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MLSSoccer.com in 2014: Chat with Greg Lalas Part II

mlsYesterday we presented Part I of our new chat with Greg Lalas.  Today, we offer Part II.   In this segment, Mr. Lalas discusses the editorial process at MLSSoccer.com , takes a look back at the last four years and offers some thoughts on what fans can expect in 2014.

Thanks to Mr. Lalas.

Footiebusiness.com: When we spoke four years ago, you told me “[t]he idea is to present a place that a soccer fans, not just MLS fans, can get all kinds of content that is connecting MLS to world and is engaging and interesting to them.” Four years on, have you reached that goal?

Greg Lalas: I would argue that we are moving in that direction more and more every day.  We have done a pretty good job in the last four years to present ourselves  as a place where the North American soccer fan, in particular, can come and get their daily, weekly or hourly dose of the soccer news and conversation and chatter and banter , but I always think of it as a work in progress.  Are we where I would like it to be or any of us would l like it to be? Not quite.  But we are getting there.

FB: We also talked about the balancing act that you had, trying to provide both news and commentary.  Are you satisfied with that balance now and how it has shaken out?

GL: To an extent.  I think we are proving that the commentary can exist.  Coming in, maybe we weren’t in the beginning as responsible as we needed to be with our commentary  to ensure that , that all the T’s are crossed and I’s dotted and the facts are right.   It has improved our journalism and reporting over the last couple of years  to make sure what we are saying and what we are writing about,  whether we are being critical or praising. is backed up by the truth so we are trying that all of the time.  We are pushing into areas all of the time.  A writer like Matt Doyle, who I think is superstar, is pushing the limits of commentary with his Armchair Analyst articles and his Three Thoughts after matches and tournaments.  These are really starting to resonate with our audience which is not just an MLS audience, but a North American audience for soccer.    The balance between news and commentary is something that every outlet has to deal with and has to be as responsible as possible.  I hope we are doing it as well as anybody with that responsibility.

FB: Is it a tough balance especially, because part of what makes sports so fun, and what people are looking for is rumor and more than just news?

dsgGL: True.  Its not like we don’t deal with and discuss rumors.   It is amazing how many times we have reached out to a club about a rumor, and every once and while I ask “how many others have reached out to you? It is amazing how many times the answer is “nobody” and yet we see five other articles. Why did nobody else reach out to you? Why are we the only ones who reached out to you?     Part of that it the modern journalism world that we operate in.  I understand that.  I understand the notion “Let’s get this rumor up and we’ll contact the club” and there is a second article that can go up and deal with that because something I have always said is that context is no  longer found in one article like in the newspaper world.  The site also provides the context.

Here is an article that says.  There is a rumor that Jermaine Defoe is coming to TFC. Maybe an hour later, another article that Toronto denies that  Jermaine Defoe is coming to Toronto.  Maybe the next day there is a rumor and a comment  from someone at Spurs saying that Defoe is likely to leave at end of the year and it goes on and on.  If you just read one of those articles you are not going to get the full story and I think that is how journalism in the digital space is moving more and more. To some peoples’ chagrin and to some peoples’ embracing of it and saying this is an interesting way to approach it.

FB:  Anything on the site that fans should be looking forward to for 2014?

GL: We are doing a really cool series of profiles right before the new season starts which is on March 8.  The week leading up to that we have a huge suite of content to get people ready for the season.  That includes a media roundtable; we are doing team by team previews, but we are doing some unique videos around them that are aimed at trying to give a little more context about each club.  Not just the club in 2014, but a little bit of its history. We are coming up in 2015 on  the 20th season of MLS, so we are trying to build a little bit more of that historical  context for people.

And the MatchCenter is one of the most groundbreaking things we have done.  Its code name is Golazo. It went live towards September of last year, technically in Beta, but this year it will be full live and it is an amazing experience of social content, highlights, photos, the usual commentary from OptaSports, live stats  and its an incredible experience.  This year we have redone the mobile version of it.  It is now an incredible experience that I hope people will check out.  The last thing is fantasy .  We are still pushing fantasy; we have revamped the game, made it a little more intuitive made it a lot better.  We are hoping that people will dig the new fantasy game.

FB: Do you envision MLS Live continuing to grow?

GL I hope so.  Everyone is discussing the tv contracts that are up at end of the year and we will see and for MLS Live, the more growth the better.  There is a huge digital audience for MLS and soccer in the US and Canada.  We have the numbers and a study to back that up in terms of the number of people with smart phones, people that are watching games soccer digitally in the US and Canada is higher than the other sports.  I expect MLS Live to continue to grow.

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MLSSoccer.com in 2014: Chat with Greg Lalas Part I

greglalas

Back in 2010, I had the opportunity to spend some time chatting with Greg Lalas about the newly launched MLSSoccer.com.  Mr. Lalas was named as the editor-in-chief of the new site and back then, we discussed his vision for the site, the technical problems it was experiencing and a number of other issues surrounding the launch.  Now four years later, Mr. Lalas was kind enough to chat for a few minutes about the how the site is doing four years later.  In Part I of our chat, Mr. Lalas discusses site metrics, content and more.  Part II will feature tomorrow.

Thanks to Mr. Lalas.

Footiebusiness.com: What content drives the most traffic to MLSSoccer.com?

Greg Lalas: It’s going to be the big stars…and  any talk about new stadiums and expansion to new cities is a big thing.  The connection between MLS and the National team drives a lot of traffic to us.  It is a World Cup year so everyone is really fascinated with the US National Team.  The number of players on the USMNT who are in MLS is just making that connection stronger and stronger, so that is a big thing for driving traffic.    Right now, since we are in the off season, it is a little different, but obviously matches drive it.  Traffic spikes around matches and that is the same for everybody.  I talked to the guys at NFL and the same thing happens to them.  The highlights, the great goals; its what we as fans love.  I want to read about the US Team, I want to watch great goals.  I want to watch the action.  Ultimately, I think that is what  one of the great lessons of the last four years for us.  No matter what happens we are basically mirroring the fans.  We are fans, so what we find interesting is probably what the fans find interesting.

FB: Are you continuing to see growth? Are you satisfied with the growth rate?  Are the numbers where you want them to be?

GL:  Yes. Our growth rate in 2013 was really great.  From page views, we were up a decent chunk and more importantly in unique users, they were up a lot, especially in the second half of the year.  I don’t know what happened in the second half of the year, other than we were doing  a little bit more digital marketing and we were doing a really good job in social media to drive the numbers.  In the second half of the year, the numbers really took off.  That might have also been around expansion.  The second half of the year started with NYCFC  and the bookend was Orlando City SC in November.  You look at those numbers and you see tremendous growth in the second half of the year.

FB: Are people spending a significant of time on the site once they get there?

GL: Not too bad.  Our average is 4 something minutes.  I would like it to be higher.  Page views per visit have held steady.  Our goals in 2014 in particular, are to really drive unique users even more than page views.  Like everybody else, we are trying to figure what is the actual calculus behind putting a bunch of these numbers together to say what is really a successful metric for us.  It is not just unique users.  It is engagement, it is Likes and Tweets and page views per visit and time spent and engaged time that ChartBeat uses (and we use ChartBeat for ourselves).

One of the biggest metrics that I am looking at, if we grow our unique users, can we maintain the same ratio of new users to returning users. The last thing I want is to blow out the number on new users, but they don’t become returning users.  If our unique users double, but our new users go up to 50% versus  what it has been over the last two years or so which is about 30%, then we are doing something wrong because we are not keeping those new users we are not making them  come back or giving them something that they want to come back for.   So, if I can grow the uniques  but still keep  it 70/30 returning/new  then I am going to me happy with the user metric at least.

FB: Is there a feature on the site that gets less traffic than you think it should?

GL: I think that there is a lot of talk about statistics  and Moneyball type analytics and I don’t think yet that we are seeing the traffic there that we could or should.   There is so much talk out there with Optasport and Match Analysis and all of these other statistically driven companies, talking about statistics 2.0 and deeper dives into the analytics, but I at this point I don’t see the interest in it at a very high level.  Part of it is that people are still trying to figure out a way to bring it down to a level that is digestible for the more casual fan.  You think about baseball, here is his ERA and that is his batting average.  Those are simple things to understand.  They are almost intuitively understood and then someone just put a number and an acronym to it. In soccer, we are trying to figure out what are those few little stats that help us understand the game a little better, so that a casual fan can get a glimpse of a match or a player or a moment and really say, I get it.   Right now, I think all of the stats are a little too complicated for the casual fan and in some ways we just need to dumb it down;   I need to dumb it down for myself sometimes when I read  what Devin Pleuler, one of writers, writes about.  We are getting there, it is a process.computer

FB:  I look at what you guys do with the Chalkboard and I wonder how much traffic it generates.  It is an interesting look after a match. 

GL:  It doesn’t generate as much traffic as we would think or we would hope.  That is why we are trying to do more around the written content or the video content around stats.  Devin writes the weekly article called the Central Winger and he breaks down stats.  He is doing some pretty groundbreaking work on the side.  He works for Opta full time and he is a contributor for MLSSoccer.com.

The Status of MLSSoccer.com: Interview with Greg Lalas Part II

Last month, the new MLSSoccer.com replaced the outgoing MLSsoccer.net with great fanfare, as MLS took its website in house and completely redesigned the format and content.  At the start, an array of technical issues created an uproar among MLS fans unable to access stats, video and other features of the website.  While the technical issues have significantly improved, many fans are still getting accustomed to the new types of articles and commentary available on the site.  Presiding over the content side of the new site is Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas. A former player in MLS, Mr. Lalas has also been a broadcaster for the New England Revolution and written for sites such as Goal.com.  Mr. Lalas was kind enough to chat with footiebusiness.com about the new site, the technical issues and the content.  Because of the length of the interview, we have broken it into two parts.  Part I is here.  Thanks to Mr. Lalas.

FB: What role will sponsors have on the site?  Will we see ads for official league sponsors or other companies coming up as part of the content or clickable content on the front page?

GL: There will certainly be ads for our sponsors. With the new editorial direction and the new creation of content, we are presenting opporunties for the sponsors to be involved and sponsor the content.  We have this great video feature called the debate team which is almost a spoof of Crossfire, but it will involve very serious discussion about the game.  These new content things we are coming up seem to me to present  an opportunity for a sponsor to be involved.

FB: How have the numbers been as far as traffic?

GL: So far we are pleased with what we have. Considering all the problems, I think we are ok…they keep going up.  The site was designed to really grow traffic and engage the user, and so I think that once all of these smaller issues and a lot of the features that are still not there yet, as soon as they come on line, I’m expecting traffic to grow greatly.

FB:  Have there been significantly fewer complaints about the MatchDay Live feature over the last few weeks?

GL: Yes. That is one of the things that I think is incredible about the site, the video. There have been some issues with it, but they are cleaning it up.  It’s hard to beat that quality when it is working that way its supposed to.  The quality on the site, I would say, is incomprable.

Thanks again to Greg Lalas for a few minutes.

The Status of MLSSoccer.com: Interview with Greg Lalas-Part 1

Last month, the new MLSSoccer.com replaced the outgoing MLSsoccer.net with great fanfare, as MLS took its website in house and completely redesigned the format and content.  At the start, an array of technical issues created an uproar among MLS fans unable to access stats, video and other features of the website.  While the technical issues have significantly improved, many fans are still getting accustomed to the new types of articles and commentary available on the site.  Presiding over the content side of the new site is Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas. A former player in MLS, Mr. Lalas has also been a broadcaster for the New England Revolution and written for sites such as Goal.com.  Mr. Lalas was kind enough to chat with footiebusiness.com about the new site, the technical issues and the content.  Because of the length of the interview, we have broken it into two parts and we will present the rest of the interview later in the week.  Thanks to Mr. Lalas.

Footiebusiness.com:  The new website offers content from outside of MLS, including Americans abroad, European club soccer and more.  What is behind the decision to expand the scope of content and how do you balance that expanded content with the fact that MLSSoccer.com is the official website of Major League Soccer?

Greg Lalas:  I look at it like this. There is no reason to think that Major League Soccer is an island.  There is a much larger world of soccer. MLS has not been connected with that world enough.  Think about all of the American soccer fans and fans in Canada.  They know that there is a larger soccer world… and we want to connect MLS with that world.  For example Claudio Lopez  is an Argentine World Cup veteran, the guy scored in the quarter finals of the World Cup.  So, he has a great perspective on European soccer and on the World Cup.  So we talk to him…will they win Claudio?

We are all fans of soccer too and so to kid anybody or ourselves that we are not sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon watching Barcelona v. Inter Milan is foolish, and I think a lot of MLS fans are watching that too.  The idea is to present a place that a soccer fan, not just MLS fans,  can come and get all kinds of content that is connecting MLS to the world and is engaging and interesting to them.

Right now, the balance is leaning very much towards MLS. There will always be MLS content. Balancing it is making sure that the big stories in MLS are getting the play they deserve, but also recognizing that there are other stories in the North American scene that don’t necessarily have anything to do with MLS that also deserve a little bit of love.

FB: There seems to be a trend on the site towards content that is more commentary, more rumors and less official material.   What is the motivation in including that type of stuff and how free are the writers to express their opinions even if it is contrary to the MLS party line?

That is another balancing act.  We are under the umbrella of MLS and we are affiliated with MLS.  It is important to recognize that there are conversations going on in the soccer scene that are critical and it would be wrong to stick the party line all of the time.  If there is a rumor out there…a Robert Pires is coming to MLS.  Let’s discuss that rumor. Would he be a good fit for Philadelphia?  Or is there someone else who belongs in there?  We all watch the games.  We all see what looks like a shady penalty called like with Seattle and was it really or was it not? Let’s discuss that.  Let’s not shy away.  Part of analysis to me includes criticism.  I think you need to be willing to accept some of the bruises…don’t shy away from them.

FB:  What level of input do individual teams have with respect to content on the main site?  If they have a promotional opportunity or a team event they want to feature, do they have any say if it appears on the front page?

GL: They can call us up and ask.  We are open to working with our clubs.  Part of it is to recognize that we want the club sites to become local versions of that destination.  What we want from MLSSoccer.com is to be a destination site for soccer fans in the United States and it goes out from there to the club sites…Chicagofire.com should be the go to place for Chicago area soccer fans.  Torontofc.ca should be the go to place for Toronto area soccer fans.  It is that phrase “glocal” or as Tip O’Neil said, “everything is local in the end.”

FB:  The website got off to a rough site technically. How far along are efforts to get the site up to 100%?

GL:  I think we are making progress.   It  is little fixes here and there.  We have the stats flowing…not the way we want them to be flowing, but they are getting better every day.  We have changed over our video player recently…if you go onto it now, it is just a whole load of video content there for anybody to check out.  It is a long process but it is also a process that every little step makes a difference.  I think we are getting there. I’ve been involved in three re-designs of websites and none of them have gone as we editorial people wished it would.  You work through it and you get it do the things you want it to do.

FB:  How did the technical problems impact what you wanted to do editorially?

GL:  I think a lot had to do with the ability to promote certain content.  At the beginning we didn’t have the ability to put a video anywhere but right in the front page.  So we weren’t able to promote other videos.  We didn’t have the space.  We were and are producing  a ton of content, it is a question of how do we promote that.  You kind of feel if you put in the newspaper analogy, we only had one “A1” page.  There wasn’t enough space for all of things we wanted to put up there and as the tech has improved, it has made it easier to promote our stuff.  The other side, is I am writer, I am an editor.  I was frustrated by the stats problems too.  I needed those stats to do my job.  It was very frustrating from our standpoint, we are writing an article and saying “who is the leading game winning assist getter” and so we were getting frustrated and those things have started to ease and we are getting there.

FB:  Was the criticism helpful or was it telling you what you already knew?

GL: It think it came in both ways.  Some of it was actually helpful because there is always some little thing where you say “I didn’t know that, or I didn’t know an user was going to use it that way”  I think all of the criticism was helpful, even the guy who just sends in the “you guys are morons!!!”   That part we knew, but at the same time, I think it is good to appreciate how much people care about the site, how much people care about the league, so even that can be helpful….I think that all of the invective that was tossed our way over the last month or so has shown us that we have fans that really, really care.  It shows that we let them down and we are doing everything we can to pick them back up. Hopefully they will stick with us.

Thanks to Greg Lalas.  Part II will be in later in the week.