Superliga 2009: Fierce International Competition or Big Waste of Time?

superligaWe are just days away from the third iteration of the now annual Superliga tournament.  The 8 team event features 4 teams from MLS and 4 teams from Mexico’s Primera Division.  Placed into groups of four (consisting of two MLS teams and two Mexican teams), the teams play one game against each team in their group before a semi-final and final.  The New England Revolution are the defending champions after a penalty kick victory over Houston last year in an all MLS final.

Last year the event tried to build off the success of year one, when David Beckham’s Los Angeles Galaxy lost in penalty kicks to Mexican champion Pachuca and Superliga 2008 drew consistently good television ratings, surpassing local Major League Baseball numbers.  All matches will  be televised in the United States on the Telefutura Network and by Televisa and TV Azteca in Mexico; english language broadcasts are carried by Fox Sports Canada.

In addition to declaring a US/Mexican champion, Superliga provides a unique marketing opportunity for both MLS and its Mexican counterpart.  The Mexican teams get an opportunity to play meaningful games in the U.S. before Mexican ex-pats, while MLS gets to showcase its teams before a Latino fan-base still warming to American Soccer.  Last year the event was somewhat marred by tension between the MLS Players Union and the League.  The union announced that the $1,000,000 championship bonus – in a league where the salary cap does not exceed $3,000,000 – was a bit of mirage.  As a result, there was a bit of a protest when the Revs won the trophy.

Attendance at the 2008 version dipped a bit and this year the big time Mexican clubs will be absent with no Chivas, America or Pachuca involved.  Chivas and America are the teams with the biggest followings in the States, and thus attendance may suffer this year as well.  However, with the Chicago Fire involved, it does mean that Blanco will be part of the proceedings.  Blanco is always a big draw in the Mexican community.  Add in a Chivas USA/Chicago Fire game in Los Angeles and Group A may have some significant draws at the gate. The tournament will feature a couple of doubleheaders and a game in St. Louis (KC match).

Coming mid-season, the event is a bit controversial as it forces teams to take a break from League play.  MLS teams are then forced to make up games with some additional mid-week games during the rest of the season.  In addition, SuperLiga does detract from the Champions League that also pits teams from MLS, Mexico and other CONCACAF countries.  However, as a business model, SuperLiga is a fantastic idea.  We have repeatedly discussed how there are enumerable soccer fans in the United States, many of whom do not pay attention to MLS.  Many of these fans are far more interested in Mexican Soccer and Superliga does serve as an entre to MLS.  Ultimately, we view the tournament as neither a fierce competition or a waste of time, but a golden business opportunity.  Whether that is a proper use of the teams’ time is a different issue

Soccer Business Bits: The Morning After

mlsAnother full slate of games in MLS and WPS this weekend and a world cup qualifier on the horizon.  This week represented the return of the ESPN game of the week, and the Worldwide Leader got a good one with the Thursday night Chivas/Blanco match-up.  Please see our live business blog of that match here.  Chivas USA got the attendance week off to a good start with a reported 20k+ in attendance the day after less than 9k were in Columbus for a mid-week game.

Strong attendance continued with almost 16k in New England on Saturday night (this is what passes for good attendance at Gillette these days), 16k in Houston, about 20k in Los Angeles and almost 30k in Seattle.  These are solid numbers for all of these franchises and may represent a Spring upswing for some of these teams.  Los Angeles is nowhere near the numbers of the past years, but the ability to draw a solid 20k without Beckham is a good sign for the club. Dallas and New York also deserve recognition for pulling solid numbers, with 13k in Dallas for a Sunday afternoon match and a reported 12k at Giants Stadium.

There were three weekend games in WPS, with action in Los Angeles, Washington and New Jersey.  6200 saw Marta and the Sol defeat St. Louis 2-0.  In Washington, the League continued its tradition of not reporting attendance, while in New Jersey less than 3500 were in attendance.

More than 30k were in attendance to see Jamaica and El Salvador in  World Cup warm-up at RFK.  This is a big number in a stadium that has become a familiar ground for El Salvador.  As noted above, the US Men get back into action this week.  We will post a business blog of that game to touch on the ads, production and more of the match from Cost Rica.

Blogging the Broadcast: Chivas USA vs. Chicago Fire

mlsIt has become fashionable to live blog sporting events, and we thought we would give it a try for the MLS game of the week (as long as we can stay up).  However, our focus will be on the business aspects of the broadcast.

As an initial matter, the lead in from the re-broadcast of the Champions League final was smart; the lack of advertising during the game was not.  Nevertheless, the broadcast started on time (something of a problem for ESPN MLS broadcasts).  After a brief intro, the booth team of Harkes and Delacamera passed the baton to the “Espnsoccernet.com pregame show, presented by VW” where Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas provided some insight and discussion.

VW was the initial advertiser during the first break, followed by the Marines (a longtime sponsor of MLS) and then the ever present Home Depot (advertising Behr Paint).  AT&T continued its increased presence with a spot, before the parade of local commercials began.

A couple of other notes, it is unfortunate that the Chivas/Blanco matchup is up against the Mexican final.  This is probably the one game that Mexican soccer fans might be interested in watching.  That said, the 10:50 start time is rough for us East-coasters (a 7:00 start time in L.A. would be much better and would probably draw stronger ratings).

Second break started with a “Round Up” spot (new), followed by a 30 second ad for Mike’s Hard and a return of the 15 second Round-up ad and then back to the local commercials and PSAs.

Once back to the booth, we get a dose of ESPN Axis (neat technology) before some insight from Allen Hopkins. Crowd looks good behind the goals, but not so much in the middle levels (but filling in)…and it is game time.

The sign boards are active early, with adidas, Bud, Dick’s and Frazee Paint making early appearances. It takes about 12 minutes for the spots to repeat themselves.

At the 7:20 mark, a VW logo appeared in the top left corner for a brief second.  The sound quality of the broadcast is pretty good and the stadium sounds alive on TV.  A couple of additional microphones in the stands might be nice.

The Philly Union got a mention in the 22nd minute, including the 7k plus in season ticket deposits.

Minute 28 brought Hopkins back in and then minute 31 brought some colorful language that probably should have been edited since the replay was 5 minutes old. Good to see some cross marketing for FSC and Telefutura.

Taco Bell popped up as a sponsor at the death of the half along with VW.

That is one half in the books…we will call it a night.

Soccer Business Bits: Pimping Europe, Red Bulls Seats and More

espnWe’re back from our travels and one thing is clear: America loves UEFA (or at least ESPN does).  In a truly remarkable ad blitz, ESPN promoted its broadcast of the Champions League final across all of its airwaves.  During the broadcast of the NBA playoffs, pop up ads hyping the Barca/Man U match were omni-present, ESPN.Com offered live coverage of the match and extensive pre and post analysis and Sportscenter anchors devoted substantial time to discussing the merits of Ronaldo and Messi.  This was the type of coverage that MLS fans have been begging for and yet it was bestowed upon a foreign final (for the record, ESPN is replaying the game as I type this, at 9:00 Eastern on Thursday).

ESPN has long recognized the enormous market for soccer in the United States (remember the 10 million that watched the USA v. Mexico qualifier a few months back?), yet the Worldwide Leader also has seen disappointing ratings for MLS.  As we have blogged on many occassions, MLS has struggled to attract the “hard core” fan  that loves soccer, but not MLS.  From ESPN,  the disparity in coverage is shocking.  Finding MLS coverage on ESPN.com is a challenge, while EPL and La Liga are front and center.  The “Bottom Line”  regularly scrolls European results while MLS  often appears only during soccer coverage.

There definitely appears to be a “chicken or egg” issue.  Does MLS need better ratings and a better product before ESPN will actively promote the League, or does ESPN need to hype MLS to generate the interest the League needs to grow?

In other news, according to the Sports Business Journal, the Red Bulls have announced prices for the 30 luxury suites in Red Bull Arena.  According to reporting by Tripp Mickle, prices will range from 65k-75k per season.  The boxes include food and beverage (not alcohol) and seat at least 13 people.  It will be fascinating to watch sales of these boxes in this economy, especially with the Red Bulls hoping to sell multi-year leases.

Finally, in DC, Steve Goff is reporting that Real Madrid and DC United have reached an agreement for an August 9 friendly at Fed Ex Field in Maryland.  The matches will not play in RFK, in part, to tap into the Redskin fan base at FedEx.  This will be one of two MLS friendlies for Real this summer. united

Soccer Business Bits: Seats in Seattle and More

soundersA bit of business potpurri today.  Building on its sellout success, the Seattle Sounders have announced that they are opening additional seats for the rest of the season at Qwest.  The Sounders have averaged almost 30k during the season and are now adding some additional seats for the rest of year, bringing capacity to 32,000, the same amount of seats that were available on opening day.  With 22,000 season tickets and a large amount of additional demand, the additional capacity will enable more fans to experience Sounders’ soccer this year.  It will also increase MLS average attendance for the season.  The team also recently announced new 9 game packages and confirmed friendlies with Barcelona and Chelsea.  With those games included in the 9 game packs (along with MLS CUP), the Sounders may hit that 32k for the rest of the year.

It will be interesting to see if the Sounders can sell the additional seats for every game.  As we have said before, Seattle has continued to hit the right notes with all of their business moves and this seems like a calculated gamble that will increase revenues for 2009.  There is risk if the team finds that it cannot find takers for all seats to every game.  The Sounders might unwittingly find where attendance is capped.  That could create a ripple effect whereby there is less demand next year and some negative press if they ultimately close the newly opened sections.

In Salt Lake City, RSL is looking to build on its solid attendance showing from last week.  As part of that effort, The Team announced a buy one get one free promotion with Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Fans can obtain the vouchers at 35 KFC Restaurants around the Salt Lake area.  The promotion is part of an ongoing relationship between KFC and RSL.

Finally, in Los Angeles, Chivas looks to continue its strong start on the field and at the gate againt DC United on Saturday.  As part of those efforts, they are offering a “kid’s pack” which offers a free ticket for any child under the age of 16 with the purchase of a full adult ducat.  The same package is offered for a number of upcoming games and is capped at 8 sets per purchase.  The numbers have been impressive for Chivas this year and the big “Blanco game” is on the horizon.  It will be interesting to see if the Goats can keep the fans coming.

Soccer Business Bits: Hello Philly!

phillyWe promised a post on soccer gambling, but with the big announcement in the City of Brotherly Love, we’ll put gambling to the side for now.  At City Hall, the Philadelphia Union were officially announced in front of more than 500 “Sons of Ben” and other supporters.  With the League Commissioner and City Mayor in attendance, the Blue and Gold colors and sharp new logo of the team were also unveiled. The team is set to start play in 2010.

As we have discussed, the Union will play in a brand new 18,500 seat stadium in Chester, PA.  Importantly, the new stadium will be served by both highways and SEPTA (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority).  With the dissapointing attendance at some of the suburban stadiums (Chicago and Dallas) and recent success of urban stadiums (Seattle and Toronto), the accessibility of the new stadium in Chester to Philly will be important.

Season ticket sales in Philly have lagged behind those in other expansion cities, but with 11 months until First Kick, plenty of time remains to sell tickets.  Interestingly, the Union have created a supporters section where you can only get tickets if you are a member of a supporters group.  According to reports, the Sons of Ben have more than 5,000 members already. All ticket prices are here.

The success of Philadelphia is important for MLS.  It creates a link between the East Coast cities in the League while bringing one of the larges TV markets into the fold.  Philly fans are passionate; it remains to be seen whether they are passionate about soccer.  The City of Brotherly Love will get a taste of soccer this summer when the CONCACAF Gold Cup rolls in for a double header at Lincoln Financial Field (home of the Eagles).  These games may be an important bellewether for the popularity of soccer in town.

Soccer Business Bits: More Deals

red-bulls2Teams across the League continue to offer creative promotions and deals to entice fans into the stadiums.  In New York, the Red Bulls are offering a 4 tickets and 4 T-shirts for $90 deal.  Given some of the options we have discussed previously, this one doesn’t seem like much of a bargain.  The Red Bulls are not drawing well and appear to be simply biding their time until Red Bull Arena opens in 2010.  The latest on the stadium is here.

In Houston, the Dynamo are offering a Fireworks night for their next home  match.  The first 5,000 fans will also get a rally towel as part of Houston’s promotion for every game schedule.  As we noted yesterday, the upcoming Houston/Dallas match on May 9th is also an ESPN game of the week.  By combining fireworks, rally towels and the Dallas/Houston rivalry, the Dynamo are certainly working to fill Robertson Stadium.

Finally, the good folks at Chivas USA (one of the quiet MLS success stories on the field and at the gate this year), are offering a $50 5 game “stiumulus plan”  The package includes a seat to five games and a “free” ticket to a match against the Galaxy.  Chivas has certainly found ways to build up its brand at a time when many teams are struggling to pull fans.

Soccer Business Bits: The Morning After

mlsAnother week of MLS games are behind us with nationally televised games from DC (Saturday night) and New England (Sunday).  There was no ESPN game this week (and there will only be one ESPN game over the next month; the national TV schedule is here).  Attendance was a bit of mixed bag, with strong numbers in Toronto and LA and fair numbers in DC.  Chicago, Colorado and New England were fairly disappointing.  Comparative attendance numbers are here.

On the broadcast front, Kevin Calabro has been temporarily replaced on the Sounders’ games by Glenn Davis.  The move is not punitive; Calabro apparently has obligations for ESPN basketball coverage.  In New England, the Feldman/Lalas pairing persists, but interestingly Revs games are simulcast on Radio.  Thus, listeners to WEEI radio get the TV feed. Soccer on the radio is tough.  Soccer on the radio via a TV feed is brutal.

In WPS action, Boston drew and impressive crowd of over 8k to Harvard Stadium, while DC drew 5k for their match against St. Louis.  The League has continued to meet and exceed its attendance targets over the first couple weeks.  Check out our interview with WPS Director Communications Robert Penner for more on MLS attendance goals and marketing efforts.  National advertisers like Corona and Puma were evident,

On an unrelated noted, we didn’t comment on the dust-up over “Tim Hanley-gate”. Briefly, Hanley posted some pointed criticism of DC United as part of his game analysis for http://www.centerlinesoccer.com.  Problems arose when it was discovered that Hanley is a Houston Dynamo employee.  Commentators quickly responded on both sides of the issue; the propriety of a team employee taking a paid position that involves criticizing other other teams merits discussion.  We won’t revisit the issue here, but check out 3rd Degree for a great discussion of the issue and links to some of the more interesting commentary. houston-dynamo

Interview with Davy Ratchford, RSL’s Director of Marketing

 

rsl

Over the last few weeks we have posted a number of interviews with MLS Team executives regarding efforts to market their Clubs in the current economic and technological climate.  Each team has unique circumstances that make their marketing and fan outreach efforts fascinating fodder for discussion and analysis. This week we touch base with Davy Ratchford, RSL’s Director of Marketing.  RSL is in their first full season at Rio Tinto Stadium and brought huge crowds to their playoff games at Rio Tinto last year.

Thanks to Mr. Ratchford.  Check out our other recent marketing interviews with Revolution COO Brian Bilello, Kansas City VP of Marketing and Communications Rob Thomson and  Dynamo Senior Vice President Rocky Harris

Footiebusiness.com: What is RSL doing differently for marketing in 2009?  How has the economy changed/impacted those efforts?

 

Davy Ratchford: Everyone is operating on tighter budgets.  We’ve focused our marketing efforts around a segmented marketplace.  Our mass media is focused on research driven statistics telling us what stations our prospects watch and listen.  Although we are doing well, it is easy to see the economy’s effect when it comes to discretionary entertainment spending.


FB: RSL opened Rio Tinto Stadium last year.  How does the presence of the new stadium change/impact marketing efforts?  Is the stadium experience a
marketing tool?

 

DR: Absolutely, when we opened the stadium at the end of the 2008 season, we had fantastic attendance which helped us both on the field and off. The experience that people had was captured and bottled into our 2009 pre-season marketing “where you there” campaign.  We tried to remind people of what those few games’ magical moments were like.

Having a home to call our own brings a level of optimism in our marketing.  But at the same time, we don’t want it to be just about the building.  Our players and fans are the soul of our organization and the building helps us showcase that.


FB: How has RSL utilized online avenues such as social networking sites, SUM’s new online ad network, etc… to market the team?  Do you find that
these efforts increase interest in RSL or impact attendance?

 

DR: We actually do quite a few online promotions.  We have a steady following on Facebook and our sales pods keep their clients informed via twitter.  These avenues are the right price “free” and allow us to communicate to our fans in their comfort zone.  We do a lot of online banner ads and have tracked some fantastic click through numbers.


FB: Unlike other MLS franchises, RSL plays in a city without competition from multiple “big four” sports franchises.  How does that impact RSL’s
media exposure and ability to generate interest through “free” exposure?

 

DR: The Jazz have been a great anchor for professional sports here in Utah for some time.  As have the college sports teams at BYU and The University of Utah.  Real Salt Lake is rebounding from some years of losing seasons and the media has started to embrace a 2nd professional sports team.  We’ve negotiated some larger broadcast deals that allow us more coverage on local networks.


FB: Is it inconsistent/challenging for teams to target “hard core” supporters, non-soccer sports fans and families?  How do you resolve those
inconsistencies/challenges?

 

DR: I think it does become a challenge, but a good one to have. In our marketplace we have a certain market segment that is young, male and single.  We also have married with 3 kids and we also have grandparents and grandkids.  Having a broad marketplace does cause us to stretch our budgets across the spectrum to reach these differnt targets.  The key is creating a good media mix that is atrractive to all of these groups.  And to have a strategy in place to move them along in their commitment level towards us.  We are happy to have folks come to one or two games a year, but our goal is for them to experience us and increase their connection to us.

Soccer Business Bits: Beckham is Back and More

galaxyIt’s been a while since we’ve discussed David Beckham in this space, but with the recent statement from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Goldenballs is back in the news.  According to the Commissioner, MLS will receive $10 million from AC Milan and Beckham to extend the loan deal into July.  As we have previously discussed, there were a number of components to the Beckham deal.  These included extension of the loan, an AC Milan Friendly and the payment of a fee by Beckham.  As we have also discussed, Beckham’s contract has an out clause at the end of the MLS season.  However, with Becks riding the pine in Italy and MLS attendance struggling, one wonders if the League will find a way to hold on to its marquee attraction.

There is an interesting post about the business of MLS by Jeffrey Marcus at the New York Times.  Mr. Marcus discusses a point that we have previously raised, i.e. how to make MLS appeal to the legions of U.S. based soccer fans.  If 10,000,000 people watched the U.S. play Mexico, and pubs are over flowing with people watching Liverpool play Aresenal on Sunday morning, how does the League capture those fans.  In the post, Mr. Marcus quotes Commissioner Garber discussing the way to increase the League’s appeal by bringing more stars to the States.  Mr. Garber recognizes that the League needs to increase the quality of play (or at least create the impression that the quality has improved). The early years of of MLS unfortunately drove a large numbers of soccer fans away from MLS because of low quality.  The quality has improved over the years, but these fans have not come back.  The various promotional campagins we have discussed this season are largely targeting these fans and the League is making progress.  The League hopes that the economy won’t get in the way.