Guest Post: Selling Soccer in America Through Statistics: MLS’s Partnership with Opta

Every so often, we are fortunate to have one of our readers provide some great content for the site.  Dave Laidig is an attorney in Minnesota, currently supporting a multi-national corporation as contracts counsel.  Dave coordinates sales, marketing, finance and technical departments for an information content provider in the pursuit of business opportunities, and serves as the authorized negotiator for contracts with government entities.  He earned a Master’s degree in Psychology with an emphasis on research methods and statistics; and undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Sociology.  He has presented seminars and published articles in the field of government contracts, but prefers to discuss the inner workings of the business of sports to those who will listen.  Thanks to Dave for his great insights….we are listening!

On March 4, 2011, MLS announced its partnership with Opta, a sports data provider with experience in European leagues. In its announcement, the MLS spokesman reported “For many years we have heard a desire from our fans for more in-depth statistics …. [and] this deal will allow for deeper analysis of all MLS matches and ensure that MLS is at the cutting edge of data technologies in 2011 and beyond.” The data provided by Opta will be “available for use by, participating broadcasters and other interested media outlets.” Further signaling a strategic, long-term presence, the announcement also reported that Opta would build a data analysis hub in New York to cover North American games. Because the data procured from Opta, if used wisely, can help sell the game to the American public, this announcement is not just another vendor deal for MLS over a bunch of stat lines.

Any salesman worth his commission has an enormous vocabulary with regards to his product. But in America, our vocabulary for soccer is missing something compared to other sports. A quick glance at recent MLS reporting reveals that only a few types of actions are mentioned. Over time, the repetition of a few items, game after game, bores its audience and does little to enhance a dynamic sport with 90 minutes of non-stop action. For example, if one misses a game, appealing to a post-game summary adds little. The box score typically reports a player’s goals, cards, and sometimes assists. Any action outside of these categories is generally treated as non-existent, and implicitly reinforces the meme that soccer yields little action. Even the post-game narratives are almost entirely a recitation of a box score.

In the wire reports from Sports Network for the 2010 playoff series between FC Dallas- Real Salt Lake consisted of three elements: (1) narratives of scoring attempts, (2) team schedule review (e.g., next opponent, score from previous games, etc.), and (3) summary of cards. Over the two game summaries, the lone exception to the three elements was the phrase “FCD came out strong in the game, making the RSL defense look out-of-sorts in the early going.” And this phrase culminated with a score report. This post-game reporting does not communicate the feel of the game, or even acknowledge the work of non-scoring players. Notably, there was no mention of tactics, defensive actions, or even a generic possession report informing which team held the ball more. And the failure to describe the game flows-down to the description of individual players. As such, objective descriptions of players are limited to demographic data (hometown, age, position), a few limited performance measures (goals, cards, saves), or participation measures (games played, minutes). One can understand why soccer has been slow to capture the imagination of the American fans not already knowledgeable about the sport.

Reaching the fans is the league’s primary responsibility for a sustainable product. Not only because fans provide a direct revenue source, but also because the intensity and number of fans induces investments from MLS partners. Ultimately, better descriptions of the game are an incredible marketing opportunity that can (1) improve the media’s coverage of soccer, (2) educate fans about soccer’s key elements, (3) draw attention to non-playoff teams, (4) and serve as the foundation for the fantasy soccer-manager league. Generating excitement around the game requires less investment than a high profile signing, which can cost of several million dollars a year, and the results may be greater. Looking at other American sports, most remember Sosa and McGuire’s pursuit of baseball’s home run record. In my hometown, the worst NBA team received nightly coverage as Kevin Love chased a record in a statistical category (the “double-double”) of dubious significance. And I admit that I have checked into an unattractive NFL game to see if my fantasy player would pad their stats in garbage time. But more than just attention, meaningful statistics can also provide revenue through:

· Additional Corporate Sponsors for Statistical Categories (Game & Season)

·Increased Ad sales with increased website views

And statistics can also support the art of selling the MLS by:

· Supporting media partners with more and better data

· Generating public conversation about the game (i.e., “buzz”)

· Educating fans about various aspects of game.

Demonstrating another use for statistics, MLS has created a fantasy league where the public can combine MLS players and have their hypothetical squad compete with their friends’ teams. A savvy move as a well-executed fantasy league can serve as a market penetration vehicle, both for American and non-U.S. markets, and can reinforce existing MLS support. Over 6.4 Million Americans participate in fantasy sports, and over 2.3 Million do so several times a week.[1] This growing pastime has been attributed a source of increased game-viewing for the NFL, with 10% annual increases in subscribers attributed, in part, to “fantasy football fanatics.”[2] And the foundation of any fantasy league is player statistics. Importantly, participants often follow multiple teams (because their fantasy players are on different teams), which can drive viewership and interest independent of the fate of the local team. Further, a fantasy option can cultivate a comprehensive understanding of the sport, and the contributions of non-scoring players, as players analyze offensive and defensive performance for a variety of positions. And because fantasy managers often check in to a website several times a week, the fantasy product can generate revenue through increased website ad sales and possible statistical add-ons.

An MLS Fantasy League can sell soccer by:

· Increased market research opportunities with a committed focus group

· Driving attention to games not otherwise on the fan’s radar

· Bringing in Casual Soccer Fans or Fantasy Sports Fans · Solidifying Existing MLS Fans through increased participation

· Supporting Fan’s conversations regarding player roles and value (i.e., a great fantasy player v. a great team player).

In an information age, the business of sports cannot afford to ignore the need for better soccer information. And the data needed to advance the league’s interests is available, according to those privileged to receive access. MLS currently provides some graphics regarding shots and fouls, but falls short of revealing key actions such as passes, tackles, interceptions. But the question becomes whether the data provided to the media, and to the public, promotes the goals of educating the public, driving interest among the teams and generating conversations among supporters. Hopefully, MLS will heed the call of its fans and the evangelism of soccer in America will soon add some new terminology.

[1] United States Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2010, Table 1203 (most recent data is for 2008). [2] Riley-Katz, Anne, “Fantasy Football Kicks Off Shows But Ratings Remain a Dream” 27 Los Angeles Business Journal 46, Nov. 14 2005.

4 Responses

  1. Totally agree. However mls fantasy games and soccer fantasy games in general are not as good as football and baseball

  2. Most soccer fans dislike stats because they feel like it is an attempt to Americanize the sport. The game speaks for itself, why do we need numbers?

  3. Bon Vivant – I agree that the sentiment exists, and I agree that current fans (who may prefer the status quo) should be respected. But my argument is that more, but still meaningful data, could enhance the conversation, not replace the game. And I would note that European reporting is trending towards more data as well (and not just for gambling purposes), such as that provided by the Guardian.

    Also, the American audience that that will support MLS growth (American fans of other sports) could use a primer on why watch soccer if someone isn’t scoring – nuance that may be already understood by lifelong supporters. And personally, I believe the U.S. domestic league should be Americanized if it wants to remain viable (does Celtic try to be more English?). Ultimately, we cannot be more European than La Liga or the EPL, but a strong, consistent product that taps into the local culture is possible. Sports that cross boundaries are expected to have some local flair – and I believe that greater detail of the game would help Americans understand and appreciate the game.

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