MLS Expansion: Vancouver in 2011?

vancouverAs part of our ongoing examination of MLS expansion targets, it is now time to explore Vancouver’s bid for 2011.  Jeff Mallet, Greg Kerfoot, Stev Luczo and Steve Nash (yes that Steve Nash), are the men leading the charge to bring MLS to Vancouver in 2011.  The proposed team would play at BC Place Stadium following a renovation and in a Soccer Specific Stadium sometime thereafter.   Vancouver is already home to the Whitecaps of the USL and would add a second Canadian team to MLS.

The ownership group seems solid.  Mr. Kerfoot has long been a friend of soccer and Steve Nash adds glamour and splash to the ownership.  The owners have the money; Kerfoot is a billionare.  The Whitecaps have done well at the gate and the market is hungry for higher level soccer.   BC Place is well situated and the proposed soccer stadium is also in a solid location.

All that said, color me unconvinced.  The stadium situation is murky (there is no guarantee the sss wil be built), and BC place is not an ideal soccer venue.  More importantly, I question how much the League really wants a second Canadian franchise.  Montreal was a unique creature; both because of its rivalry with Toronto and high level support (just see the massive support Montreal got for its Champions League game).  Vancouver is way off the typical sports beaten path (just ask the Grizzilies of the NBA), and would add even more lengthy travel to the MLS season.

All that said, I think the Vancouver bid is attractive for many of the same reasons I support Portland.  The money is there, the support is there and as a “mid-size city” (for sports purposes), I think it is a good fit for MLS.  With the target date for announcing new franchises approaches, we will continue to monitor Vancouver and the rest of the bids.bc-place

MLS Portland Heating Up?

portlandLast week, we  posted about Portland’s efforts to land a Major League Soccer Franchise in 2011.  On Tuesday, Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Timbers and driving force behind the Portland bid, took his pitch to the Oregon Legislature.  Paulson is asking the Legislature to revisit a 2003 bill that would use Major League Baseball player salaries to pay for stadium construction (remember when Portland was chasing an MLB franchise?).

Giving the economic climate, Paulson wisely couched his message in terms of jobs creation.  Because his project includes the renovation of PGE Park and the construction of a new home for his minor league baseball team, Paulson can pitch his project as a two-for-one.

Action is also taking place on the city level, because Paulson is seeking funding on all fronts.  In a remarkable display of chutzpah, Paulson took his argument directly to the people, through a commentary piece in the Oregonian.  In his article, Paulson states that he is seeking $35-38 million from the City to improve PGE Park, and trumpets his willingness to pony up the $40 million franchise fee.  Of Course, it is only a few paragraphs later when he notes the need to build a new home for his baseball team.

As I have stated before, I think Portland would be a great venue for MLS.  With limited competition for sports dollars and media coverage, and a strong repuation as a hotbed for soccer, Portland seems like perfect destination for the League.  The deadline for City action is March 15.  Footiebusiness.com will keep tracking all of the expansion bids.  We of course welcome your comments on the viability of this bid as well.  mls

T.V. Tibits: MLS announces Direct Kick 2009

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According to a League press release, MLS has announced the 2009 Direct Package.  The 2009 version will provide up to 130 matches during the MLS season for a flat rate of $79.  Available through both cable and dish, the package will include playoff games and regional pre and post game shows.  The package does not include games televised on ESPN, FSC, ABC and Telefutura.  The package will be offered to commercial establishments for a flate rate of $100.

The package continues to offer great value to MLS fans.  Between the national television packages and Direct Kick, fans are provided a full slate of games from across the country and a peek into the voices and advertising of local markets. While production value is often lacking, it is fun to watch broadcasts from around the country. 

In other TV news, it was recently announced that Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has purchased an 80% stake in GolTV Canada. The purchase was designed to expand MLSE’s penetration into soccer television while providing TFC with its own broadcast outlet.  Like its American counterpart,  GolTV Canada broadcasts matches from European and South American Leagues.

Interestingly, the network does not yet have MLS broadcast rights.  However, the Nutrilite Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Championship will featured on the network.  The station is exploring such broadcasts and intends to offer shows covering TFC and MLS to its schedule.  TFC already does an oustanding job with broadcasts through its website.  Using GolTV’s platform seems like a great next step to expand TFC’s footprint throughout Canada.

Attendance in Seattle: 20k Season Tickets Sold

soundersPerhaps one of the most intriguing stories of the upcoming 2009 campaign is the addition of the Seattle Sounders as Major Legue Soccer’s 15th team.  Strong ownership (including the likes of Joe Roth, Paul Allen and Drew Carey), a long soccer tradition in the Pacific Northwest and the recent loss of the Seattle Supersonics are just some of the factors that make Seattle a very promising market.  Despite playing in cavernous Qwest Field, the Sounders have limited ticket sales (the per game number is approximately 24,500), and have continued to state that the lower bowl will be  sufficiently cozy to provide the soccer atmosphere so desired by the League (while keeping ticket scarcity in play).

Qwest still needs to prove itself as a soccer venue, but ticket sales will not be a problem for the inagural season.  According to a recent article in the Seattle Examiner, the team has already sold more than 20,000 combined season tickets.  The “combined” references split 1/2 season packages, but more than 16k full season tickets have already been sold.  Tickets range from  about $300-$700 (excluding those that include food service)  and the Sounders’ unique season ticket interface has provided an entertaining way to track ticket sales and ticket buyers.  Moreover, the Sounders will be using Qwest rent free; those ticket sales are headed directly to the bottom line.  Add in the reported $4,000,000 per year the team will receive from Microsoft (for jersey sponsorship rights) (not to mention Paul Allen’s billions), a local (non-cable) TV deal and the franchise seems started in the right direction.  xbox

Advertising has sprung up all over the city, with flyers, billboards and media shouting the Sounders’ message across multiple mediums.  According to to David Falk, the man in charge of the comprehensive Seattle Soccer website www.GoalSeattle.com, “KING 5 TV has become a vocal local parner with the club.”  Mr. Falk stated that there has been “lots of “free” advertising there already.”  He also said that, “Fox Sports Northwest is sponsoring a weekly Sounders show and also running replays of matches.  The business community seems to be joining the parade.”  The League has learned the hard way about the importance of a local media footprint.  Seattle seems to have gotten the message.

The season ticket numbers are the most impressive.  Toronto FC has been selling 16,500 season tickets per year and keeps a waiting list, while the rest of the League averages well below 10,000.  Only time will tell if these numbers will sustain.  The team has put together a roster designed to win now (despite potentially blowing DP money on the oft injured Freddy Ljungberg), which could help keep those fans for the long term.  Mr. Falk said that “to keep crowds of 20k plus after 2009, SSFC will need to be entertaining and contending for a playoff spot. They won’t need to be annual League Champions, but Seattle will expect them to give a good show, top effort and be competitive.

The mix of season ticket sales also seems to bode well for the Sounders staying power.  The team has been innovative in its approach, allowing fans with similar interests to find seats in the same section.  According to Mr. Falk, “The first ‘big push’ of season ticket members, which got the club to about 13,000 after only a few months in 2008, was a mix of soccer fans, Seahawks season ticket holders and corporate groups. As things have settled some of the Seahawks season holders have backed out (in part due to the economy) and have been replaced by a steady stream of local soccer fans.”

Seattle seems to have set the standard for future franchises interms of fan outreach, advertising and media relationships.  Results on the field must follow or business accumen may make little difference.  But less than a month from the franchise opener on ESPN2, the Sounders seem to have done almost everything right. 

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The Pan Pacific Championship: Waste of Time?

mlsMLS kicked off the second annual Pan Pacific Championship on Wednesday in Los Angeles.  Originally intended as a vehicle to promote Major League Soccer’s global footprint through the use of David Beckham, the tournament is already at risk of an early extinction.  Touted as a championship between teams in the Pacific Rim, the 2008 version included squads from MLS, Japan and Australia (including David Beckham’s L.A. Galaxy).  Played in Hawaii during the MLS preseason, the games averaged less than 20,000 per match despite Aloha Stadium’s 50k capacity.

In year two, the tournament again features the Galaxy, along with teams from Japan, Korea and China.  This time the venue was the Home Depot Center, and by all reports, attendance was embarrassing.  The L.A. Times used the word “sparse”, while other observers capped the attendance for the opening night doubleheader at “no more than 5,000.”  Without Beckham, the preseason tournament was not a big draw.

To me, the problem is one of expectations.  The League touts this tournament as a  “marquee” event that “crowns the best in the region.”  Instead, it is a series of warm-up games for teams preparing for next season.  While the Asian leagues certainly sent top teams, the matches are only an exhibition.   Claiming that the tournament “was embraced by soccer fans worldwide” makes the League sound foolish and slimy.  Celebrate the event for what it is, not what it will never become.

5,000 people attending a preseason soccer game in dreary L.A. weather is actually quite an accomplishment.  The games are televised on FSC, attract nice sponsors like JAL and provide a great opportunity to bring Asian soccer to the States while introducing MLS to fans of the Asian Leagues.  As a preseason event, the the tournament is a great idea.  However, the League risks alienating fans by couching the games as anything more than an exhibition.  Seattle in 2010???

Marketing to Adults: The Revs’ New Direction

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From the outset, MLS has faced something of an identity crisis.  Who was the target audience?  Men? Women? Familes? Hispanics? soccer fans? sports fans?  Both the League and various teams have targeted different groups with varying levels of success.  Like all marketing, imitation is king, and right now, “hardcore” fan is sitting on the throne.

Envious of the fans in Toronto, DC and more recently, the Nordecke in Columbus, teams have been searching for ways to bring spirited supporters to their events in larger numbers.  Typically young and usually male, teams are counting on these fans to bring atmosphere and passion to their stadiums.  While most teams have long had dedicated supporters’ sections with small bands of dedicated souls (like The Fort in New England or Section 8 in Chicago), there has been a definite shift towards increasing attendance among the younger, louder demographic.

Nowhere is this more clear than in New England, long considered a stronghold of the “soccer mom” set.  Becuase of Gillette Stadium’s size and the Revs’ apparent focus on selling to club teams, familes and “Beckhamites”,  the Revs have long suffered from poor atmosphere and ongoing clashes between the team and its hardcore supporters.  Two recent initiatives seem intended to  alter that reality.

The Revs’ new “Defend the Fort” initiative is offering $200 season tickets (for 20 games) in the supporters’ section behind the goal.  According to Revolution, COO Brian Biello, the campaign is intended “to create an authentic soccer atmosphere at Gillette Stadium.”  The intiative will also include social networking opportunities and events at bars around Boston.

The Revs also announced the organization of the inaugural “Revs Girls” squad, a new promotional group intended to make appearances on behalf of the team.  Notably, the interview requirements include a head shot, body shot and “form fitting clothing.”  I don’t think the target demographic is in question here.  There is no suggestion that the Revs Girls will be a cheer squad or dance team.  In a quote pulled by the Boston Herald, Mr. Biello stated that, “the girls will distribute posters and special offers to come to games.”  Apparently the Revs Girls will visit area pubs showing English Soccer as a way to entice soccer fans to give the Revs a try.

I’ll all for efforts to increase attendance, and as I have posted on many occassions, there is enormous soccer loving population in the U.S. that has not yet fallen for MLS. However,  I question whether passing out fliers to pub dwellers at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays will drive traffic to Foxboro (perhaps the Revs Girls should be visiting 20 something bars at night).  That said, I think the “Defend the Fort” initiative is a great idea.  As Columbus has shown with the Nordecke, the creation of a loud, large and passionate area of the stadium can alter the atmosphere throughout the complex.   The Revs are on the right track.

MLS announces deal with Brand Thunder

mlsMajor League Soccer recently announced a new relationship with Brand Thunder to provide fans with a customized a browsing experience, “tailored specifically to them.”   The high tech browsing “booms” will allow MLS fans to access video, news, blogs and more for whatever team or teams they choose. Patrick Murphy, the founder and CEO of Brand Thunder was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with footiebusiness.com prior to the scheduled launch of the first MLS team site at the end of this month.

According to Mr. Murphy, the “beauty”  of Brand Thunder, “is that you are always connected… you can create a feed that is always updated, driving traffic back to the site.”  Traditionally, once a web user leaves mlsnet.com or a team site, they must click back to the site to view more content. Mr. Murphy said that when using Brand Thunder, the teams/League, “become part of the browser; who cares where your fan goes…you are always connected.”

Mr. Murphy would not disclose the terms of the deal between Brand Thunder and MLS, however  when asked about individual team readiness for the Brand Thunder experience,  he stated that “because some teams are more advanced than others, you are a going to see a mix.”  As of now, Brand Thunder works only with Firefox, but according to Mr. Murphy, “we are working on an IE solution.”  However, he feels that the target demographic for Brand Thunder and MLS, “is a higher percentage Firefox user.”

Over the next couple of weeks, footiebusiness.com will be taking a look at the League’s efforts to connect with hardcore supporters.  The relationship with Brand Thunder seems like an important step in that direction.  In recent years the League has made a push towards younger demographics (and away from families), and this is typically a tech savvy group.  Moreover, because soccer struggles for coverage from mainstream media outlets, a fully integrated web experience provides a a nice opportunity for the League to connect with its fans.  computer

Women’s Professional Soccer enters into player contracts

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Women’s Professional Soccer has agreed to player contracts that will guarantee National Team players a minimum of $40,000 per year.  See the official press release here.   In addition, the League set a per team, $565,000 salary cap.  The Leaguewide average salary will be about $32,000. As of now, the players are not unionized.

According to the Sports Business Journal, WPS and its players also reached an agreement providing one year of injury protection.  In addition, the agreement permits players to approve/disapprove potential marketing and image usage and sets individual fee percentages for licensing.

As opening day nears, footiebusiness.com will provide additional coverage of the WPS business model, marketing and potential for success. WPS is set to kick off its inagural season on March 29

United to P.G. County

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A hot topic for both soccer and  mainstream media for the last few days has been DC United’s proposed move to Prince George’s County.  The move got closer to reality following an afternoon press conference in Largo, MD on Monday.   The proposed deal for a 24, 000 seat stadium is estimated to cost just under $200 million with 25% of the funding coming from the team.  According to the Washington Business Journal,

“a feasibility study published by the Stadium Authority in September guessed that the team was likely to produce $65 million to $80 million in economic activity annually, which could mean the equivalent of more than 1,000 full-time positions and bring in more than $5 million in annual tax revenue.”

As is almost a necessity when trying to sell a publicly financed sports arena, promises about dozens of additional (non DC United) events are at the forefront of the proposal.  These include concerts, college soccer, womens’ soccer and more.

Footiebusiness.com will certainly cover the financing of this deal as it moves forward.  But another interesting factor is the potential impact of such a move on United’s devoted fan base.  Will fans from Northern Virginia willingly make the trip to Maryland?   Steve Goff of the Washington Post pulled an interesting quote from DCU president Kevin Payne:

“Our largest fan base is from Northern Virgina… We recognize that we may to change our fan base a little bit.  It’s possible we’ll have more fans now from places like Prince George’s County, Anne Arundel County, Howard County, up into Baltimore.  Perhaps fewer will be able to make it from places like Loudon County.  But our fans are very, very loyal…We expect those fans to come with us.”

Most of the proposed sites are on the Metro which seems to mitigate against the attendance impact of moving out of the city. I suspect that the potential revenue from a new stadium would make up for the loss of some game day attendance.  No more rent and full control of concessions, combined with the ability to rent the stadium to other parties is likely too good a deal to pass up for Victor MacFarlane.

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MLS Contracts: Who owns David Beckham?

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If there is one thing the David Beckham situation has made abundantly clear, it’s that MLS does things differently.  During the negotiations with Milan, I’ve been repeatedly asked to explain the MLS contract system. In the traditional soccer model, players are owned by individual teams and transferred (i.e. sold)  when two clubs (and the subject player) agree.  Not so in MLS.

MLS operates as a “single entity” where teams are controlled by the League.  While the level of central control has lessened over the years, player contracts are still owned by Major League Soccer.  Thus, despite playing for the L.A.  Galaxy, Beckham’s contract is owned by the League.  Thus, to negotiate a transfer, both clubs, the player and MLS need to agree.

This obviously creates some conflicts.  Undoubtedly, David Beckham has enormously increased awareness of MLS worldwide.  Selling him now may not be in the best interest of the League and its owners, but very well might be in the best interest of the Galaxy on the field.  As of this writing, no deal has been done.  Galaxy owners AEG, have taken the party line with AEG President Tim Lewike stating, “I’m not sure they ever quite understood the magnitude of the losses the Galaxy and the league would have had to bear this season. They were very respectful discussions. We’re fine. There’s no issues here.”

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However, Lewike heads the business and not the soccer arm of AEG.  MLS teams are held to a tight salary cap, and head coach Bruce Arena would likely much prefer to dump Beckham and use the funds freed up under the salary cap, and transfer funds, to build a contender.  Instead, he may be left with an unhappy Beckham and another losing team.