The Business of the MLS Off Season

Baseball calls it Hot Stove season.  The NFL occupies months with draft talk, organized team activities, mini-camps and training camps.  Whatever the name, off season events have become an integral part of the modern sports business model.  Fans hungry for team and league news flock to websites, mainstream media sources, sports radio and sports television for year round coverage of their favorite sports.  Major League Soccer has 3-4 months of “dead time” which must be filled to keep the league and its franchises relevant on both the national and local sports landscapes.

Over the past few years, the league has significantly improved on the “back end” of the off season with respect to generating interest.  Last year MLS teams did a great job keeping their fans updated on scrimmages and matches through Twitter during the preseason period.  The league’s official website stepped up its offerings with in depth reporting and highlights from training games around the country.  There were also taped interviews and the video provided views of the excellent Arizona facility where many teams played.  The quality of the broadcasts were surprisingly good and provided a great way for fans to keep track of their team in the weeks leading up to the season.  Teams also participated in neutral site matches (like Corpus Christie) which drew sizable crowds.

Presuming the league builds on that effort, the key is now the December/January period.  The league runs its expansion draft right after the Final and deals involving Montreal have dominated the post-Thanksgiving period.  The Superdraft and re-entry drafts also have potential to become publicity generating events during the Winter months.  While these events should garner some attention, the league should work harder with its partners to generate more interest in the drafts.  This is especially so of the Superdraft, which has typically been squeezed into a mid-day broadcast on ESPN2 or News.  While the quality of the broadcast has increased significantly over the years, the mid-week/mid-day timeslot reflects the limited interest in the event.  Increased interest in the draft begets increased interest in rookies, which ultimately creates interests in the on the field product. Fans become vested in their draft choices, which also drives jersey sales and increases connections with the players on the field.

Generating interest in the off season for any but the most fervent of fans is of course challenging.  However, it will be interesting to see if the league can leverage its new relationship with NBC Sports to increase coverage of hot stove, draft and other off season changes. 2011 was a very successful campaign for Major League Soccer; the league now has a great opportunity to build upon that momentum through an well orchestrated off season

The Monday After: FOX TV, Broadcast Notes & More

Even though Major League Soccer has entered the off season, we plan to continue our weekly “Monday After” post looking at business stories from the weekend and items that we didn’t cover in the past week.  We’ll start with the newest player in soccer broadcasting, the over-the-air broadcast network FOX, which is touting its dynamic 1.1 rating and 1.67 million viewers from last weekend’s Chelsea/Liverpool rebroadcast on the FOX mothership.  When combined with the original broadcast on Fox Soccer, the match reached more than two million viewers.
Sticking with soccer broadcasts and new partners, it was reported last week that NBC and Versus have successfully pursed Seattle Sounders play-by-play man Arlo White to serve as their lead voice for the upcoming season of MLS soccer on the various networks.  White has been the voice of the Seattle Sounders since the start of the 2010 season. This continues a rapid rise to stardom for White since coming to American shores.  After a varied broadcast career in England, White will now move to arguably the top domestic broadcast position in the United States.    In other broadcast news, ESPN announced that John Harkes’ contract with the network will no be renewed.  Taylor Twellman will now move from the studio to the color seat.  Twellman spent the 2011 season paired with veteran JP DellaCamera in the Union local broadcast booth.

Finally, we recommend this piece from Forbes Magazine about some of the premiere sports venues in the nation.  The author took in a match at Red Bull Arena (verus the Galaxy in the playoffs) and came away impressed with the venue, the scene and more.

Critical Mention Update: MLS Cup Edition

Over the last year or so, we have discussed MLS’ efforts to measure the value of its television exposure through various local and national broadcasts.  Through the website, MLS tries to alert media  to the “value” of its presence on various television programs.  Since a few weeks have passed since we last checked in on this metric, we thought providing a snapshot of this metric of MLS media exposure. Today, we thought it worth taking a look at the Friday report prior to MLS Cup. The Critical Mention report from November 18, 2011 suggests that MLS related clips reached almost 5.5 million television viewers for an estimated publicity value of approximately $207,000.  Of the 17 clips listed in the report, here are some of the most significant.A

As part of its Sports Center What 2 Watch 4, ESPN provided just over one minute of coverage on the upcoming Cup Final.  The spot included interviews with Landon Donovan and David Beckham as well as promotion of the ESPN broadcast.   The anchors also provided some key stats about the matchup and a graphic “tale of the tape” was included.  As part of the morning Sports Center, the spot reached more than 600,000 people nationwide.  According to Critical Mention, the segment brought more than 21k in exposure and value to MLS.

Sports Center also put MLS Cup on its top plays, with a focus on a celebrity event at the Home Depot Center.  The segment was also part of the morning broadcast.  According to Critical Mention, the 50 second spot reached more than 500,000 viewers for almost $9k in exposure.

Moving away from ESPN, the last spotlighted broadcast comes from TMZ via a national FOX telecast.  The early morning show discussed the possibility of joining with Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center for a soccer game that included representatives of the show.  Remarkably, the short spot reached more than 285,000 viewers for almost $117,000 in free exposure.

MLS Cup Potpurri: Cup Ratings, Harkes Signs Off & More

Before we delve into the MLS off season, here are some business notes from MLS Cup and the entire soccer weekend.  We’ll start with the MLS Cup overnight rating, which was reported by SBJ on Twitter as a .8.  To put that number in perspective, the .8 is double the 2010 rating but slightly less than the 2009 rating.  The .8 is only an “overnight” rating which means only major metropolitan areas are calculated.  The same source reported that Los Angeles locally drew a 1.5 rating for the game.  The Houston Chronicle reported that the game drew a 2.8 local number in Houston.  None of these numbers include Spanish broadcasts.

In broadcast news, Grant Wahl of SI reported that MLS Cup was John Harkes’ swan song in the ESPN booth.  According to Wahl’s story, Harkes will be replaced by current ESPN personality and Philly Union broadcaster Taylor Twellman.  Following his retirement from the Revolution because of concussion related issues, Twellman has quickly risen through the broadcast ranks and now earns the plum assignment next to Ian Darke.  The SI report also offers thoughts on the NBC booth.

Other big news from the weekend included the announcement that MLS is moving its final to the home ground of the highest seeded team.  While some fans cheer the move, the change from a long planned neutral site game will create difficulty for sponsors seeking to activate around the event.  Also, some of the traditional events, including parties, supporters summit and more will be impacted by the inability to plan for the Final.  At the same time, the move may ensure a lively crowd and substantial local media coverage of the game.



Business Blogging: MLS Cup 2011

As we do for a number of big soccer events every year, tonight will offer a business take on the broadcast of the MLS Cup Final.  Over the next couple of days, we’ll look the business ramifications of the new schedule, offer some thoughts on the new MLS Cup Final format and discuss the expansion draft.  However, America’s soccer eyes (including those on the East Coast staying up late) are focused on the rain soaked Home Depot Center.  Before we get to the game, some quick thoughts on ESPN coverage in the lead-up to the match.  The game featured on PTI in the lead up to match and got some good coverage on Sportscenter.  Coverage on the front page of was fairly limited until the hours leading up to the match.

Game lead in with Bretos talking over shots of players entering the facility an in the locker room.  The opening continued with a voiced over montage of both teams.  Moreno, Lalas and Twellman join Bretos for the pre-game and Beckham gets the focus to start.  Opening includes interview with Beckham, recap of his career and discussion of his legacy.  Eight minutes in, ESPN finally alerts viewers to the kickoff time.  Darke and Harskes join the telecast ten minutes in with lineups and a brief take on both teams.  Pregame presented by VW.

First commercial break 14 minutes into telecast starting with a spot for VW followed by a trailer for the new Mission Impossible movie and a “This is Sportscenter ad.”  Local spots followed.  Twellman and Moreno are both very comfortable in the booth.  Lalas and Bretos both old pros at this point and provide steady hands.  The second set of ads included a spot from adidas, another of the Howard Allstate ads, a re-run of the VW ad, Continental Tire and ESPN Monday Night Football promo and local ads.

The lead-in to the game included another voiceover filled with highlights and then directly to Darke and Harkes.  Rob Stone on the sideline with a pre-game interview with Kinnear.  Actual kick off time is 9:28 on the East Cost. VW gets the first on screen ad while Continental Tire presents the “Analysts Corner: in the 5th minute.  Chelada from Budweiser joined in the 10th minute, Dick’s  and Continental Tire thereafter.     Usual advertisers evident on the sign boards, including Bud, Castrol, adidas, Continental Tire, Degree, el Jimador, Four Points, Gatorade, Home Depot, Jeld-Wen, Makita, Panasonic, AT&T, Pepsi Max, Visa, XBox 360, Allstate, ESPN, MLS Gear and more.

Oscar De La Hoya gets screen time in the 19th minute. 20th minute promo for ESPN coverage of the EURO draw. Rob Stone appearing in the 25th minute.  First EPL promo in the 31st minute.

Hot Pockets sponsoring the halftime show.  First set of ads at the half start with VW, followed by Continental, Dick’s and local spots.  Pregame crew returning at halftime at the desk. VW presented a series of top goal highlights before a package of commerical including AllState, Bud, Fabenko, Dick’s, AllState again and back to the halftime show with an interview if Commissioner Garber conducted by the studio team with Moreno removed.  Playoff structure, expansion, DC United, Beckham are the business topics that Garber addressed.   The final set of ads included adidas, continental Tire, ESPN and local spots.  The second half started with another voice over.

Soccer Business Bits: FOX Broadcasts, MLS Good Deeds & More

FOX is continuing its series of broadcast EPL matches this weekend with the Liverpool/Chelsea game. The game will be broadcast on Fox Soccer re-broadcast on FOX either before or after NFL football.  According to the press release, “CNN talk show host Piers Morgan is slated to join the studio team, providing commentary and analysis for the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match, live on FOX Soccer Sunday, November 20 at 11:00 am ET, with an encore on FOX.”  The release also notes that more than 1.6 million viewers watched the last FOX broadcast re-air of the EPL.  This series of games will culminate with a live broadcast on FOX as part of Super Bowl Sunday.  Soccer fans have extra interest in these games now that FOX is locked into the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.

We have long championed the league and team charitable efforts on this site.  MLS W.O.R.K.S does great stuff in the community and is gearing up as part of the MLS Cup festivities.  According to the league’s press release, “MLS W.O.R.K.S. will partner with Starlight Children’s Foundation and visit Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for the placement of two Starlight Fun Center™ mobile entertainment units… Former Galaxy stars and MLS Cup winners Cobi Jones and Chris Klein will be joined by LA Galaxy mascot Cozmo to play games and participate in activities with the kids prior to the dedication ceremony. Patients will have a special opportunity to get autographs and take pictures with the Philip F. Anschutz championship trophy. A select number of tickets to Sunday’s match will be provided for Starlight families.”

Galaxy Strike New TV Deal

According to a story that broke in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday evening, the Galaxy are set to announce a 10 year, $55 million deal with two new Time Warner Regional Sports networks to televise Galaxy games.  The new networks (one in Spanish and the other in English) are fighting for content in the crowded LA Sports market and this deal guarantees live programming from March to October.  According to the Times’ story, the deal will be officially announced on Friday.

The size of the deal is staggering.  NBC recently paid $30 million for 3 years of Major League Soccer on a national level and now Time Warner is offering $5.5 million per year for a team that never topped 16k viewers over the last year.  The deal is especially extraordinary because Major League Soccer’s national television partners will certainly demand that the league’s showcase franchise regularly appear on their broadcasts.  How many games will the new networks get as part of their package.  Moreover, the same story suggests that the network is also chasing the rights to the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Given the overlap between baseball and soccer, will Galaxy fans be subject to tape delay as part of the new arrangement?  The Lakers recently signed on with the same network on a 20 year deal worth a reported $20 billion.

From a business perspective, it is hard to find something to dislike about this agreement. A major television partner believes that the league is a worthy long term investment.  At the same time, the deal allows the Galaxy, the league’s most aggressive franchise in pursuing star players, to fill its coffers from a local television deal at a time when some franchises are receiving no money for their rights.  Will this deal tilt the competitive balance in the team’s favor?


Soccer Business Bits: Revs Make Changes?; More Garber Answers & More

Coaching changes aren’t usually fodder for this website, but since the Revs have reached into their broadcast booth when grabbing a coach for the 2012 version of the team, we can file this under media coverage of the team.  Heaps retired after the 2009 season and spent two years paired with Brad Feldman while providing color commentary.  Heaps had replaced Greg Lalas who moved to to help launch the league’s new website two years ago.  His hiring follows a recent league tradition of employing recently retired players as coaches.

Elsewhere, Commissioner Garber sat down with the Sports Business Journal’s Fred Dreir as part of the publication’s Five Questions feature.  You can see the interview here.  For fans of MLS and readers of this site, the interview won’t provide any new information about the business prospects of the league.  However, SBJ is an acclaimed industry publication read by sports business professionals, front office types and advertising professionals across the sports spectrum.  The interview provides some of these non-soccer types with a few tidbits of information about the league’s success and future plans.

We’ll finish in Houston where the Dynamo are gearing up for their MLS Cup Final appearance while continuing to make progress on their soccer stadium plans.  Off the field, the team conducted a “topping off” ceremony where the final steel beam in the new stadium’s canopy was dropped into place.  The event was attended by a number of local political figures, team representatives and others.  The stadium is set to open next year and (according to recent statements by the Commissioner), is slightly ahead of schedule.

The Monday After

For the first time in months, there we have concluded a weekend without a soccer match on United States’ soil.  Major League Soccer is counting down to the 2011 MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center and ceded the weekend to International Soccer as FIFA claimed this weekend for World Cup Qualifiers, Euro 2012 Qualifiers and a spate of International Friendlies.  For American soccer fans, one such friendly pitted the United States against France.  The match was televised on Friday afternoon ensuring a fairly limited television audience.

Other weekend stories include a feature from about efforts to improve scouting in San Jose.  According to the article, “San Jose have hired a full-time video analyst to help the club sift through hours of tape on all the various players they’re keeping tabs on at any given point in time. And they’re also one of several MLS clubs who recently signed on with, a service that significantly widens the club’s reach and ability to see video on players from all around the globe.”  Investing in scouting is definitely a way in which teams can gain advantages in a salary cap league. San Jose has long been rumored to be one of the more spendthrift teams, so these additional scouting funds represent a positive sign that ownership is looking for ways to creatively spend its money.

Finally, Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer provides some perspective on the team and the league in this Q&A in the Seattle Times.  Hanauer suggests that a new field will be in place for 2012 and that seating capacity at Century Link Field will be expanded.

The Commish Speaks

On Thursday afternoon, Commissioner Don Garber conducted a wide ranging conference call with more than 80 media members from around the world about the State of the League.  MLS smartly scheduled this call the week before the lead-up to the MLS Cup Final so that the primary focus next week will be the game.  Garber hit on a number of business topics during the call and we thought it makes sense to list some of the key items here.

1.  Garber stated that television ratings are up double digits on all of the league’s broadcast partners.

2.  He confirmed that an unbalanced 34 game schedule will be played in 2012.

3.  DC United has the most expensive lease in the history of the league with substandard facilities.  He indicated that the situation is unworkable and that new lease negotiations for RFK are underway.  He further indicated that moving United was certainly a possibility.

4.   Says the league is proud of and that a French version should emerge next year.

5.  The Houston stadium is ahead of schedule while Montreal is behind schedule.

6.  Schedule will be released early this year (perhaps December) and perhaps dates for future seasons will be released as well.

7.  TFC is investing $20 million in a youth facility.

8.  Orlando possibly in the running for an expansion franchise.

9.  Galaxy looking to add seats for the Final.  Game sold out.