All-Star Soccer Business Bits: Wizards Rebranding, All-Star Halftime & More

In the aftermath of MLS/Machester United before more than 70k at Reliant Stadium in Houston, we thought we take a quick look at some of the business stories floating around as the league moves forward for the next wekeend of games.   After a few days of parties, charity events, races and more, some business stories got lost in the shuffle of the big event.

One of the big business stories floating around in the shadow of the All-Star game is the possibility that the Kansas City Wizards will undergo a full re-brand as part of their move to a new stadium next Summer.  The changes may involve a new name, new color scheme and a jersey sponsor.  In our recent interview with Wizards’ VP Rob Thomson, we discussed the possibility of a jersey sponsor: “It is a goal, but the jersey sponsor has to be the right fit as well. Any MLS club can secure a jersey sponsor, but a lot of thought needs to go into it. How does it mesh with our organization, the longevity, etc. are all pertinent questions to ask. We continue to have many positive meetings around our jersey and stadium rights.”

One of the other notes from All-Star week is the Vancouver/Portland coin toss at halftime of the match.  In a made for tv event taken from the NBA draft lottery, ESPN2 televised the coin flip to determine the first pick in the upcoming expansion draft between the teams preparing to enter the league.  Both franchises are preparing for a successful entry into MLS and the coin flip at halftime was a nice way to add drama to their entry.

Business Blogging: The MLS All Star Game

As we do for certain televised events, we thought we would offer a “business blog” of the ESPN broadcast.  The match was presented by AT&T.  The night started with a voice over from Rob Stone and a pre game show that included Alexi Lalas and Julie Fowdy.  Kudos for ESPN for providing background on the MLS playoff races early in the pre-game in addition to the expected plaudits for Manchester United.  The pre-game also included some analysis from ESPN’s lead MLS team of JP DellaCamera and John Harkes.

Early advertisers included VW, the Marines, Starcraft 2, Prilosec OTC and series of local spots.  After the break, Alan Hopkins interviewed Landon Donovan.  Dick’s, KFC, Castrol, MLS W.O.R.K.S, Penzoil & AT&T.    VW was the first on screen sponsor. Degree, AT&T, Dicks, NAPA, Makita, X-Box 360 & Gatorade were among the sign board sponsors that were apparent throughout.

Broadcast quality was generally good, although it was surprising that ESPN did not deploy some of the super slow mo cameras that were so prevalent in the World cup.  Pepsi appeared as one of the screen sponsors and the non-electronic sign boards were home to some usual MLS sponsors such as  Home Depot, adidas, Visa, Continental Tire and others.

The halftime show was fairly standard, although Lalas and Fowdy did present a fairly in depth discussino of the DP rule and the ramifications of the recent changes.  Halftime advertisers were essentialy as those pre-game, with KFC, Pepsi and Penzoil among those involved.  Camera work during the broadcast was generally good although crowd mics were fairly muted.  VW presented the VW MVP award.  Vanguard was a postgame sponsor.

Interview With Dynamo Senior VP Rocky Harris

We have previously posted on Houston’s promotional and marketing efforts. Now with Manchester United about to kick off in Houston for the All Star Game, we thought we should check in with Dynamo Senior VP Rocky Harris about efforts to capitalize on the Red Devils’ trip to Houston and on some of the other marketing initiatives.   Mr. Harris has been with the Dynamo for about one year following a six year stint in the N.F.L. with San Francisco and Houston.  Thanks to Mr. Harris. Soccer has seemingly reached new heights of popularity this Summer in the United States.  What steps are the Dynamo taking to capitalize on that popularity in marketing the team?

Rocky Harris: We created a marketing campaign called “The Summer of Soccer” to attempt to tie all of the soccer events together for the general market: MLS games, World Cup viewing parties, SuperLiga, US Open Cup, Dynamo Charities Cup and the 2010 AT&T MLS All-Star game featuring Manchester United. Our entire marketing plan has been built around capitalizing on the World Cup and the All-Star game. In soccer, you only have this opportunity every four years and we didn’t want to miss the chance to connect with international soccer fans and turn them into Dynamo and MLS fans. We intentionally went after major international soccer clubs for the All-Star game to maximize on the soccer buzz in the general market from the World Cup. We were lucky to land Manchester United and capitalize on the bounce from the World Cup. 

FB: The Dynamo are moving  towards the opening of a new stadium. What is the status of those efforts?  How do the efforts to open a stadium impact your marketing strategies?   How will the new location impact your fanbase?

RH: We fully expect to break ground on our downtown stadium by the end of this year and move into the new building in 2012. Our marketing strategy will definitely shift to address the opportunity to attract a few segments that have been difficult to reach by playing in an antiquated college football stadium in Houston’s 3rd Ward. Currently, MLS is known for its youth soccer fanbase and the Hispanic fanbase. We are going to focus our efforts on attracting three new segments that we think can grow exponentially: corporate community, international soccer fans and the urban 18-34 year-old male.

FB: On we’ve written about the web page.  What can you tell us about that page?  What efforts do the Dynamo make to drive traffic to the site?  How successful is the site?
RH: Amigo Energy is on the forefront of driving the avid tribe of soccer fans to connect with their brand. They were smart to launch their brand in Houston with the Dynamo jersey sponsorship because they were an unknown entity before the launch. Since then, they have done a fantastic job activating their multimillion dollar investment by acquiring new customers at Dynamo games/events and utilizing technology to further connect with our fanbase. Amigo Energy wants to be the top electricity choice, not just among Dynamo fans, but among all soccer enthusiasts. We came up with the concept to utilize Amigo’s sponsorship assets to better connect with Dynamo fans and reward them for visiting the site. We transferred all of our promotional touchpoints, including web/broadcast/in-game/PR, and all of Amigo’s contractual assets, to promote the contest. Amigo Energy is pleased with the results from the promotion, including: web traffic, opt-in information, and acquisition of new customers and retention of current customers.

FB: Manchester United is coming to play the MLS All Stars in Houston. What is the team doing off the field to capture some of the soccer fans who are coming to see Man U, but haven’t embraced the Dynamo/MLS?  What steps will the Dynamo take on the day of the game to bring those types of fans back to the Dynamo?

RH: I was an international soccer fan before I became an MLS fan and it took a lot for me to convert. You have to do everything you can to show international soccer fans that we are playing the same game and try to convince them that they need to support their local team, in addition to their favorite international team. I always tell international soccer fans that we aren’t trying to replace their favorite or hometown team, but instead support the growth of soccer in Houston. I also tell them to attend our games so they can celebrate the game of soccer – live – the way it is supposed to be watched. As far as the All-Star game is concerned, we have multiple ancillary events to support the match, including: 5K Run with over 1500 participants, Film Festival, All-Star Kickoff Party, Celebrity Soccer Match, Soccer Jam, Brian Ching postgame party and many charitable events. In my opinion, the most important way to connect with international soccer fans is through the play on the pitch, because the product is the most critical component of growing our fanbase. If the All-Stars are entertaining and put on a good show, we will gain new fans.
FB: Similar question  for SuperLiga.  Have you noticed any correlation between Superliga/Champions League participation and an increase in interest in the Dynamo?  What efforts has the team made to turn that interest into ticket sales during the MLS season?  What efforts have been most successful.
RH: SuperLiga has been a very successful tournament for us in the past because it gave us an opportunity to show Mexican soccer fans that the Dynamo can compete with the best teams in Mexico. Our success in that tournament has helped us build credibility in the Hispanic market and allowed us to convert fans to support the Dynamo. Our MLS business is up this year and we think the buzz around soccer is going to allow us to hit some of our biggest numbers in the second half of the season.

Soccer Business Bits: WPS Goes Pink, Ticket Sales In KC & More

In an effort to increase breast cancer awareness, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), in conjunction with PUMA will outfit players in special Project Pink kits for five WPS matches. Puma has also created a range of Project Pink merchandise that will be available for purchase beginning this summer and continuing through Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. Profits from the sale of PUMA’s Project Pink gear will be donated to a nonprofit committed to breast cancer awareness or research; the beneficiary will be named as the result of a national online voting campaign.  For more on the “good works” of various American soccer leagues, check out our series on the charitable efforts of MLS and WPS here.

In the aftermath of the Wizards’ surprising showing against Manchester United, USA Today is reporting that the team sold 700 new season tickets for their 2011 campaign in their new stadium.  If these are indeed new season ticket holders, the 700 new additions show the power of these friendlies to attract existing soccer fans to their local MLS side.  Clearly the Wizards put on a good show, and despite the overwhelming percentage of the crowd that came dressed in red, many Manchester fans came away impressed with Kansas City.  With a new stadium just months away, momentum appears to be building in Kansas City to vault the Wizards to the next level.

Finally, league sponsors Panasonic and Best Buy are joining forces to sponsor a meet and greet with an array of MLS all-stars. The event is part of the week long festivities in Houston in advance of the match against Manchester United.  The event provides fans with the opportunities to meet players, get autographs and play video games.

The Monday After: A Big Weekend

The feast of soccer continued this weekend in the United States with league matches and friendlies nationwide.  Attendance was extremely impressive throughout the country with big crowds in Kansas City, New York, Salt Lake City and elsewhere.   More than 50k packed into Arrowhead Stadium to see plucky Kansas City hold off Manchester United, almost 20k were in Salt Lake City to see RSL square off against Chivas USA.   The usual big crowd came to BMO field to see TFC play to a draw while about 13,500 were in Columbus.

The Barclay’s tournament was likely a television and attendance success, with more than 22k at Red Bull Arena for the final day of the competition and likely higher than expected television ratings on FSC thanks to the presence of Thierry Henry.  Speaking of FSC, we have been critical of some of their recent broadcasts, but kudos to the network for offering four live telecasts from three different venues around the country.  All of their booth crews did reasonably well and the network did a good job promoting their next telecasts.  They also managed to get Commissioner Garber into the booth in Kansas City where he offered some tidbits including some statements about efforts to return to a Reserave Division.

One final note from the weekend.  The signing of Mexican International Rafa Marquez is reported “confirmed” by multiple sources.  Marquez would be the third DP to join New York making the Red Bulls the first team to take advantage of the DP rules released in the Spring.  With rumors of Los Angeles seeking to add a third DP to their stable, the potential ratings impact for MLS could be significant. The prospect of playoff match or final with Henry, Angel & Marquez lining up against Donovan, Beckham and ? would certainly add “juice” to the MLS postseason. It will also be interesting to see what other teams try and follow these franchises and add stars to their rosters.

Media Musings

The  introduction of Thierry Henry drew plenty of media coverage both in the New York ara and nationally.  Articles in mainstream publications, interviews on local and national media outlets and discussion on ESPN and elsewhere.  The introduction was well managed by the Red Bulls, and other than a much maligned in studio interview with Good Day New York, Henry’s appearances were impressive and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the FSC broadcast if Henry’s debut was decidedly unimpressive.  The booth team of Rogadino and Caliguri was below par (in contrast to the Bretos/Twellman pairing from ESPN2 the night before) and Caliguri was especially disappointing.  Stadium microphones were seemingly non-existent and picked up little of the Red Bull Arena crowd.  Replays were poorly managed, with the slow to develop Barclays graphic forcing viewers to miss live action. Cut away shots also cost viewers game action, with the FSC producers electing to show individual shots of players running rather than the ball.  FSC has experienced crews working these games, but the production showed little of that experienced.  So close to the World Cup, the poor quality of the broadcast was readily apparent.

In contrast, the ESPN broadcasts since the World Cup suggest that the World Wide Leader learned something about soccer telecasts from the month in South Africa.  Coverage has been smooth and the new pairing of Max Bretos and Taylor Twellman was solid. ESPN has definitely been heavy on the soccer in the weeks since the World Cup and they have made good use of their various booth teams.  Kyle Martino has become a rising star doing color for the games.

Soccer Stadium Update

It has been a while since we took a look around MLS at the status of stadium construction in MLS, so here is quick snapshot.  In Kansas City, the new stadium is moving forward rapidly with opening set for the Summer of 2011.  MLS will likely follow the “Philly model” and force KC to spend most of the first months of 2011 on the road.  Kansas and the local county have offered $230 million in incentives to lure Cerner and the Wizards to Kansas.  Here is  the construction webcam.

In Vancouver, the future home of the Whitecaps is undergoing a significant makeover.  The bubble roof has been taken down in preparation for the retractable roof that will replace the current setup. As we have said before about Vancouver, the ownership group seems solid.  Mr. Kerfoot has long been a friend of soccer and Steve Nash (who has been popping up at Red Bulls practices) 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.

Finally, in Portland, renovations to PGE Park continue.  The Timbers are offering a great virtual stadium viewer which allows fans to click on specific seats to see what benefits come with each seat as well as the costs. The team also offers a great fact sheet on the renovation.  Unfortunately a photo diary of the renovation has not been updated in quite some time.

UPDATE:  Thanks to the Timbers for reaching out to correct my note about the photo diary.  Phase I of the renovation was completed in March and the diary will re started in September when Phase II begins after the USSF/minor league baseball season concludes.  The team may also add a time lapse feature and other coverage of the construction process as the stadium renovation moves forward.

Interview with KC VP of Communications: Rob Thomson

Last year, Kansas City Wizards VP of Communications Rob Thomson was kind enough to share a few words about marketing efforts in Kansas City.  Since that initial interview in April, 2009, much has changed in Kansas City, with a new stadium going up quickly, Manchester United coming to town and a slew of international signings and transfer rumors.  Mr. Thomson was kind enough to update us on some of the new marketing going on in Kansas City post World Cup and to share his thoughts about the impact of the new stadium and more.

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

Thanks to Mr. Thomson. Soccer has seemingly reached new heights of popularity this Summer in the United States.  What steps are the Wizards taking to capitalize on that popularity in marketing the team?

Rob Thomson:  The Kansas City Wizards have focused a lot this summer on marketing the team and the sport of soccer jointly around events like the World Cup, our game versus Manchester United, the construction of our $160+ million stadium and more. We had television advertisements of the Wizards run during every World Cup match and hosted watch parties for all 64 games downtown in the entertainment district. It was so well-attended that ABC/ESPN sent Pedro Gomez to Kansas City to run live updates nationally for the U.S. versus Ghana match, which attracted over 12,000 fans. One major way we capitalized, however, was through earned media; the soccer coverage in Kansas City was phenomenal through June and July in TV, radio and print. We are a finalist to be a host city if the United States gets the World Cup in 2018 or 2022, which has also spurned a lot of excitement.

FB: The Wizards are moving quickly towards the opening of a new stadium.  How does the new stadium opening impact your marketing strategies?  Will there be a stadium naming rights sponsor?  How will the new location impact your fanbase?

RT: The new stadium certainly is a game-changer in so many ways. For 12 years we played at Arrowhead Stadium, which had over 77,000 seats, while the last 2 1/2 years we have been at a temporary venue which holds 10,385. We have always been somewhat at the mercy of others in regards to field usage, promotions, events, etc. Building the first authentic North American soccer stadium with a seating capacity of 18,000, providing unique and memorable experiences for our supporters, is a dream come true for many, many people. We have unbelievably talented designers and architects, who are attentive to every detail. Our President, Robb Heineman, also held a stadium summit for the first 50 fans who signed up via Facebook and they offered their suggestions and input. We will be able to do so much more at the games with our gigantic scoreboard, acoustics, clubs at the stadium, concessions, giveaways, technology and more.

We are in discussions for stadium naming rights and jersey sponsor, which is going well. The value of our club increases every year in every sector and our partners continue to increase as well, especially now with our new stadium.

The location is only about 1/4 mile away from our temporary venue, but the area (Kansas City, Kansas) is growing quickly and is becoming a great entertainment destination with Nebraska Furniture Mart, Kansas Speedway, Schlitterbahn Water Park, Legends Shopping Center, a new casino and much more. It has great highway access and in Kansas City the traffic is never bad and since it is a commuter town nobody has any problem with a 15-20 minute drive.

FB: Kansas City is one of the more aggressive franchises with respect to fan outreach.  Front Office personnel post on message boards, give interviews and provide substantive information to the fans about player acquisition.  How do you feel that those efforts raise the profile of the club and keep/attract fans?

RT: Being a transparent organization makes people feel more included to what we are doing on and off the field. Again, having our Owner/President Robb Heineman so actively involved in social media and direct communication with our supporters makes my job great. All five of our owners are from Kansas City, which is rare in sports now, but they all have great interest in providing Kansas Citians a great experience. We have seen perpetual growth in our Facebook, Twitter, etc. followers because I believe our organization is genuinely interesting, forthright, personable and inclusive. This also spans what we do in community outreach programs, our stadium, and many other things off the playing field. Our fans have had the opportunity to design their own T-shirts for prizes via social media contests, our blog is one of the best in soccer and overall interest has never been higher.

FB: The Wizards are one of the franchises in MLS that have not secured a jersey sponsorship.  Is that a goal of the club?  What are the challenges in securing such a sponsorship?

RT: It is a goal, but the jersey sponsor has to be the right fit as well. Any MLS club can secure a jersey sponsor, but a lot of thought needs to go into it. How does it mesh with our organization, the longevity, etc. are all pertinent questions to ask. We continue to have many positive meetings around our jersey and stadium rights.

FB: Finally, Manchester United is coming to play the Wizards. What is the team doing off the field to capture some of the soccer fans who are coming to see Man U, but haven’t embraced the Wizards?  What steps will the Wizards take on the day of the game to bring those types of fans back to the Wizards?

RT: Having an association with the leading sports brand in the world is something our fans, soccer fans in the Midwest, sports fans and people who like big events should be proud of. We realize that some people enjoy the EPL more than MLS, but a lot of times it is a matter of exposing them to our product. Major League Soccer plays a distinct style, much faster and more physical than other leagues around the globe. The MLS brand has grown considerably over the last 4-6 years and is continuing to garner more fans each and every year. This game will attract people from a large radius, as the nearest professional teams to us are Dallas, Colorado and Chicago; all over eight-hour drives away. Games like this will certainly help with getting more fans, but our new stadium will help even more. To watch professional soccer in the best venue in North America, while supporting your domestic club with other passionate fans can not compare to much else.

Thanks again to Mr. Thomson.

Soccer Business Bits: MLS Ratings Flat, Busy Soccer Week & More

In a year in which MLS attendance is showing almost an 8% year over year increase, the Sports Business Journal is reporting that ESPN2 ratings this season are down 1.6% over last year.  In pure numbers, this represents a decline from 255,000 per match to 251,000 viewers per match.  SBJ is also reporting that FSC is averaging just over 50k per game in the final year of their 11 year $2.2 per year deal.  The league’s Spanish language broadcasts are averaging just under 200k viewers per game.  These ratings are disappointing, but could benefit from media coverage of the World Cup and the arrival of Thierry Henry. The first game after the World Cup on ESPN2 drew almost 400k viewers.

Elsewhere, MLS is gearing up for a busy week of national exposure, with MLS featuring in primetime on Wednesday night in Philly and Thursday night in New York.  Manchester United will match up with expansion Philadelphia on Wednesday while Thierry Henry makes his much anticipated debut on Thursday night against Tottenham.  Also on Thursday, ESPN2 will televise the Galaxy against San Jose providing ESPN another opportunity to  showcase Landon Donovan.  As it stands now, ESPN and FSC each have couple of games where they can feature Henry and Donovan including a Friday night matchup between LA and NY in September.

Finally, RSL is offering an intriguing 3 game pack that includes two club games and tickets to one CONCACAF Champions League match.  It will be interesting to see how the CCL is greeted in markets such as Salt Lake City and Seattle which haven’t had the opportunity to host these typically poorly attended events. It is good to see teams encouraging non season ticket holders to attend these games.

The Monday After: Weekend Recap

As we do every Monday, here are our quick thoughts from a weekend of soccer in the United States.  We’ll start in East Hartford, where a disappointing crowd of under 6k saw the United States hold off Sweden in a Womens’ friendly.  The game was interrupted by lighting and the teams were directed to clear the field.  Kudos to FS C for sticking with the game after the delay, although their programming during the delay failed to provide any information about the weather and left viewers tuning in late clueless as to why the game wasn’t on television. Local coverage of the match was solid, with the Hartford Courant leading with the story on their Sports Front Page.  Local television coverage was somewhat lower than anticipated, but the weather and smallish crowd may have played a roll.  The USSF did a good job for television by only populating the “tv side” of the stadium, but it appears that the 40k seat stadium is too large for such a match.  The stadium is operated by AEG, which is the likely reason for using the venue.

ESPN was able to squeeze in its broadcast of Tottenham v. San Jose despite a long running British Open. The soccer was scheduled to start at 4:00 and ESPN ran a scroll at the bottom of the screen indicating the soccer would kick off at 4:20.  However, these notifications didn’t begin until 4:00; advance notice would have been appreciated.  It was a strange attendance weekend for MLS, with teams hosting international friendlies (45k+ in Seattle), SuperLiga matches (16k in Chicago for a doubleheader) and regular season matches (13k in Colorado and 11k in Dallas).  However, television coverage remains excellent with ESPN and FSC combining to showcase 3 matches involving MLS teams from Thursday-Sunday.

Around the league, the transfer market is generating significant attention with additions of Nery Castillo in Chicago and Omar Bravo in Kansas City.  The weekend also saw the debut of Blaise N’Kufo in Seattle.  Coverage of potential transfers has definitely heated up Twitter and America’s prominent soccer writers (now back from South Africa) are aggressively covering the rumor mill.  With the new DP rules, this is the most active transfer market in MLS history and an interesting test of how American soccer medial will cover the silly season.