Soccer Business Bits: Soccer is Popular, Legal News & More

The Sports Business Daily is reporting that according to an ESPN Poll, avid sports fans are taking an interest in MLS in increasing numbers.  In the target 18-34 demographic, interest in MLS has increased more than any other American sports league.  The percentage of avid fans and “regular” fans have also increased.  On the negative side, avid hispanic sports fans have less interest in MLS than almost any other league/sporting event.

We have not done a particularly effective job of following the ongoing legal action between Champions World, USSF and MLS.  USSF has long taken a portion of all soccer gates in the US.  According to a Wall Street Journal article, USSF has collected almost $3 million in such fees in 2009.  For a comprehesive discussion of the lawsuit, click here.

Finally, for the second time in as many years, a member of the Kansas City Wizards threw out the first pitch at a Kansas City Royals Game.  As with all such events, the opportunity provides a good chance for the Wizards get access to a new set of fans.  Although the Royals don’t draw particularly well, the first pitch will generate discussion and exposure.

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Promotions, Promotions Promotions

As the season enters its home stretch, we thought we would take a quick look around MLS to see what promotions teams are offering to fill their stadiums in the final weeks.

In New England, the Revs are offering a promotion in conjunction with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization for their October 2 match against RSL.  The promotions includes two tickets and two special breast cancer awareness/Revs t-shirts for $50.  The event is offered as part of the Revs effort to increase awareness during Breast Cancer Awareness month.  During the game, there will be auctions, raffles and other events with a breast cancer focus.

Following a similar theme, the October 2 Crew match will feature a “Boot breast cancer” theme that will include a human pink ribbon on the field prior to the second half.  Fans will receive a free pink t-shirt.  At the same time, the match will be a special college night at Crew Stadium.  A valid college ID will get fans an $11 discount off upper level seats for the game.

Finally, the Rapids are offering a deal in conjunction with Smiling Moose Deli for their Wednesday night game against Philadelphia.  The Family Pack for the game runs for $79 and includes 4 tickets and four sandwiches from the deli.

The Problem With Travel

One of the big business stories of the last couple of days (carried by the world of Twitter), is the travel tribulations of RSL as the team makes its way from Salt Lake City to Toronto for its Tuesday night CCL match against TFC.  A myriad of delays, angry airline employees and missed connections left half of RSL’s roster stranded in Atlanta while the rest flew off to Toronto.  After additional delays, the remaining roster made its way North of the Border in drips and drabs. As a result, the team missed practice and its equipment and uniforms had yet to make the trip.

RSL’s travel problems should rekindle the ongoing debate about travel conditions in Major League Soccer.  Most professional sports teams fly their players by charter, ensuring comfortable conditions and efficient travel.  Teams criss-crossing the country and heading to Central American log serious hours in the air would welcome the relaxation afformed by private air travel.  In fairly recent history, MLS afforded teams the option of reserving limited flights on chartered aircraft.  However, as this RSL experience shows, those opportunities are limited and not all teams are willing to front the cost for these flights.

This represents an interesting cost analysis for the league and individual teams.  Various Twitter reports suggested that MLS teams pay more than $60k to charter a flight for their roster.  Over the course of a year, travel is a significant expense and teams handle their options differently.  Some leave earlier than others for long trips, bring larger rosters across the country and make use of the private airplane options.  As rosters expand, teams are added and the games add up, MLS will need to re-evaluate how they manage travel over the years to come.  The RSL situation should bring that into focus.

The Monday After

It was championship weekend in WPS, so we’ll start in the Bay Area, where 5300 showed up to see the home side win the second WPS championship.   The game was an important milestone for WPS and from a business perspective, it was a success. The match was covered by FSC, and was presented by Citi.  Both teams in the match were wearing jerseys featuring sponsorships, the weather was perfect and the league’s biggest star (Marta) was on the field.  Coming off a week that saw the addition of a new franchise (in Western New York), the final was a great culmination of the second year for WPS.

From a business perspective, RSL’s 1-1 draw versus Colorado was a great reflection of MLS 2.0.  More than 18, 000 screaming fans, at a gorgeous SSS cheering a last minute goal by the home side over a hated rival.  FSC coverage was very good, the crowd sounded great and the quality of play was also very good.  With both sides jockeying for playoff position, the match had the look and sound of a premier sporting event.  Overall, it was a great attendance weekend for MLS, starting with the 27k at the Home Depot Center for the Red Bulls/Galaxy match.  Other big crowds were in announced in Toronto and Chicago.  With the playoffs no longer a foregone conclusion for most teams in MLS (only half make the postseason), it will be interesting if attendance reflects the increasing importance of these late season games.

MLS Blackout Rules

Over the years, Major League Soccer’s blackout policy has mystified fans looking for games on Direct Kick and through the MLS website.  Most fans understand that nationally televised games are only available on the MLS partner station, but locating local telecasts on the various platforms can sometimes prove challenging.  MLS has improved this access, and after some problems earlier this year, most problems have been resolved.

However, sitting in Hartford, we’ve noticed that Red Bulls games are blacked out on Direct Kick  (despite no television access to the game on cable) and had fans from all over the country complain that their games aren’t accessible despite the absence of any logical reason to blackout the game.  We asked MLS about these issues and about the success of the Direct Kick and MatchDay Live program, and this was the response we got from the League:
MLS has worked with its television partners and upgraded its online video player with the intention of allowing fans to see every one of their team’s games live. Nationally-televised games are blacked out on DirectKick and MatchDay Live as part of the rights agreements. DirectKick and MatchDay Live are essentially out-of-market pay-per-view games that are purchased in bulk at a flat rate.

Markets are determined by the zip codes to which the regional carrier is distributed.   The Red Bull games should be available live in the Hartford area online via MatchDay Live. If the game is not available online, then we need to know the zip code of those who are blacked out from the game, so that we can address the issue with the local carrier.

We have noticed an overall increase in interest in both MatchDay Live and Direct Kick, and we will continue to offer both packages going forward.

Expansion Update

As we do every so often, we thought we would take a quick look at the status of Major League Soccer’s incoming soccer teams.  Both Vancouver and Portland have been make positive noises over the last few weeks with player rumors, stadium news and more.  Here is our look at both teams.

We’ll start in Portland, where the Timbers have announced that 15 different sections of season tickets have been sold out for 2011. In addition, all but one of the available suites are sold with mult-year deals.  There are 23 such suites at the renovated PGE Park. Season tickets for the Timbers start at $15 per game.  The Timbers had previously announced (about six weeks ago), that 10 season ticket sections were sold.    For more discussion on the ticket sales, check out MLS Rumors‘ take on the situation.  In Portland, the minor league baseball season has come to a close and it is now time for the second phase of the PGE Park renovation to move forward (PGE”s naming rights deal is up, so the name of the stadium may change before the season begins in 2011).   For a great guide to the renovations, click here.  Much of the next phase will involve the removal of baseball fences and polls along with the demolition of certain structural elements.

There has been less news out of Vancouver, although all reports are that season ticket sales are strong.  Some reports suggest that more than 14k season tickets have sold for 2011.   In stadium news, the renovations at BC Place are not going as quickly as planned.  As of now, the planned opening date of the newly renovated stadium is June 1, 2011.  However, recent quotes from those involved suggest that the Whitecaps make use of their temporary quarters for a significant portion of next season.

Footiebusiness Vault: Interview with Dynamo Senior VP Rocky Harris

We have previously posted on Houston’s promotional and marketing efforts.  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.

Footiebusiness.com: 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 Footiebusiness.com we’ve written about the amigofreekick.com 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 Amigofreekick.com 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.