US Women Come to Hartford

For the second time in 2010, the United States National Team will play host to European competition in East Hartford, Connecticut.  Last time, it was the Men hosting the Czechs, today it is the Women hosting Sweden.  It will be the second game of a two game series against the Swedes (the teams played to a 1-1 draw earlier in the week) and will be televised on FSC at 7:30.  After the team trained no Friday, we got a chance to speak with a couple of players about some business issues.

We spoke with recently first time capped Sarah Huffman and defender Ali Krieger following practice.  Both are “Nike athletes” with Huffman playing for the Washington Freedom of the WPS and Krieger playing for Frankfurt in the Women’s Bundesliga.  Both player spoke glowingly about the travel accommodations provided by the USSF with Huffman indicating that the accommodations are  “the best that it could be” and Krieger indicating that USSF travel is “more luxurious…they take good care of us”.  Both described the differences between club/college travel and USSF travel with the most notable difference being the willingness of the USSF to travel to a location earlier than the day before a match.  Because both athletes are sponsored by Nike, there is little transition when to the National Team because of the USSF’s Nike sponsorship.  Other players may have to make a change, but are allowed to keep their cleats.

We also asked whether the players are cognizant of media coverage, marketing and attendance at their matches.  Krieger indicate that Womens’ Soccer gets “way more advertising” in Germany…”billboards and things are always up around the cities, so I think there is more coverage there”.   She continued, “I think it is a huge deal, because the more people that come out and get interested in the game they are going to tell their friends and family to come out and enjoy the game.   There are different age groups that you have to target and I don’t know if we are targeting every one of them. We need more advertising and commercials to get different age groups out…right now we are targeting the younger age groups and their parents…In Germany you have older guys and their dogs coming to the game as well.”    Krieger also stated that the ready availability of WPS matches on television is a distinct difference from Frankfurt and Germany, where the games are typically available online.

We were actually surprised at the limited number of media in attendance, especially with local product Kristine Lilly such a headliner.  However, it may be that the local media is suffering soccer fatigue after the tune up match,  World Cup and Thierry Henry.  The field was in great shape (a thought echoed by the players), and advertising for the game was not yet up in the stadium.  It was horrendously hot on the field and the practice was fairly quick. Although the stadium typically hosts UCONN football, the only reference to the Huskies were some bowl banners at the top of the stadium.  After the practice, USSF p.r. staff was exceptionally helpful in arranging player interviews and providing logistics for the rest of the scheduled events.Thanks to Ali Krieger,  Sarah Huffman and the USSF.  The game against Sweden is tonight at 7:30 on FSC.  We will offer some post game business thoughts as well. 

Soccer Business Bits: Henry Rolls Out, ESPN Gears Up & More

The biggest story in MLS remains the introduction of Theirry Henry to American sports fans and mainstream media.  In addition to the official press conference, Henry made appearances on the Univision morning show, “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, and “Late Night” on NBC.  He also provided a print interview to the AP.  Henry’s ability to speak in French, Spanish and English makes him an extremely marketable commodity and he impressed in the interview.  The signing generated headlines, even here in Hartford where the local radio news program commented on Henry during AM drive. At the same time, many of the New York area sportscasts studiously ignored the signing. Sportsradio WFAN paid little mind to Henry and SNY (the home of the Mets) followed suit. Despite pushing some great marketing buttons (that included some fun guerrilla marketing both on the ground and online), the Red Bulls couldn’t push Henry into the mainstream in the New York area.

ESPN’s impressive commitment to soccer (did anyone notice Landon Donovan’s John Skipper reference at the ESPYs?), continues with broadcasts of multiple friendlies over the next few weeks.  Games involving MLS teams and world powers like Tottenham, Manchester United and Celtic are part of those broadcasts, as is the MLS All Star game and the USA/Brazil match in August.  In combination with their usual MLS broadcasts and the start of the European club season, it will continue to be an exciting Summer of Soccer on the Worldwide leader.

Some quick hits…In Kansas City, the Wizards are aggressively selling tickets for their May 25 match against Manchester United.  According to this interview, ticket sales are near 60,000.  Most of the remaining available tickets range from $40-60.  Elsewhere, Commissioner Garber gave some strong statements indicating that MLS is not entertaining transfer offers for Landon Donovan.  At the same time, there are more rumblings about the possibility of MLS expanding to New York City.

Superliga Begins

On a day that saw the formal announcement of Thierry Henry’s signing with New York and the start of the annual Summer friendlies between MLS teams and world renown clubs, MLS and Mexican clubs started their Superliga tournament. The 8 team event features 4 teams from MLS and 4 teams from Mexico’s Primera Division.  Placed into groups of four (consisting of two MLS teams and two Mexican teams), the teams play one game against each team in their group before a semi-final and final. In addition to declaring a US/Mexican champion, Superliga provides a unique marketing opportunity for both MLS and its Mexican counterpart.  The Mexican teams get an opportunity to play meaningful games in the U.S. before Mexican ex-pats, while MLS gets to showcase its teams before a Latino fan-base still warming to American Soccer.

Despite lukewarm attendance, the tournament continues to draw significant sponsors.  Companies such as Toyota, Sprint, Degree and GEICO sponsor the Spanish language broadcasts.  Other companies such American Airlines, State Farm and Lowes spend money on board advertisements.  As with previous years, the matches are only televised in Spanish.

Coming mid-season, the event is a bit controversial as it forces teams to take a break from League play.  MLS teams are then forced to make up games with some additional mid-week games during the rest of the season.  In addition, SuperLiga does detract from the Champions League that also pits teams from MLS, Mexico and other CONCACAF countries. However, as a business model, SuperLiga is a fantastic idea.  We have repeatedly discussed how there are enumerable soccer fans in the United States, many of whom do not pay attention to MLS.  Many of these fans are far more interested in Mexican Soccer and Superliga does serve as an entre to MLS.  Ultimately, we view the tournament as neither a fierce competition or a waste of time, but a golden business opportunity. With the World Cup fading into the rear view mirror, the tourament provides an opportunity to keep a form of international competition in front of fans.

Enter Henry: What Does it Mean?

Perhaps the worst keep secret in American soccer circles is the imminent arrival of Thierry Henry to the New York Red Bulls.  The all time leading French national team scorer, Henry is a gifted player and a recognizable name.  The question for the Red Bulls and MLS, is what his signing will mean for the team and league. In the first year in their new stadium with attendance solid, but underwhelming, Henry may provide the boost needed to fill Red Arena and drive New York’s soccer team to a championship.  It has long been accepted wisdom that a successful New York franchise is one of the keys to a successful MLS (although listening to sports radio in New York would suggest otherwise).

We think that there will be a marked increase in road attendance with Henry in the league for matches in which Henry plays.  MLS teams will likely market Henry much as they marketed Beckham. .  He is a recognizable star to most soccer fans and with each MLS team getting only one visit from the Red Bulls per year, he will be a major attraction.  He may also become attractive to sponsors in the United States (he already has a relationship with Gillette). It will be interesting to see how Henry’s image is used by league sponsors to market their products.  Will he become a household name to mainstream sports fans?   This is an exciting time for the league and one that will provide an array of fascinating business issues over the next few months.

The new DP rules represent a turning point in MLS.  Teams can now take bigger gambles, with bigger players and bigger dollars.  Over the next few weeks a number of “big name” players will enter the league, raising the level of play and the profile of MLS.  Henry is the start, and we think, an important piece of the MLS puzzle.

The 2010 World Cup: A Final Look

Some last thoughts on the World Cup.  24 million viewers watched the 2010 World Cup Final on ABC and Univision, the biggest ever US audience for a soccer match.  Worldwide, more than 700 million people watched the game, making it the most watched match in history.  Ratings were consistently outstanding with more than 19 million watching the US Ghana match and ratings consistently above expectations.

American soccer fans are of course interested in the impact of the ratings success on MLS.  The Sports Business Journal is quoting Commissioner  Garber’s thoughts.  “We’re certainly not looking at the World Cup as having an immediate impact on our business metrics,” Garber said. “What we are looking forward to is a growing interest in the sport, a further breaking through to the general sports market and fertile environment to create business opportunities on and off the field.” The SBJ also quotes executives from ESPN and FSC about their efforts to capitalize on the World Cup and their tempered expectations for increased viewers.

SBJ also has an excellent piece on the sponsorships coming out of the World Cup.  Some interesting tidbits include Coca Cola’s expectation that its sales will increase 5% because of its investment in the tournament and Adidas revised its projected revenue in the soccer category upward to $1.6 billion in the soccer category with more than 6 million jerseys and 13 million Jabulanis to be sold.

We will put out our post World cup survey soon, but the World Cup was certainly a success from almost every conceivable business perspective.  Eyeballs were tuned to matches in enormous numbers whether on television, computers or phones.  Sponsors got great exposure, while bars and restaurants were able to draw huge crowds at off hours to watch games from around South Africa.  Apparel sales and merchandise were outstanding and soccer gained another foothold on the American sports landscape.

Business Snapshot

After an exciting and remarkably popular (in the US) month of World Cup soccer, we thought it worthwhile to take a quick look at the business of American soccer moving forward from July 12, 2010.  The World Cup was a business success in the States, with ESPN’s significant investment of resources validated by the ratings earned both over the air and online.  Sponsors who invested in ad time were rewarded with viewership often 50% greater than pre tournament expectations.

In MLS, action has restarted after the World Cup break with strong attendance around the league.  An array of international friendlies will draw big crowds to MLS parks across the country as will the All-Star game at Reliant Stadium against Manchester United.  We also saw the opening the opening of PPL Park in Philadelphia.  Starting with the expected reveal of Thierry Henry of July 14, this coming week will see the formal introduction of Designated Players in DC, Seattle and elsewhere.  MLS fans will also be interested to see what what surprise players make the trip to MLS. At the same time, it will be interesting to watch MLS ratings and whether ESPN can continue its devotion to televised soccer.

American soccer fans will also be casting a business eye to Europe to follow the transfer market for American players based in Europe.  Following the World Cup, a number of American athletes will likely be on the move, parlaying their South African adventure into big contracts and impressive transfers.

WPS is settling into its second season with a new stadium in Atlanta, a successful All Star game and additional jersey sponsors entering the league.  WPS is now part of the American sports landscape and looking to grow.

Promotions, Promotions Promotions

On the weekend of the World Cup final, MLS is also in full swing a complete slate of games.  Many of the teams are running promotions for the coming matches and we thought it worth taking a look at some of those efforts.  No team is more aggressive in its promotions than the Houston Dynamo, who are running a number of campaigns for their fans.  On their affiliated Amigo Free Kick page, the Dynamo are running a multitude of fan opportunities.  These include free tickets, free jerseys, game day experiences and more.  On the ticket front, the team is offering lower priced “McDonald’s Four Packs” that included 4 tickets and 4 McDonald’s meals for $54.95.

In New England, the Revs are pushing a four game mini plan that includes reduced price tickets to four games, a Revs long sleeve T-shirt for$68.  The Revs are also combining the deal with in stadium food vouchers.  The Revs are offering these deals simultaneously, yet it appears that they are somewhat in conflict. The Revs do not appear to be offering any single game promotions for the Galaxy’s sole trip to Foxboro this weekend.

Finally, United are promoting a college night for their Thursday night game against Seattle next week.  The promotion combines significantly discounted tickets ($15) with a Corona tailgate that includes foods, drinks and pregame concerts.  United appear to be one of the few teams promotion day of game promotions.  Most MLS teams are focusing on packages rather than game specific promotions.

MLS: The Value of Exposure

Back in January (and a couple of times since), we discussed MLS’ efforts to mesaure the value of its televsion exposure through various local and national broadcasts.  Through the website criticalmention.com, MLS tries to alert media  to the “value” of its presence on various television programs.  Since a couple of months have passed since we last checked in on this metric, we thought providing a snapshot of this “worth” of MLS media exposure.

The biggest exposure came from a Bob Ley interview with Sunil Gulati as part of ESPN’s World Cup coverage.  The three minute interview, which included brief mentions of MLSm  was valued by Critical Mention at just under 23k for the league.  The July 5th broadcast aired at 9:00 eastern on ESPN2 and reached approximately 86,000 households.

The same day, the NBC affiliate in Washington aired a brief interview with DC United coach Curt Onalfo on its 5:00 p.m. newscast.  According to Critical Mention, the broadcast reached 112,000 households for an estimated exposure value of over $10k.  The interview was fairly comprehensive and Onalfo was in studio for the discussion.  The interview was well conducted and was a follow-up to an earlier interview given by Onalfo as part of the same program.

Finally, in Salt Lake City, the local ABC affiliate ran a two minute story that included interviews with a number of players and discussed the successful RSL franchise.  The broadcast was part of the 6:00 newscast and reached an estimated 37k viewers.  The exposure was valued just over $3200.

As we said in January, 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.

Footiebusiness Vault: Marketing in Kansas City

We are out and about tonight, so we thought we would look back at an interview we did with Wizards’ VP of Marketing and Communications Rob Thomson.  The Wizards are in their third year in cozy Community America Ballpark after spending the last decade at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium. The Wizards are working toward building a new stadium.

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.

Footiebusiness.com: What is Kansas City doing differently for marketing in 2009?  How has the economy changed/impacted those efforts?

Robert Thomson: We have to be much more creative in our advertising plan. With a nine-month season, it takes a lot of effort to put together a sustainable plan, which is why it is essential to develop relationships and find key partners who are very supportive. It has helped that a lot of electronic and print outlets need advertisers, especially due to the diminishing money spent in the automotive spectrum. As far as overall marketing, we do a lot of grassroots efforts: fliers, chalking sidewalk in the Latino communities, creative email blasts, viral campaigns, etc., but we also have a promotion/theme tied to each home game and segment large groups around those (http://kc.wizards.mlsnet.com/t105/fans/theme_nights/2009/index.jsp). Ticket packages are geared around families, food/beverage deals, gas (we provide buses for groups of 50), and we have free parking. We also have been very aggressive with our Latino base and it has clearly shown the last two season.

FB: You are now in your second season at Community America Ballpark.  How does the size of the stadium impact how you market the team?  At the same time, with the planned opening of the new stadium in 2011, how do you market with an eye towards the move?

RT: We do have a capped inventory and can be somewhat hindered in corporate sales due to our temporary facility. The future is unbelievably bright here and our vision toward the future is spectacular. That being said, we all put a ton of effort into making our temporary home now look and feel like a soccer stadium. It will be nice not to play in a 70,000-seat stadium or a 10,000-seat stadium in the future, but we all work extremely hard for the present. The size of CommunityAmerica Ballpark doesn’t necessarily dictate how we market as much as the location, game elements/promotions, and schedule of events going on around Kansas City. Our organization and fans are thrilled to have our own home in the future.

FB: How have the Wizards utilized online avenues such as social networking sites, SUM’s new online ad network, etc… to market the team?  Do you find that these efforts increase interest in the Wizards or impact attendance?

RT: We focus a lot of our efforts on online communities, since soccer fans in this country are very tech-savvy and most of their information comes through the internet, plus it is so global. We are very active on many new-media and social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Picasa and YouTube. Our team blog, www.hillcrestroadblog.com, is very well read and provides another area for our fans to interact directly with the club. To that end, our President Robb Heineman and other staff members contribute on Big Soccer regularly to seek information and inform our fans. The SUM online ad network is a great tool for our League, and we have run ads through this network, especially before our opening game.

The biggest impact on interest and attendance is helping us to turn casual fans into hardcore fans. By offering more in-depth information through the blog and embracing these social-media communities where our fans talk about us, we are showing them a different look at the organization and reaching out to them in ways not previously done in many sports. Our fans have become more engaged, more interested and, thus, more likely to attend matches and watch games on TV than they might have been in the past.

FB: Although we are only a month into the season, fans and the media have been fawning over some of the marketing/fan outreach efforts in Seattle? Is there anything that an established franchise such as Kansas City can incorporate from those efforts?

RT: Each MLS market is so different, as is the type and location of stadiums. Everyone is excited for what is happening in Seattle as it is great for the League. We only compare ourselves to us and what we can do better. Kansas City and the Midwest have a lot of families and youth soccer players. So, while beer per caps in Seattle and Toronto might be higher than ours, we probably sell more merchandise items catered to younger fans. In our new facility, we have planned on having our own English Pub, which will increase the 21-34 year olds; a very important demographic. I do know that some teams have looked at what we do in marketing such as: media games, doubleheaders with area college teams, weekly TV and radio shows (and broadcasts) in English and Spanish, player pop-ins at youth practices, programming tied to young business executives, our dealings with the media and advertisers, Latino Barnstorming Tours, post-game shots on goal for fans, our busing program, and many more.

FB Is it inconsistent/challenging for teams to target “hard core” supporters, non-soccer sports fans and families?  How do you resolve those inconsistencies/challenges?

RT: There are so many ways to reach people now that we target our marketing accordingly. We get a lot of earned media in Parent magazines and Mom-2-Mom blogs, then in alternative newspapers and morning radio shows, and also on every newscast forecasting with our logo on the day of our next game. The tones are much different in what we want to brand, but we try and hit every possible angle and outlet. One advantage for Kansas City is that we might not have the amount of options as other markets (NY, DC, Boston, Houston, LA, etc) and we are the only MLS team within a nine-hour drive.

The Tuesday After & Not Even Klose!

It was a busy weekend in Major League Soccer with strong attendance around the league.  Whether because of World Cup Fever, excitement over fireworks or something else, MLS stadiums saw good crowds throughout the weekend.  Average attendance was over 17,000 and there were impressive crowds in Dallas, Salt Lake City and Colorado.  Landon Donovan’s return to Los Angeles helped bring in a full house and the league average is diminshed somewhat by the 10k sellout in San Jose.

Elsewhere, the World Cup is motoring into its final week and despite the departure of the United States, coverage in the USA continues to be excellent.  The “Not Even Klose”  refers to a headline in the New York Post  after Germany’s dismantling of Maradona’s side.  It isn’t often that an American newspaper uses the last name of a foreign soccer player in a play on words, but the Post’s coverage is indicative of the treatment the World Cup continues to get in the USA.

Mainstream media provided extensive treatment of the quarterfinals and even our local paper, the Hartford Courant, devoted a full page on Sunday to the quarterfinals and more room on the Sports front page.  The games continue to be water cooler fodder and a steady stream of highlights continue to dot the evening news nationwide.  US ratings have been great (not quite Germany great, where the Germany quarterfinal match achieved a record 89% penetration), but record setting for all games, even those not involving the United States.