Soccer Business Bits: White House Visit, Diversity & More

galaxyEvery year the MLS Cup champions visit the White House and every year I cover the event.  White House visits make news outside the somewhat insular world of soccer and sports and this visit was no exception.  The visit was covered by the national news media and generated additional coverage because the team was joined by the Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings.  From the official MLS article, “Following their visit with the President, Dunivant, Mike Magee, and Landon Donovan participated in a question and answer session with schoolchildren from across the country and assistant White House chef Sam Kass, who is the director of Michelle Obama’s  “Let’s Move!” program, which promotes exercise and healthy eating. The Galaxy trio was joined by three Kings players, captain Dustin Brown, defenseman Rob Scuderi and goaltender Jonathan Quick who informed the students on how their eating habits and exercise took them to the professional ranks.  After brief introductions, the children asked a variety of questions including one about the sleeping the day after games, which Magee eloquently answered.”

MLS is generating pres releases around the international diversity of the league.  The official and annual map depicting player countries is out, revealing that league players were born in 61 countries around the world.  You can find the data here. The league’s claim that is the most international diverse of all the major sports leagues isn’t exactly ground breaking, but the map is still informative.  Especially important is the league’s footprint in CONCACAF, which has improved the region and confirmed the increasing importance of MLS.

Finally, a full slate of league games this weekend, including nationally televised on NBCSN, TSN and UniMas. The Champions League continues next week with the soon to depart Fox Soccer.  It was further made official today that the soccer network will give way at the end of the Summer.




Covering the Coverage: Qualifier Edition

espnThe numbers are simply astounding.  The Mexico/USA World Cup Qualifier managed a remarkable 7.2 million viewers in the United States.  2.4 million of those viewers were on ESPN with the balance watching in Spanish on UniMas.  In terms of ratings, the game drew a 1.6 overnight on ESPN, more than double the previous best for a qualifier on the World Wide Leader.  The Friday night match on ESPN from DSG drew a solid .6, but the promotion of the Mexico match resulted in huge numbers for the Tuesday night game.

The ESPN coverage was befitting of a SuperBowl.  ESPN brought at least 9 on-air personalities to Azteca, stocking the pre-game and halftime show with a four man booth including the experienced Bob Ley and smooth Lalas.  The broadcast team featured a three man booth while the network offered a sideline reporter for each squad.  The network started with a 60 minute pregame show that included a number of great features including an English/Spanish piece with Lalas and Borgetti.

ESPN also did a great job promoting the game across its multiple platforms, including radio, Around the Horn, Sportscenter and more.  Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the lead-upu was an interview with Monica Gonzalez on the “Spanning the Globe” portion of the Colin Cowherd show on ESPN Radio.  Gonzalez seemed oddly unprepared for the interview and defaulted to a defense of the sport’s popularity rather than provide a detailed explanation of the table and importance of the game.

Nevertheless, the telecast was impressive, the numbers monumental and the result significant.  With more than a year until the World Cup Finals in Brazil, American sports fans got interested in international soccer on a significant scale.

Footiebusiness Vault: Interview with Dave Johnson

tv soccerOn the road tonight.  Here is a two year old interview with Dave Johnson about the art of broadcasting soccer.

Last week, we posted our first entry in an ongoing series on the art of broadcasting soccer.  Today we are fortunate to have some thoughts from renown soccer broadcaster Dave Johnson on the art of play by play.  Mr. Johnson is the voice of DC United and is the radio voice of the Washington Wizards.  He received an Emmy as host of the NHL’s Washington Capitals “Face Off” television show and is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in Washington, DC and in 2008 won an Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for his sports commentaries on WTOP.  Thanks to Mr. Johnson. In your career you have broadcast sports ranging from soccer to basketball to football.  What makes the play-by-play of soccer different from other sports?  Does your approach to calling a game differ for a soccer match?

Dave Johnson:  Each sport has a unique texture and feel and there is the obvious difference between play-by-play on TV and radio. On radio it is artistry with the attempt to paint a picture. On TV the play-by-play role is like that of a pilot-get the show off to take off…few bumps in between and then a smooth landing and in the process weave the color analyst in to the game comfortably. My philosophy on broadcasting is make sure the “the game is the thing”. Broadcasters are not the show, the players are. With soccer versus basketball, it take more of a feel for the texture of the game to broadcast soccer. Sports like basketball often go in predictable segments-each team gets a possession or a turn at bat. With soccer it is constantly changing and there are so many games within the game that are also going on that need to be brought out. Lastly I try to bring energy and passion to soccer while also letting the game breathe.
FB: What do you have to do to prepare for a soccer broadcast?  How much time do you spend in advance of a game getting ready for a telecast?  What aspect of pre-game preparation do you think fans would find most surprising?

DJ:  Preparation is endless. The internet changed that. There is always another article, another link, another interview on you tube. It’s hard to put a time figure on preparation. For example as I write this on a Monday, I have already started preparing for a game on Saturday. It is a high-tech world, but I still map out my players formations with 4 different colored sharpies and the both blue and black pen. It is a system I have used since my days with the MISL Baltimore Blast in the early 90s.

FB: Does your style change if you are broadcasting a match as a DC United broadcaster rather than a World Cup match?  Do you change your approach depending on the audience? Do you try and stay “neutral” regardless of the game or do viewers of DC United games expect a “partisan” voice?

DJ: That’s a good question. It is different to some degree when I am doing a DCU TV game vs. FSC or the World Cup like I did on XM Radio in 2006. My late partner Gordon Bradley had a phrase…”respect the game, enjoy the moment”, which I apply to broadcasting. In short I still provide energy when an opponent does something well on a DCU broadcast.  In ‘home” broadcasts there is the appreciation that the most of  (but not all) of the audience are DCU fans, but that does not mean I call the game through DCU broadcasts. My broadcast partner Thomas Rongen and I try to call it like we see it. Again we truly love and respect the game.

FB: During a game, what goes on in the broadcast booth that viewers don’t see and hear?  What type of discussions are occurring between you and your production team?

DJ: It’s hard to have conversations with the production team during soccer because the game is always moving. Still we will hit the talkback button and talk with the producer about matchups we need to watch or things we are seeing develop. The producer will also have an ear out for content and might ask questions in talkback in case we are overlooking something.
FB: Finally, “it’s in the net, it’s in the net” is your well recognized signature goal call.  What is the origin of that call?  Is having such a signature a “must” for broadcaster?

DJ: I don’t think it is necessary to have a signature call. I did not sit around thinking of “it’s In the Net” It  started when I was calling Baltimore Blast games in the MISL, 1990-1992. It was just a natural response that fans picked up on. For me it is still natural and there have been some goals where I didn’t use it because it just didn’t come out. Over the years I have taken some hits for it. Some have said it is contrived. Is it anymore contrived than longs shouts of “GOAALLLLLLLLLLLLLL”? I don’t think so and I like goaaaallll calls. It is an expression of excitement and joy….that’s what a goal in soccer is all about. It is the moment. For me it’s natural. But it’s true signature calls evolve….Marv Albert “yessss”…Baseball’s…”how about that”..etc.

Thanks to Mr. Johnson

Monday After

impactAnother weekend of Major League Soccer is complete, but the biggest soccer story of the weekend was the Commerce City based World Cup qualifier between the United States and Costa Rica.  Played in blizzard conditions before a sellout crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (recall that the game was a sellout on the first day tickets were available).  The game was televised on ESPN with Ian Darke and Twellman on the call.  Yet from a business perspective the game was notable because of the amount of publicity the conditions generated for the match.  The images of snow soccer proved riveting for highlights producers and others and put American Soccer on recap shows and in newspapers 14 months before the World Cup in Brazil.

On to attendance, where a wide range of lingering cold weather may have contributed to some low numbers around the league.  The weekend started on a high note with more than 26k in Montreal to see the Impact move to 4-0 with a win over the Henry-less Red Bulls.  Later on Saturday, United played before a very disappointing 11k at RFK.   The Revs opened their home season at Gillette before a smallish 12k crowd.  History suggests that the Revs will struggle early in the season at the gate.  The low numbers continued with just 11k in Dallas after some early season success at the turnstile.

On the West Coast, the Galaxy managed almost 20k for their home win at the (soon to be renamed) Home Depot Center.  Buck Shaw managed a sellout of just over 10k for the Earthquakes.    Dynamo attendance saw a substantial dropoff with only 16,500 at BBVA Compass Stadium . On Sunday, the Fire performed in front of  a crowd of friends and family at Toyota Park.  The reported crowd was less than 10k.

Soccer Business Bits: Digitial Mag, Cup Qualifiers & More

mlsMLS unveiled Overlap Magazine, a digital app available through the itunes store that offers featured and essays about the league, its players and more.  The league promoted the app through direct e-mail, Twitter and other online sources in an effort to capture its tech savvy fan base.  Per the official description “OVERLAP is a digital magazine about North American soccer, with original writing, photography, illustration and audio from the editors of and Howler Magazine. Issue One includes a profile of Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, a feature about three rookies and their roads to MLS, an essay by the NYT’s George Vecsey, and a wide-ranging season preview from four of North America’s leading pundits, and a lot more original artwork and storytelling.”

The USSF announced the various homes of the upcoming US home matches for the World Cup qualifiers scheduled for the next few months.  Among the venues are Columbus, Kansas City and perhaps most notably, Seattle.  After 40 years, the US Men will return to Seattle and will play at Century Link Field.  The game comes to Seattle despite the requirement of a temporary grass field and an attendance restriction of 42k because of a Mariners game next door.

One final note.  The US Qualifier from Colorado is set for Friday night.  The game will be televised on ESPN.  At the same time, MLS will offer a full slate of weekend matches including a nationally televised game on NBCSN and Sunday game on UniMas.




MLS on TV: A Business Look at Breakaway

nbcLast Saturday marked the debut of MLS Breakaway on NBCSN. The “Red Zone” style show featured Russ Thaler, Kyle Martino and Arlo White in a Stamford, CT studio providing analysis and commentary of all live MLS games. The show also provided live look-ins at the various games (sometimes with local commentary and sometimes with the studio crew providing play-by-play).

Breakaway followed an NBC doubleheader featuring two scoreless draws on NBC (Red Bulls/United) and NBCSN (Sporting/Fire).  Reports from SBD/SBJ indicated that the NBC game drew a .7 rating (a solid number for the league but a bit suspect because of viewers in NY watching the parade) and a reported 200k for NBCSN’s late night Cascadia match-up (a great number).

The production standards were outstanding.  The Windows sponsored set was sleek and attractive and the network provided timely graphics identifying the teams, colors and broadcasters as needed.  Perhaps the best moment for the program came during a five minute span when goals were scored in Rio Tinto and PPL.  Although both goals were missed live, production team did a great job cutting to the goals and providing full highlights.  The studio team was also solid, with Martino and White ably guided by the professional Thaler.

On the downside, I still question whether the sport of soccer lends itself to this format.  Unlike football, scoring plays are rare and there are few times when a goal from the run of play can be identified in time to switch the games.  Also, I was surprised that the network didn’t rely upon split screens and other similar technology to provide multiple looks.  Finally, I think Breakaway would have been better served by a greater inventory of games during the show to provide more content.

Criticisms aside, Breakaway was a big moment for the league and its most aggressive television partner.  One Twitter comment (and I forget the source) noted that additional Breakaway type formats may induce local television partners to improve the quality of their broadcasts.  It will be interesting to see if the network finds a way to schedule another similar format later in the season.

Interview with Rapids’ David Burke

rapidsIn 2012, the Colorado Rapids hired David Burke as the team’s Chief Revenue Officer. Prior to joining the Rapids, Mr. Burke was the President of the Houston Aeros of the AHL.  Prior to joining the Aeros, Burke was Vice President of Ticket Sales and Service for the Phoenix Coyotes and Arena from 2009 to 2011. He also served as Director of Season Ticket Sales for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats from 2007-2009. Today, Mr. Burke was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions about the Rapids’ marketing efforts, promotions and more. Thanks to Mr. Burke. How are the Rapids utilizing social media? Some teams are aggressively relying on Twitter, posting frequent training camp updates, linking to blog posts about the team and providing teasers about signings and ticket promotions, while others have been slower to adopt the technology. You are currently on Twitter as are members of the team’s front office. How do you anticipate the team using Twitter and Facebook going forward? Does the team have a policy on players using Twitter?

David Burke: We are moving to a more interactive responsive strategy and providing unique content to our followers both on Facebook and Twitter, and to that end have a growing communications team that is now more focused on the digital area than ever before. We’ve recently hired a Digital Marketing Manager who is tasked with growing our online presence and being more engaged with our fans in a variety of social media platforms, joining a staff that is working toward having more unique content in many different online areas. We understand that MLS’ strongest and fastest-growing demographic is 18-35, and they use social media to get their news and entertainment.

As for our players using Twitter, our Marketing Communications group encourages their participation and interaction on social media, while keeping an eye out to help them avoid difficult situations. The lines of communication are open between our players and staff, so if they have reservations about what to post, they are pretty responsible about checking first. With that said, our players that use Twitter are great at it, responding to fans’ questions and sharing unique perspectives on the team.
FB: What are the biggest challenges to selling tickets in such a crowded sports landscape? Are the Rapids in competition with other sports franchises for paying customers? What can the team do to distinguish themselves from other franchises in the Denver area?

DB: Denver has been shown to be one of the most saturated sports markets in the country, if not the very busiest, so we have to be creative in order to gain a share of people’s attention. The biggest challenge we have is getting people to their first match, because once they come to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and watch our team, they’re hooked.

The Rapids’ supporters group, Centennial 38, provides a unique element which no other sport in the area can provide, and the atmosphere at a Rapids game can appeal to everyone from families to young professionals. Our style of play and young squad is exciting and entertaining, and draws in both casual and passionate soccer fans. We are proud of the entertainment value and excellent customer service at the stadium, but we also feel that our fans, players, and the sport itself all do an excellent job marketing the Rapids experience to those in the stadium.dsg

FB: In a recent interview with the Sports Business Journal, Tim Hinchey indicated that the Rapids have 4,000 season ticket holders in 2013, more than double the number from two years ago. What are the Rapids doing to further increase those numbers? Does the team have a specific target for season ticket numbers in coming years? Are there special benefits that season ticket holders receive?

DB: Our first task is identifying, recruiting and keeping top-level salespeople on our staff, which is an ongoing process. Second, we work to train our sales staff, developing their skills and making sure they’re not simply telemarketers, but rather sales executives that meet with clients face-to-face and develop a relationship. From there, our staff can provide a product that best fits the client’s needs. Third, we motivate sales executives to work hard and remain with the club, because we know that continuity can help a great amount in bringing in new customers and retaining existing ones. Finally, we must provide strong leadership that will mentor these executives. With that plan in place, our goal next season is to continue this great recent growth and surpass 5,000 full season ticket holders. Some of the benefits of being a season ticket holder can be found here:

FB: The Rapids introduced multiple new jerseys for the 2013 season. These include a unique primary jersey that incorporates the names of season ticket holders directly into the fabric. Yet noticeably absent from the shirt is a jersey sponsor. Why has the team had such struggles in securing a jersey sponsor? Is the team still looking to secure a jersey sponsor this year?

DB: This is something that our President, Tim Hinchey, continues working on every day. The club has been working very hard to secure the right jersey sponsor, which is not an easy task these days when you look at the investment levels. The average MLS shirt deal is worth over $2.5M per year, with most being three-year agreements – this is not a small ask by any means when calling on local, regional or national brands. In the last two years, the Rapids have made over 15 presentations, and while we’ve converted two of these prospects into local major sponsorships for the club, they just have not been for the shirt. In a market where the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL deliver multiple seven-figure deals, we need to work that much harder to find our “share of voice and share of wallet.” While difficult, this will happen and we hope all of our hard work will be rewarded with the right partner soon.

FB: Finally, with the season just underway, are there any other marketing/branding efforts (either inside or outside the stadium) that Rapids’ fans should be on the lookout for in 2013?

DB: The most notable and visible change in 2013 is the emphasis on our relationship with the state of Colorado. In addition to our new alternate uniforms, which feature the distinctive blue, red and yellow of the Colorado flag, our 2013 marketing campaign is centered on the pride people have in this state. The taglines “State of Mind” and “Colorado For Life” can be seen on billboards and advertisements in the area, and the Colorado flag can be seen on all our uniforms, on our field before the game, and in virtually everything we do. As the only MLS team that uses its state in the club’s name, we’re proud to be Coloradans and want to reflect our fans’ passion for the Centennial State.

Fans will also notice a new area of the stadium called “The Corner 7-Eleven,” which is the result of a partnership we’ve made with 7-Eleven in conjunction with Coca-Cola. “The Corner 7-Eleven” will be in Sections 112 and 113 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, which seats approximately 880, and fans can purchase $15 vouchers – which will be the lowest-priced ticket in the stadium – for the special area at any of more than 300 7-Eleven retail locations in Colorado. We’re excited about the partnership as it allows us to work with two great brands to bring the Rapids to a great number of people in retail locations throughout the state.