The State of Minor League Soccer

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Recently, Minnesota United FC, arguably the most successful current franchise in the NASL, America’s Tier II soccer league, announced that the team will be promoted into MLS in 2018. With this news, questions can be raised about the financial state and popularity of minor league soccer in the United States.

The North American Soccer League was reborn in 2011 after its first stint from 1968-1984 failed due to rapid expansion and the retirement of superstar Pele.  According to SB Nation, the 2014 season saw attendance grow 30% from the year before, primarily thanks to the expansion franchise Indy Eleven averaging over 10,000 fans per game in its first season.  The soon to be promoted Minnesota United averaged around 9,000 fans per game in the fall half of the season, and the newest franchise, the Jacksonville Armada have already drawn 13,000 fans to a preseason game against an MLS team. In addition, the league just announced a major deal with ESPN to have 120 NASL matches carried per season on the online outlet ESPN3, making the games available in 75 nations. These statistics definitely give the minor league soccer fan reason to be optimistic about the league’s future.

Yet the NASL may face future problems due to its marketing philosophy. Since its inception, the league has advertised itself as a decentralized structure allowing new franchises to grow as fast as they want to and spend as much money as they please.  Instead of accepting its position as a minor league to the MLS, the NASL arguably hopes to rival the top league by attracting expensive talent and investors like the New York Cosmos.  The Cosmos franchise ultimately chose NASL over MLS because they preferred a league without a spending cap rather than one that operates under a single-entity structure.

The results for the Cosmos have been mixed.  According to Capital New York, the team averaged roughly 5,000 fans per game at Hofstra University in 2014 and its ambitious plan for a 25,000 seat stadium near Belmont Park outside Queens has been in limbo for 2 years, due to no response from the Empire State Development organization that put out the proposal back in 2013.  See the original promotional video for this stadium below. The team may need to find a site elsewhere because the ESD has not taken this proposal seriously. 

Another team recently facing stadium issues has been the Indy Eleven.  Despite selling out every game in IUPUI’s Carroll Stadium, the franchise just had a bill rejected by the Indiana State Senate that would have granted the team $82 million to build a new downtown stadium (pictured at the top of this post).  As a consolation, the team was granted $20 million to renovate its current facility, but this highlights the image problem that the league faces.

The ongoing reality with NASL, as well as minor league soccer as a whole, is that success for franchises comes when teams are promoted to MLS.  This has been evident with the promotion of the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, Orlando City FC, and Montreal Impact.  If the league hopes to be popular in its own right, it may need to differentiate itself entirely from MLS.  Other sports leagues tend to advertise their major leagues as an area to watch the world’s best talent face off while minor leagues tend to advertise the aesthetic appeal and experience of the game.  The issue with soccer is that America currently does not have the world’s best talent in the sport. As a result, both MLS and NASL are advertising the aesthetic appeal and experience of the game. Time will tell if the NASL can survive in this environment.

REFERENCES

http://www.massivereport.com/2015/3/25/8289833/whats-next-for-the-nasl-and-mls-expansion

http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2015/03/8564795/soccer-focuses-new-york-cosmos-aim-global

http://www.empireofsoccer.com/embrace-minnesota-uniteds-32967/

http://fox59.com/2015/03/24/lawmakers-reject-idea-of-new-indy-eleven-stadium-back-20-million-renovation-to-carroll-stadium/https://worldsoccertalk.com/2015/03/26/with-nasl-espn-deal-nasl-games-now-more-accessible-online-than-mls/

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Sponsorship Success

Mondelez, the Official Snack Provider of MLS
Mondelez, the Official Snack Provider of MLS

In the past two weeks, Major League Soccer has announced two major sponsorship deals with the Mondelez snack food conglomerate and the U.S. branch of the Audi automotive group.  The Mondelez partnership will last for two years, while the Audi deal was only announced as a multi-year partnernship.  According to Forbes, this marks a trend in sports marketing where sponsors are choosing to align with soccer over baseball due to millennials being more attracted to the less established sport.

Mondelez is the manufacturer of Oreo, Trident, and Ritz, and is already in the middle of a partnership with the U.S. Soccer Federation that organizes the national teams in the FIFA World Cup. Under the deal, Mondelez brands will have exposure at MLS stadiums, league media platforms, and the right to activate campaigns for major league events such as the All-Star game and MLS Cup final. The company also has the licensing rights to use four players for advertisements and product packaging. According to Forbes, Stephen Chriss, the head of the company’s consumer engagement and marketing in North America  said that working with MLS allows Mondelez to market both nationally and at a grassroots level thanks to the nature of the league.

Under the Audi agreement, Audi will have field-level signage during nationally televised broadcasts, become the presenting sponsor of the MLS Cup Playoffs, and air MLS-themed commercials during these games as well.  Here is the latest commercial that aired during the NYCFC home opener on ESPN2.

These deals show the growing profile of MLS’s popularity in North America and how large companies have been noticing the demographics of fans going to games.  The most notable part of the deals were the importance of a digital presence for ads by Mondelez due to MLSSoccer.com’s reputation.  If the trend continues, MLS could be on pace to gain more sponsorships by companies looking to reach millennials while sports slowly losing appeal due to the length of the game, like baseball, could have many reasons to be worried if adjustments aren’t made soon.

REFERENCES

http://www.forbes.com/sites/chrissmith/2015/03/19/snack-food-giant-mondelez-to-be-official-partner-of-major-league-soccer/2/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidlariviere/2015/03/07/major-league-soccer-audi-sign-multi-year-partnership-deal/

http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2015/03/06/mls-announces-partnership-audi-including-presenting-sponsorship-mls-cup-play

Better TV Ratings, Better Image

Timbers.vsCrew050512.EE 005According to MLSSoccer.com, the first weekend of MLS soccer’s 20th season was a modest hit on national TV, with Sunday’s match between Orlando and New York City on ESPN2 raking in 539,000 average viewers, which was 100,000 viewers higher than any regular season game broadcast on ESPN2 last year.  In addition to this success, UniMas‘s Friday broadcast drew an average of 341,000 viewers, while the Sunday doubleheader of games on Fox Sports 1 drew 268,000 and 289,000 viewers respectively.

Last year’s final average viewership for games on NBC Sports Network was 142,000 while the combined average viewership for games on ESPN and ESPN2 was 240,000, making this season’s start look considerably optimistic. Comparing these numbers to where MLS was in 2008, the league averaged just 30,000 TV viewers per game for the last four games of the season when the games were televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.

Since this was just opening weekend, the impressive viewership ratings are expected to go down, but it will be interesting to see if they can beat last year’s viewership due to the many changes in place like standardized weekly game times for nationalized televised games on ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1, as well as a new television deal that more than tripled the value of their old TV deal from $30 million to $90 million.

TV viewership is a key source of revenue, publicity, and popularity for the NFL, MLB, the NBA, and the NHL. While MLS has seen huge improvements in attendance over the past decade, the league will need to generate a consistently high base of TV viewership week after week if it hopes to compete at the financially successful level of the more established leagues in American sports.

REFERENCES

http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2015/03/11/unimas-espn2-and-fox-sports-1-score-big-tv-ratings-mlss-opening-weekend

http://www.si.com/planet-futbol/2015/03/11/mls-tv-ratings-fox-sports-espn-unimas

http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/soccer-fc-yahoo/the-lingering-problem-that-mls-must-address-161922683.html

Aggressive Expansion

Ned-Grabavoy-NYCFC-Orlando-City-USA-TODAY-SportsThere have been recent reports that tomorrow night’s inaugural Major League Soccer game for expansion side Orlando City SC against the other MLS expansion franchise, New York City FC, will be a sellout crowd of over 62,000 fans at the Florida Citrus Bowl. As of March 6, Orlando City reported over 13,000 season tickets had been sold for its first season while NYCFC reported over 14,000 season tickets sold for its inaugural season at Yankee Stadium. The successful marketing for both teams that haven’t even played a competitive game yet but have achieved tremendous success in ticket sales, has raised questions about where the league will expand next, and exactly how far the successful expansion push should go before it stops.

Since 2005, MLS has expanded from 10 teams to 20 teams, with plans for 4 more franchises by 2020.  In that same time frame, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL combined have produced just one expansion team, the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) during the 2004-2005 season. Intriguingly, the MLS has managed to benefit from the expansion thanks to increased average attendance numbers in each market, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

While expansion teams, and even relocated teams often find financial success in their first season in a new home due to initial excitement surrounding the team, this excitement tends to wane as the team is no longer generating buzz as the new sensation in its respective market. Other concerns with rapid expansion for MLS could be the dilution of the talent pool, and the history of the league’s predecessor, the North American Soccer League.  The NASL lasted 17 seasons, and was the only other major American soccer league to exceed 20 franchises, but the experiment only lasted three seasons as the league folded shortly after.

So far, expansion has benefited soccer’s image in America as the sport has spread its reach across the country.  However, time will tell if the league has already reached its mature size, or if it can effectively reach the same size and scope of the other major sports leagues in America.

REFERENCES

Sellout Crowd Expected For Orlando City’s Inaugural Match With NYCFC

http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2015/03/02/In-Depth/Expansion.aspx

http://espn.go.com/sports/soccer/news/_/id/7299575/major-league-soccer-mls-bigger-necessarily-better