Business Bits: Opening Week, WPS and Milan

wpsAmway International, the presenting sponsor of the San Jose Earthquakes, has signed on as the jersey sponsor of the WPS’ L.A. Sol. The sponsorship will include the Amway name on the jersey, stadium signage and placement on an array of Sol items.  Perhaps most importantly for Amway, Brazilian Marta, perhaps the most recognizable star in Womens’ soccer, will now wear the Amway name.  In a separate deal, Marta signed a three year endorsement deal with the company.

In Salt Lake City, RSL has announced an “open house” at Rio Tinto Stadium.  The free event will include a Friendly with the Austin Aztek of the USL First Division, a meet the players component and plenty of family friendly activities.  With the fall 2008  opening of Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL has a beautiful new venue to showcase.  The open house seems like a fantastic way to introduce potential fans to the stadium without giving away the proudct (i.e. free tickets to games).  Rio Tinto looked and sounded great on TV during the playoffs and reports suggest that season ticket sales are up for 2009.

The Galaxy have wasted no time in selling tickets for their negotiated Friendly with AC Milan.  According to the team website, tickets are now on sale as part of a package with tickets for opening night.  While the game is free for season ticket holders, the two game package prices range from $50-$600.  It is somewhat surprising that L.A. would pair the Milan tickets with opening day because it suggests that opening day tickets aren’t selling well;  we’ll know in a week.  milan

Beckham Deal Finalized: Refunds for fans?

galaxyDavid Beckham’s long rumored “extended loan” has finally been announced; the Galaxy midfielder will complete the Serie A season with AC Milan before returning to MLS in the Summer.  Reports also state that Beckham will contribute a substantial amount of his own funds to the deal.  As part of the agreement, AC Milan will play a July friendly against the Galaxy in Los Angeles.  The friendly with AC Milan will necessitate the rescheduling of the Galaxy’s match with New York  from July 19 to July 16 (a Thursday night).

Given ESPN’s new MLS schedule, it makes sense that the League and the Network will bill the NY game as Beckham’s return performance and showcase the match in prime time.  The Beckham games at Giants Stadium have been very well attended, and have provided some of the best soccer of his MLS tenure.  As part of the announcement, the Galaxy also stated that they will be discounting tickets by 10% for the season and refunding 10% to those who have already purchased tickets.

The 10% refund is reflective of the difficulties in building a business model around one player.  A large number of fans bought tickets to see David Beckham, not the Galaxy or their opponent (certainly there has been a huge upside for the League as awareness and exposure is way up over the last three years).  Teams have continued selling 4 game packages and other promotions around Beckham’s visit to their stadium.  However, when he is hurt (as in his first year) or not around (as for most of the 2009 campaign), you get disappointed customers.  At the same time, the “hard core” fan gets turned off by the focused promotion.

Whether you think the Galaxy, MLS or AC Milan won or lost these negotiations (and opinions certainly run the gamut), Beckham’s overall economic impact on the League cannot be disputed.  We discussed that at length here.  For now, the Galaxy have a little extra cap room to utilize because Beckham’s “max” cap number will be pro-rated, and for a few months, the League can focus its attention on the coming expansion announcements and the inagural season in Seattle.milan

Beckham Loan Extended??

Ibecks2n a fairly remarkable twist, the L.A. Times is reporting that the David Beckham saga is finally nearing its end.  According to Grahame L. Jones, MLS has agreed to extend Beckham’s loan through the end of the Serie A season (end of May).  Once the July transfer window opens on July 15, Beckham will rejoin the Galaxy for the rest of the season.  According to Jones, Beckham will then exercise his opt-out clause, paying the Galaxy to release him from contract by the end of 2009.  Remarkably, the deal is supposedly for more than the $10 million AC Milan previously rejected.

From the League’s perspective, Beckham can be trotted out one more time to half of the League’s cities.  Because L.A. has a travel heavy summer, Beckham should still visit New York, New England, D.C., Columbus, Kansas City, Chicago and Houston. These visits will allow the League to pad attendance one more time on Beckham’s back.  Moreover, because Beckham’s salary is pro-rated, the Galaxy can bring in additional talent to improve the squad.

This move certainly seems strange.  AC Milan is seemingly out of the title chase and has little reason (on the field) to keep Beckham for the season.  He will be available in January, 2010 as a total free agent.  From Beckham’s perspective, this deal will cost him money, but he is probably hoping it buys some good will.  He will likely try to couch this as “the best of both worlds” and the last shot he wanted to bring the Galaxy to the promised land.  The fans will decide, but I suspect Beckham will face some harsh words upon his return.galaxy

MLS Contracts: Who owns David Beckham?

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If there is one thing the David Beckham situation has made abundantly clear, it’s that MLS does things differently.  During the negotiations with Milan, I’ve been repeatedly asked to explain the MLS contract system. In the traditional soccer model, players are owned by individual teams and transferred (i.e. sold)  when two clubs (and the subject player) agree.  Not so in MLS.

MLS operates as a “single entity” where teams are controlled by the League.  While the level of central control has lessened over the years, player contracts are still owned by Major League Soccer.  Thus, despite playing for the L.A.  Galaxy, Beckham’s contract is owned by the League.  Thus, to negotiate a transfer, both clubs, the player and MLS need to agree.

This obviously creates some conflicts.  Undoubtedly, David Beckham has enormously increased awareness of MLS worldwide.  Selling him now may not be in the best interest of the League and its owners, but very well might be in the best interest of the Galaxy on the field.  As of this writing, no deal has been done.  Galaxy owners AEG, have taken the party line with AEG President Tim Lewike stating, “I’m not sure they ever quite understood the magnitude of the losses the Galaxy and the league would have had to bear this season. They were very respectful discussions. We’re fine. There’s no issues here.”

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However, Lewike heads the business and not the soccer arm of AEG.  MLS teams are held to a tight salary cap, and head coach Bruce Arena would likely much prefer to dump Beckham and use the funds freed up under the salary cap, and transfer funds, to build a contender.  Instead, he may be left with an unhappy Beckham and another losing team.

Should Beckham Be Released from MLS Contract to Join AC Milan?

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With David Beckham’s long rumored transfer to AC Milan seemingly imminent , it is worth examining the implications of the move.  First, a little background:  Beckham came to the L.A. Galaxy on a “free” in 2007 after finishing out his contract with Real Madrid.  While the exact terms have always been sketchy, it has long been understood that Beckham signed a five year deal including less than $50 million in guaranteed money, with most of the remaining $200 million wrapped into jersey sales and image rights.  Most importantly (for purposes of the move to AC Milan), there is an “opt out” clause that lets Beckham walk away from Major League Soccer after three years (November, 2009).

After the 2008 season, Beckham (with MLS’ blessing), secured a short term loan deal to AC Milan until March, 2009. His stated reason for taking the loan was to stay in shape for the upcoming world cup qualifying.  He was expected back with L.A. in plenty of time for the season opener at the end of March.  While in Italy, Beckham proved himself capable at playing at the highest level, and soon, AC Milan was banging down MLS’ door for a full transfer.

Given the forces at play, it seems unlikely that MLS will hold onto Beckham.  Selling him for a reasonable sum now would certainly seem to trump letting him walk for free in November.  However, a whole host of sponsorship deals and television contracts were signed with the understanding that the world’s most famous athlete would be wearing Galaxy colors.  Given the economic climate, it is not unreasonable to suspect that some of these companies may come back to the League looking for money.  Herbalife got far more than even they thought, when Galaxy jerseys sporting their logo became the “must have” uniform worldwide.  With Beckham gone, those sales are sure to plummet during the last three years of their (no surprise) five year deal.

beckhamFor MLS, the departure of Beckham is a definite mixed bag.  There is certainly an argument that his two years raised awareness of MLS to new heights both nationally and internationally.  MLS is now part of the worldwide soccer landscape and is part of the U.S. mainstream sportsvernacular.  Attendance increased league wide during his two years, especially during Galaxy away matches.  On the other hand, TV ratings stayed flat and the impression that Beckham is fleeing MLS could be taken as a black eye for the league.  There is a good discussion of both sides of this issue with sportswriter Stefan Fatsis on NPR.

I tend to think now is a good time for Beckham to be moving on.  When he came to MLS, the move was derided as a sunny retirement in L.A. for an aging superstar.  Fans of the European game refused to believe that a talented European would choose to play in the States if he was good enough to play across the pond.  Two years later, teams are clamoring for Beckham’s services, and MLS has become a destination for international talent and launching pad for budding Americans like Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst.

Off the field, I think the benefits of Beckham have peaked.   MLS raked in huge amounts of money with ticket sales, jersey sales and TV deals.  Arguably, the surge in soccer stadium construction is partly attributable to the Beckham effect and the upcoming changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement will definitely be impacted by the increased interest in MLS.  There is no use keeping a player who wants to leave (and who can do so soon).  MLS will be best served selling Beckham for $15-20 million and perhaps reaping some additional benefits from AC Milan.  They can then turn that case into more players and as a crutch to ride out the economic storm.

UPDATE: According to Soccer By Ives, MLS has given L.A. and AC Milan until Friday to resolve the potential Beckham transfer:  http://www.soccerbyives.net/soccer_by_ives/2009/02/mls-ac-milan-has-friday-deadline-to-buy-beckham.html

With sponsorship deals under negotiation and tickets being sold, it only makes sense for the League to press.  They don’t want to get caught with sponsors claiming some sort of breach.