this space, but with the recent statement from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Goldenballs is back in the news.  According to the Commissioner, MLS will receive $10 million from AC Milan and Beckham to extend the loan deal into July.  As we have previously discussed, there were a number of components to the Beckham deal.  These included extension of the loan, an AC Milan Friendly and the payment of a fee by Beckham.  As we have also discussed, Beckham’s contract has an out clause at the end of the MLS season.  However, with Becks riding the pine in Italy and MLS attendance struggling, one wonders if the League will find a way to hold on to its marquee attraction.

There is an interesting post about the business of MLS by Jeffrey Marcus at the New York Times.  Mr. Marcus discusses a point that we have previously raised, i.e. how to make MLS appeal to the legions of U.S. based soccer fans.  If 10,000,000 people watched the U.S. play Mexico, and pubs are over flowing with people watching Liverpool play Aresenal on Sunday morning, how does the League capture those fans.  In the post, Mr. Marcus quotes Commissioner Garber discussing the way to increase the League’s appeal by bringing more stars to the States.  Mr. Garber recognizes that the League needs to increase the quality of play (or at least create the impression that the quality has improved). The early years of of MLS unfortunately drove a large numbers of soccer fans away from MLS because of low quality.  The quality has improved over the years, but these fans have not come back.  The various promotional campagins we have discussed this season are largely targeting these fans and the League is making progress.  The League hopes that the economy won’t get in the way.

Soccer Business Bits: Deals, Deals Deals

galaxyMLS promotions departments are working overtime to bring fans to the stadiums.  In Los Angeles, the Galaxy are offering a free ticket promotion for all season ticket holders.  Specifically, each season ticket holder is getting an extra ticket for the upcoming Galaxy home game against the Red Bulls.  As we discussed yesterday, Galaxy attendance figures are way down this year.  After efforts to package the AC Milan game with other matches, the team is now trying to sell tickets as as stand alone event.

The Rapids are offering a promotion for their Galaxy game called the River Runners Family Pack.  The package includes 4 tickets, 4 hot dogs, 4 sodas, and 4 tickets for a whitewater rafting trip.  The package is going for $69 and the rafting trip must be taken on one of four Rapids Family nights on the River. In a remarkable feat of promotion overload, during the same game, the Rapids will be holding a British Heritage Night, Play Clean Night and Night of Champions.

Finally, in Columbus, the defending champions are offering package deals involving a scarf commemorating the championship season.  Interestingly the tickets are being offered in minium blocks of 4, with the cheapest package including 4 tickets and 4 scarves for $76.  There is nothing unusual in these promtions. Teams the world over work hard to brings fans to the games.  However, teams are showing a good amount of creativity in putting together these promtions.  As we noted yesterday, attendance is down and teams must explore all options to keep fans coming.  crew-jersey

Soccer Business Bits: Attendance Worries?

mls With the first month of the season behind us,  enough games have been played to take a closer look at attendance around the League.  There have been successes (Seattle, Toronto), disappointments (Dallas, New York) and one pleasant surprise (Chivas).  Most of the teams in the League are off; some are way off.  The addition of Seattle’s big numbers mask the problem but the numbers are tracking well below those of 2008.  mls-daily.com does a great job of tracking the numbers here.

With the new stadium a season away, the Red Bulls get a pass, as do New England and Colorado with only one home date so far.  Despite its new stadium, RSL has also struggled to draw, but the weather excuse is probably most valid in Utah.  The Dynamo seem to be holding steady, and their history suggests attendance will pick up. Chicago is troubling, as are DC and San Jose.

Is it the economy?  The absence of Beckham? Bad weather?  Regardless of the reason, attendance is down for 10 franchises with some (Chicago & Colorado) down more than 30% from last year.  Perhaps most dire is the situation in Frisco, TX, where FC Dallas played before a remarkably sparse crowd (even the announced sub-7k attendance seemed very generous) in their weekend tilt against Toronto.  We have previously discussed the problems in Dallas, when this story raised some issues about the team’s pre-sale efforts.

We will keep tracking these numbers as the season rolls along and the weather warms.  However, summer is usually a low point for League attendance (especially in the South).  Let us know if you have any thoughts on the attendance issues facing MLS in 2009.

Interview with Rob Thomson, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the Kansas City Wizards

wozardsOver the last few weeks we have posted a number of interviews with MLS Team executives regarding efforts to market their Clubs in the current economic and technological climate.  Each team has unique circumstances that make their marketing and fan outreach efforts fascinating fodder for discussion and analysis. This week we touch base with Rob Thomson, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the Kansas City Wizards.  The Wizards are in their second year in cozy Community America Ballpark after spending the last decade at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium. The Wizards are working toward building a new stadium at the Bannnister Mall site near Kansas City.

Mr. Thomson is in his second stint with Wizards after starting with the franchise as an intern in 1997.  He quickly moved up the ladder in the team’s P.R. department until 2001 when he left to  complete his graduate work at the University of Kansas.  After finishing at the University of Kansas he became a professor and coach at Jewell College before returning to the P.R. world for the Brigade of the Arena Football League.  He returned to the Wizards after they were purchased by OnGoal.

Thanks to Mr. Thomson.  Check out our other recent marketing interviews with Revolution COO Brian Bilello and  Dynamo Senior Vice President Rocky Harris

Footiebusiness.com: What is Kansas City doing differently for marketing in 2009?  How has the economy changed/impacted those efforts?

Robert Thomson: We have to be much more creative in our advertising plan. With a nine-month season, it takes a lot of effort to put together a sustainable plan, which is why it is essential to develop relationships and find key partners who are very supportive. It has helped that a lot of electronic and print outlets need advertisers, especially due to the diminishing money spent in the automotive spectrum. As far as overall marketing, we do a lot of grassroots efforts: fliers, chalking sidewalk in the Latino communities, creative email blasts, viral campaigns, etc., but we also have a promotion/theme tied to each home game and segment large groups around those (http://kc.wizards.mlsnet.com/t105/fans/theme_nights/2009/index.jsp). Ticket packages are geared around families, food/beverage deals, gas (we provide buses for groups of 50), and we have free parking. We also have been very aggressive with our Latino base and it has clearly shown the last two season.

FB: You are now in your second season at Community America Ballpark.  How does the size of the stadium impact how you market the team?  At the same time, with the planned opening of the new stadium in 2011, how do you market with an eye towards the move?

RT: We do have a capped inventory and can be somewhat hindered in corporate sales due to our temporary facility. The future is unbelievably bright here and our vision toward the future is spectacular. That being said, we all put a ton of effort into making our temporary home now look and feel like a soccer stadium. It will be nice not to play in a 70,000-seat stadium or a 10,000-seat stadium in the future, but we all work extremely hard for the present. The size of CommunityAmerica Ballpark doesn’t necessarily dictate how we market as much as the location, game elements/promotions, and schedule of events going on around Kansas City. Our organization and fans are thrilled to have our own home in the future.

FB: How have the Wizards utilized online avenues such as social networking sites, SUM’s new online ad network, etc… to market the team?  Do you find that these efforts increase interest in the Wizards or impact attendance?

RT: We focus a lot of our efforts on online communities, since soccer fans in this country are very tech-savvy and most of their information comes through the internet, plus it is so global. We are very active on many new-media and social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Picasa and YouTube. Our team blog, www.hillcrestroadblog.com, is very well read and provides another area for our fans to interact directly with the club. To that end, our President Robb Heineman and other staff members contribute on Big Soccer regularly to seek information and inform our fans. The SUM online ad network is a great tool for our League, and we have run ads through this network, especially before our opening game.

The biggest impact on interest and attendance is helping us to turn casual fans into hardcore fans. By offering more in-depth information through the blog and embracing these social-media communities where our fans talk about us, we are showing them a different look at the organization and reaching out to them in ways not previously done in many sports. Our fans have become more engaged, more interested and, thus, more likely to attend matches and watch games on TV than they might have been in the past.

 

 

FB: Although we are only a month into the season, fans and the media have been fawning over some of the marketing/fan outreach efforts in Seattle? Is there anything that an established franchise such as Kansas City can incorporate from those efforts?

RT: Each MLS market is so different, as is the type and location of stadiums. Everyone is excited for what is happening in Seattle as it is great for the League. We only compare ourselves to us and what we can do better. Kansas City and the Midwest have a lot of families and youth soccer players. So, while beer per caps in Seattle and Toronto might be higher than ours, we probably sell more merchandise items catered to younger fans. In our new facility, we have planned on having our own English Pub, which will increase the 21-34 year olds; a very important demographic. I do know that some teams have looked at what we do in marketing such as: media games, doubleheaders with area college teams, weekly TV and radio shows (and broadcasts) in English and Spanish, player pop-ins at youth practices, programming tied to young business executives, our dealings with the media and advertisers, Latino Barnstorming Tours, post-game shots on goal for fans, our busing program, and many more.

FB Is it inconsistent/challenging for teams to target “hard core” supporters, non-soccer sports fans and families?  How do you resolve those inconsistencies/challenges?

RT: There are so many ways to reach people now that we target our marketing accordingly. We get a lot of earned media in Parent magazines and Mom-2-Mom blogs, then in alternative newspapers and morning radio shows, and also on every newscast forecasting with our logo on the day of our next game. The tones are much different in what we want to brand, but we try and hit every possible angle and outlet. One advantage for Kansas City is that we might not have the amount of options as other markets (NY, DC, Boston, Houston, LA, etc) and we are the only MLS team within a nine-hour drive.
Once again, thanks to Rob Thomson.

Expansion Update: Portland in Trouble?

pgeWe have discusssed Portland’s expansion bid on multiple occassions.  Recently, these stories have focused on the “funding gap” between the money promised by Merritt Paulson, the City of Portland and other sources.  Specifically, there is more than a $28 million hole, even if the City is able to sell more than $35 million in bonds in a tough market (if not, the gap is much larger).  Now citizens in Portland opposed to the deal are speaking out in an effort to kill the deal.  The Oregonian is reporting that a number of local architects are working to preserve Memorial Coliseum by placing it on the National Register of Historic Places.  If that effort is succesful, it would block the two-step required to get the Timbers their own stadium.  Portland’s minor league team is supposed to get a new stadium in place of the Coliseum while the Timbers are supposed to move to PGE Park.

Sensing the shifting winds, Mr. Paulson submitted an op-ed piece to the Oregonian in support of the deal.  In the article, he discusseds the proposed improvements to PGE Park, the importance of the Beavers and Timbers to Portland and the financial benefits of the new construction.  Also important is the connection between the stadiums, the Rose Quarter and downtown Portland.  At the same time, other columnists are taking a different view.

Just a few weeks ago, MLS fans were ecstatic about the prospect of a three team rivalry in the Pacific Northwest.  Now, the Portland deal is facing a number of hurdles that might slow down the process.  These challenges are typical for stadium construction projects nationwide.  Building multi-million dollar public/private projects is difficult and such efforts rightfully face significant amounts of scrutiny.  We will continue to monitor the efforts in Portalnd; it will certainly be a developing story over the next two years.

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