Footiebusiness Vault: Interview with Stu Crystal

mlsOn the road tonight, so here is a vault interview with Stu Crystal of Major League Soccer.

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.

NBC Sports Goes Big

nbcDuring a New York based press conference on Tuesday, NBC Sports announced its plans to televise the English Premier League beginning in August of 2013.  Arlo White will transition from the network’s lead MLS announcer to a new role as the primary EPL voice and will call games on-site from the U.K. Graeme Le Saux and Lee Dixon will join White, on-site in the U.K. as analysts on NBC Sports Group’s Premier League coverage.  Rebecca Lowe will anchor studio coverage from NBC Sports’ studios in Stamford alongside Robbie Musto and Robbie Earl.

More on the coverage courtesy of ProSoccer Talk:  “For the first time ever fans will have live access to all 380 games of the Barclays Premier League… All matches will be presented live on television with studio pre and post game coverage. The matches will also be streamed live via NBC Sports Live Extra. Games not aired on a designated NBC Universal channel will be made available to distributors via Premier League Extra Time, a package of overflow television channels available at no extra cost for customers who receive NBC Sports Network. As NBC acquired both English and Spanish rights, the bundle will include 76 Spanish-language telecasts, 10 on Telemundo, 66 on Mun2.”

Recall that NBC won the rights to three years worth of EPL with a $250 million bid. In its thirst for live coverage, the network landed a premier property.    No the network is going all in to satiate soccer fans with wall to wall coverage.  Per the official press release, all games not aired on a designated NBCUniversal channel will be made available to distributors on Premier League Extra Time, a package of overflow television channels available at no extra cost for each of their customers who receives NBC Sports Network.

Tragedy in Boston

No new content tonight.  Just thoughts and prayers for those in Boston following the tragedy at the Marathon.  From the world of soccer, it was reported that Matt Reis’ father-in-law was severely injured in the event.

boston

Monday After

barbasolAnother fascinating week of soccer in MLS, but before we get to attendance, here are a couple of other business items. Let’s start with the kick-off of the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League.  After a one year hiatus from the WPSL, the NWSL got started over the weekend. In front of a sold-out crowd of more than 6k in Kansas City, the home team played to a draw with the Portland Thorns.  The league also played three matches on Sunday as the third iteration of professional Women’s soccer gets underway.  To review the league’s website, click here.

The big story from Dallas this weekend involved the idiotic actions of a fan who managed to hit FC Dallas defender George John in the head with a beer bottle during a goal celebration.  The local police were able to work with league television partner NBC to isolate a photo of the perpetrator.

On to attendance, where the league week started with a solid 17k crowd at PPL Park despite cold conditions in the Northeast.  Seattle’s on the field challenges continue, but they managed a 38k plus crowd at Century Link Field for the Sounders’ scoreless draw with the Revs.  DC rebounded with a great 18k plus crowd for United’s home loss to rivals New York Red Bulls.   The big numbers kept rolling with an 18k plus crowd in Vancouver.  The big number of the night came from Dallas, where the home side played host to the Galaxy before a standing room only crowd in excess of 20k.  This is a huge number for the Western Conference leaders.  Chivas USA continued its dismal season at the gate with a crowd of just over 8k.

On Sunday, following a weather postponement, more than 16k came to Stade Saputo for Montreal’s match against Columbus. The Dynamo managed almost 19k for their home victory at BBVA Compass

Soccer Business Bits: Dan Flynn, NBC Goes Streaming & More

us-soccerThe Sports Business Journal offers this interview with Dan Flynn, the CEO and Secretary General of US Soccer.  Mr. Flynn is a sports business veteran who has previously worked on the sponsor side before coming to US Soccer 13 years ago.   He was also part of a NCAA title winning team back in 1973. With respect to partnership, Flynn notes the following: “We have five major partners activating at our World Cup qualifiers: Budweiser, Castrol, McDonald’s, Allstate and, of course, Nike, with our centennial kits. Sponsorship continues to grow as the game in this country has grown.”

The NBC Sports Network made a big announcement today regarding the streaming availability of their sports broadcasts.  From the official press release: “– NBC Sports Live Extra, the NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for digital, mobile and tablets, will begin live streaming NBC Sports Network live-event content to Cablevision, Comcast Xfinity TV, Suddenlink and Verizon FiOS customers via TV Everywhere beginning tonight. Additional cable, satellite and telco providers are expected to be added soon. The 2013 NBC Sports Network live-event programming roster includes the remainder of the NHL regular season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Final; Premier League and Major League Soccer matche; Formula One™ and IndyCar races; horse racing that surrounds the Triple Crown; and more.”

For MLS fans who already have access to the league’s “stream of the week” this provides another great outlet to catch soccer on the go.  Both of the MLS matches that the NBCSN will broadcast this weekend will also be available via NBC Sports Live Extra.   ESPN does not have a game this weekend.

One final note.  The Premier League will debut goal line technology next season .  How far behind is MLS.

Marketing in Chicago: Interview with Fire VP Emigdio Gamboa

chicago-fireOn the road tonight, so we thought we would revisit an interview we did from the start of the 2011 MLS season.  Back then, Emigidio Gamboa of the Chicago Fire was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Fire’s promotional efforts for 2011, the team’s use of social media and more.  Now as we start the 2013 campaign, it makes sense to take a look back to see how some of these efforts succeeded.

Today we are lucky to have an interview with Emigdio Gamboa, the Fire’s VP in charge of Marketing and Communications.  Mr. Gamboa was kind enough to provide some thoughts on Chicago’s 2011 marketing efforts and use of social media.

Footiebusiness.com: How is Chicago 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.   How do you anticipate the team using Twitter and Facebook going forward?  Does the team have a policy on players using Twitter?

Emigdio Gamboa: For the past couple of seasons we have made social media a focal point of fan interaction. Over the past two seasons we have developed and implemented a progressive Facebook and Twitter strategy that has seen our Facebook numbers go from 8,700 in Feb. 2010 to over 50,000 fans at present. We see Twitter and Facebook serving different purposes & objectives moving forward.  Our Twitter is a complimentary tool to Facebook in our overall social media strategy.  As it relates to Facebook, we are continuously focused on improving the quality of engagement with our followers paying particular attention to the type & frequency of our postings.  We want to make certain that the content that we are posting is relevant and entertaining so that it is creating a two way dialogue with our followers.

Currently, we do not have a written policy on players using Twitter. We encourage our players to use Twitter & do so in an appropriate fashion.

FB: With respect to ticket promotions, some teams heavily utilize game day promotions to drive traffic while others have moved away from that model.    Should fans expect game day promotions in 2011?  Similarly, some teams have started using Groupon to sell individual game tickets.  The Fire used Groupon to sell season tickets.  Was that a successful relationship? Will you use Groupon to sell individual game tickets in 2011?

EG: Yes, fans should expect to see game day/ticket promotions in 2011.  Currently, we have been promoting a “family pack” offering that includes 4 match tickets, 4 hot dogs & 4 refreshments.  However, we have made a stronger emphasis on improving the overall game day experience.  We understand that we have a diverse and passionate fan base that expect and appreciate different aspects of a game day experience so we try our best to cater to our entire fan base. From the different activities in our fan fest area, to the food, the bi-lingual public-address announcements, etc., this is an area that will continue to evolve.

Our relationship with Groupon has been successful in the sense that it gave individuals who might have not otherwise experienced a match live the opportunity to do so.  Once you experience a match, the likelihood of returning is obviously much higher.

FB: What do the Fire offer as season ticket incentives?  Do fans get special values from being part of the team’s season ticket base?  How many season tickets has Chicago sold this year? How does that compare to previous years?

EG: Following the 2010 MLS campaign the Fire evaluated their ticket sales philosophy and integrated fan input to propose the most progressive season ticket campaign in the club’s 14-year history. Gaining feedback from its supporters about the kind of offers and incentives they want in a Fire season ticket package the Fire developed  a season ticket campaign built by-and-for a supporter. Starting with an unprecedented  move in Chicago sports, the club offered free and reduced parking to a majority of season ticket holders and a 12-month payment plan that allows Fire Season Ticket Holders to pay as low as $15 a month. In addition, the Fire created a referral program, allowing current Fire Season Ticket Holders to receive a 20 percent credit on referral purchases. Those referred receive a five percent savings on the purchase of their 2011 season tickets. The result has seen the club sell over 2,800 new season tickets in the offseason, breaking the previous club best of 1936 season tickets sold set in 1998, the Fire inaugural year.

Our season ticket holders are given a wide range of incentives from access to exclusive team events, gifts and other special offers including free parking (depending on the ticket package), discount on merchandise & concession items.  We strive to provide our supporters with an authentic soccer experience while providing them with extensive access to the club at a cost effective price point.

FB: What type of marketing efforts does the team make to attract soccer fans in the Chicago area who follow the sport (in Europe, Latin America, etc…) but not the team?  Do you use billboards and newspapers or a more targeted approach? Do the friendlies you play against club sides from around the world have a measurable effect on your regular MLS ticket sales?

EG: We have a heavy emphasis on grassroots marketing activities focused on areas in our community where the sport is being played from soccer fields on the south-west of Chicago to fields in places like Palatine, Naperville and beyond. We’ve developed a number of strong relationships with youth and adult soccer leagues to engage individuals who are playing soccer to help drive them to Fire matches.

We do have a targeted approach in placing billboards and other forms of advertising keeping different audiences in mind.  Friendlies have a minimal effect on our regular MLS ticket sales.   However, they serve multiple purposes from branding to different communities, building international relationships to simply improving our level of competition.
FB: The Fire had a long relationship with Best Buy as their jersey sponsor.  That relationship recently ended.  What efforts have you made to secure a new sponsor?  Do you expect to announce a new relationship soon?

EG: Our effort to secure a new sponsor is an on-going process, the jersey sponsorship is a unique opportunity & we continue to meet and discuss the opportunity with potential sponsors.

Looking at Major League Soccer TV Ratings

tv cameraIt’s  no secret that MLS has struggled to generate big national television ratings.  Despite impressive live attendance, the league’s television partners have tolerated viewership numbers hovering in the low six figures or below.  This season the ESPN2 games have averaged less than 200k per match while the NBSCN telecasts have averaged approximately 100k.  While these numbers represent a marked improvement over the average on Fox Soccer, these are not great ratings for a major sports broadcast.  This is especially so, given the limited commercial inventory available in soccer.

Yet one area of television ratings that often goes unnoticed centers on local television ratings.  We have documented the 10 year, $55 million deal the Galaxy signed with Time Warner for local broadcast rights and we have also discussed the low level deal signed by DC United this week for the coming three years.  The range of local television deals is extremely wide, with some including pre-game shows or post game shows, while others fail to send crews to away matches.

What are these local partners getting for their investment?  A recent article in Grantland provided some idea on local viewership.  The New York analysis was especially instructive.  According to Grantland, Red Bulls broadcasts averaged a .3 on MSG, far below the Knicks, but comparable to the Devils and Islanders.  Outside of New York, Grantland quotes Sporting Executive Chris Wyche, “”Our season average for 2012 was 1.1, but we had a late game that pulled a 3.7 and we were as high as 5.1 for a 15-minute day-part.”  One final reference comes from Seattle, where the Sounders have averaged a local 1.8-2.5 depending on the channel.

It is tough to draw any significant conclusion from this data, but it makes for an interesting read. We definitely recommend that you read the Grantland article and we will continue to track ratings during the season.