Monday After

nbcIt was Rivalry Week in Major League Soccer and the debut of NBC Sports Network’s MLS Breakaway.  Following the live televising of the Red Bulls/United match on NBC and the Sporting/Chicago match on NBCSN, the Breakaway featured studio analysis and live look-ins at various games following the conclusion of the Sporting match.  Despite some hiccups, including no goals in the first two matches and the preemption of the Red Bulls game on the New York NBC affiliate, the full day of soccer was fun and Breakaway was well produced.  We will have more on the Breakaway later in the week.

One other business story before we get to attendance comes out of Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake City Tribune provides a detailed look at RSL’s finances including some input from RSL’s new owner Dell Loy Hansen.  The article indicates that the team was in dire financial straights when Hansen got involved. “When Hansen first came on, RSL was bringing in $2.8 million in sponsorships a year. This season, the club will bring in $8.5 million, he said. That number will cross the $10 million mark next year with a new jersey-front sponsorship deal.”  The article is worth a detailed read.

On to attendance, where the scoreless home opener at RBA enjoyed a crowd of more than 22k despite some chilly weather in New Jersey.  Despite the appearance of some empty seats, Sporting managed an “over capacity” crowd of almost 20k.  The Montreal/TFC match at Olympic Stadium managed almost 38k in Montreal.  Philly edged out New England more almost 16k, while the Columbus home opener enjoyed a crowd of 16,500, down about a thousand from last year’s first match.   The night match on NBCSN from Rio Tinto looked great on television with more than 20k in attendance.  Seattle cracked 40k for their draw with Portland.  On Sunday, Dallas played host to more than 15,500 for their rivalry game against Houston.

Part II: Chat With MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler

celebrationHoward Handler was named Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Soccer in early 2o12.  In that capacity, Mr. Handler oversees marketing, strategy, communications, digital, events and club services for the League.  Prior to joining MLS, Mr. Handler served as executive vice president, marketing and sales at The Madison Square Garden Company.  He has also worked for Virgin Mobile, The National Football League, MTV, Saturday Night Live and The Quaker Oats Company.

Earlier in the week we posted Part I of our interview with Mr. Handler.  Part II looks at the league’s decision to move the MLS Cup Final to the home ground of the highest remaining seed.

Footiebusiness.com For the first time, MLS Cup was held at the home ground of the highest remaining seed rather than a long planned neutral site.  What logistical challenges did the league face in implementing this change?  What types of items/events cannot be organized until the site is known?

Howard Handler: In the early days, a neutral site gave us more time to plan and sell more tickets.  Having a competitively determined site is a statement to the confidence we have in the size and intensity of our fan base, truly one of the distinguishing aspects of MLS today.

FB: Similarly, MLS Cup is a showcase event for the league. How does the new format impact the league’s ability to promote the league to sponsors, potential sponsors and potential investors?

HH: In 2012, we learned that a competitively determined destination for MLS Cup was the best possible experience for fans. The electricity and noise were amazing, and you could cut through it with a knife at the Home Depot Center. It was unbelievable, and I know the players, fans and partners felt it.

 There are certainly challenges with people having only two weeks to plan around the final destination, and everybody has very busy schedules, especially at that time of year. But, ultimately we are putting our fans and our Clubs first. We think that’s the best thing we can do to ensure that it’s the best environment for the players and clubs. Commercially, it’s also the smartest thing we can do to drive the best possible rating. fireworks

FB: Does the new format increase the importance of the All-Star Game as an annual event with respect to creating an opportunity for league officials, sponsors, media, team officials and fans to gather?  Will the MLS Cup still play a role as a central event off the field?

HH: There is no doubt that MLS Cup is the crowning event of the season. Everybody is gunning to be the champion, so we think that MLS Cup will continue to grow over time.  We’ve got one of the best Special Events teams in the industry and we will get even better at the logistics.  As our popularity and fan base continue to grow, it’s just one of those things that becomes a given. It definitely creates the opportunity to make All-Star a much bigger deal, but we have been doing a pretty good job over the past several years of making All-Star special. We have been able to find ways to layer on more content, more promotion, more surprises and more value for everyone involved.

 The real headline I think relates to March to Soccer, our new season launch platform. March to Soccer is a bigger, multi-faceted event. It stretches over a five week period and there are plenty of ways for everyone to get involved. Our partners acknowledged that, even when it was a concept on the drawing board. The calendar is always a great source of leverage for our league. We have those three big anchor events — March to Soccer, All-Star and MLS Cup —  but we also have rivalries and other exciting matches that exist within the schedule. Over time the big rivalries and some of the international friendlies will all take on greater importance.

FB: How will the new format impact promotion and coverage in the market where the game is held?  What efforts will the league make to connect with mainstream and sports media in the host city? How did that go with Los Angeles this year.

HH: The host markets have done a great job with MLS Cup.  Media today is built to react to the breaking story with the “got to see it now” mentality. With competitively determined places, as in the World Series, journalists know that they will be spending time in both places, and with us, it’s one or the other. I think the experience in Los Angeles was amazing actually. We had a little extra sizzle from David Beckham’s last game and the repeat potential that Los Angeles fulfilled. We had a lot of support from AEG, which is an amazing supporter and a great owner.

galaxyFB: Finally, does the league believe the new format will have an impact on match attendance?  Does that question depend on the city?

HH: The new format in part was adopted based on our confidence that attendance would be one of the real highlights.  What was interesting this year is that you had a couple thousand people travel from Houston. It’s not inexpensive and not uncomplicated, but they wanted to be there. It made for an even better environment. When you looked into the stadium, you saw an entire sea of orange next to the gigantic LA Supporters section.

Chat with MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler

mlsHoward Handler was named Chief Marketing Officer of Major League Soccer in early 2o12.  In that capacity, Mr. Handler oversees marketing, strategy, communications, digital, events and club services for the League.  Prior to joining MLS, Mr. Handler served as executive vice president, marketing and sales at The Madison Square Garden Company.  He has also worked for Virgin Mobile, The National Football League, MTV, Saturday Night Live and The Quaker Oats Company.

Mr. Handler was kind enough to answer a few questions from Footiebusiness about a wide range of business topics including television ratings, partner relationships and the impact of the new ASG format on sponsorship activation. Part I of the Footiebusiness chat is below.  Part II will follow on Thursday.  Thanks to Mr. Handler.

Footiebusiness.com: You have significant experience growing businesses in other industries, from wireless services to entertainment giants.  In what way is the business of soccer different? similar?

Howard Handler: MLS is connected to many of the other brands that I have worked on, as I have always been in the consumer marketing business in the broadest sense. The discipline of thinking about of who your target audience is, what makes them tick, why they care, what they are concerned about, what draws them to you and what prevents them from engaging with you, is very similar to the types of things we thought about at MTV, Virgin Mobile and the NFL. The difference with MLS is that we are earlier in our stage of life. We have succeeded on many fronts but we still haven’t planted our flag at the top of the mountain and that’s what drives all of us. We want to be one of the best leagues in the next 10 years, and we have a lot of work to do in order to achieve that milestone.

FB: You also have substantial background in television.  MLS has managed to grow its gate and is now one of the most attended live sports in the country.  Yet television ratings, if not stagnant, remain disappointing.  The league has two prominent English language television partners.  What is the plan to significantly grow those ratings?  With the television deals coming up for re-bid/renewal, is there urgency significantly move the ratings needle?

HH: Building a national TV audience takes time and a dedicated effort.  We’re very happy with our progress here.  First and foremost, it’s about the quality of the product that exists between the white lines. Throughout the last several years, we have brought in big time, world class players like Beckham, Henry, Keane and Cahill, and we’re seeing many great American players come of age, like Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, Chris Pontius and others. The quality of the play, an attacking style and goals make the product our greatest asset in terms of bringing in a national audience.  We’ve also got a first rate set of broadcasters: ESPN, Univision, NBC in the US and TSN/RDS in Canada.  They work hard to entertain, to help you see more, to understand the stakes and to keep you coming back.  Our Network partners, the League and our Clubs use every available asset to promote our telecasts.  As a result, we’ve seen lots of growth in the 18-34 demo, very attractive to advertisers.  We’ll continue to grow our TV audience. panasonic

FB:  In the recent Nielsen insert to SBJ, it was reported that the regular season national tv ad buy for MLS in 2012 was $7.5 million, more than double the $3.4 million in 2011 and significantly higher than the $4.5 million in 2010.  To what do you attribute the significant increase?  Do you expect this number to increase in 2013?

HH: We have placed a high priority on building our fan base and reaching more people with our message. The real step up that people observed from 2011 to 2012 related to very dedicated promotion around our big matchups and our rivalries. Our ability to communicate will never be measured by paid media because we’re not a big spender compared to most traditional brands. Our  impact will be the result of the way we use our owned media — MLSsoccer.com, our database, our field boards, social media etc. – and our earned media – the different stories we pitch to media outlets, the way we create a conversation and a sense of urgency with social media.  Is our content so compelling that people are going to share it and be messengers for us?  We’ll continue to work hard across paid, owned, earned and partner media. If you approach this area in a thoughtful and coordinated fashion, you can really pack a powerful punch and get your message to a lot of people. 

FB: In 2011 the league announced Panasonic as the Official Consumer Electronics Partner. Other recent league-wide, major category, sponsorship announcements have included Allstate and Four Points.   Do you anticipate any league wide sponsorship announcements in 2013?

HH: Yes, we do. Sponsors are a critical part of our business. They have helped build the league and fulfill a good part of our vision thus far, and they will be a very important part going forward. Sponsors bring tremendous resources, not just financial, but distribution channels, media content, and their consumers and fans.  We are thrilled with Panasonic and all the existing ones that we have had before. They can help us go a long way, and without them we wouldn’t be as successful.

good handsFB: In a November interview with Sports Illustrated, Commissioner Garber indicated that you were working on “a great vision we’ll be launching soon on our rebranding of the league and tapping into the real supporters culture that exists”.  What can you tell us about that rebrand and that vision?  What should league fans expect to see?

HH: We started the soft launch back at All-Star with “This is Soccer,” which is our call to action. It’s a confident declaration of what makes us special and what typifies MLS versus all the other options people have for spending their time. You can see it all over our website, social channels, within all of our owned media, and our clubs are embracing it.  We’ve got lots of additional aspects of this campaign rolling out during the 2013 season and beyond.  By having a focused message, tone of voice and marketing plan, we are confident that we will reach and inspire the next wave of fans.

Thanks to Mr. Handler. Don’t forget to check back on Thursday for part II

Monday After

chivasThe second week of the Major League Soccer season included a series of mid-week CCL matches televised by Fox Soccer. As we said in 2011, FSC pours significant resources into televising an event that has yet to interest a significant portion of American Soccer Fans.  Games from Honduras, El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago do not grab the imaginations of fans focused on European soccer and the MLS regular season.  The stands are often empty for these games and field conditions are typically terrible   Despite these challenges, FSC has made a devoted and dedicated effort to broadcast these matches from all reaches of the region.  For fans of MLS and soccer in the Americas, FSC’s coverage is more than sufficient and is a welcome beacon in the late Winter when the knockout stages of the tournament kick off.  FSC’s coverage may not be ideal, but it is important.  If the tournament wasn’t televised, it would fade into obscurity and importance.  Improved camera work and commentary are inexpensive enhancements that will come with time.  Until then, celebrate FSC’s broadcasts of the Champions League.

On to attendance from the second round of games.  TFC started the weekend with an upset of heavily favored Sporting Kansas City.  The game drew almost 26k at the Rogers Centre.  The match was no played at TFC’s usual BMO Filed ground.  On Saturday night, just over 17k made the trek to RFK for United’s home opener, while the Revs and Fire played before an announced crowd of just over 13k at frigid Toyota Park.  Vancouver closed the night with just over 18k at BC Place. Portland pulled its usual 20k plus.

On Sunday, the attendance nightmare in Los Angles continued with Chivas drawing only 6800 at the Home Depot Center.

Covering the Coverage

houstonEvery so often we like to take a look at how mainstream news and sports publications are covering the world of soccer in the United States.  With the first week of games now in the books, we thought now would be the perfect time to take a look.  We’ll start with that venerable sports publication, Sports Illustrated.  This week’s edition features a four page spread on the start of the league season with a focus on Thierry Henry.  In the article Grant Wahl offers his predictions for the season and provides some great looks at Henry’s tenure in the league. The four page spread equals the length of the season preview from 2011.

The Seattle Times always provides in depth coverage of the Sounders and the paper doesn’t disappoint with coverage of the Sounders’ foray into the Champions League.  The Times provides a solid recap of the match. The Times Sounders’ page is full of great coverage including videos and MLS power rankings.  Few days go by without new content on the page.

The Houston Chronicle also provides thorough coverage of its local MLS club. The Chron followed the team through its last second victory in the Champions league and the league opener.  The articles on the page include some criticism of the team’s failure to draw a full house for the opener and the usual game coverage.

Even the Los Angeles Times managed some detailed coverage of the Galaxy’s return to the field.  Multiple articles (although difficult to find on the web page) cover the team and its Champions League opener.

Ratings Reset

espnThe first television viewership numbers of the 2013 campaign were released today.  With the preseason focus on the league’s struggle to maintain solid ratings, there was no doubt that the first numbers of 2013 would draw significant interest.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers landed in close approximation to the numbers from last year.  According to the released numbers, the NBC Sports telecast of the Houston/DC game averaged 107,000 viewers.  The ESPN Sunday night game featuring Portland and New York managed an average of 221,000 viewers.

The opening number on NBCSN easily beat last year’s first game on the network which managed close to 80,000 viewers.  Conversely, last year’s first ESPN2 telecast was much higher.  That said, the 2012 last year for NBCSN was 119k and for ESPN2 was 232k.  Thus, the numbers from last weekend fall comfortably within the anticipated range.

The numbers are neither surprising nor impressive.  Viewership won’t increase overnight and the opening numbers on NBCSN suggest that some of the network’s promotion was effective.  Nevertheless, with the television deals coming up for renegotiation, the league needs the numbers to show improvement.   While the rights fees may be significantly increased by the sheer numbers of sports networks vying for live programming, a significant uptick in numbers would make MLS a much more attractive property.

Soccer Business Bits: Season Ticket Numbers, Digital Success & More

timbers ticketsThe most recent edition of the Sports Business Journal presented its annual in-depth look in advance of the 2013 season.  One article in the section included interviews with a number of MLS Presidents and front office personnel.  Among the questions asked of the panel was direct inquiry about season ticket sales.  Although the question didn’t make a distinction between season tickets and season ticket equivalents, the numbers were instructive.  Among the numbers shared in the report:  New England, 4-5k, Chivas USA, 2,500, Houston 12k, RSL at 10k and Colorado at 4k.  San Jose is also at 5k, but they expect to double that number when they move to their new stadium.  Some other notes from the ticket figures, include a note that RSL has gone from 4k before Rio Tinto, to 8,700 last year to the 10k now.  One other impressive increase comes courtesy of Houston which doubled its numbers with the move to BBVA Compass.

Chris Scholsser is the czar of MLS media and provided some interesting numbers about the league’s digital success over the weekend.  Perhaps most impressive is the numbers that suggest MLS Live Subscriptions are up 131% over last year.  While the percentages can be misleading without the hard numbers, it is certainly true that MLS Live is a great product and an invaluable tool for fans of the league.

One final business note comes from Miami, from where rumors have been circulating over the last couple of days about the possibility of expansion.  The league recently dispelled the rumors while keeping the window open a crack about the possibility of a team in the long term.  At this point in the world of MLS expansion, Orlando seems like the more likely Florida expansion candidate.