The Business of Selling Online: MLS & WPS

Merchandise sales are an enormous component of revenue for professional sports leagues.  At the same time, apparel provides an outstanding free source of league exposure and advertising. Over the next few weeks, we thought we would take  a look at how various domestic soccer leagues and franchises sell their clothes and gear.  Today, we will start with a l0ok at how MLS and WPS sell material via their websites, http://www.mlsnet.com and womensprosoccer.com.  Other posts will look at licensed retailers online and the advertising of MLS and WPS merchandise.

The MLS website offers two obvious gateways to apparel sells on the home page.  There is a “shop” tab at the top of the page and a larger logo for “MLS Gear”.  Clicking on MLS Gear brings you to a sales homepage offering links to each team and a number of other links to various forms of merchandise grouped in a number of different ways. Items are also sorted by gender and by type.   The “shop” tab provides many of the same options in a dropdown format, while clicking on the tab sends an user to same location as the “gear” page.  The page also provides a box dedicated to RSL championship apparel and other items.  Further clicks through the page provide featured items.  Prices team by team are essentially the same for equal items.

The WPS site also offers a tab titled “shop” that brings you into a “shopwsp.com” where items are categorized by team and type in a fairy easy to follow arrangement.  Seemingly all WPS items are deeply discounted with prices of around 50% for most.  Interestingly, almost every page on the WPS site is filled with full price Puma gear.  While Puma is the primary sponsor of the League it is somewhat distressing that the bulk of items sold on the WPS are generic Puma items.

Both sites allow users to proceed to checkout in a fairly simply fashion and provide typically shopping cart and wish list items.  We know that there have historically been complaints about MLSGear and the ability to timely deliver goods, however those problems have dramatically improved over the last couple of years.

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The Business of the MLS Combine

It’s time for the MLS combine, when college seniors and Generation Adidas players showcase their wares for MLS coaches and general managers.  While the players receive most of the attention, we thought we would take a look at the business side of the combine.  Buzz Carrick, of the highly regarded 3rd Degree website, and a veteran of covering MLS combines, was kind enough of to answer a few questions for us about the business of the combine.  In addition to running 3rd Degree, Mr. Carrick also covers the draft for ESPN.com and provides detailed analysis of the prospects for both his website and ESPN.  Thanks to Mr. Carrick for his answers.

Footiebusiness.com: In what form are league sponsors typically present?  Is there signage,
apparel and/or personnel from these sponsors at the event?  To the extent
sponsor representatives are in attendance, what role do they play?

Buzz Carrick: The only sponsor I recall ever seeing is adidas.  They have signage on
the field and the team jerseys are all provided by them.  Also the teams are
named after shoes in the adidas soccer line.  I don’t know of any sponsor
representatives.

FB: The players will stay at the Westin in Fort Lauderdale.  Are meals
arranged for players? How about travel?  Are events arranged for down time?
Do sponsors get a certain amount of time with select players? Do the players
have non-field MLS responsibilties, such as interviews with MLSnet.com?

BC: I believe meals are arranged and the league pays for travel.  The players
are required to do some combine type testing, sprints, agility etc.  I think
interviews with any media, including MLSnet, are on a request basis.  There
is a chance to talk to any player post each combine game.  Players are given
time off and there is a rest day after the first two.  The keepers run
through a training/scouting session on the off day.

FB: How has media coverage of the event grown over the years?  How many
media typically attend?  What arrangements are made for media with respect
to player/coach access?  Do team personnel make themselves available to
media during the combine?

BC: Media coverage has gone up a little bit over the years but not by much.
Usually there are between 1 or 2 professional media and 5 or 6 “bloggers” on
their own dime.  There are no specific arrangements for media other than
asking the one MLS PR person around for an interview, or just walking up to
any given player after a game.  There is also no specific method to talk to
MLS coaches.  You can either go through the team PR, or just walk over and
talk to them.  There is a press box with one person for PR who has some
basic materials.  The press can also sit in the stands on the side of the
stadium that is coaches/media only.  The public is limited to the “open”
stands on the other side.

FB: Are the players cognizant of those that have GA contracts versus those
fighting to get noticed?  How does this dynamic play itself out?

BC: Yes the players are aware.  There isn’t really any difference that I can
tell, beyond some players signed to deals in advance not playing quite as
hard later in the combine.  Players who have no deal usually play hard
through all three games.  That’s about the only difference, although I don’t
any would admit it.

extra… one thing you didn’t ask is about agents.  All of them are here, or
at least have handlers and reps.  Most of these players go into the combine
and draft without agents, so the agents are here scouting and trying to land
guys at the same time MLS is.  They are ever-present through almost
everything.

Thanks to Buzz Carrick for providing some great insight into the business of the MLS Combine.

The Value of Exposure: Is All Publicty Good?

There is an oft repeated sentiment that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and in American soccer circles, this worn axiom was often repeated in the wake of Grant Wahl’s revelation of the Beckham/Donovan feud.  More recently, soccer fans have been cheering the exposure generated by Devin Barclay, the former MLS journeyman now turned kicker for Ohio State. Now, the CBA negotiations are starting to drift into mainstream sports  coverage.  These are certainly not all positive stories, yet at this stage in MLS’ development, we tend to agree with the cliche, and believe that pretty much all exposure is good for MLS because it aids in all efforts to drum the existence and success of professional domestic soccer into the collective conscience.

How do you measure that exposure?  Well, through the website criticalmention.com, MLS tries to alert media  to the “value” of its presence on various television programs.  By way of example, WUSA, the DC CBS affiliate recently ran a brief story at the end of its evening sportscast about the hiring of Curt Onalfo.  According to critical mention, the story reached approximately 52,000 sets of eyeballs for a total “publicity value” of $1628.  At the same time, a longer piece on KATU news in Portland about the renovation of PGE Park reached on 2200 viewers for much smaller $174 value.  Criticalmention also reviews Spanish broadcasts and determined that  a recent story on Interliga from Univision’s New York affiliate reached 46,000 viewers for $4008 in value.

These numbers are both interesting and informative and provide some tangible basis for comparison when looking at the value of exposure in the broadcast media.  This analysis is especially important when sponsors see their names splashed across jersey fronts during highlights or signboards show their brands for prolonged periods of time.  Moreover, given that many of these broadcasts are local, references to franchises (to a partially captive audience) stress the presence of the team to the community and may remind a viewer of the intention to buy a ticket or watch a game.

MLS Expansion Update: 2011

Vancouver and Portland will necessarily engender comparisons during the lead-up to their 2011 opener and thereafter.  We thought we would check in on the progress of both franchises from a business perspective, starting with their stadiums and websites.

In Portland, the Timbers site has a countdown clock until opening kick and prominently features opportunities to purchase tickets for the game.  The ticket link brings users to a TicketMaster page that is available simply for deposits of $50 per seat.  A second link provides season ticket pricing and benefits and explains ticket priority for current Timbers’ season ticket holders.  Tickets range from $216-$432 per seat for the season and include 3 bonus matches.  Interestingly, season ticket holders will get discounts at stadium concession stands, an offer not typically made by MLS teams.  The rest of the website provides a stadium renovation update, history of the franchise and other general information.  The site is easy to use but is not frequently updated.

In Vancouver, the Whitecaps’ web page also focuses on tickets sales but the Whitecaps are only offering season tickets to current Whitecap season ticket holders.  Deposits have already been taken (and exhausted) for the first round of seats. Others are invited to place their name on a waiting list.  Unlike the Timbers’ deposit list, the Whitecaps’ waiting list remains internal and asks questions about the prospective purchaser for research purposes.

In Portland, the team has announced the re-design of PGE Park to accommodate the Timbers in 2011.  The $31 million renovation incorporates the existing structure to create a cozy urban stadium.   The renovation will add seats to all four sides of the structure and will include the addition of a 1,500 restaurant.  The stadium will also include an artificial playing surface.

In Vancouver, the Whitecaps have announced that they will play the first half of their inaugural season in a temporary stadium while BC place (their permanent home) is completed.  The temporary stadium (which is actually quite nice looking) will seat 27,500 and will cost only 14 million to build.  Given the  low cost of the structure, this seems like an outstanding temporary solution.

Soccer Business Bits: MLS Cup at a Neutral Site, Wizards Stadium Update & Interliga Attendance

In what we view as a  positive development, MLS has announced that MLS Cup 2010 will take place at a neutral site.  Many MLS fans support changing the format to having the hire seed host, but we think otherwise.  MLS Cup provides a big event that can accommodate plans months in advance.  The retail summit, supporter’s summit and all other sorts of League events can be scheduled well ahead of time.  Holders of MLS GSLs can plan their trips and MLS creates a destination event like the Super Bowl.

The Sports Business Journal is reporting that the Wizards have retained architectural firm Populous to design their new stadium.  According to Populous, owners OnGoal have requested that the 18,500 person stadium will be covered by a signature canopy that will be the “icon” of the stadium.  The stadium will also include a pub intended solely for members of the Wizards’ supporters group.  This facility will be modeled after a German Beer Hall.  There will be additional dining options throughout the stadium, including outdoor premium options.

Yesterday we wrote about ticket packages offered by MLS teams for Interliga games in Dallas and Los Angeles.  Like other foreign soccer showcases, these events provide a great opportunity for Mexican teams to continue to put their product in front of fans in the US that are geographically removed from their favorite teams.  So how did they draw?  DuNord has the numbers and to date they have been pretty disappointing.  4100 in Dallas is not impressive.

MLS Promotions in the New Year

As we did during the MLS season and in the lead-up to the holidays, we are taking a quick look at MLS ticket promotions in preparation for the 2010 season.  This analysis is always somewhat limited because certain teams (e.g. Toronto and Seattle) typically don’t run discount ticket promotions because of their strong sales.  However, even those teams often combine ticket packages with bonus events such as high profile friendlies and offer group discounts for single game sales.  For now, we will focus on teams that are offering discounts  and how they are varying their packages following the conclusion of the holiday season.  In an important development, MLS is now offering a link to each team’s ticket packages from the front page of MLSnet.com.

Disappointingly, many teams are still pushing their holiday deals, some of which expired before Christmas.  By way of example, the Crew’s ticket page is still pushing a “Holiday 5 Pack”  that expired on December 23.  The Revs’ Holiday Four Pack remains heavily advertised, but unfortunately the link to the promotion is “dead” promising only that technical staff will be alerted to the error (this “dead” deal is still be advertised on certain soccer websites.  Other teams, such as DC United, are promoting a holiday pack (in DC its 4 tickets and a fleece Sweatshirt for $98), but the deal remains available. Houston and RSL (typically two of the teams most devoted to promotional events) have at least updated their page to indicate that there are no current special offers available.

In Los Angeles, the Galaxy are offering an Interliga package for the January tournament involving Mexican clubs.  The package includes tickets to one of the Interliga doubleheaders and tickets to the Galaxy home opener in March.  Prices for the package range from $20 -$50.  Dallas is offering a similar package, but adding a pair of FC Dallas scarves to the mix.  The package is going for a flat $80. The price difference between the offerings is pretty stark and shocking.  Given Los Angeles’ typically higher ticket prices, the price point in Dallas seems fairly high.  That said, we continue to believe that these types of promotions are outstanding opportunities for MLS to put its product before soccer fans that may have not seen the MLS product.  Moreover, unlike doubleheader games, these offers require fans to make a second trip to the stadium to see MLS matches in person.  While some will not avail themselves of the opportunity to attend the MLS game, those that do may represent potential new clients if the action on the field or atmosphere in the stadium impresses.

We will continue to monitor ticket promotions in the New Year.  Don’t hesitate to let us know about MLS promotions in your area.