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.

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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.