Thanksgiving Thoughts on the Schedule

fireworksHappy Thanksgiving to all.  Earlier in the week we posted some thoughts on the Major League Soccer schedule.  In 2012 we interviewed Brad Pursel, Major League Soccer’s Vice President of Club Services about the process of putting together the league schedule.  Mr. Pursel has overseen the league’s calendar since 2002 and has been with the league since 1998.

Footiebusiness.com: When does the process of creating the MLS season schedule begin?  What are the first steps?

Brad Pursel: It’s a yearlong process, and the first steps are determining what the competition format is — how many games each team will play, the conference breakdown, when the season starts and ends, how do we play around FIFA dates and other competitions. That’s the starting point, and there are various committee meetings at the league-level and club level throughout the year to discuss the schedule.

The actual schedule development begins in earnest in September and October, and then it all comes together in December.


FB: When do the league’s national television partners become involved in the process? How much input do they have in formatting the schedule?  Has working with NBC been a significant change?

BP: Our broadcast partners are involved in the process from the start. We work very closely with them throughout the year in the planning process to determine their broadcast windows — the number of windows, times, days of the week, etc.

Working with NBC has not been significantly different because essentially they replaced FOX and the process for scheduling games has not changed. NBC has been great to work with and they are going to be a great partner.

FB: Last year the league included at least 5 nationally televised matches as part of the July 4th holiday.  This year, no nationally televised games are scheduled for Independence Day.  What is the cause of this significant change?  Were ratings over July 4th disappointing?

BP: We generally have very strong crowds on or around the 4th of July and the atmosphere was there; however, looking at the ratings from last year, we decided not to do as many games around the 4th this year. Last year the 4th of July was part of a long weekend and this year it’s midweek, so that also factored into the thought process.

FB: How do potential attendance concerns factor into the scheduling process? 

BP: Attendance is always a factor, especially for our big national TV games.  We want games that are going to be well attended but also are compelling rivalries and present great atmosphere for TV. We try to maximize attendance by scheduling games on weekends, especially on Saturdays. We are always looking at data to help drive our decisions.

FB: How has the increase in soccer specific stadiums impacted the scheduling process?  Is venue availability a significant concern?

BP: Having our own soccer specific stadiums where we control the dates has been tremendously helpful in the scheduling process over the years. We still have some challenges in buildings where we’re not the primary tenant or where we’re not controlling the dates, and that has a domino effect to everybody else. But the growth of soccer-specific stadiums has had a very positive impact on the scheduling process.

Business Thoughts on the MLS Schedule

nbcMonths earlier than expected, Major League Soccer released its 2014 schedule on Monday.  In the last year of its television deals, the league served up a number of treats for its broadcast partners in its 2014 release.  MLS also provided a great treat for fans, by creating a regular Friday night match on NBCSN. This will provide both the network and supporters with the consistency they crave on a night that should provide limited sports competition, allow for fans to attend games and permit great atmosphere.

Some of the other key business points from the release include:   ESPN will televise 20 regular season games on its English language networks,with five of the games on the flagship network.   NBC, in its third season as a partner with MLS will televise 41 regular season games with 3 of those matches on the broadcast version of NBC.  There will also be two more MLS wrap-around shows on the NBCSN (although unfortunately there will be MLS Breakaway on opening day).   There will also be MLS/Premier League double headers which will allow for audiences to stay with soccer in late morning/early afternoon.  NBC also gets the benefit of some exclusive time slots eliminating competition with other MLS games (although the value of that concession from the league remains to be seen).

Univision will have 28 games over its various networks, including UniMas and Univision Deportes.  In Canada,  there will be more than 60 combined English and French language telecasts.

The league will again take a two week break for the group stage of the World Cup, while ESPN will showcase Portland and Seattle on the same day as the World Cup Final.  ESPN will wait almost three months for its first telecast, but will squeeze six games into July.

As we noted above, this is a big year for MLS and its network partners. Of course, these negotiations are already underway.   Recall what we noted in October, when SBJ reported that Major League Soccer had started negotiating its next television deal with current partners ESPN and NBC Sports.  SBJ reported that both networks were in exclusive negotiating windows to re-up their deals before the league’s rights are open to all bidders.  Recall that MLS intentionally set its deals to expire at the end of the 2014 season in order to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the World Cup next Summer.  However, the exclusive window provides ESPN and NBC an opportunity to parlay their current relationship into something longer term.

Monday After

ivyAnother great weekend of playoff games in Major League Soccer, with matches from Kansas City and Portland showing packed houses, raucous crowds and entertaining soccer.  When Major League Soccer was first formed and went through its initial growing pains, league investors could hardly have envisioned the scene of this weekend.  Sporting’s re-brand remains one of the remarkable business stories in American sports, while Portland’s explosion on the scene is probably only comparable to the debut of its Pacific Northwest rival in Seattle.

The success of both franchises reinforces a point we have repeatedly made on this site.  Franchises in cities that don’t have representatives of each of the other four major sports have a much better chance of success.  The sports scarcity means more media coverage, fewer sports options and much bigger chance of being treating as major league in their community.  This  model has succeeded in Seattle, Portland, Kansas City and  Salt Lake City, while franchises in New England, New York &  Chicago often struggle for recognition.  Both Kansas City and Portland have pained remarkable pictures of what soccer in the United States is becoming.

Some final business notes.  MLS Cup will take place at Sporting Park, following on the heels of the extremely successful All-Star Game earlier in the Summer.  Fans and journalists will have two weeks to locate flights and hotels.  Kansas City did a wonderful job hosting the ASG and the entire community made the event appear big time.  There is no reason to doubt that a similar effort is underway for the MLS Cup Final.

Weekend Thoughts

orlandoThe Major League Soccer playoffs get restarted after a lengthy hiatus.  There are two games this weekend, with the Portland Timbers hosting RSL at 9:00 Eastern on ESPN.  On Saturday night at 7:30, NBCSN will host its last match of the season live from Kansas City.   Both games will also have Spanish language broadcasts.  The Portland game is a sellout, while the Sporting match will likely be sold out by kickoff.

Fans of the game do have plenty of soccer to enjoy over the next couple of weeks with the NCAA tournament underway.  European leagues are also back in action after a brief hiatus for international action.

Trivia Answer:

Based on longevity, what has been the most successful professional soccer league in the United States? (Hint: It folded almost exactly 30 years ago.)

It lasted for 50 years but is hardly memorable.  The second version of the American Soccer League started from the ashes of the first version in 1933 as little more than an ethnic-based, East Coast league.  Teams relied on local talent with low payrolls while focusing on revenue generated by hosting foreign teams on American tours.  Operating during the lowest depths of U.S. interest in the game, the ASL truly was the savior of the game, paying players part-time salaries based on games played and attendance at those games.  The league lasted for so long by being so conservative: but it died because it was so conservative.  When the United States Soccer Federation granted top-level professional status to the United Soccer Association in 1967, the ASL took notice.  After the newer league merged into the NASL, the ASL became a second-rate league, prompting touring clubs to turn their backs on the ASL.  The league expanded west and hired basketball star Bob Causey as its commissioner in the 1970s but closed its doors after the 1983 season. 

Excerpt from The First American Soccer Trivia Book by Jamie Clary; Copyright 2007 FreeFalling Graffiti. www.soccerprofessor.com

 

Soccer Business Bits: Orlando, Forbes & More

tv cameraThe big news of the day was the official announcement of the worst kept secret in American soccer; Orlando is coming to MLS.  The team will start in 2015 and will play its initial season in the Citrus Bowl.  The reported entry fee will be $70 million, far in excess of prior fees (other than NYC) and supportive of the higher MLS valuations noted by Forbes Magazine (see below).  The event was attended by hundreds of supporters, complete with music, banners and more.  Orlando’s other major professional sports franchise, the Orlando Magic, provided a statement of support.   The minor league version of Orlando City averaged just over 8,000 per game in 2013, a number the franchise hopes more than doubles with the team’s entry into the top tier of American soccer.  The permanent home of Orlando City S.C. will hold 18,000 and the home team will be the first MLS squad to sport purple uniforms. The team’s jersey sponsor will be Orlando Health.

The other big business story of the day comes with the release of the Forbes MLS valuation list.  According to Forbes, the average MLS franchise is worth $103 million.  Five years ago when the magazine last compiled this list, the average value was $37 million.  What happened according to Forbes?  Soccer specific stadiums, bigger talent, bigger attendance, bigger stars and more.   One number hidden in the article is that of the $26 million in revenue per team, almost 90% was team (rather than centrally located).  Values range from the $170 million range (Seattle and Los Angeles) to Colorado, DC, Chivas, San Jose and Columbus in the sub-$80 million range.  League revenues range from Seattle to Chivase ($48 million to $15 million).  The whole article is worth a read for fans of business and the beautiful game.

Finally, the weekly trivia. Based on longevity, what has been the most successful professional soccer league in the United States? (Hint: It folded almost exactly 30 years ago.)

***The trivia questions come courtesy of Jamie Clary.  Mr. Clary is the author of the First American Soccer Trivia Book, available through soccerprofessor.com. He has played, coached, refereed and reported the game. During national team games, he often works with USSF compiling stats and helping media. Goalies, he feels, get too much respect from officials. Mexico and France, respectively, are his most hated teams. He plays and lives in Hendersonville, Tennessee.  The excerpts are from The First American Soccer Trivia Book by Jamie Clary; Copyright 2007 FreeFalling Graffiti

Expansion Bits

TonyMeolaOrlando is on the precipice of an official expansion announcement, but there was also some juicy business news from the City of Mickey earlier today.  Orlando Health, the current primary sponsor of Orlando City Soccer Club, will remain the jersey sponsor when the team makes the leap to MLS.   The hospital chain will also remain as the team’s primary healthcare provider and its doctors and medical personnel will remain in charge of the medical care for players on Orlando City SC.  Per its official website, Orlando Health is one of Florida’s most comprehensive private, not-for-profit healthcare networks, and is based in Orlando, FL and it comprises almost 2000 beds over 8 facilities.  All of this comes the day before the BIG day, where Orlando City will officially be named the next expansion team in MLS.  The early evening announcement will provide a carnival atmosphere.  We will cover that tomorrow.

However, there was some other Florida expansion news on Monday.  It is no secret that David Beckham has been exploring the Miami market for his possible MLS franchise.  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.  Add in the lack of a Soccer Specific Stadium (the team would share with the FIU Football team) and the idea once seemed dead in the water.  Yet on Monday there were reports that LeBron James is considering partnering with Beckham on a Miami franchise.  James already owns an interest in a rather famous soccer team, and he certainly brings significant name cache.

The MLS GSL Program

mlsOur post last week about Jamie Clary’s attempt to make it 18 for 18 in MLS Cup Final attendance got us thinking about the Major League Soccer Guaranteed Seat License Program.   Here is an interview we did some time ago with MLS VP Brad Pursel about the GSL program.

For the last few years, MLS has offered its fans the opportunity to purchase a “Guaranteed Seat License” for the MLS Cup and MLS All-Star game.  For a one-time fee, the GSL affords the purchaser the lifetime right to purchase tickets for those two events every year.  We were intrigued by the program, and MLS Vice President of Club Services Brad Pursel was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the GSL.  Mr. Pursel has worked with MLS since 1997 in various capacities and his answers are below.

Footiebusiness.com: What is the intent of the GSL program?  What is MLS trying to achieve by offering this opportunity?

Brad Pursel: The intent of the GSL program is to offer our fans the opportunity to always secure seats for our annual All-Star Game and MLS Cup, our two biggest events. It’s a special and unique program that does not exist in other professional leagues.

FB:   Who is the target audience for the GSL program?   What is MLS doing to promote the program to this target audience?

BP: We’ve targeted core MLS fans for this program, which is why it is primarily promoted via our websites, MLSnet.com and FutbolMLS.com, and through our e-blasts. We’ve seen many purchases by families and as gifts for children to enjoy for a lifetime.

FB: Has MLS capped the amount of GSLs it will sell? How many has it sold so far?  When will the offer end?

BP: We have not yet capped the number of GSLs that are available, but we will monitor it closely to determine when the offer should end. Although we do not disclose the number of purchased GSLs, the number has exceeded our expectation.

FB: As the popularity of MLS increases, do you envision GSL holders using the GSL as an investment opportunity?  Will holders buy tickets using the GSL and then try to sell them at a profit?

BP:  GSLs are a personal investment for enjoyment and entertainment and the price could increase in the future. GSL holders are not permitted to sell their tickets.

FB: Finally, how did MLS decide on the $500 price point?  The amount seems too low to be much of a revenue generator.  Was it intended as such?

BP: In the beginning, we wanted to offer GSLs at price point that was not too low or too high. We are considering increasing the price,  especially as the number available decreases. The program has generated a significant amount of new revenue.

Thanks to Mr. Pursel for his responses.   We think the GSLs are a great idea for fans seeking to hedge against the increasing popularity of the League.  In an ideal scenario, MLS Cup will become a hot enough ticket such that GSL holders will have a chance to purchase tickets for an otherwise sold out event.  When MLS holds these matches at soccer specific stadiums, the events typically sell out and thus GSL holders have an avenue to purchase tickets for these games.  However, when the League uses bigger venues, tickets are typically available the day of the game and thus the value of the GSL is minimized.

We were a bit surprised by Mr. Pursel’s responses about the re-sale of tickets purchased through the GSL program.   The terms and conditions of the GSL preclude the transfer of the license, however the rules do not appear to preclude the sale of individual tickets purchased via the license.  That said, even if MLS didn’t explicitly preclude the sale of tickets purchased with the GSL, the ticket holder would be subject to applicable state laws.

Overall, we think this is a worthwhile program, especially if League’s profile continues to grow. Imagine if this opportunity was offered for the Super Bowl 40 years ago.  For more on the GSLs, click here.

Trivia and More

bostonYesterday we offered a guest post from Jamie Clary about his travels to 17 straight MLS Cup Finals.  We posted the story on Twitter and received some interesting responses from folks believing that Jamie and his friend should be celebrated for their commitment to the league its championship.  Their story also led to some Twitter exchanges asking for other fans who have  managed the same feat to identify themselves.  To date, we haven’t found any other fans who have made it to each, but courtesy of Steve Goff of the Washington Post, we discovered that Mr. Goff, Ridge Mahoney and Michael Lewis are three journalists who have made each final.

On to trivia:

What was the hyped-up name of the championship game of the first North American Soccer League?

At first it was simply the NASL Championship Game.  In 1975, though, league executives dusted off the title that had applied to the college championship before the NCAA had created a post-season tournament.  NASL’s championship became known as the Soccer Bowl.

Excerpt from The First American Soccer Trivia Book by Jamie Clary; Copyright 2007 FreeFalling Graffiti

Guest Post: I Have Attended Every MLS Cup, But That May End Soon

celebrationFootiebusiness regulars know Jamie Clary as the author of the First American Soccer Trivia Book and the provider of the weekly business trivia question.  Tonight, Mr. Clary discusses another great accomplishment; he has attended every single MLS Cup Final.  Thanks to Mr. Clary.

After three friends and I left MLS Cup ’96, we were so enthusiastic about having a legitimate top-tier league that we promised “every year”. The four of us committed to attending every future MLS championship game to support the league.

Within three years two friends failed on that commitment, but Jamey Yawn and I have made 17 of 17 finals.

That first game in Boston on October 20, 1996, was nearly canceled due to the four inches of rain that fell during the 24 hours prior to the game. Local organizers called off an annual boat race because of the rain. But needing to show stability and to fit a television schedule, the league went ahead, giving us a final that is still the most exciting one ever played.

Alexi Lalas sang the national anthem to thousands of empty seats. SportsCenter showed the game’s highlights 30 minutes into its late telecast.

Played in October, the game competed for media attention with NFL, college football and Major League Baseball playoffs. That field of competitors dwindled when MLS Cup got pushed into November and now December. Also, ESPN’s stake in the league has grown, generating more publicity for MLS Cup.

The problem with that publicity was that television viewers often saw seas of empty seats during the league’s championship game. Along with that was concern that MLS was renting entire venues but utilizing only a portion of them for the finals. The league needed to take action to cut costs and to provide a better appearance to TV viewers.

Looking at the early years, neutral venues made a poor showing when hosting MLS Cup. Foxborough Stadium hosted the final in 1996 and 1999 with more than 25,000 and 15,000 empty seats, respectively. In 1997 RFK sold out to fans watching the home team defend its title. When RFK hosted again in 2000, without the home team there were 17,000 empty seats.

In 1998 the Rose Bowl could have hosted fans of two games at once. MLS Cup was played in front of 51,000 people and 40,000 empty seats.

It did not take a team doctor to figure out that MLS Cup needed smaller venues when hosted by neutral sites. Columbus Crew Stadium was the first soccer specific stadium to host the final, presenting TV audiences with a full house in 2001 for two non-Columbus teams. It is still the smallest venue ever pressed into service for MLS Cup, offering just 20,145 seats.

Nearly three times that number attended the next year’s MLS Cup. More than 61,000 people watched the Revolution fall to LA in overtime, leaving only 7,400 empty seats in Gillette Stadium. As much as they would have liked, MLS governors could not replicate that recipe of a home team and mild October weather. The league went back to smaller venues and left MLS Cup 2002 with the record for highest attendance.

With two exceptions, smaller venues have been used since 2002. Excluding those two, the most empty seats for a final was 1,200 in 2004 at the Home Depot Center. The worst of the two outliers came in 2009 at Seattle’s Qwest Field. The stadium had 21,000 empty seats but brought in 46,000 fans to watch two out-of-town teams. We had to laugh, though, when Sounders fans sang boastfully during a game that did not involve the Sounders.

Seeing the value in using smaller stadiums, MLS governors went a step further, looking for rabid home fans and potential for higher revenues. When they chose to award the higher seed the home field for MLS Cup, they created scenes with more energy than the Super Bowl.

This year those scenes will come from Kansas City, Portland or Salt Lake—three venues with singing, flag-waving, stand-the-whole-game fans. But those fans are my competition. Jayme and I used to compete for tickets against soccer dads and a handful of traveling supporters. By contrast, we barely found tickets for last year’s final in L.A. between L.A. and Houston.

We kept our commitment last year, 17 for 17. This year could be different. We love what MLS has done for soccer. We just wish they would throw a couple tickets our way and keep the string alive, help us reach 18 for 18.

Digital MLS: Chatting with Chris Schlosser

mlsDevotees of Major League Soccer know Chris Schlosser as the Dean of MLS Digital Programs and a regular presence on Twitter.  Official he is the Vice President of Digital Media.  Before joining MLS he held various positions at MSN and is a graduate of Columbia University Business School and Colby College.

Mr. Schlosser was kind enough to respond to some questions from Footiebusiness about MLS Live, including the Stream of the Week promotion, problems with streaming speed and popularity of the service.  Mr. Schlosser also answered some questions about Direct Kick, league blackouts and MLS Digital.  Thanks to Mr. Schlosser; his thoughts are below.

MLS Digital has seen significant growth since it’s creation in 2010, with 2013 poised to become another great year of growth across the digital business. MLSsoccer is setting records for audience growth, revenue and engagement. Our product team has been busy over the 12 months with the release of a new MLSsoccer homepage, upgraded match center, enhanced mobile applications, new Apple TV application and continued upgrades to our video and streaming products. Similarly, our content teams have provided deeper, more in-depth coverage with the launch of long for series like “The Word”, new premium video programming and continued innovation in social media.
 
Stream of the week is a way for MLS to engage with our young digitally savvy fans; each week my team works to select a compelling match for the fans to watch free of charge. The free stream helped bring live soccer to new fans, generated sponsor revenue and provided a great platform to up-sell fans on our full subscription offering.
 
MLS Live and Direct Kick are roughly the same size from an audience size, however, our digital offerings have been growing faster over the last several years which is a trend I would expect to continue as bandwidth continues to increase and the number of devices that allow for easy streaming of content across a range of screen size proliferate.
 
Social media is a key focus across all of MLS. Amanda Vandervort who leads social media for the League is working across our organization to drive innovation and to find new ways to ingrate social tools into our events, sponsorships, digital experiences and office culture. We love that social media allows for a direct connection between the League, Clubs, Players, Executives and Fans. One key element of social media is speed and we are working across the digital product suite to find ways to speed up our operations. This includes match center updates, game data availability, highlights, articles, etc. 
 
MLS Live is a great value for fans, for $60 per season fans get access to over 230 live games, plus access to every game from the last four years in our archive. We are also working with our streaming partners to constantly improve and optimize our streaming experiences. Mark McClure who joined my team earlier this year after several years at DC United is leading this charge for us. You can already see the fruits of his efforts with the release of the new Apple TV application earlier this fall.
computerWhile we are working to optimize our products there will always be some lag in our streams given the need to manage satellite & fiber connections, encoding and delivery across multiple devices. Similarly, given our television contracts we will likely see blackouts for national and local games continue into the future. One big change however, is that our tv partners are starting to provide digital access to their games. MLS fans can currently watch national broadcasts on ESPN3 and NBC Sports Extra. We are also working to create tools to make blackouts easier to understand for fans, on the MLS Live website the schedule page will show you which games are blacked out specifically for your location.