Big Change in Columbus

columbusThere are big happenings around the All-Star Game in Kansas City this week, including a great job by the league, Sporting and City in decorating downtown and promoting the game around the area.  However, the big business story of the day comes from Columbus.  The Crew, one of the original MLS franchises and the first team to construct its own stadium, has been operated by the Hunt Family since the beginning.  The Hunts divested themselves of the Wizards back in 2006 and on Tuesday it was announced that the Crew have also been sold.  The Hunts sole remaining MLS property is FC Dallas.

The new owners of the Crew are Precourt Sports Ventures, a private equity firm based in San Francisco.  The head of Precourt is Anthony Precourt, an investment banker by trade who announced plans in 2012 to diversify his holdings into sports and entertainment.   He doesn’t have a clear soccer background (he played college lacrosse) and is fairly young to have the assets required to purchase the team.   Precourt’s father is a longtime executive in the energy industry.

From a promotion (and ego) standpoint, the announcement of the deal as the ASG festivities is great timing.  Precourt gets an opportunity to revel in his new role as owner while the bulk of America’s soccer media is in one place to report on the story.  Precourt took to Twitter soon after the announcement to respond to questions of fans and to discuss his future plans for the Crew.    Courtesy of the Columbus Dispatch, here are some telling quotes from Precourt on the business side of things: “We have a long list of goals… “We want to make this team a standard-bearer in Major League Soccer, one of the gems. It’s a very healthy franchise, but we have plans to make it even stronger. Obviously attendance and Goal 10K are still a priority. We’re making progress. Close to 7,000, but we’ve got to keep pushing. We need the resources to win on the field, so corporate sponsors. We need support of the corporate sponsors. One of the first things I’m going to do is get out there and reintroduce myself. Naming rights (for Crew Stadium) is something we’ve been working very hard on and is very important to us. I think we’ll look at the brand and see if we can make it a little more exciting. Those are my first goals and objectives.”

Soccer Business Bits: Gold Cup TV Ratings

san-joseThe Gold Cup Final on FOX drew a solid 1.7 rating.  This was a significant jump over the 1.2 rating from the USA/Costa Rica match last weekend.  This was also the second highest soccer rating on the FOX network.  With the ASG on the coming horizon, it portends well for the league that the highest rated market for the Final was Kansas City.  Overall, it was seemingly a successful Gold Cup for FOX. Ratings were solid, the production value was outstanding and Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda showed improvement as a broadcast team.  Johnson will get additional practice over the next few years as the network plans for the 2018 World Cup.

Keeping with television numbers, Univision gleefully announced that it reached almost 10.9 million viewers with the broadcast of its Mexico/Panama match.   Per TVbythenumbers, this was the “top primetime sports telecast ever on Univision and third in the history of the network behind the 2010 World Cup final game and the 2010 Mexico vs. Argentina World Cup match. The Mexico vs. Honduras game was the #1 program of the night ahead of every other primetime telecast, regardless of language, among Persons 12-34, Adults 18-34, Men 18-34, Men 18-49.”
These remarkable numbers certainly suggest that a USA/Mexico Final would have managed a remarkable number.

Finally, the opening of the much anticipated new stadium in San Jose has been delayed by half a season because of excavation issues at the construction site .  Per the Mercury News, “We have encountered incredibly difficult unforeseen conditions,” Devcon Construction executive Peter Copriviza said in a statement. “With foundations over 10 feet deep, drilled piers, unexpected underground chambers, we have been presented with a series of challenges during both the demolition and grading process.”

Monday After

fox soccerThe big soccer story of the weekend was the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final televised live on Fox.  This was the third and final match of the tournament  televised on the main FOX network.  While the quarterfinal game managed a solid 1.2 rating, the Sunday afternoon Final will likely eclipse that number.  While Mexico would have been the dream opponent from a ratings standpoint, the Final should have a fairly impressive number.  The attendance for the match was just under 58k in Chicago.  The broadcast was presented by Chevy.   Grant Wahl completed his new role as sideline reporter for FOX.  Johnson and Wynalda were on the call.

Elsewhere, the MLS week started at BMO Field with a solid crowd of just under 18k.  The 18k+ at Red Bull Arena was treated to a cracking 4-3 match on a gorgeous day in Harrison.  The Impact manged more than 20k at Stade Saputo, continuing a solid Canadian attendance weekend.   The Rapids fell just short of 16k at DSG in Commerce City.

United’s disappointing season at the field and at the gate continued with less than 15k at RFK for their match with the Revs. Even the news of a new stadium coming to the District was not enough to lift the gate for the Black and Red.   Vancouver completed the Canadian hat trick of good attendance with a 21k sellout at BC Place.  Perhaps the best attendance news of the weekend came courtesy of the Dynamo, who managed a crowd in excess of 22k at BBVA Compass Stadium.  The team’s attendance had slipped into the teens this year, but this was a great number for Houston.  San Jose managed its usual 10k plus in the cozy Buck Shaw confines.

One Step Closer for United

unitedThe big business story of the week came courtesy of a packed press conference in DC, where team officials and local politicians announced plans to build a new stadium for United within the District.  This is obviously enormous for the team and league.  Followers of the DC stadium situation and of this site know the remarkable efforts and breadth of geographic swath covered by DC in order to find a permanent home.  If this home is in the District (and work remains to be done), it will be a great success story.

It was not too long ago that United was looking towards PG County for a permanent home. Recall DC United’s efforts to get a stadium built in Prince George’s County took a small step forward with the Maryland House Appropriations Committee approving a bill to fund a study about the project.  Back in 2009 the Washington Business Journal reported that a feasibility study published by the Stadium Authority in September guessed that the team was likely to produce $65 million to $80 million in economic activity annually, which could mean the equivalent of more than 1,000 full-time positions and bring in more than $5 million in annual tax revenue.” There was also a brief flirtation with Northern Virginia.

Now United has seemingly landed in Buzzard’s Point, a dream location for the franchise and the league.  Not surprisingly, Steve Goff is the best resource on the stadium issue.  Goff reported that the stadiu, “which would hold at least 20,000 spectators, would take between 18 and 22 months to complete. United has pledged to pay for construction costs, estimated at $150 million. The city would spend about the same on infrastructure and land acquisition through a complex series of property exchanges with private owners. The facility would host more than just the 20-25 United games each year. The team and city envision concerts, college football, soccer and lacrosse games, high school football, and international soccer matches.”

Footiebusiness Vault: Part One of Howard Handler Interview

On the road the last couple of nights, here is a popular vault post from last March.

Howard 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. 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 —, 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.

TV Ratings: Mid-July Version

soccertvSoccer America is reporting that the Gold Cup semi-final managed a 1.2 rating on Sunday afternoon.  The game featured the United States and El Salvador from Baltimore Maryland with Gus Johnson doing the play by play.  The quarterfinal doubled the rating from the USA/Cuba opener on Fox.  Per Soccer America, “the USA-El Salvador overnight rating compares favorably to overnights of recent live soccer matches on FOX. The Bayern-Munich-Borussia Dortmund UEFA Champions League final drew a 1.0 overnight rating (0.9 final rating) and Wigan-Manchester City FA Cup final drew a 0.5 overnight rating.”

Some other ratings news gathered from around the web.  The MLS match featuring New York and Houston on ESPN2 following the Confederations Cup 3rd place match fell just short of 400k despite the solid lead-in.  The lead-up to the Gold Cup included a USA/Guatemala friendly on the NBC Sports Network that drew about 300k viewers.  The same network fell just short of 200k for the Seattle/Vancouver match and Portland/LA got 125k.

Viewership on the NBCSN has been trending up over the last few weeks with the average now creeping above 100k with the last few games all over 125k.  This is a great trend for the league and its newest partner.


Monday After

us-soccerIt was a big weekend of soccer in the United States with the National Team taking center stage in Baltimore.  The weekend match against El Salvador drew more than 70k (although the crowd leaned heavily towards the visitors), and the US Men did not disappoint with a 5-1 throttling of their quarterfinal opponent.  The game was televised on the primary FOX network carrying the match.  Once again Gus Johnson was on the call and he continues preparing for his World Cup role beginning in 2018.

Despite all of the action in Baltimore, there was also a full slate of matches in Major League Soccer.  There were two mid-week games, and the Rapids drew almost 14k for their Wednesday night match against the Revs.  On the same night, Chivas USA saw a crowd of less than 8k at the Home Depot Center.

On Saturday, almost 19,500 were in attendance at BMO for a clash between the Red Bulls and TFC that ended in a surprising draw.  More than 39k were at Century Link for a tie between the Sounders and the Rapids.  The draws continued with a scoreless affair between Montreal and Dallas .  There were almost 21k fans at Saputo Stadium.   The Crew/Revs match-up in Columbus also almost ended scoreless before a large 19k plus crowd, but two stoppage time goals saved the game.  However, the Eastern heat struck again, as a crowd of ___ saw another scoreless draw at PPL Park.

More than 17k packed Toyota Park, and the home fans were not disappointed as the Fire won 4-1.  RSL managed a crowd of more than 19k at Rio Tinto, while the Galaxy played host to more than 20k at the Home Depot Center.

Footiebusiness Vault: Pre-ASG Interview with Cara Joftis

On the road tonight, so here is an interview we did in advance of the 2012 ASG.  Cara Joftis has been the  VP of Marketing for the Union since September, 2009.  Prior to joining the club, she was Vice President of Sponsorships and Brand Promotions at Citizens Bank for more than six years.  She managed brand presence and messaging  for Citizens Bank properties in 13 states, including Citizens Bank Park. In 2010, on the eve of of the Union’s inaugural season, we interviewed Ms. Joftis about the upcoming Union season.  You can find that interview here.   Ms. Joftis was kind enough to answer a few more questions as Philly is preparing to host the MLS All-Star Game.  Thanks to Ms. Joftis.  Two years ago, we discussed the Union’s ability to penetrate a crowded Philadelphia sports market.  As the team enters its third season, do you feel that the team has become fully integrated into the City sports scene?  What efforts are you making to to capture soccer fans who haven’t embraced MLS?  What about non-soccer sports fans?

Cara Joftis: It is a continuing evolution and, the Union is definitely becoming more integrated into the City sports scene.  You see more and more people wearing Union gear around the city and aware of what is going on with the team.  We are part of the discussion in the general media and are automatically included in new sports venues, such as Xfinity Live (jersey and scarves on display with Flyer, Sixer, Eagles and Sixers memorabilia).  Additionally, we’ve been embraced by the previously established teams with numerous co-promotional efforts.

Our strategy has remained the same in that we are an authentic soccer brand and focus all our efforts towards who we are and the core values of the Union brand.  The more people experience that brand and our way of soccer, we find that we gain fans, but we aren’t out to convince people who aren’t and never will be soccer fans.

FB:  Who is the Union’s target market?  Has that target changed since the team started playing? 

CJ: Our core fan and target market remains the same.  We look to deepen and broaden the relationships.

FB: PPL Park will host the MLS All-Star Game in July.  What can that event do to further raise the profile of the Union within the region?   Will the team make a concerted effort to engage mainstream media (e.g. sports radio, local television, etc…) and encourage coverage of the event?

CJ: Philadelphia is commonly host to international events (NBA All Star game, Winter Classic, X Games) and those events naturally raise awareness of all teams in the market.  We continually engage with mainstream media and this is just another discussion point.

FB: Last year, the Union entered into a long term relationship with Bimbo.  How has that partnership helped the Union promote its brand?  What are the next steps for the partnership? 

CJ: As we knew they would be, Bimbo is a terrific partner, with a long history in soccer and values that match our own, making the partnership authentic and a natural extension.  Bimbo’s reach into mass market through retail operations, helps to put the Union name and brand in front of increased numbers of people.  Our continuous plan is to expand those opportunities.

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 2012?    Is there anything new fans should look forward to as part of the stadium experience this year?

CJ: We have a schedule of promotions throughout the season – awareness nights (Autism, Breast, Ovarian Cancer), Tickets for Troops, Hispanic Heritage.

We are always looking for ways to enhance the fan experience, but the truth is that our fans create the atmosphere at PPL Park and make it the electric place that it is, giving the team the best home field advantage anywhere.

Soccer Business Bits: Hello Hartford, Cosmos Bus & More

whalersWhile its parent network was televising the MLB All-Star Game, Fox Soccer continued its swan song with a live telecast from East Hartford, Connecticut.  Despite the sweltering conditions and the lack of promotion in the community, the Greater Hartford area managed a good night at the game with more than 20k at Rentschler Field.  Hartford has long been a solid outpost for American soccer. Rentschler offers a high quality pitch, a great location between Boston and New York and a fairly soccer and sports mad culture. The stadium is also 25 minutes from the Bristol headquarters.

Elsewhere, the Cosmos are making news with a great marketing plan (one that Revs fans were trying to get their team to offer for years).  The lower division side is reaching out to its fans by offering free transportation to games.  According to the press release, “the Cosmos will operate shuttles on gamedays that run between the Long Island Railroad station in Mineola and Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium in Uniondale. The Cosmos shuttle will run prior to matches and also postgame.”  This is a great way to connect with fans and show commitment to supporters.

Elsewhere, it was reported that David Beckham is looking to move an MLS expansion franchise to Miami.  Beckham’s ability to purchase a franchise has long been a known element of his league contract, but is Miami really an ideal location?  As MLS fans well know, the Miami Fusion entered the League as an expansion team in 1998 and were contracted just four years later.  That background, combined with South Florida’s rather weak history of supporting its teams (Florida Marlins anyone?), has lead many to scoff at any move back to the Miami area.


Marketing the Gold Cup

HartfordSkylineOn Tuesday night the Gold Cup comes to Hartford, with a double header including the United States and Cost Rica.  The game will be held in East Hartford, at Rentschler Field, the home of UCONN Football.  Over the years, the “Rent” has hosted the US Women, the US Men, Liverpool, Celtic and other soccer powers.  Longtime readers of Footiebusiness know that I am based in Hartford, and the “Rent” is a great venue for the game.  The venue has long been managed by AEG, but the role has been taken by Global Spectrum.

Yet noticeably missing from the Greater Hartford area over the last few weeks has been any noticeable promotion of the game.  There has been little mention of the Gold Cup on local television stations or in the Hartford Courant.  Promotion through local soccer clubs has been scant and Greater Hartford radio stations have lacked for advertising.

Given the shortage of big time sports in the area (UCONN notwithstanding), the Gold Cup should be a big event in the Insurance City.  There are no more Hartford Whalers (despite our fervent wishes to the contrary).   The game is expected to draw a crowd in excess of 20k, but far below the 40k plus capacity.  However, given the paucity of major sporting events in the Hartford area, the projected crowd is fairly disappointing.

Also, the youth soccer set is enormous in the Greater Hartford area and offers a ready made target audience.  Obviously, part of the problem is that the other three teams (Costa Rica, Belize and Cuba) don’t travel particularly well in this area. Nevertheless, it appears that a great opportunity to sell the game to a willing community has been missed.