mlsIn 2011, the MLS schedule was released in February. Last year the schedule was released in the first week of January.  The 2013 version was released on Tuesday afternoon along with the list of nationally televised games.  As we do we every year, we are a taking a look at the schedule of games and some of the business aspects of the schedule release.

For business junkies, the most interesting part of the release is probably the announcement of nationally telecast games. New MLS partner NBC will televise 41 matches over the season, including three games on over-the-air television (same as last year).  Two of games on the NBC mothership will come at the end of the season and two of the three will feature DC United.  The late season games give the network to leverage its Sunday Night Football juggernaut to promote the matches.

Games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, NBC, NBCSN, Univision and UniMas (formerly Telefutura). In Canada, at least 30 games featuring Canadian clubs will air on TSN/TSN2 in English and RDS/RDS2 in French.  One of the new features this year will be the week 3 “rivalry week” which will feature 8 matches between regional rivals.   According to the league’s press release, “[m]ore than 90 percent of this year’s regular-season games are on weekends or holidays, and none will overlap directly with FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. During the summer months, most games will kick off no earlier than 4 pm local time in an effort to reduce the impact of hot weather.”

Not surprisingly, New York and Los Angeles have the most nationally televised games with Houston and Chicago a close second.  It is also not shocking to see New England and Columbus at the bottom of US based teams on American telecasts.  However, RSL’s limited appearances (3) is something of a surprise.  Rio Tinto usually shows well on television.

The start of the season is less than two months away, with two nationally televised games in English and one in Spanish.  The season concludes on Oct. 27, with five games, followed by playoffs.  MLS Cup 2013 will take place on Dec. 7 or 8.

The Monday After

An exciting weekend of games in the MLS Conference Finals.  We’ll start in Colorado, where the Rapids turned out a big attendance number despite limited mainstream marketing and a lack of promotional offerings.  With temperatures falling under 30 degrees, more almost 18k fans braved the weather at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

For a team that has struggled at the gate since its move to the new stadium, the big number is contrary to typical MLS attendance patterns.  For much of MLS’s history, teams relied heavily on group sales and family friendly offerings struggled with the short lead times required in the playoffs.  Yet over the last couple of years, this paradigm has changed.  Just this year, there were big first round crowds in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City and San Jose (given capacity) and expected crowds in Dallas and Colorado.  Only Columbus was particularly disappointing the first round.  Whether this represents a change as MLS moves forward remains to be seen, but Colorado’s ability to generate such a big crowd with less than one week’s notice was an especially significant feat.

The other second round game pitted the Galaxy against Dallas.  The Home Depot Center produced its ususal strong crowd.  After a strong showing in the TV Ratings from the prior two Sunday night matchups, it will be interesting to see if ESPN’s Galaxy-centric broadcast strategy continues to pay off.

Soccer Business Bits: Seattle Business, Stadium Architecture & Labor Issues

Before we get into it today, note that we will “business blog” the Final providing discussion of the broadcast, advertisements and other business aspects of the game on Monday morning.  Please check back for that.

Next week we will also have a chat with Soccernomics author Simon Kuper, but today we post a link to a Seattle Times article about the perceived economic benefits of the Sounders to downtown Seattle.  The article provides anecdotal evidence of increased economic activity resulting from the 15 Sounders’ home dates.  Such claims have long been disputed by economists, who believe that the there is little to no benefit from stadiums.  Nevertheless, on the eve of MLS Cup 2009, the article does show that local business in Seattle have bought into soccer as a financial plus.  A number of the people interviewed indicated that they were originally skeptical of soccer in Seattle, but have now embraced the team.

The Original Winger posts a great interview with Gino Rossetti of Rossetti Architecture.  Rossetti is the designer behind many of the new MLS soccer stadiums and he provides some great insights into the design process. There are some great tidbits about how designing a soccer stadium involves different factors from those of other sports (i.e. soccer fans only get up once per game at halftime) and how Red Bull Arena will change the soccer stadium playing field.  We recommend the story.

There have been a number of labor related stories popping up in the last few weeks, most regurgitating information about a potential strike (which is very premature).  However, with the Commissioner giving a number of interviews over the last few days, here is a link to some of his most recent comments on the issue. Based on comments in the story from Nat Borchers, guaranteed contracts will be a big subject of dispute.  The NFL is on the only other major sport without guaranteed contracts.

 

MLS Season Ticket Renewals Up for 2010

Tripp Mickle of the Sports Business Journal is out with a hard look at MLS season ticket renewals for 2010.  Although three teams (Dallas, Kansas City and San Jose), didn’t provide numbers, the rest of the franchises did report their rates of renewal for 2010.  Not surprisingly, Seattle and TFC lead the pack with more than 90% renewal rates.  Perhaps also not surprisingly, New England trails the pack as the only reporting team below 50% at a dismal 30%.  With the Red Bull Arena ready to open, New York posted an impressive 85%

The biggest suprise was Colorado, where at least 70% of season ticket holders have renewed.  This compares very favorably with the rest of the League, where most teams hover in between 50-65%.  These numbers will obviously rise as the season nears, but according to Mickle, renewals rates are ahead of last year and are averaging just over 60% league wide.  Mickle also reported that teams are offering new incentives to attract fans and keep their hard care base.

New England and Dallas remain enormous disappointments (in fairness, we are making a bit of an assumption on Dallas, as their numbers aren’t available).  Attendance is declining in both cities as is interest.  Both teams seem to need a re-boot and re-brand.  New England’s playoff attendance was embarrassing for MLS, a fact that didn’t escape Don Garber in his State of the League address who in referenced the success in Seattle and the playoff attencance success in the Conference Finals.  “That was an important lesson to our clubs, particularly some of the clubs that have been around for a while and are struggling in their markets.”

This report is a great sign for MLS.  In the current economy, convincing fans to re-up months before the start of the season provides a level of economic stability for the League and shows that the biggest fans remain interested in MLS.  Moreover, the evident success of the newest franchises speaks volumes about the ability of the expansion teams to learn from the mistakes of those that went before.  If the numbers continue to climb until March 2010, with the entrance of Philadelphia and opening of Red Bull Arena, 2010 promises to be a great year for the League

QUICK UPDATE:  According to the Revs official online community forums, per COO Brian Bilello:

“Just wanted to clarify around the Season Ticket Renewal numbers in SBJ today. While it is true that we were near the 30% mark a few weeks go when they pulled their numbers, we are now north of 50% and are ahead of last year at this time. Part of the reason that we lagged behind is due to the fact that our early renewal deadline is later than most teams so our renewals come in a little later. We give our fans until11/30 to renew and get the early renewal discount. We feel it gives our STH more flexibility and let’s them hold onto their money a little longer rather than making them renew in August or September.”

The Monday After: MLS Playoff Business Bits

mls cup 2009A great weekend for games in MLS as Los Angeles and RSL went through to the MLS cup final with thrilling wins over Houston and Chicago respectively.  In Los Angeles, just over 25k turned out to see the Galaxy’s 2-0 victory over Houston.  Though just shy of a sell-out, the crowd was lively despite two power outages during the game.  In Chicago, almost 22,000 were at Toyota Park as the home side went down to upstart RSL.  On both broadcasts, the stadium atmospheres looked great and stood in start contrast to the playoff environment at Gillette Stadium in the first round. Check MLSTalk for a review of past playoff attendance.

The MLS world now turns its attention to Seattle, where Qwest Field will play host to MLS Cup.  According to official reports, the original offering of 36k seats has been sold out and an additional 6k seats have been opened up.  While it remains to be seen how many Sounders’ season ticket holders will make the trip (the game was part of their package), it is evident that there is strong interest in the game from many in the Seattle area.  There are also reports that Qwest has only designated 100 seats for each of the Supporters’ groups.  Hopefully, Seattle will find a way to organize the seats so greater numbers of RSL/Galaxy fans can sit together.

Both conference final broadcasts were will done, despite the unfortunate power outage in Carson, CA.  The typical advertisers were present for both ESPN & FSC, including an increased presence from Best Buy.  There was plentiful on screen advertising for both networks as well as presenting sponsors for pre/post game shows. ESPN smartly built a 25 minute buffer into the broadcast by adding a pre-game to absorb some of the likely runover from the preceding college game.

We will of course cover MLS Cup in full this week from a business perspective, including sponsorship, media, attendance and more.If there is something that you want us to address about the game, please shoot an e-mail our way.

Seattle Sounders: A Look Back

soundersYear one of the Seattle Sounders’ MLS campaign is concluded, and it has been a success in every way.  Here is what we wrote in March:

First Kick 2009 is just days away, and the League’s newest franchise is directly in the cross hairs of MLS fans.  They have sold the tickets; more than 20k season ticket sales have been announced for 2009.  They have landed the big name sponsor; Microsoft has signed on for $ 4 million for over five years.  They have marketed aggressively; billboards, scarves and advertising have been plastered all over the City. They have signed an impressive local broadcast deal, allowing a revered local voice to bring Sounders soccer over the air. They will also have a presence on cable.    According to to David Falk, the man in charge of the comprehensive Seattle Soccer website www.GoalSeattle.com, Fox Sports Northwest will sponsor a weekly Sounders show and run game replays.  They have spent on players, including a DP, and have created an outstanding website. If MLS Executives were to imagine the perfect off the field scenario for an expansion team, Seattle, circa March 16, 2009 would be the dream. Now it has to continue going forward.  Fans have to keep buying tickets, the media needs to keep aggressively covering the Sounders  and Seattle needs to make it happen on the field.

Well, check, check and check!  The crowds kept coming (they grew), the local media coverage remained oustanding, and the Sounders continued to perform on the field.  The Sounders were one of the great American sports stories of 2009; not just MLS. Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland now have a definite model to follow (TFC certainly works as an example as well).  Despite all of the success in year one, Seattle has one more big soccer test to pass.  Will the crowd for MLS Cup 2009 bring down the curtain on the campaign with a bang or a whimper?  Beckham v. Blanco would be great for attendance (although RSL/LA would be more pleasent to watch.  If Seattle can fill Qwest for the final as a neutral site venue, it would be the perfect capper to a wonderful season.

The Major League Soccer GSL: Our Chat with MLS Vice President of Club Services, Brad Pursel

mlsFor 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.