The MLS Playoffs: Business Blogging the ESPN Broadcast

houstonWith the first game of the MLS playoffs upon us, we thought we would follow the ESPN2 broadcast of the Seattle/Houston playoff opener.  The game is up against the World Series, NBA Basketball and various NHL games.  Despite the ratings for MLS during the regular season, the playoff game faces series competition.

Before we discuss the broadcast, it is worthwhile to address ESPN efforts to promote the match through its various platforms.  On ESPN.com, the game got little mention on the home page.  There was substantial coverage on Soccernet, but the lack of prominence of the home page is fairly disappointing.  There was similarly limited discussion of the playoffs on the ESPN networks in the lead up to the game.

Importantly, the broadcast was preceded by an ESPN 30/30 special.  As a result, there were no concerns about missing parts of the match.  The broadcast begin with a well produced opening highlighting MLS fans and a focus on the Dynamo and Sounders.  The producers made an interesting decision to start with Harkes and JP Dellecamera on the field and followed with shots of Allen Hopkins participating in the “March to the Match”.  The pre-game show was sponsored by VW

VW also got the first spot of the broadcast and was followed Pepsi Max (who has been active in MLS ads recently), Rent-a-Center, Wendy’s and Chevy.  The studio show included usual suspects, Stone, Lalas and Foudy.  The pre-game provided analysis of the Seattle game and provided some promotion of the Sunday broacast.   There were also spots for Gatorade, Adidas (that strange MLS ad), and a series of local spots.  The pregame concluded with a second VW ad, a return of the Pepsi Max spot  (which was amusing the first five times it ran this year), Best Buy and Axe.

The ESPN Axis technology is always outtanding, and is something ESPN should make more use of during the broadcast.  Budweiser presented the starting lineups.  The X-Box tarps were very visible throughout.  VW had space on the screen near the scoreboard early in the match.  It only took 5 mintues to bring Hopkins into the game as a sideline reporter.  Gatorade also grabbed some upper left screen time, as did adidas and Axe. Full credit to ESPN for early camera work.  There were great shots of the shoving between Onstad and Montero and the rest of the melee.  The booth did manage a plug for the weekend EPL broadcasts.  A note to ESPN; the Seattle attendance is a great story, but not every three minutes.  If you have to keep telling us, it isn’t that impressive.

At halftime, there were ads for Gatorade, Penzoil, local ads and lots of ESPN sports.   The halftime show was preented by Axe and thier commercials were apparent.  There were also spots for Best Buy, the Marines, Budweiser and Best Buy

This is just a taste.  We will stop here in the second half.  If something dramatic happens in a business sense, we will add it tomorrow. xbox

Soccer Business Bits: MLS TV Ratings Climbing

soccertvTV contracts are the financial life blood of professional sports leagues, and MLS is no different.  While the League relies on multiple sources of revenue, the ultimate goal is to generate substantial rights fees from television partners. The amount MLS can earn from those rights fees are largely determined by ratings (and the packaging of FIFA properties owned by SUM).  MLS fans are keenly interested in the League’s ratings, and  The Sports Business Daily has provided some interesting information regarding 2009 ratings,

According to Austin Karp’s article, MLS ratings on ESPN2 were up almost 15%.  Most dramatic, were the ratings of Beckham’s Galaxy, who drew almost 420,00 viewers per match.   After Los Angeles, Seattle was the next biggest national television draw on ESPN2 broadcasts.   From July 25 until the end of the year, MLS averaged 319,00 viewers per game.  MLS also saw an increase on FSC, with an additional 13k tuning into MLS matches compared to 2008.  The actual number went from 51k to 64k.   The article is here.

These numbers are a great sign for MLS.  By way of comparison, MLS numbers fall right in the middle of ESPN2 numbers for EPL broadcasts. Overall, the numbers are actually more favorable for MLS if you average them out.  These numbers somewhat vindicate the ESPN decision to move the MLS game of the week around (something we opposed).   By way of comparison, these numbers are comparable to those of the NHL on versus, which averaged about 310,000 viewers per game last year.

As we have noted previously, ESPN has landed some outstanding matchups for the playoffs, including both Seattle and Los Angeles.  If the League and ESPN promote the games actively, there is a chance for an outanding rating on Thursday and Sunday.

Soccer Business Bits: Stadium News in DC, Playoff Broadcasts and Revs Make a Change

unitedSome quick hits from around American soccer, starting with DC United, where efforts are ongoing to find a permanent home for the team.  We have previously written about efforts to build in various parts of Virginia, DC proper or Maryland.  Now, Steve Goff is reporting that DCU is now in talks with another Virginia municipality about a possible stadium.  According to Goff’s article, United is not  yet ready to reveal its new potential partner.

Despite these efforts, we continue to believe that RFK (whether a new stadium or a renovation), is the best option.  The stadium is located directly on the Metro, within the district and reachable by fans both in VA and MD.  We will continue to monitor this situation.

ESPN2 will broadcast two matches from the first round of the MLS playoffs, including a primetime match in Seattle on Thursday, which will certainly show well on televsion.  That theme will continue on Sunday when ESPN2 will show the first leg of the LA playoff Derby, which seems a certainty to sell out.   In the second leg, ESPN2 will put the Columbus/RSL match on in prime time on Thursday and follow with the return leg in Los Angeles on Sunday.   FSC will get both legs of the Revs/Chicago and Telefutura will get the return leg from Houston.

Speaking of the Revs/Chicago, New England made the interesting choice to change their home date against Chicago from Saturday to Sunday.  There are many possible motivations for this move, but from a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense.  The prior late afternoon start on Halloween was guaranteed to limit attendance by precluding both families and adults with kids from attending.  Given the Revs typical difficulty in drawing for playoff games, any effort that can bring fans to the game is worth pursuing.

Bringing the Fans to MLS: The Hardcore Fan

fansThe MLS playoffs are upon us.  Traditionally, this has been a time of disappointing attendance in MLS when only the most hard core supporters still come out to support the team.  Because of a lack of group sales, lead time and cold weather, attendance frequently suffers (although this year may prove the exception).  Because of their committment to their teams and MLS, we wanted to ask a couple of these rabid supporters what drives them as MLS fans and what they want to see from their League.    Today, we present interviews with two of the hardest core supports.  Monty Rodriguez of the Midnight Riders and Corey Jamison of ESC.  Thanks to both for helping us look at these hard core fans.

During the regular season, we presented a five part series on bringing fans to MLS.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here part IV here and part V here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and acquaintances in an effort to determine what will bring more fans to MLS.   Here are Corey and Monty’s thoughts.

Footiebusiness.com  What does MLS (not a specific team) need to do in order to keep you coming?

Monty Rodriguez:  Keep improving the product. Increase the cap, let teams have more flexibility, and don’t favor certain teams over others. In all honesty, I’ll probably keep coming no matter what, but it’s important that they make these changes to improve the league.

Corey Jamison:  1. (continue to) Keep the game honest to the world standard (no overtime periods, etc). 2. Maintain a high level of play, and look to improve upon it. 3. Grow young American players.

FB:  What does your team do to keep you coming?

MR:  A lot of the above applies. A new stadium would be wonderful. Open up the purse strings a bit, spend to the cap, do a better job scouting.

CJ:  1. Produce a relatively competitive team (not every single year, but most years).
2. Respect the fans. (I root for NY, this they have not done)
3. Provide a reasonably compelling reason to show up (quality stadium/environment to watch the game, etc.)

FB:  Do you feel that you have a vested an interest in seeing great atmosphere/attendance at your home games as the team/League? Why/Why not?

MR: Yes … being head of the major supporter’s group, knowing the team appreciates the fan support, both of those are key.

CJ: Yes, as it enhances my experience in and enjoyment of the game. I belong to a supporters club to not just watch the game, but to be a part of it.

FB: What (if anything) do you do to increase interest/attendance in MLS?

MR: Improve the product first and foremost. That’ll help attendance. Marketing has to get better (both team level and MLS level). Show the competitive nature of the league. Show the cheap prices (as compared to other sports). Hell, show people some of the players that have played in this league and gone elsewhere, their improvement happened here.

CJ: I help run a supporters club, but basically I support my team and encourage others to join me and do the same. By standing and singing for 90 minutes, hopefully we create a fun atmosphere that will encourage other like-minded individuals to enjoy the game with us, and come back for more.

FB: If an MLS team is playing a non-MLS team in a competition or friendly, for whom do you cheer? Why?

MR: In a competition, the MLS team … it’s good for the league. In a friendly, I don’t pay attention.

CJ: It depends on the competition, really. I would say most games that my team isn’t in, I wouldn’t watch. I suppose I would generally root for the success of an MLS team in international competition to increase the stature of our league, but, RSL winning an off-season friendly against a second division German side while touring Spain for fitness…doesn’t exactly rile my competitive spirit.

Thanks to both for their thoughts. As we have said all year, these are the fans many MLS organizations are now trying to reach and keep.  We have seen the success in places like Columbus and now Seattle and Toronto.  Will the success spread?

One plug. We recommend you check out our guest spot on MatchFit USA’s Soccer Show.

The Monday After: Attendance Numbers and How The Playoff Clinchers Were Not What MLS Wanted.

mlsThe MLS regular season came to a conclusion on Sunday after a weekend of exciting games, miserable weather and varied attendance.  The final “weekend” got started on Thursday night in Chicago where an announced crwod of 17k plus braved monsoon like conditions to see the home team clinch a playoff birth.  Similar weather conditions greeted Toronto and New York as they closed Giants Stadium before 21k.

The action continued in Kansas City, where 10,300 were at Community America Ballpark to see the Wizards draw DC United.  In Salt Lake City, more than18k filled Rio Tinto to see RSL clinch an improbable spot in the MLS playoffs.  In Seattle, a record crowd of more than 33k celebrated the expansion side’s run into the playoffs with a dramatic come from behind victory over desperate Dallas.  In Los Angeles a reported sell out of 27k were in attendance to see Beckham, Donovan and Co. close out the regular season with a clean sheet against San Jose.

On Sunday, Columbus celebrated their Supporters Shield victory before at Crew Stadium as they fell to the Revs before 17,500 and back in Los Angeles, 14,500 saw the final regular season game at the Home Depot Center as Houston beat Chivas 3-2.  Overall, it was a very nice weekend at MLS stadiums and the fans were treated to some dramatic and exciting games.  A final attendance report from MLS is here.

So the playoffs are set, with RSL and New England holding down the final spots. Fans of these teams are obviously excited, but what about the League? If MLS could handpick its playoff teams, who would they be? If we were MLS, we would hope for:  Galaxy, Sounders, Dynamo, RSL, Fire, TFC, United and the Crew. These are teams that  typically draw well and/or are recognizable to sports media outside the somewhat insular world of MLS.

All in all, MLS is probably pretty happy. Beckham and Blanco are still big draws, while Seattle guarantees at least one big crowd.  Houston typically draws well for playoff games.  The League manages to avoid cavernous Giants Stadium and and its two smallest venues in San Jose and Kansas City. The glaring omission is TFC where the great support continues to go unrequited by the team on the field.  At some point the support will wane if the team continues to falter and quit as they appeared to do on Saturday.

Over the week, we will do a series of stories on the playoffs, playoff attendance and playoff fans.

Soccer Business Bits: Video Games and MLS Attendance: Fifa ’10 Hits the Shelves

video gameWith a relatively quiet day in the world of American Soccer Business and with the much heralded (and promoted) Fifa ’10 hitting stores this week, we thought we would revisit the correlation between video games and soccer attendance. This is something we discussed over the Summer and thought it worth revisiting today as reports are coming in from around the Country about the game flying off the shelves and tough to find.  The question for MLS; do video game sales equal MLS interest?

At about the same time I was wrapping up high school in the early 1990’s, SEGA was the premier video game system.  Arguably the most popular game of that period was the EA Sports  hockey.  Whether in high school, college or elsewhere, boys around the country were gathering in basements and dorm rooms for tournaments of NHL hockey.  Although most knew little about the sport, regular game play brought names like Pavel Bure, Mike Richter and Ray Borque to the forefront of sports culture in the United States.  Soon thereafter, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup and the popularity of hockey exploded.  Video games weren’t the only factor, but the NHL had achieved an enormous amount of brand recognition through video games and created life long fans of the sport because of that first connection.  Can MLS achieve a similar success?

This is part five of our MLS attendance series.  You can see part I here,  part II here, part III here and part IV here. We have collected anecdotes from hundreds of friends, coworkers, fans, families, store owners and acquaintances in an effort to determine what will bring more fans to MLS. We have asked these questions at soccer matches of all levels, dinner parties, social gatherings and board meetings.  We have been asking these questions since February with an eye towards seeking out trends about MLS fandom and what brings people to Major League Soccer League stadiums.

On the cover of the 2010 version of “FIFA“, are American  (and Chivas USA midfielder) Sacha Kljestan and Mexican (and Chicago Fire forward) Cuauhtémoc Blanco (and a certain Chelsea midfielder).  Soccer has long been one of the easier sports to translate into video games (along with hockey and football), and thus millions of American males have dutifully purchased the game regardless of whether they know anything about soccer.  And from our interviews, it is readily apparent; the less they know about soccer, the more likely they are to play with teams from Major League Soccer (many soccer fans migrate to the EPL). As a result, it is these fans that may embrace the teams and players from MLS.

From  our interviews and discussions, it appears that video games are having this effect. I’ve spoken with a number of folks (adults and teens) who started to become soccer fans because of their video game experiences.  They caught some of the Confederations Cup and recognized players from their game.  These same people now record Champions League games simply because of video game generated interest.  Many have since seen MLS matches and have kept an eye on their favorite team. Will it continue?  Can MLS keep these  fans?  Are video games a legitimate method for attracting fans?  Let us know your thoughts.

Promotions! Promotions! Promotions!

mlsAs we do every few weeks, we like to take a look around MLS to see what teams are doing to create buzz and increase attendance for the upcoming weekend of games.  With the last regular season matches upon us, now is a good time to take a last look at promotions for 2009.

In New York, the Red Bulls are promoting their last ever game at Giants Stadium with a number of events including T-shirts for the first 10k through the door and a number of additional surprises for fans.  The final game Family pack includes 4 tickets and either 4 t-shirts or a $20 food and beverage credit.  The package sells for $89.95.

In Los Angeles, Chivas is promoting is Fan Appreciation Day for their Sunday game against Houston. The event includes free giveaways, musical acts and discount tickets.  The Chivas Family Pack is $58 and includes 4 tickets, 4 hot dogs and 4 hats.

A while back, we wrote about RSL’s new Mangia service that allows for the delivery of food directly to your seat at Rio Tinto. Mangia allows fans to order food by texting their order to Mangia.   For their last home game, RSL is offering $1 hot dogs through the service. Fans must sign up online prior to coming to the game.    The team is also offering a 4 ticket, 4 hot dogs and 4 drinks Family Pack for $88.

In Columbus, the primary promotion actually focuses on the day after the last regular season game, when the Crew will host their team awards session.  Interestingly, the event is characterized as a “Casino Night” that will include the awards ceremony, food and fake gambling.  Tickets for the event start at $15 and can be combined with tickets to the Columbus home finale for $30 for tickets to both.  This seems like a great event and an outstanding idea to included fans in an awards night.

Attendance was great last weekend around the League. It will be interesting to see if the teams can keep it going for the last regular season game.

Covering the Coverage: The Internet

computerAs part of our ongoing series looking at media coverage of soccer in the United States, we have explored the various mediums covering the game.  In Part I, we took a look at the mainstream media.  To read that article, click  here.  Thereafter, we took a look at sports radio. Subsequently, we took a look at local newspapers.  While these media are important, there is no question that the internet is the primary source of soccer coverage and the primary  medium used by soccer fans to get their fix.  To explore the coverage of soccer on the internet, we spoke with three recognized names in American soccer coverage.  Steve Goff of the Washington Post Soccer Insider, Ives Galarcep of Soccer By Ives and Jason Davis of MatchFit USA.  Look below for their thoughts on the coverage of soccer on the internet, and check back for more stories in this series.

Footiebusiness.com:  Your blog covers soccer on a local, national and international level.  What types of stories drive the most traffic (e.g. National Team vs. MLS vs. Red Bulls vs. DC United vs. UEFA)?

Ives Galarcep:  National team stories drive the most traffic, followed by MLS stories and Americans Abroad stories. My Q&As and running commentaries are pretty popular as well.

Steve Goff: USA national team drives the most traffic, followed by DC United.

Jason Davis: National Team, by far.  It’s clear that my potential audience increases dramatically during periods of USMNT activity, and that inevitably leads to more traffic.  It makes sense strictly from a numbers perspective; while a narrow focus might give me a higher profile within a smaller community, the broader national appeal of the National Team give me the ability to attract more readers if my content is good.

FB: Do you pay attention to the sources of traffic on your blog?  Do you find that links from other soccer sites drive traffic or do most of your readers go directly to your site?  Similarly, do you track which links people use on your site to go elsewhere?  Do these factors dictate which stories you cover?

IG: Most of my readers are regulars, with about a quarter coming from other sites. I don’t really track outbound links much though.

SG: Most of my readers come directly to my blog. However, I do receive traffic through secondary sites such as bigsoccer.com and dcunited’s in-house blog. I do not trace the popularity of links that I provide, but based on the number of comments, I have a good idea what’s popular.

JD: Referral links were my lifeblood for a time, and my traffic was almost entirely dependent on whether or not I was linked to by a much more popular site than mine.  As time has gone on, I get more direct traffic than I used to, though the links still drive a good amount of my daily hits.  The links people follow out aren’t generally something I worry myself with; many of them are referenced news stories, so they aren’t necessarily indicative of anything other than the reader looking for background information.  I’m very much an “if it interests me, it will probably interest others” type of writer, so I go with my instincts and try not to over-analyze my traffic, or let things like exit links dictate my content.

FB:  How has the blog changed the way you cover soccer?  Do your sources act differently when they know a story might be headed for the blog as opposed to a different medium?

IG: As a newspaper writer I was more of a team beat writer who focused on team news and features, with my column allowing me to write about a broader range of subjects. Now, with the site (I’m not a fan of calling it a blog, but that’s the label it will have until I re-design it into a more news site format) I can write about a broader range of topics. With my readership more evenly spread out around the country I have moved away from a New York/New Jersey focused site to a national site. Actually, I moved my coverage to a more national approach and the readership eventually took on that shape. As for sources, I think most folks in the American soccer community realize that my site is read by a pretty big audience so if anything it has made securing interviews easier. There are a few instances where some media relations people don’t quite grasp the power of new media, and are still stuck in the old way of thinking that traditional media (such as newspapers) are king, but more and more people are beginning to understand the power of the internet and the influence of websites like mine.

SG: For better or worse, the blog has become the priority because of its immediacy. Indeed, I always inform someone whether the interview is for the blog or paper/web.

FB: You made a bold decision to blog full time.  Has the blog increased in readership since you made that decision?  How do you decide what events to cover live?

IG: To give you an idea of the change when I went independent, the best month I ever had traffic-wise on my old newspaper blog was 375K pageviews in a month. My first month with the new site had 750K pageviews. This past summer, we averaged 1.5 million pageviews per month.

FB:  Do you have any interest/input into the advertising that appears on the blog?  How is the advertising content for your blog decided?

IG: For the first year and a half of the new site I sold all the non-Google ads myself. In the past four months I have begun working with an agency that has been selling ads for me. Most of the advertisers have been soccer specific, or companies looking to target the American soccer fan demographic, which is what my site delivers.

SG: I have no involvement with ads and don’t know the process.

JD: I’m still working on a low enough level that almost all of my advertising comes from affiliate membership, and is therefore commission-based.  They drive almost no revenue, but they give the site more of professional image in my mind.  I can choose the ads that appear, and obviously attempt to have them match the content of focus of the blog.  I do have a few direct partnerships, which obviously guarantee a little money, and I’m hoping to work towards more in the future as long as they don’t compromise the look and feel of the site.

Thanks to Steve Goff, Ives Galarcep and Jason Davis for their thoughts.

Red Bull Arena: Will it Matter?

red-bulls2We have repeatedly posted about the excitement surrounding Red Bull Arena and all that it could mean for the franchise and MLS.  The stadium is beautiful, is intended to help revitalize Harrison, NJ and will be a showpiece for soccer in the United States.  However, the questions remains; will the new stadium impact Red Bull attendance or the team’s profile in the New York media market?  Based on our experience Saturday night in Newark, the answer is still very much in question.

For those who don’t know, in October 2007, the Prudential Center opened in Newark, NJ as the home of NJ Devils of the NHL, Seton Hall basketball and more.  The stadium is state of the art, cost more than $375 million to build and was intended as part of a downtown revitalization for the City of Newark that included retail, residential units and more.  The Devils are a perennially good team, and have won three Stanley Cups over the last 15 years.  Newark and Harrison are essentially neighbors, so the Prudential Center represents an interesting comparison for Red Bull Arena.

On Saturday Night, I took in my first game at the “Pru” as the Devils hosted the team formerly known as the Hartford Whalers. I had dinner with 5 friends in downtown Newark and then walked to the Arena among a sea of red jerseys.  We had purchased tickets on Stub Hub for essentially 60 cents on the dollar.  The facility was beautiful, yet remarkably, only about half full.  And this is the issue.  Just starting its third year, the bloom is already off the rose.

Our seats were 15 rows from the ice and we could have walked down much further and found 6 seats together.  The most expensive seats were essentially empty (although many are reportedly sold).  The upper level was more crowded, but whole sections were largely unoccupied.  Attendance was reported as 15k, but the sense from those around me was that the number was closer to 10k.  In sum, a beautiful new New Jersey Arena in its third year, with a powerhouse team as a tenant, was half empty on a Saturday night in October.  It is also worth noting that the New York Mets couldn’t generate sell-outs for their new stadium in year one in Queens.

This is the nightmare scenario for the the Red Bulls.  Build a sparkling new stadium with all the amenities, public transportation accessibility, natural grass and fill it with star players.  Pack in crowds for all 25k seats for a few games and then slowly watch attendance drop off.  Sure, the new revenue streams will be outstanding (recall that Rio Tinto has raised RSL’s revenue 42%).  But will Red Bull be happy with 13k on a Saturday night in August? Many in the New Jersey/New York area have no idea the new stadium exists and thus there is limited excitement about its debut.

Many American soccer fans think that the stadium will be a savior for a franchise that sits dead last in MLS.  Others believe that Red Bull management has been playing opossum, saving resources for the big opening.  The latter may be correct, but the former seems a bit of a strectch.  Stadiums generate revenue, but they are no guarantee of long term attendance increases (hello FC Dallas).  My experience at the Devils game was oustanding (even if the Whalers went down to defeat), but shocking in the emptiness of the building.

So the question remains; will it matter?  Will Red Bull Arena take the franchise to new levels and elevate soccer in New York, keep interest at the same level or something different?  We take a middle view…if the team does well in its new digs, interest will increase, but a middling team will continue to receive middling interest in any venue.

The Monday After: Great Attendance and Mass Confusion

mlsAn enormous weekend of games in MLS with playoff spots, Champions League entry and the Supporters Shield all up for grabs.  Every game was frought with tension and meaning as teams scrambled for points on the pennultimate weekend of the regular season.  The weekend got started in Toronto where a sell out crowd of more than 20k saw the home side hold off RSL and move into the last playoff spot.  In New England, more than 18k braved a blustery night to watch the Revs tie Chicago.

Despite similar bad weather in the District, more than 16k saw United pull off an important 1-0 win over the East leading Crew.  Later that night, more than 15k packed Pizza Hut Park to watch the in form home team win yet again, over teetering Colorado.  In Los Angeles, 12k saw Chivas tie San Jose, while a sell-out crowd saw Kansas City fall to the visitors from Seattle.  In the weekend finale on Sunday, just about 30k saw the Galaxy and Dynamo play to a scoreless draw.

These are across the board great numbers for the League.  Whether the great attendance stems from the playoff race, a desire to use package tickets, or something else, it was great to see such solid crowds on some bad weather nights.  With one more weekend left in the regular season, it will be interesting to see if the crowds continue.

The other big story from MLS this weekend is the seeming impossibility of determining who will clinch the last playoff spot.  With the possibilit of five teams tied for the last spot after next weeks games, the analysis will like devolve to the fourth or fifth level of tiebreakers.  Among the teams clinging to the playoff dream, it appears that TFC is closest to controlling  its own destiny and has an away date at bottom feeder RBNY.  Everything else might not be solved until Sunday afternoon.

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