Chat with MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler

mlsHoward 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.

Thanks to Mr. Handler. Don’t forget to check back on Thursday for part II

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Ratings Reset

espnThe first television viewership numbers of the 2013 campaign were released today.  With the preseason focus on the league’s struggle to maintain solid ratings, there was no doubt that the first numbers of 2013 would draw significant interest.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers landed in close approximation to the numbers from last year.  According to the released numbers, the NBC Sports telecast of the Houston/DC game averaged 107,000 viewers.  The ESPN Sunday night game featuring Portland and New York managed an average of 221,000 viewers.

The opening number on NBCSN easily beat last year’s first game on the network which managed close to 80,000 viewers.  Conversely, last year’s first ESPN2 telecast was much higher.  That said, the 2012 last year for NBCSN was 119k and for ESPN2 was 232k.  Thus, the numbers from last weekend fall comfortably within the anticipated range.

The numbers are neither surprising nor impressive.  Viewership won’t increase overnight and the opening numbers on NBCSN suggest that some of the network’s promotion was effective.  Nevertheless, with the television deals coming up for renegotiation, the league needs the numbers to show improvement.   While the rights fees may be significantly increased by the sheer numbers of sports networks vying for live programming, a significant uptick in numbers would make MLS a much more attractive property.

MLS Cup Potpurri: Cup Ratings, Harkes Signs Off & More

Before we delve into the MLS off season, here are some business notes from MLS Cup and the entire soccer weekend.  We’ll start with the MLS Cup overnight rating, which was reported by SBJ on Twitter as a .8.  To put that number in perspective, the .8 is double the 2010 rating but slightly less than the 2009 rating.  The .8 is only an “overnight” rating which means only major metropolitan areas are calculated.  The same source reported that Los Angeles locally drew a 1.5 rating for the game.  The Houston Chronicle reported that the game drew a 2.8 local number in Houston.  None of these numbers include Spanish broadcasts.

In broadcast news, Grant Wahl of SI reported that MLS Cup was John Harkes’ swan song in the ESPN booth.  According to Wahl’s story, Harkes will be replaced by current ESPN personality and Philly Union broadcaster Taylor Twellman.  Following his retirement from the Revolution because of concussion related issues, Twellman has quickly risen through the broadcast ranks and now earns the plum assignment next to Ian Darke.  The SI report also offers thoughts on the NBC booth.

Other big news from the weekend included the announcement that MLS is moving its final to the home ground of the highest seeded team.  While some fans cheer the move, the change from a long planned neutral site game will create difficulty for sponsors seeking to activate around the event.  Also, some of the traditional events, including parties, supporters summit and more will be impacted by the inability to plan for the Final.  At the same time, the move may ensure a lively crowd and substantial local media coverage of the game.

 

 

Looking at Major League Soccer Television Ratings

By e-mail and by comment we have had some requests to take a look at 2011 television ratings for Major League Soccer.  TV money is the lifeblood of any sports league and MLS is no different. Before we get into a detailed look at the ratings and what they mean, check this link for the latest 2011 ratings.  In sum, viewership appears to be up with ESPN broadcasts averaging approximately 560k viewers (with ESPN2 less than half that number).  FSC is averaging 75k viewers per match.  Last year, the varoius ESPN broadcasts were near 250k while FSC was near 50k.  This shows great progress year over year.

Years of stagnant ratings have made fans of the American game nervous about the coming renewal of the agreement with ESPN to broadcast MLS matches.  ESPN pays $8.5 million annually for MLS rights, yet that deal is part of a larger SUM/ABC/ESPN package that includes USMNT games and FIFA World Cup.  However, the uptick in 2011 could portend well for the coming negotiations with the worldwide leader

The league’s other big English language partner, FSC, is on a one year deal and improved ratings could certainly help MLS with its coming negotiation. FSC and MLS  re-upped their broadcast relationship for the 2011 season after MLS was reportedly talking with other suitors.  Reports indicate that the deal is for slightly more than the $6 million, a significant increase over the $3.25 million FSC had been paying.  Under normal circumstances, this would be viewed as a success for MLS, but after SBJ broke a story earlier in the off season that MLS was demanding $20 million per year for a long term relationship, MLS fans were disappointed.  However, the one year deal affords both the league and the network maximum flexibility.  From the league perspective, MLS can spend the next year searching for a long term, big money deal with the security of a significant payday from FSC.

So what does it mean? MLS is certainly still a “niche property” but expanding viewership could lead to a bigger deal with a secondary English language partner (some have expressed an interest in Versus).  The WFC matches also bring eyeballs to the league which can increase the viewer base.

Soccer Business Bits: TV Ratings, MLS Awards & More

One of the big business stories to come out in the last couple of days was the disappointing ratings of the MLS Cup Final.  According to multiple reports, the match suffered a 44% decline in its overnight rating.  The significant decline can be attributed to a number of factors including the lack of stars, competition from the NFL and a lack of recognizable teams.  Whatever the reason, the low rating (the lowest MLS Cup Final rating in more than a decade), must be cause for concern within the league hierarchy.  The team’s television deals are at a critical point and the poorly rated final will not help the league’s leverage.

We didn’t comment on the league’s announcement of the executive award winners. Notably, RSL won the team PR Award, a fitting honor for the front office that we believe was the most active and effectinve in the league.  As we said when we announced our vote for RSL,  the team started in the offseason with a state-wide campaign to bring the championship trophy to all the counties in the State.  The team is aggressive (perhaps overly aggressive) on Twitter and has effectively engaged its fans on all levels of social media.  The team effectively marketed its Champions League games and drew a huge crowd for the final group stage match.  The front office built upon the team’s success from 2009 and managed to keep fans coming and keep the team in front of the local media outlets. RSL’s front office has managed to make the games a destination and continues to improve the fan experience.

PPL Park will host the 2011 Collegiate Rugby Finals.  The tournament will be televised on NBC.  The game will generate some exposure for the Union and MLS.

In our blog of the Cup Final, we noted the presence of Four Points Sheraton on the sign boards.  The company was the offical hotel of the playoffs and the MLS Cup Final.

The Monday After & Some World Cup Ratings

The big soccer story of the weekend took place in South Africa, but with MLS back in action there were a number of story lines in domestic soccer that deserve mention.  Sunday afternoon saw the opening of the PPL park in Chester, PA and the park looked great on television.  ESPN did a nice job with the telecast using Glenn Davis and rising star Kyle Martino in the booth.  The announced sell out crowd (looked a little short on the screen) was in full voice and the field and views looked great.  It also appeared that the ESPN broadcast included some new national sponsors (including Wendy’s) which would be a good sign for the league.  ESPN’s limited plugging of the match during their World Cup broadcasts seemed a little short.  Attendance around MLS was fairly solid with good crowds seemingly everywhere except Houston.

The early US/Ghana ratings are in and the numbers were great for ABC.  The preliminary ratings suggest that just under 15 million people watched the match on ABC. These numbers represent an increase over the England/USA match and are the high water mark for the tournament.   From a ratings standpoint, this is likely the highest number until the final for the World Cup.  These numbers do not include viewers for Univision which could bring the total number up over 20 million.  Statistically, San Diego has continued to be the top market for the USA matches.

Soccer Business Bits: Selling Tickets in MLS & Soccer Viewership Down

Major League Soccer announced the formation of the MLS National Sales Center to assist MLS teams with ticket sales and staffing.  The Center will offer a 45 day program that will graduate ticket sales professionals to employment with individual MLS teams.  The students will have the opportunity to craft sales strategies and get real life sales experience. “Ticket sales are the lifeblood of any professional sports team, and this new initiative will provide our clubs with a deeper and more talented pool of ticket sales professionals,” said MLS President Mark Abbott. “We believe the combination of classroom instruction and real-life sales experience will prepare these young men and women with the skills necessary to make an immediate impact when they join an MLS club.”

This is an innovative effort by MLS to improve ticket sales with a grass roots effort.  The willingness to invest in the Center seems like a great step towards improving attendance for comparatively little cost.  MLS teams will have a venue to trial ticketing initiatives and learn from the successful (and unsuccessful) campaigns developed in the new ticket sales incubator.

We reported yesterday on the fairly disappointing 1.1 rating earned by Fox for the Champions League Final. Now the Sports Business Journal is reporting that Fox Soccer Channel averaged 141,000 viewers for its cable Champions League matches.  This is significantly fewer viewers than ESPN last year.   However, the big news from the article is that MLS viewership on ESPN2 is down 23% this year over last year with about 193,000 viewers per game.  FSC ratings for MLS are reportedly flat in a year over year comparison.