Covering the Coverage: MLS Cup Edition

This is our last post before the Cup Final on Saturday, so with the media starting to descend on Los Angeles, now is a good time to look at how some of major outlets are covering the upcoming match.  Before looking at game coverage, the first link is to a must read of Grant Wahl’s annual chat with Commissioner Garber.  For fans of the business of soccer in the United States, the piece is a must read.

The Dynamo page on the Chron.com has an array of features on the Dynamo and the upcoming match.

The Sports page of the Los Angeles Times continues to lack a Galaxy specific (of soccer specific) link across the masthead.   The soccer page does have a few stories about the upcoming match, Beckham’s retirement and Donovan’s possible departure.

Although you have to make your way to the MLS Page, ESPN.com has a fair amount of coverage about the league and upcoming match.

USA Today started Thursday with Chris Wondolowski’s MVP win and the soccer page of the online version of the paper includes a number of articles about the league, the players and the upcoming match.

Not surprisingly, NBC Sports’ page is full of features and news stories about the match.

Finally, TSN’s webpage is full of articles about the game, the players and the state of the league.

We’ll be back on Monday with a business blog of the game.   Enjoy the big match!

Cup Final Business Bits

The MLS Cup Final is just days away so I thought we would provide some business items related to the league’s end of season showcase.  Let’s start with the the television broadcast, which is slated to air on ESPN on Saturday at 4:30 Eastern.  The match should kick off at 4:55 following a pre-game show anchored by Max Bretos.  According to the Worldwide Leader, the telecast will include 19 cameras, including 2 super slo-mo and overhead images from the Goodyear blimp.  Adrian Healey and Taylor Twellman will broadcast their first MLS Cup from the ESPN booth as part of a group of 12 commentators.  There will also be the requisite interview with David Beckham.  as well as extensive coverage on Sportscenter, ESPN’s digital platforms, ESPN Deportes and ESPN International.

Elsewhere, the league has been making an effort to promote the match in a number of venues, with league representatives appearing on a wide array of varied shows including Morning Joe, business shows and other sports related programming.   In Houston, a Dynamo Day was declared by the Mayor with entreaties to city residents to wear orange in support of the team.  During the week, the LA Galaxy announced that AEG and the LA Galaxy Foundation have partnered with MLS W.O.R.K.S., to donate a multi-use LA Galaxy branded Sport Court as well as donating sports equipment and creating year-long sports programs along with beautifying the Learning Center at the Boys and Girls Club of Carson.

Part of the week included a tour of the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.  In making its way to Los Angeles, the trophy made stops in Houston and LA including in front of the Hollywood sign and at NASA.

The Business of Becks

On Saturday David Beckham will take the field for the last time as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy.  After six years, the final chapter in the (with a nod to Grant Wahl) Beckham experiment in Majort League Soccer is finally coming to a close.  From a business standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Beckham’s tenure in the United States was anything other than an unqualified success.  Despite the initial puffery involved with claims of $250 million contracts, early struggles on the field and missteps by Beckham himself, the league has seen a period of great growth over the last six years.

The reports of 300,000 Beckham jersey sales in the first year were not fabrications.  The new television deal for the league with NBC (not to mention the $55 million deal for local broadcasts of Galaxy games), the proliferation of soccer specific stadiums, the increase in jersey sponsors (the first Herbalife  jersey deal  just became a 10 year $44 million extension) and the ever increasing expansion fees cannot be disconnected from Beckham’s bold decision to ply his trade in the States.  Perhaps most notable is the remarkable increase in league attendance.  The year before Beckham joined the league, MLS averaged approximately 15,500 fans per game in attendance.  In 2012, the league managed a remarkable 18,800 per game at the gate.

Throughout his time in MLS, Beckham was a willing participant in media outreach, publicity campaigns and league showcases.  Despite some questioning of his commitment at times, Beckham was a great ambassador for the league and never wavered in his efforts to promote MLS and soccer in America.   Six years later, the soccer imprint on the American sports landscape is bigger, broader and more impressive. While not entitled to all of the credit, the signing of David Beckham was a significant factor in strengthening and sustaining the future of professional soccer in the United States.

And the Winner…..

Congratulations to the Chicago Fire, the winner of the 2012 Footiebusiness Team PR Award.  The Fire edged out 2011 winner Sporting Kansas City in the closest race in the history of the award.

Chicago is definitely a deserving champion.  The team had a great year in the stands with attendance increasing by 15% to well over 16,000 fans per game.   Last year the team averaged more than 1,000 over its lifetime average and more than 2,000 over its 2011 number.   Perhaps the biggest business news for Chicago came during the Winter, when the team announced a $1.3-1.5 million dollar per year jersey sponsorship agreement with Quaker Oats. If the report is accurate, the new deal is a great score for a Fire franchise that went without a jersey sponsor in 2011 after Best Buy ended its relationship before the season started last year.  The team also has done a great job on social media and prepared some great visuals to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

Here are some of the highlights of the Fire’s season in PR

Here is an article describing some of the nuances of  the Quaker Oats jersey partnership: http://www.hottimeinoldtown.com/2012/1/20/2720358/quaker-oats-chicago-fire-oatmeal-press-release-in-a-canister

Here is one of a series of clever tv commercials that the team ran in the Chicago area: http://www.chicago-fire.com/video/2012/05/24/dominic-oduro-does-everything-fast

The team also leveraged its relationship with Quaker to create unique Life Cereal boxes with Austin Berry’s photo and statistics as a way to promote his Rookie of the Year campaign.

It was a great 2012 for the Fire.  Congratulations to Chicago on winning the 2012 Footiebusiness Team PR Award.  The competition for the 2013 version starts today.

Monday After: Time to Vote

Less than one week until MLS Cup and it is time to vote for the MLS Front Office/PR Award. Once again, the league used to define the Award this way:  “Department recognized for consistent, accurate and proactive efforts in providing media members with information and generating coverage for its team.”  However, because this is now a Footiebusiness Award, we think recognition for marketing and promotional efforts should also be included.  For purposes of this award, the “2012 year” started when voting closed last October. For our brief summary of the candidacies of Houston and Sporting, click here. For the candidacies of San Jose and Chicago, click here.


Register your votes, add your comments.  Voting closes at 9 Eastern on Monday night.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a quick happy Thanksgiving note from Footiebusiness to you and your family.  We will be back with on schedule with a post Monday morning.  In the interim, enjoy a post from last year about the holiday shopping experience in MLS.

ImageWith everyone scrambling to buy just the right gift for the holidays, we thought it worth revisiting we did a few months back on the MLS shopping experience.

We have repeatedly posted about the MLS shopping experience. From a shortage of gear at brick and mortar retailers, to the absence of infant sized Galaxy items to the improved online experience, we have repeatedly written about procuring MLS items.  Today we are pleased to present some thoughts from Stu Crystal, Major League Soccer’s Vice President of Consumer Products, about shopping for league merchandise.  Mr. Crystal is a graduate of SUNY Stony Brook and has been with the league for more than 10 years.  Thanks to Mr. Crystal.  Please drop a line in the comments section telling us about your MLS shopping experience.

Footiebusiness.com:  On MLSSoccer.com, the primary “shop” link brings fans to MLS Gear rather than individual team stores. Is MLS Gear the league’s preferred online shopping destination?  Does the league have relationships with third party vendors that sell official merchandise online?  Certain teams (e.g. DC and NY) appear to have individual team stores that carry a wide variety of team merchandise and apparel, while others seem to rely on MLS Gear.  Why do some teams have individual stores and others do not?  For those that have team stores, do those outlets typically carry more variety than the MLS Gear Shop?  Does the league encourage teams to operate their own shops online?

Stu Crystal: MLS Gear is the official online store for Major League Soccer. We’re testing some online team stores and exploring the option to allow all teams to have official club stores. At this time, we are not encouraging teams to operate their own shops online. We have a centralized option in MLS Gear but are open to team shops if we determine that fans prefer to shop at team branded stores. We hope to have a definitive direction by the start of the 2013 season. We do have relationships with other online retailers, including World Soccer Shop, Fan’s Edge, Amazon, etc.

FB: What types of merchandise (e.g. jerseys, youth gear, etc…) are typically the best sellers?  What items are the least popular? What individual player jerseys are the top sellers this year?  Are there items that aren’t currently available that fans should expect to see soon?

SC:  Jerseys and other core fan items, such as scarves and t-shirts, are the best sellers. We’re currently coordinating with our licensees to add higher end items, such as foosball tables and Dream Seats, for the holiday season.

FB: How has the online MLS shopping experience improved over the years?  What changes should shoppers expect in the coming months?

SC:  Last year, we shifted to working with Sports Endeavors, the dominant online soccer retailer in this country. This partnership allows us to provide fans with the highest level of customer service and an increased variety in what we can offer – footwear, international club items, etc.

FB: One commonly heard complaint from fans is that league merchandise is hard to find at brick and mortar retailers, including those operated by league partners. What efforts are made to increase the presence of league items at these locations?

SC:  We’ve hired someone to focus on retail development, and we’re working closely with Dick’s Sporting Goods to increase the selection of MLS merchandise in our markets. As the league grows and the demand for MLS merchandise grows, we will see an increase in merchandise in brick and mortar retailers.

Team PR Award Part II

As we stated last week, it is time to start looking at the candidates for the Footiebusiness Team PR award. In past years, the Award was defined this way:  “Department recognized for consistent, accurate and proactive efforts in providing media members with information and generating coverage for its team.”  However, because this is now a Footiebusiness Award, we think recognition for marketing and promotional efforts should also be included.For purposes of this award, the “2012 year” started when voting closed last October. For our brief summary of the candidacies of Houston and Sporting, click here.

Our third finalist is the Chicago Fire.  The team had a great year in the stands with attendance increasing by 15% to well over 16,000 fans per game.   Last year the team averaged more than 1,000 over its lifetime average and more than 2,000 over its 2011 number.   Perhaps the biggest business news for Chicago came during the Winter, when the team announced a $1.3-1.5 million dollar per year jersey sponsorship agreement with Quaker Oats. If the report is accurate, the new deal is a great score for a Fire franchise that went without a jersey sponsor in 2011 after Best Buy ended its relationship before the season started last year.  The team also has done a great job on social media and prepared some great visuals to celebrate its 15th anniversary.

Our last candidate is San Jose.  Despite the close confines of its Buck Shaw premises, the team averaged more than 13k during the season thanks to its occasional forays off site.  Nevertheless, the team saw a 12% increase in year over year attendance.  Perhaps most importantly, the team broke ground on a new stadium after years of starts and stops.  The ground breaking drew a Guinness Book record for a ground breaking while generating publicity for the team.  On the downside, the team failed to secure a shirt sponsor for 2012 following the end of its relationship with Amway.

Any other suggestions?  Lay it on?  Voting will be next week.

What American Soccer Can Learn from Japan

Nick Kosar is back with his second Footiebusiness guest post.  Nick is a strategic marketing executive who was managing editor of Far East Traveler magazine in Tokyo before returning to the States to follow the newly inaugurated Major League Soccer. He’s still trying to figure out which J. League team to root for. Follow Nick on Twitter: @nakosar.  Nick’s firsts post can be found here.

Nick takes a long look at the soccer model in Japan and applies it to the States.  Now I am (repeatedly) on the record stating that pro/rel will never happen in the US, but Nick takes a good look at the success of that model in Japan along with an array of other initiates that have worked in the Land of the Rising Sun.  There are some parallels between US and Japan that are worth close examination.  Thanks again to Nick.

In the sporting universe, you can market players (e.g., Beckham, Henry, Wondo, DeRo), a team, or the sport itself. Of course, all three of these go hand in hand – they are part of a whole. But today I’ll focus on the strategic appeal and marketing of the sport itself:  Soccer in North America. And rather than pulling ideas from traditional soccer countries like England or Brazil, we’ll investigate from a different vantage point: Japan.

Japanese and North American Soccer: The Similarities

Japan, like North America, received the game of soccer by the early 20th century. Like the United States with its baseball and growing love of (American) football a hundred years ago, Japan had its sumo and a growing fascination with yakyu, or baseball. By the end of the 20th century, Japan retooled its existing soccer system into a brand new league: the J. League.

The J. League experienced a challenge similar to Major League Soccer a few years after its inauguration: it was forced to contract in the late 1990s before growing again in the 2000s. And, like MLS, Japanese soccer enjoys some long-term opportunities vis-à-vis other sports. Sumo, the national sport, has been embarrassed in recent years by match-fixing scandals, losing credibility and audience numbers. This experience is not unlike the experience in North America: the bruising that baseball received due to steroid scandals; hockey and basketball due to their labor disputes; and American football’s growing concussion and long-term injury problem. World Series television viewership is half of what it was 20 years ago, and American football is beset with ex-player injury lawsuits and parental concerns about their kids playing what is inherently a violent game.

Let Little Hello Kitty Fight It Out with Godzilla

So, while the experiences on both sides of the Pacific are eerily similar, there are some differences. J. League’s organizers have been very bold in trying to advance soccer as a leading sport in the country. Key to the J. League’s ambition is its 2004 “Hundred Year Plan,” borne out of soccer’s difficulties in Japan in the late 1990s. A key goal of the Plan is to spread the development of soccer to every corner of the country, from professional leagues down to amateur leagues.

As a foreshadowing of what was to come under the Plan, the J. League decided to create a lower “J2” league in 1999 to go along with the top league, now called “J1”. With this, they also instituted promotion and relegation. One result? Better marketing opportunities for the sport, with fans’ passion being upped a notch, and relegation battles being contested and publicized as much as championships. Take the example of Kashiwa Reysol (a team with 70-year-old roots as Hitachi’s corporate team, located in Chiba, roughly east of the capital city), which was relegated from J1 in the 2009 season yet was promoted back the next year. Incredibly, Kashiwa won the J1 championship in 2011. That’s what dreams are made of – the key reason people follow sports. Nothing like it exists in North American sport.

This promotion/relegation idea is alive and growing in North American soccer circles. If soccer in North America adopted an approach similar to the J. League, then in addition to the marketing potential of the MLS Cup, the MLS Playoffs, the Supporters Shield, and the US Open Cup, we would add yet another tantalizing and unique concept to the sports scene here: the Avoid-Relegation Scrap.

The Avoid-Relegation Scrap would be a true market differentiator for soccer in the crowded American sports market. Unlike any other North American sport, the idea of relegation/survival could captivate fans on this side of the Pacific too. It is generally understood that the American economy is more “laissez-faire” (i.e., less regulated) than other economies – for example, it is easier to fire someone from their job in the United States than in Europe. Like our more free-wheeling, fire-your-employees-at-will employment system, subjecting sports teams to the ravages of the promotion/relegation system (i.e., a freer market) would be uniquely American. Any American would be captivated by the idea of a AAA minor league baseball team being able to play at Fenway or Yankee Stadium after being promoted. It’s a tough leap to make for MLS, but they did it in Japan.

Taking Soccer to the Rice Paddies

Any visitor to Tokyo will tell you that you’ll never find a rice paddy in this huge concrete-and-glass metropolis. A key part of the Hundred Year Plan, introduced in 2004, is what I might call the “grass roots” movement. In other words, promoting the development of soccer clubs and fan support throughout the country, to every small city, town, and village – i.e., to where the rice paddies are.

At the end of the 1998 season, a relegation “playoff” was created in the J. League, with two teams joining the newly created J2 league and the size of J1 shrinking from 18 teams to 16. One goal in creating J2 was to allow teams that couldn’t afford the financial burdens of maintaining a J1 team to perform better in the lower league. Sponsors’ investment commitments would be lower in J2, as would the salaries of players. Another goal was an “upward” movement: giving smaller teams from the third-tier Japan Football League (a hybrid amateur/semi-professional league) the opportunity to move into the professional ranks of J2 by meeting various financial and technical requirements. The result: encouraging the development of more professional soccer teams throughout the country. The model is similar to MLS’s financially cautious business plan vis-à-vis the old NASL, albeit at a lower-league level. North America can surely move toward such a multi-league model.

Bottom Line: We Don’t Need More Cowbell, Just More Derbies

Soccer fans understand that “derby” = “rivalry.” The fact is, North American soccer could use a lot more of them – a derby is a marketing and public relations dream. And a successful rivalry does not have to be between teams in the same league. With cup matches, teams from different leagues can enjoy the mutual vitriol. Here again, Japan is a great model.

For example, two J1 teams occupy the “birthplace” of soccer in Japan, in the Shizuoka region: Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse. In the 1999 season, J1 hit a public relations jackpot: the J1 league’s championship match was contested between these two Shizuoka Derby rivals.

In Yokohama, the prosperous port city just south of Tokyo, the vitriol between the Yokohama Flugels and the larger Yokohama Marinos reached a fever pitch when the league disbanded the struggling Flugels in 1998 and folded them into their cross-town rivals, thus creating the “Yokohama F. Marinos.” It’s a weird name, yet an ever-present reminder of the bad blood between these two clubs. Just five years after the formation of the J. League, fierce fan loyalty to specific teams already had been sealed. Flugels fans and some players refused to countenance such a change of allegiance and created Yokohama FC, with the brand-new club crest naturally sporting a phoenix. Yokohama FC continues to float between J1 and J2, but the fan commitment and bad blood between these teams – a fitting symbol of the maturation of the sport in Japan – continues.

It’s time for our own Hundred Year Plan.

Monday After

MLS Cup will be moving to the west coast this year following the Dynamo’s improbable run to the final.  I know there has been some muttering among the fan base that MLS Cup Playoffs invalidate the regular season Houston’s run will be exhibit “A” for those fans.  I will address this later in the week, but my answer has always been “so what?”  The playoffs are fun, the playoffs are exciting and the playoffs are a valued part of American soccer.

On to some business news.  Kudos to DC United for its Blackout effort and 20k crowd at RFK.  That is a solid number with the Redskins also playing an afternoon game in the area.  The crowd sounded loud on the NBC Sports Network and the Blackout looked good on television.  Speaking of NBC, the Dynamo win marked the final game of the 2012 season on NBC. Overall, it is hard to argue that the first season of the league’s partnership with the Peacock was anything other than success.

I was certainly skeptical of the “between the benches” gimmick, but Kyle Martino did an outstanding job as the color voice on the NBC broadcasts.  Arlo White was a steady and professional primary announcer and team never shine as bright as they did during the delays prior to the Red Bulls/DC match in New Jersey.  NBC’s production and promotion were great (although the promotion seemed to drop off as the year went on) and the overall ratings jumped over the comparable Fox Soccer telecasts over previous years.

One final business note.  It is no secret that the league’s next big business goal is the placement of its 20th franchise within the 20 boroughs of New York.  It was therefore a little surprising to see newly named Red Bulls Sporting Director Jérôme de Bontin, suggest that the market may not be ready for such a move.  More on his controversial statements can be found here.

Soccer Business Bits: TV Stage, Women Return & More

MLS Conference Finals are this weekend with NBC Sports Network and ESPN.  The Spanish language broadcasts will be handled by Univision and ESPN Deportes.  The NBC game will be at 4:00 on Sunday while the ESPN match will be at 9:00.  The first leg of the Galaxy/Sounders series drew almost 550k viewers, a great number from a Sunday night match.  As impressive as that number is, the NBCSN drew less than 60k viewers for its Sunday afternoon game, a terrible number for the network.

Womens’ soccer was again in the news today with rumors bubbling about the resurrection of a top level professional league.  According to soccerwire and other sources, an 8 team  league is planning to open play in the Spring of 2013.  The league would purportedly include teams from a number of former WPS markets while adding franchises in the Pacific Northwest and other markets. According to the cited article, the markets and teams are “the product of months of maneuvering and negotiations by their ownership groups, U.S. Soccer and other women’s soccer stakeholders. The latter group includes the national team players themselves, whose contracts are being structured to include both international and league duty – a unique arrangement which has apparently contributed to the delays in the new league’s rollout.”

One final note. College soccer has entered the tournament phase as teams are competing for the title of NCAA champion. Until very recently, college soccer had been relegated to the furthest and remotest reaches of the sports world.  Fans of the game were dependent upon internet reports, newspapers, the occasional FSC telecast, or game attendance to follow games. Now, with the proliferation of team and conference television networks, college soccer has become omnipresent on cable with games from across the country available almost every night during the season.