Posts of the Year: Howard Handler Interview

propaneOver the next couple of weeks we will re-post some of our most popular interviews and guest posts from 2013.  We’ll start with our Howard Handler interview from last Winter.  For a blog about the business of soccer, a chat with Mr. Handler, the CMO of MLS,  was a long-time goal.  Below is part one of that post.

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.

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.

Guest Post: The rise of MLS Cup; the demise of GSLs

sporting kansas citA couple of weeks before MLS Cup, we wrote about Jamie Clary’s quest to make it to his 18th straight MLS Cup Final.  Thanks to outreach efforts from the Sporting Communications Department, Mr. Clary was able to attend the game and today he provides some thoughts on his efforts to get to Kansas City and the changes in the MLS ticket buying landscape.

Recall that Mr. Clary wrote:  “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.”

MLS is a growing league yet many of the front offices around MLS still remember the league’s early days, and fan relationships are still cultivated and grown.  Kudos to Rob Thomson of Sporting who reached out to Mr. Clary through Footiebusiness and helped him keep the streak alive.  With so much on his plate with less than two weeks to prepare for the Final, Mr. Thomson reached out and provided a shining example of fan outreach.  When asked why, Mr. Thomson simply said: “Sporting Kansas City got Jamie two tickets to the match because this league, and certainly our organization, are driven by great fans. We were happy to help him continue his wonderful and impressive streak of MLS Cups.”

After the game, Mr. Clary wrote the following about his effort to secure tickets and the magnanimous gesture by SKC.

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After writing the article I embarked on five avenues to secure tickets. Ben Berger, this web site’s owner, offered tickets through his guaranteed seat licenses. Goalie Joe Cannon read about my quest and offered assistance. Rob Thomson, executive VP of Sporting Kansas City, got involved. I took advantage of a friendship with an employee of one of the SKC owners. And I worked the traditional market of box office sales and re-sales. Also, I considered buying a guaranteed seat license.

When Rob Thomson came through, I ended the other efforts. (Rob, look for a gift card in the mail.)

Had I not had these contacts, my streak would have ended. Anybody without those contacts or a compelling story to generate those contacts will be left without tickets to future finals. The overwhelming  majority of publicly sold tickets to future MLS Cup games will land in the hands of season ticket holders of the home team.  Some others will go to season ticket holders of the away team. The others will be used by people paying a premium through secondary markets.

That’s bad for me; good for MLS; bad for soccer fans; good home team fans, the people who provided Saturday’s unprecedented atmosphere.

We got to this point because the league last year chose to play future finals at the home of the higher seed. This year we can say that decision will forever generate a greater demand for tickets than the supply of tickets. It used to be the other way around.

The next decision for the league in this vein is to decide the future of the guaranteed seat license. The lifelong status enables holders to purchase tickets to the all-star game and MLS Cup. They have generated some revenue. But now they are a league liability.

Nobody inside MLS looked at Saturday’s crowd and felt that the GSL holders had any positive impact. If GSLers had bought tickets to the game, they likely sold them. If they didn’t sell them, they appreciated the enthusiastic atmosphere but did not contribute to it. They probably did not wave SKC flags, show up in team colors, or add to the decibels.

They—including me—aren’t the fans that MLS needs.

For the all-star game, GSL holders might be more noticeable only because the crowd is less passionate.

Maybe MLS needed those GSLs some time ago. Maybe they produced some significant revenue once. But I don’t see MLS continuing the GSL for much longer.

That’s good for MLS and bad for me because I may be in the market for one soon.

Monday After

twinnThe first week of the off season is in the books, but it certainly wasn’t quiet.  There were trades, retirements drafts and signings.  Big players are on the move, new players are heading to MLS and the league’s expansion antennae is still raised. There was a testimonial match, a re-entry draft, combine announcements and a new team formed in the NWSL.  Over the weekend there was the College Gup before 7,000 frigid fans at PPL Park.  In short, the domestic off season is a busy time  and soccer fans have plenty to look forward to over the next few weeks.

On Friday MLS announced its plans for the 2014 ASG in Portland.  For the first time in ASG history, the opponent will be a German soccer club.  World famous Bayern Munich will make the trip to the Rose City next  Summer.  This is another soccer power for the League’s warm weather classic.  The prominent opponent combined with the cozy confines at Jeld-Wen should make for a hot ticket next year.

There was some expansion noise at the end of last week.  Reports emerged that Sacramento had expressed an interest in moving up to MLS in the near term.  There are already three teams from California in the league and MLS is already somewhat heavily weighted towards the west coast.  It will be interesting to see if any Pacific Time Zone teams are added as the league moves to 24.

Finally, it was announced that US Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has signed a four year extension to remain as coach of the national team after the World Cup.  While the move is curious, there is a sense that the move can be defended by saying “it is only money.”  If the USSF wants to fire him after a terrible World Cup in Brazil, it will, contract notwithstanding.

The King of Beers: From the Footiebusiness Vault

FIFABudweiser is a huge player in sports and sports advertising.  With the World Cup on the near horizon, we thought we would run an interview from June with  Camilo Durana, Budweiser’s Global Director, Budweiser Sports and Entertainment was kind enough to share a few thoughts about the current Man of the Match Program and Budweiser’s promotional efforts around the world of soccer.  Prior to joining Budweiser, Mr. Durana worked for both MLS and Octagon.

Footiebusiness.com: Budweiser is running its Man of the Match Program for the Confederations Cup and the FIFA World Cup in 2013.  What efforts will be made during matches to make fans aware of the voting options?

Camilo Durana:  During every game, Budweiser is encouraging fans around the world to vote for their Man of the Match picks through social media. Our partner FIFA is also encouraging fans to vote through its social channels.  We are also communicating with fans in the tournament venues and during match broadcasts in select markets

FB: Is the Man of the Match Program being promoted only on domestic broadcasts or also internationally?

CD: Fans from around the world can vote for their pick for the Budweiser Man of the Match during each game and we encourage fans supporting every team to cast their votes on one of the several open voting platforms during each game – from budweisermanofthematch.com to Facebook and our new iOS and Android apps. We’re currently offering voting in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

FB: Does Budweiser have plans to extend the Man of the Match Program to other soccer properties including MLS?

CD: In addition to the Budweiser Man of the Match award being presented at each game of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup™ and the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, fan voting also helps determine the Budweiser Man of the Match in the FA Cup, the oldest association football competition in the world.  We are currently focused on these tournaments, but we are always exploring other opportunities to enhance the fan experience through the Man of the Match program.

FB: Why are the Confederations Cup and World Cup attractive properties for Budweiser Sports and Entertainment?

CD: Football and sports in general are key global celebration moments and the FIFA World Cup™ and FIFA Confederations Cup™ offer a strong and relevant global platform from which we can connect with passionate football fans around the world. We’re looking forward to the opportunities presented as the tournaments bring the excitement of the beautiful game to new places around the world, and to enhance the fan experience in the more than 85 countries around the world where Budweiser is served.

FB: Finally, with the World Cup only a year away, what does Budweiser anticipate doing to activate around the tournament?

CD: As an official partner of the FIFA Confederations Cup™, Budweiser is taking this opportunity to connect with passionate football fans around the world during the tournament.  We’re proud to take this opportunity to unveil our new Man of the Match programming, including the enhanced voting platforms during this year’s tournament, and we’ll look forward to making the experience even better as the eyes of the world turn once again to Brazil during next year’s FIFA World Cup™.  Beyond continuing our Man of the Match program, we are finalizing additional plans for next year’s FIFA World Cup™ but we know that expanding our voting to even more fans for Man of the Match will be a critical component, given the passion fans have displayed for making their voices heard.

 

Soccer Business Bits: New York Stadium, Miami Stadium & More

cityNYCFC was in the news on Wednesday for multiple reasons, including the introduction of Jason Kreis as the new coach of the expansion franchise.  However, the big news was the announcement that the team is moving towards a stadium deal in the Bronx.  The reported $400 million structure will reportedly seat 28,000 fans and will occupy a vacant lot near the  Major Degan Expressway near Yankee Stadium.  Per the Gothamist.com, “the stadium would still be constructed using private funds (as has been the plan since the beginning), new details about public sweeteners have emerged. The team would be given a 99-year lease, where fair market rent would only start to be paid 38 years into the lease. City-backed tax exempt bonds would help to finance the project, and other tax breaks could be given.”  The team is looking for approval from incoming Mayor DiBlasio and would be set to open in 2018 or 2019.

In other expansion news, there were multiple reports on Wednesday that David Beckham’s effort to locate a team in downtown Miami are taking a step forward.  Per the Miami Herald,” [a] Miami-Dade County Commission vote scheduled for Tuesday would authorize Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration to identify possible stadium sites and negotiate construction contracts with any interested private developers. That would begin talks in earnest between the county and Beckham and his investors, who have approached Gimenez about building a 25,000-seat stadium on public land on PortMiami’s Dodge Island.”

Finally, overnight ratings for MLS Cup Final are in and the English language numbers were disappointing, with the game generating a .5 overnight.  Perhaps more interestingly, the Spanish language broadcast attracted more viewers than the English language telecast on ESPN.  The .5 represents a downward move from the last few years and is a very difficult number for the league to carry into the next round of negotiations.

 

 

MLS Cup: The Secondary Market

timbers ticketsIt is no secret that attendance in Major League Soccer has been outstanding over the last few years.  Smaller stadiums have meant packed houses, great environments and increased buzz.  Yet MLS fans are rarely forced to the secondary market to find tickets.  Between promotions, giveaways and a comparably limited group of fans, those wishing to attend a match can typically find a ticket, even at the last minute, and often at little to no cost.

Yet the MLS Cup Final (and this has become increasingly true), offered a chance for the secondary market to play a prominent role in providing opportunities for fans to attend the game.  Between the significant amount of season ticket holders in Kansas City, the pre-sales offered to certain interest groups and the relatively small size of the stadium, the secondary market was primed to pray a prominent role.

At various time, about 5% of the ticket inventory was available on StubHub.  Many of the tickets were selling at significant mark-ups.  Many tickets were listed for at least double their face value and some were listed for significantly more.  As the day of the game approached, ticket sales slacked off leading sellers to drop the price in hopes of ensuring a sale.  However, even on Friday afternoon, tickets were selling for more than face value as bargain hunters were forced to make a choice at the last minute.

Ultimately, a healthy secondary market is a great sign for the league.  Ticket scarcity makes an even seem more important and provides the most devoted fans with an opportunity to profit from their fandom. When fans can walk-up to the gate on gameday and purchase tickets at face value, it provides fans with little incentive to buy in advance.  Those advance sales allow a team to plan and ensure that bad weather doesn’t significantly depress attendance or ticket sales.

Monday After (Cup Final Edition)

mlsSaturday night saw a thrilling end to the 2013 MLS season, with Sporting topping RSL after 10 rounds of penalties.  After a first half punctuated by injuries, stoppages and poor play, the teams turned in a riveting final 45 minutes, overtime and spot kicks.  A standing room only sellout at Sporting Park provided the backdrop to the Final, and the fans stayed through to the end to create a raucous environment that came through clear on the television.

ESPN provided its usual quality coverage, both from the on-site studio and the broadcast booth.   It is especially worth noting how much Taylor Twellman continues to improve as a color analyst. The halftime featured the usual interview with the Commissioner and the night ended with KC’s love affair with in stadium pyrotechnics.  Some other broadcast notes: SiriusXM provided a simulcast of the ESPN700 feed from Salt Lake City over satellite.  After some initial technical glitches, the broadcast was clear, although there were some problems trying to get the MLS pregame via the SiriusXM service.  Also, the KC Star and Salt Lake City Tribune are to be commended for their thorough coverage of the Final. Both papers treated the event like the big time sports event it was.

Some other business notes from the weekend.  The extra long pks and overtime cut into the typical post game proceedings on ESPN, but kudos to the network for staying with the game long enough to show the trophy presentation.  It will be interesting to see how the long telecast will impact viewers for the Final which have been dropping over the last few years despite the presence of David Beckham and Landon Donovan.  The game was certainly another advertisement for the new model of hosting the game at the stadium of the team with the highest record; the environment was great and the scene was befitting a Final.