The Status of Interview with Greg Lalas Part II

Last month, the new replaced the outgoing with great fanfare, as MLS took its website in house and completely redesigned the format and content.  At the start, an array of technical issues created an uproar among MLS fans unable to access stats, video and other features of the website.  While the technical issues have significantly improved, many fans are still getting accustomed to the new types of articles and commentary available on the site.  Presiding over the content side of the new site is Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas. A former player in MLS, Mr. Lalas has also been a broadcaster for the New England Revolution and written for sites such as  Mr. Lalas was kind enough to chat with about the new site, the technical issues and the content.  Because of the length of the interview, we have broken it into two parts.  Part I is here.  Thanks to Mr. Lalas.

FB: What role will sponsors have on the site?  Will we see ads for official league sponsors or other companies coming up as part of the content or clickable content on the front page?

GL: There will certainly be ads for our sponsors. With the new editorial direction and the new creation of content, we are presenting opporunties for the sponsors to be involved and sponsor the content.  We have this great video feature called the debate team which is almost a spoof of Crossfire, but it will involve very serious discussion about the game.  These new content things we are coming up seem to me to present  an opportunity for a sponsor to be involved.

FB: How have the numbers been as far as traffic?

GL: So far we are pleased with what we have. Considering all the problems, I think we are ok…they keep going up.  The site was designed to really grow traffic and engage the user, and so I think that once all of these smaller issues and a lot of the features that are still not there yet, as soon as they come on line, I’m expecting traffic to grow greatly.

FB:  Have there been significantly fewer complaints about the MatchDay Live feature over the last few weeks?

GL: Yes. That is one of the things that I think is incredible about the site, the video. There have been some issues with it, but they are cleaning it up.  It’s hard to beat that quality when it is working that way its supposed to.  The quality on the site, I would say, is incomprable.

Thanks again to Greg Lalas for a few minutes.

Soccer Business Bits: Summer of Soccer Part Deux, KC Radio & More

2009 was the Summer of Soccer in the United States with club teams from around the world playing MLS clubs and other foreign squads across the country.  Big crowds turned out for these games and soccer was  prominent in the media in multiple cities around the country as newspapers were forced to cover packed stadiums and cheering masses.  Over the last few days a number of games for the Summer of 2010 have fallen into place.  Some of these include the following:   Benefica will visit the Revs in May, DC United will face Rangers in July and AC Milan in May.  The Red Bulls will play Juventus in May, Chicago will play PSG in May, Seattle will play Boca Juniors and Celtic.   We have repeatedly supported these games as an opportunity to expose soccer fans to MLS product while increasing soccer awareness to skeptical sports fans.  The quality of the games may suffer becauses of the looming World Cup, but any opportunity to introduce soccer to sports fans and MLS to soccer fans is welcome.

In Kansas City, the Wizards are starting their English and Spanish radio broadcast seasons with new shows on multiple stations in the Kansas City area.   The Kansas City Soccer Show on Sports Radio 810 AM, will cover the Wizards, international soccer and the World Cup.  The show will also feature interviews with Wizards players, coaches and executives.  Zona Wizards will be a Spanish language weekly show that will feature interviews with Wizards players and coaches that will air weekly on La Gran D 1340 AM, which is also the Wizards Spanish-language flagship station.

Finally, the Superliga schedule for 2010 has been announced.  Chicago, New England, Houston and Chivas USA will be the MLS participants.  Games will go forward at the Home Depot Center, Robertson Stadium and Toyota Park.  Interestingly, the Revs’ home games do not yet have a confirmed location.  Attendance at Gillette for SuperLiga has been terrible over the years and the Revs are reportedly exploring other venues in the Boston area for SuperLiga games.  If they can find a suitable spot in Boston proper and promote the game, it could be a good opportunity to showcase the Revs to an uraban audience.

The Status of Interview with Greg Lalas-Part 1

Last month, the new replaced the outgoing with great fanfare, as MLS took its website in house and completely redesigned the format and content.  At the start, an array of technical issues created an uproar among MLS fans unable to access stats, video and other features of the website.  While the technical issues have significantly improved, many fans are still getting accustomed to the new types of articles and commentary available on the site.  Presiding over the content side of the new site is Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas. A former player in MLS, Mr. Lalas has also been a broadcaster for the New England Revolution and written for sites such as  Mr. Lalas was kind enough to chat with about the new site, the technical issues and the content.  Because of the length of the interview, we have broken it into two parts and we will present the rest of the interview later in the week.  Thanks to Mr. Lalas.  The new website offers content from outside of MLS, including Americans abroad, European club soccer and more.  What is behind the decision to expand the scope of content and how do you balance that expanded content with the fact that is the official website of Major League Soccer?

Greg Lalas:  I look at it like this. There is no reason to think that Major League Soccer is an island.  There is a much larger world of soccer. MLS has not been connected with that world enough.  Think about all of the American soccer fans and fans in Canada.  They know that there is a larger soccer world… and we want to connect MLS with that world.  For example Claudio Lopez  is an Argentine World Cup veteran, the guy scored in the quarter finals of the World Cup.  So, he has a great perspective on European soccer and on the World Cup.  So we talk to him…will they win Claudio?

We are all fans of soccer too and so to kid anybody or ourselves that we are not sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon watching Barcelona v. Inter Milan is foolish, and I think a lot of MLS fans are watching that too.  The idea is to present a place that a soccer fan, not just MLS fans,  can come and get all kinds of content that is connecting MLS to the world and is engaging and interesting to them.

Right now, the balance is leaning very much towards MLS. There will always be MLS content. Balancing it is making sure that the big stories in MLS are getting the play they deserve, but also recognizing that there are other stories in the North American scene that don’t necessarily have anything to do with MLS that also deserve a little bit of love.

FB: There seems to be a trend on the site towards content that is more commentary, more rumors and less official material.   What is the motivation in including that type of stuff and how free are the writers to express their opinions even if it is contrary to the MLS party line?

That is another balancing act.  We are under the umbrella of MLS and we are affiliated with MLS.  It is important to recognize that there are conversations going on in the soccer scene that are critical and it would be wrong to stick the party line all of the time.  If there is a rumor out there…a Robert Pires is coming to MLS.  Let’s discuss that rumor. Would he be a good fit for Philadelphia?  Or is there someone else who belongs in there?  We all watch the games.  We all see what looks like a shady penalty called like with Seattle and was it really or was it not? Let’s discuss that.  Let’s not shy away.  Part of analysis to me includes criticism.  I think you need to be willing to accept some of the bruises…don’t shy away from them.

FB:  What level of input do individual teams have with respect to content on the main site?  If they have a promotional opportunity or a team event they want to feature, do they have any say if it appears on the front page?

GL: They can call us up and ask.  We are open to working with our clubs.  Part of it is to recognize that we want the club sites to become local versions of that destination.  What we want from is to be a destination site for soccer fans in the United States and it goes out from there to the club sites… should be the go to place for Chicago area soccer fans. should be the go to place for Toronto area soccer fans.  It is that phrase “glocal” or as Tip O’Neil said, “everything is local in the end.”

FB:  The website got off to a rough site technically. How far along are efforts to get the site up to 100%?

GL:  I think we are making progress.   It  is little fixes here and there.  We have the stats flowing…not the way we want them to be flowing, but they are getting better every day.  We have changed over our video player recently…if you go onto it now, it is just a whole load of video content there for anybody to check out.  It is a long process but it is also a process that every little step makes a difference.  I think we are getting there. I’ve been involved in three re-designs of websites and none of them have gone as we editorial people wished it would.  You work through it and you get it do the things you want it to do.

FB:  How did the technical problems impact what you wanted to do editorially?

GL:  I think a lot had to do with the ability to promote certain content.  At the beginning we didn’t have the ability to put a video anywhere but right in the front page.  So we weren’t able to promote other videos.  We didn’t have the space.  We were and are producing  a ton of content, it is a question of how do we promote that.  You kind of feel if you put in the newspaper analogy, we only had one “A1” page.  There wasn’t enough space for all of things we wanted to put up there and as the tech has improved, it has made it easier to promote our stuff.  The other side, is I am writer, I am an editor.  I was frustrated by the stats problems too.  I needed those stats to do my job.  It was very frustrating from our standpoint, we are writing an article and saying “who is the leading game winning assist getter” and so we were getting frustrated and those things have started to ease and we are getting there.

FB:  Was the criticism helpful or was it telling you what you already knew?

GL: It think it came in both ways.  Some of it was actually helpful because there is always some little thing where you say “I didn’t know that, or I didn’t know an user was going to use it that way”  I think all of the criticism was helpful, even the guy who just sends in the “you guys are morons!!!”   That part we knew, but at the same time, I think it is good to appreciate how much people care about the site, how much people care about the league, so even that can be helpful….I think that all of the invective that was tossed our way over the last month or so has shown us that we have fans that really, really care.  It shows that we let them down and we are doing everything we can to pick them back up. Hopefully they will stick with us.

Thanks to Greg Lalas.  Part II will be in later in the week.

Soccer Stadium Update: Philly, KC & Vancouver

It’s been a while, so we thought we would take a look at the construction progress at a couple of venues around MLS.  We’ll start with PPL Park, where the sod is down and the stadium is two months away from opening.  The Philadelphia Union provide this wonderful time lapse video of the sod installation.  The video condenses three days of installation into about 1:30 of footage.  Meanwhile, the construction cam continues to document the steady progress in Chester as the finishing touches are being applied to the Union’s new stadium.

In Kansas City, construction crews are moving quickly to build the Wizards’ new home.  The Wizards are also offering up a construction cam that includes a neat zoom feature. Kansas and the local county have offered $230 million in incentives to lure Cerner and the Wizards to Kansas. The stadium is set to open in mid-2011, which promises to be quite a year for soccer specfic stadiums in MLS.

In Vancouver, the Whitecaps 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.

The Monday After: Week Five

A busy week on the field in MLS, if not in the stands.  Despite home games in Toronto, New York and Chicago it was not a great attendance weekend for American soccer, with disappointing crowds at a number of venues.  Before we look at the attendance picture, a couple of quick business notes from the weekend.  First, the MLS website continues to be a problem, with links to nowhere, statistics problems and other continuing issues.  However, the MatchDay Live component has improved significantly and now appears to be relatively bug free.  The picture quality is excellent and the available highlights are quite good.  Direct Kick continues to be an outstanding value and a number of games were available via that package.

Unfortunately, it was a tough weekend for attendance, starting with the announced 8k+ that were in Dallas for the Thursday night game.  With a large crowd sitting at home watching the NFL Draft on ESPN, MLS put a home game in Dallas in prime time which was not a great showcase for the league.  On Saturday, the Red Bulls’ third home game at Red Bull Arena brought only 15k + to Harrison to seet the Bulls knock off regional rival Philadelphia.  The weak crowds continued in New England, where a paltry 8k (on a beautiful night) watched the Revs fall to Colorado.

The weak attendance continued in Chicago where only 11k saw the Fire shut out Houston.  In Columbus, a solid 14k braved miserable weather to see the Crew shutout defending champions RSL, while KC drew a sellout at CBA for a scoreless draw against Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, a good crowd of 14k watched Chivas USA hold off San Jose 3-2.  Finally, 18,300 were in Toronto in a driving rain storm where TFC beat visiting Seattle. 2-0.

Why the low attendance?  The weather wasn’t great in some cities, and that doesn’t help, but that doesn’t explain the horrid crowds in New England and Dallas.  Both teams have been trending down in recent years and a mid-week match in Dallas didn’t suggest a great attendance mark and the Revs’ paltry playoff atttendance last year suggested that New England area fans were souring on the Foboro experience.  In the early years of MLS, the Revs were one of the top draws in the league.

Footiebusiness Vault: Interview with Simon Kuper

We are on the road today, so we thought we would bring you our “Cyber Monday”  interview with Simon Kuper, co-author of the acclaimed book, Soccernomics, a must read for any fan of the business of soccer.  The book combines economics and soccer to provide an interesting look into the use of data in sports and takes direct aim at some of the longest held beliefs of fans and soccer managers about the evaluation of players.  The book also looks at a number of financial “myths” that surround the game, including the financial benefits of hosting big soccer events and the profitability of sports franchises.   Mr. Kuper is a sports columnist for the Financial Times and his book, “Football Against the Enemy” won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 1994. You make a compelling case that big sporting events (e.g. the World Cup), do not provide the financial benefits that are so often touted when efforts are made to secure financing for such events.  Does that analysis change when the U.S. is the prospective host country?  Given the size of U.S. stadiums (and thus larger crowds), and the existence of sufficient infrastructure, do American communities have a better chance of deriving a financial benefit from hosting such a big event?

Simon Kuper: I think the financial benefit would not be very big in any case. I mean, with tourists, conferences and business travelers, the main American cities get a lot of custom most of the time. A world cup probably wouldn’t boost their numbers hugely. Also, during a world cup “normal” travel usually falls off, as business people and tourists don’t go to the country for fear of higher hotel prices and of soccer hooligans (there’s always lots of publicity about soccer hooligans, even though they tend not to appear much in reality at big tournaments). So I think the boost would be limited.

But it is true that because the US already has the infrastructure and the stadiums, its cost would be minimal too. It wouldn’t have to build loads of new stadiums with expensive hotels and access roads etc, like Japan did in 2002 or Germany and South Africa since. That’s a big advantage. I suspect the world cup 1994 cost very little and boosted the US economy by very little. It wouldn’t be a bonanza for any American town, but it probably wouldn’t hurt. In South Africa, by contrast, taxpayers are paying billions desperately needed for other things to build world cup stadiums that after 2010 will be empty almost forever.

FB: The book discusses the increased use of statistical data among managers/scouts in the game of soccer and in addition to figures such as Arsene Wenger, you reference familiar baseball names such as Bill James and Billy Beane.  Statistics and numbers are integral to the enjoyment of many baseball fans.  Does soccer lend itself to a similar “numbers culture”?  Are there statistics that casual soccer fans can embrace as a way to further understand and enjoy the game?

SK: There are fewer stats in soccer than in baseball or cricket, but the number of stats is growing. In the past we only really had goals. Now companies like Opta and Prozone produce measures for each game of how many kilometers each player ran, how many tackles and passes he made, etc. This info is proprietary and they sell it for lots of money, but sometimes newspapers buy it so fans get to see it. There’s interesting stuff there, even though those stats don’t tell you much about a player’s worth. Clubs have been trying to mine these stats for knowledge, and as far as I can see, they have discovered that running more kms than the opposition does not correlate with winning matches, possession doesn’t correlate with winning matches, tackles are not a good indicator of a good defender as e.g. Paolo Maldini rarely made any tackles, and so on. Some data are useful: e.g. how many of a striker’s shots are on target is very telling (I think Eto’o does best on this measure) and if your team sprints greater distances than an opponent during a match, that does correlate with winning.

But definitely soccer stats are at an early stage. There’s nothing like in baseball or cricket. What we found very interesting in our book was the off-the-field stats: e.g. correlating players’ wages with league position, and finding that wages explained almost entirely where a club finishes in the league. In other words: high wages win matches; the rest is just noise. By contrast, a club’s transfer spending doesn’t predict where it will finish in the league, because so many transfers go wrong. That was fascinating to me. This was data that Stefan, my co-writer, had assembled. I loved it because as you know, in soccer people generally just talk and spout opinions, but nobody has data. Stefan does.

FB: You effectively argue that owning a professional sports franchise is not a profit making enterprise.  Do team owners make money through appreciation value?  If they hold their teams for a number of years, can they make money?

SK: I think the best analogy is with the art market. Buying a soccer club is like buying a painting. It gives you status among your rich peers, and though it won’t give you an annual return, there’s a fair chance that after a few years you’ll be able to sell it at a profit to another rich man in search of status. That’s the best business model in soccer, because the model of annual profits hasn’t worked for anyone except Man United. Of course you’re betting on the price of soccer clubs rising like the price of art, but in both cases that has largely happened as both markets go global: just as there are more Indian and Russian billionaires buying art now, there are more Arab and Russian billionaires buying soccer clubs. (OK, the art market took a massive hit last year, but leaving that aside for the moment.)

FB: Finally, given the amount of money brought in through television rights, has match attendance stopped being a primary revenue source for teams?

SK: You’d have to look at the numbers, and it differs per club and per league, but I think that for many clubs that is now true. I think Barcelona and Real Madrid each get somewhere over $200 million a year from selling TV rights. I very much doubt that they get that from match attendance, despite their giant stadiums. And it’s easier to grow the TV market than the live attendance market, because in TV your potential audience is the world – people in LA or Shanghai watching on the sofa or in bars – whereas there’s a limit to the amount of people you can pack into a stadium. More than about 100,000, and the people in the top tiers can’t really see anything. So the future of profit growth in soccer is most probably TV. But our book isn’t so much about profits, because the vast majority of clubs don’t make any. What interests us is what data can tell you about the game itself, and the silly decisions that clubs make.

Thanks to Simon Kuper for some great insight and responses.  While we don’t agree with everything in the book, we do believe it makes for a great read and great gift for soccer fans and fans of all sports.  For more about the book, click here for an interview that Mr. Kuper did with the New York Times.


Soccer Business Bits: One More Promotion, Tennis V. Soccer & More

In our list of promotions yesterday, we neglected to mention the Wizards’ team poster giveaway for their home game this Saturday. The first 5,000 fans through the gate receive a 2010 team picture courtesy of Sprint.  The Wizards will host the Galaxy this weekend.

In England, the All England Club has announced that it will not show World Cup games during the Wimbledon tennis championship this year.  There will be a number of tennis/soccer conflicts including England’s third group stage game.  Tournament organizers are concerned that if the soccer matches are broadcast inside the grounds at Wimbledon, it will detract from the tournament. One of the big business questions is if the refusal to air these games will impact attendance and concessions at the All England Club.

MLS Rumors is reporting that the WNBA is following soccer’s lead by putting advertisers on the front of their jerseys. The Seattle Storm will now wear “bing” on the front of their uniforms joining the Sounders in the Microsoft family.  For now, such sponsorships are not yet in the picture for the “major” sports.  However, as attendance stagnates and player salaries rise, its is quite likely that other sports and teams will look to front of their jerseys for revenue.

Promotions, Promotions Promotions

As we do every so often, here is our quick look around MLS and the individual game promotions for the coming weeks.  Typically the leader in game promotions, Chivas USA is back in the game with a “Come One Come All” campaign targeting families for their April 24 match. Packages include 4 tickets, 4 hats and 4 hot dogs for as little as $58.  The most expensive seats go for $130 for the package and the 4 packs are available for multiple dates during the season.

Chicago announced a “Fire Goes Green” campaign for its April 24th match against Chicago.  As part of the initiative, the Fire will plant 40 trees,  provide re-usable grocery bags to their fans, purchase energy credits to set-off carbon use at the game and distribute recycling bins around the stadium.  The effort is part of the Fire’s Earth Day celebration and will also include special foot menus and other “green” distributions during the match.

Finally, while we typically discuss promotions in this space, we are struck by the apparent absence of any game day promotions in advance of the “MLS Game of the Week” slated for Thursday night in Dallas.  As the league’s primetime showcase, it is important to show vibrant atmosphere during these national broadcasts.  It is surprising that FC Dallas is not offering incentives to fans to attend this game.  While some teams choose not to offer promotions becauses it might “devalue” their product, given the importance of the game for the league and Dallas’ attendance struggles, it appears that this would be an appropriate time to try something new.

Interview with RSL Director of Marketing Davy Ratchford

Last year, RSL surprised many in MLS  be winning the championship over the Galaxy.  Now firmly entrenched in Rio Tinto stadium while defending  its first championship, RSL is off to a great attendance start in 2010. RSL has consistently been one of the most innovative teams with respect to marketing and in-stadium programs and their attendance reflects those efforts.  As part of our ongoing series of interviews with MLS marketing personnel, RSL Director of Marketing Davy Ratchford was kind enough to chat with footiebusiness.  Thanks to Mr. Ratchford.  For our other 2010 interviews, click here.  For our 2009 interview with Mr. Ratchford, click here. RSL is the defending MLS Cup Champions. How does the championship factor into your efforts to market the 2010 season? What types of opportunities does the Championship offer when trying to market to potential season ticket holders and group ticket purchasers? Have you seen an increase in season ticket and group sales as a result.

Davy Ratchford: As the Champions, our advertising feels more legitimate. In my mind, the result validates the messaging that we’ve been using. We are the smallest market place in the league, yet we have some of the best attended games. I think the market place has bought into what we’ve been positioning. That RSL is their team, that the team is the star and that coming to our games will be the most exciting thing you can do that weekend. Winning allows us to more confidently sell and renew our season tickets. People can’t deny the product value. We have seen increased sales to season tickets. As an organization, we have lofty goals. We will never sit back and be content until we have the stadium full of season ticket holders. I think we’ll see most of the “championship” effect in our single game ticket sales, where more fans are curious about us and willing to test us out.

FB: RSL has made a concerted effort to showcase its trophy around the state of Utah. In addition to public relations value, how does this effort function as a marketing tool? Can you correlate these efforts to ticket sales?

DR: The Championship Cup Tour was an idea that we had that would allow us to take the cup to areas of the state that would never usually get a chance to see it. We recognized very early on that the community is the 12th man. That they helped us as much as anyone win this Championship and that the state should feel proud of what we’ve accomplished. We had over 75,000 people take their picture with the cup during the month long cup tour. We visited 56 schools and 154 other locations. It was a massive undertaking. The benefits have already paid off, especially in group sales. We have some communities that have never been to a game showing up in the hundreds. I believe the Cup Tour was the best grassroots marketing program we’ve ever done. It was great for sales and ever better for our brand position.

FB: RSL will be participating in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time. Historically, this is a competition that has failed to draw significant interest in MLS markets. What steps is RSL planning to promote these additional matches and the tournament itself?

DR: The first thing we did was give a specific budget for these games. These games are as important to team and the organization as any other regular season game. Anytime you play an international game it brings experience and awareness to new markets. We hope that we get our fans out to support us in these matches. Our specific marketing plans will be solidified once the games are announced, but we will focus on radio promotions to get the word out. They’ve always been a big driver for our walk up and single game ticket sales.

FB: Last year you told us about RSL’s presence on Facebook and twitter. Are you intending to continue/expand these online efforts? Does marketing through social networking translate into tangible brand awareness?

DR: We have increased our social media base to over 22,000 people. It has become one of our most dramatic communication tools. We only have one team in the league that is ahead of us (not bad for the smallest market). We need to stay relevant in our content and we need to do a better job in selling tickets through Facebook. You will see some changes taking place in the next few weeks to make that happen.

Thanks again to Mr. Ratchford.

The Monday After: Week Four, Week Two & More

Before we get into our look at attendance in MLS and WPS from the weekend, a couple of other business thoughts.  It was a good weekend for MLS MatchDay Live as the online game server seems to have shaken most the problems that beset the new service over the past few weeks.  In DC, the United game was still not available on local television, as conflicts with hockey and basketball have created significant problems in making the games available.  Similar problems impacted the Revolution this weekend, as a conflict with the Celtics forced the Revs’ game onto a variety of different “alternate” channels that didn’t necessarily work as planned forcing many fans to miss portions of the game.

With respect to attendance, it was a fairly disappointing weekend for the league.  Things started well in newly expanded BMO Field where almost 22k saw TFC hold off Philadelphia.  In Houston, just under 15k saw Houston hold off Chivas USA.  More than 35k were in Seattle for the Sounders’ late victory over KC.  A solid 18,500 were in DC where United again failed to win.

In San Jose, less than a sellout (under 10k) saw the home team beat the Revs.  While on Sunday, less than 10k were at DSG for the Rapids win over TFC.  However, the most distressing result for MLS fans was the paltry 13k that were at Red Bull Arena for the New York/Chicago game.  Bad weather certainly didn’t help, but the Red Bulls (and the league) were certainly hoping for numbers closer to 20k for most of the season.  The next home game (involving rival Philly) will likely be better, but attendance for unheralded Western Conference opponents might be a problem for the rest of the season.

In WPS action, 3700 saw FC Gold Pride defeat NJ at Castron Valley Athletic Stadium.  We couldn’t find attendance for the other two games.