America’s Oldest Cup Needs an Upgrade

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England has the F.A. Cup and the Capital One Cup. Germany has the DFB-Pokal. Italy has the Coppa Italia. The United States has…the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It may be a mouthful, but as the only American cup competition still running since 1914, it’s the oldest tournament in the American sports landscape. But year after year with little change, the question still arises: why isn’t the U.S Open Cup a bigger deal?

Last night concluded the fourth round of US Open Cup action and there were some exciting match-ups, albeit sparse crowds. In perhaps the most highly attended game, the New York Cosmos of NASL defeated New York City FC of MLS for the second straight year in front of nearly 7,000 fans at Fordham University in the Bronx. Other games of note involved the Houston Dynamo (MLS) defeating San Antonio FC (USL, third division) in front of just under 6,000 fans, FC Dallas (MLS) defeating Oklahoma City Energy FC (USL) in a stadium with a capacity of 1,500 that did not appear full, and Orlando City FC (MLS) defeating Jacksonville Armada (NASL) in front of a capacity crowd of 2,158 fans in Jacksonville. All in all, these attendance figures aren’t exactly a magnet for attracting sponsors.

But more sponsorship just might be the injection of life that this tournament needs. If we look across the pond, England’s storied F.A. Cup has been around since 1871, so virtually everyone in the country knows about it and adding a name brand to the name would do no good. For better or for worse, most people would still call it the F.A. Cup. But the League Cup has only been around since 1960, and that’s why corporate sponsors like Carling and Capital One have attached their names to the tournament over the past decade. Associating a brand with a sporting event is effective when fans describe the event using the brand name. Associating a brand with a sporting event is also an effective way of generating the necessary funds to market the event in the first place. That being said, why not add a naming sponsor to the U.S Open Cup?

Lamar Hunt was one of the founding fathers of Major League Soccer. As long as his name is still engraved on the trophy, he could still be honored. But for marketing purposes, if his name was to be replaced or followed by a sponsor willing to pay a plethora of money for a long-lasting association with one of the most growing team sports in America, the growth of the league that he helped build in life could accelerate after his passing. But first, there has to be a sponsor willing to take the gamble.

In Italy, the Coppa Italia that has been around since 1922 was rebranded as the TIM Cup, after its sponsor, Telecom Italia. For a tournament with such a long, rich history, the chances of it being referred to as Coppa Italia are still higher than Telecom Italia would like. But when a fan sees the TIM logo now, they have a far greater chance of associating the company with soccer.

If that positive association with a brand makes the fan buy the product or service, then both the league and the sponsor can be happy because the sponsorship worked as intended.  When a sponsorship is done right, everybody wins.  Some fans may disapprove of how much commercialism has been injected into the game, but even the most skeptical fans acknowledge that a little commercialism is necessary to pay for the players, the staff, the coaches, and all the moving pieces that make all sports what they have become today.

Overall, a team from MLS that wins the whole event plays an extra five games on top of their league schedule of thirty two games starting in June, and ending in September. The league games usually start at the end of March and end in late November. Instead of an All-Star break, MLS should incorporate two rounds of Open Cup action into that break, and hype up those rounds as must-see TV. The remaining three rounds could mean starting the week before the MLS season in March, and the two weeks at the end of the MLS season in November/December that way the schedule is less forced.  Taking a page out of England’s book, the final could be played in a neutral venue that bids to host the event like the Super Bowl.

In short, there are few steps needed to make the U.S. Open Cup a bigger deal.  First, get a title sponsor. The AT&T or Verizon or Geico U.S. Open Cup would be prime examples. Next, use the money from the title sponsorship agreement to offer the winning team a significant prize, not just the measly $250,000 split that teams currently win. And finally, change the timing of the whole tournament so that the games fit better into the current calendar rather than playing the games on weekdays in small college fields that are difficult to find. Slowly but surely, we just might be able to make the U.S. Open Cup the spectacle it deserves to be.

 

2016 MLS Predictions

2015-08-05-impact-VS-NY-RedBull-CIMON-225--2The new season is already underway, and with it comes a lot of uncertainty.  Which team will surprise us the most? Can the Portland Timbers repeat their performance in 2015?  Will the LA Galaxy continue their dominance over the league? Will the Seattle Sounders finally win a well deserved title for their passionate fans?   But most importantly,  will the attendance and TV viewership continue to grow?

The most intriguing aspect of this season may be that the league won’t see any form of expansion.  In 2017,  we could see two, maybe even three new teams in Atlanta and Minnesota, possibly LA too, but for the time being, Major League Soccer remains at 20.  Since many other sports have not seen any form of expansion in the past decade, this may not seem like a big deal,  but for a league like MLS that generates a considerable amount of hype every time it grows, this temporary halt in growth could arguably affect the buzz it relies on for ticket sales.  The good news is the decrease will probably be negligible

The last time MLS came out of an expansion season without expanding again the following season was 2013, the year after the Montreal Impact became the league’s 19th franchise.  2012 was a record-setting year for MLS in total attendance with over 6,000,000 fans.  2013 only saw a decrease of 1.1%, but for a league built around growth, any move such as folding a failing franchise (ie. Chivas USA) or building a soccer specific stadium (ie. DC United) needs to be calculated with careful consideration.

But here are a few things we can reasonably expect, with a small margin of error:

Average attendance figures will increase every so slightly from 2015 numbers by the end of the year.  As usual, the first few weeks of MLS action will generate the biggest crowds, but over time attendance will fizzle.

NYCFC vs. NY Red Bulls will be bigger than ever.  The crowds last season were very ample, and combined with increased marketing buzz and better play by the Bronx sophomores rallying around a new coach, this could quickly become a ratings boon for the league almost as big as all three Cascadia rivals across the country.

TV Viewership will remain stagnant or very close to it.  Until MLS figures out a way to draw attention away from the British Premier League,  it will be awhile before American soccer sees its large payday from TV Networks in the same way that the NFL, NBA, MLB, and even the NHL see to a greater extent.

The star power express from overseas will continue to flow in like we saw in 2015.  Building off the buzz created by stars like Sebastian Giovinco, Giovanni Dos Santos,  Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, and Didier Drogba, we are already seeing slightly older stars like Ashley Cole and Antonio Nocerino travelling across the pond in 2016, and there is no reason to believe the trend will stop anytime soon.  The day an abundance of young stars from overseas want to play in the US is the day MLS can finally challenge the European juggernauts in England, Spain, and Germany.

Only time will tell what happens, but for the time being, kick back, relax, and enjoy the new season of soccer in America.

REFERENCES

http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2015/03/25/expansion-timeline-minnesota-united-becomes-mls-newest-expansion-team

Attendance worries have quietly disappeared for Major League Soccer

http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2013/10/31/5047982/mls-attendance-2013-report

MLS to St. Louis?

USATSI_7274155Many consider it to be the historic soccer capital of America.  What some still consider the greatest game ever played by the U.S Men’s National Team, 5 of the 11 starting players on the 1950 FIFA World Cup team that stunned powerhouse England were from St. Louis.  Since that time, some of the greatest players in U.S. soccer history have either hailed from St. Louis are played college soccer in St. Louis such as Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan, Brian McBride, and Tim Ream.  When the U.S. Open Cup was in its infant stages, St. Louis teams generated the most success, starting with a team named Ben Millers winning the championship in 1920.  This city clearly has a rich soccer history.  But can it sustain an MLS team?

Since the news of the Rams moving to Los Angeles, and the NFL abandoning St. Louis a second time (see the Arizona Cardinals)  the MLS has declared a renewed interest in bringing an expansion franchise to the area.  Last week, Commissioner Don Garber met with St. Louis Sports Commission Chairman Dave Peacock to continue a dialogue. The two of them had reportedly met ten years ago to have the same conversation, but as we can see, there is currently no Major League Soccer team in St. Louis.

St. Louis has had many iterations of professional soccer in the past.  Besides the semi-pro teams that emerged victorious in the early years of the U.S. Open Cup during the ’20s and ’30s, perhaps the most prominent team was the St. Louis Stars of NASL fan during the ’70s.  Ironically, that team moved to LA too. There was also an indoor soccer team called the St. Louis Steamers that averaged almost 12,000 fans per game for the better part of the ’80s. While none of these franchises had a happy ending, the departure of an NFL team leaves a gaping hole to be filled in the sports landscape of the city.

As many news outlets have been reiterating, there are usually three factors for bringing an MLS team to a city.  1) An already present fanbase  2) A viable ownership group  3) A viable (preferably downtown) stadium site with easy access for fans.  One of the reasons that talks to bring a team to St. Louis in the past may have stalled could have been the issue of a viable stadium site.  But now that the Rams have flown away to the West Coast,  a beautiful, riverfront stadium site suddenly appears within grasp.  The MLS appears to be so interested in this site, that the St.Louis Dispatch has even reported that the league has begun gathering potential owners.  Other markets have already expressed their vehement interest in a franchise such as Sacramento, San Antonio, and San Diego, but if the MLS is truly planning to expand to 28 teams by 2020, perhaps all these markets can make their way into the fold.

Short of a definite answer, it appears MLS is coming to St. Louis within the next five years.  The NFL leaving AGAIN is the perfect opportunity for MLS to capitalize on a market that only has baseball to watch in the summer and hockey in the winter months.  The fanbase appears to already be in place, with 43,000 fans seeing a USMNT World Cup Qualifier in Busch Stadium, a minor league team starting play last year in the USL, and if the site deal can be closed soon (not like the catastrophe that happened with NYCFC in Flushing) this deal to move into the 21st largest media market in America is too good to pass up.

 

REFERENCES

http://www.espnfc.us/major-league-soccer/story/2801606/mls-very-focused-on-expanding-to-st-louis-don-garber

http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2014/05/30/building-soccer-pyramid-success-finally-cards-historic-st-louis

http://saintlouisfc.com/history

 

A Fresh Start

cropped-site_iconIn Spanish, “chivas” means goats.  Quite literally, Chivas USA was the goat of MLS during its brief existence.  Consistently last in attendance, the fledgling franchise was always the ugly stepbrother of the league’s crown jewel, centerpiece, and innovative pioneer, the LA Galaxy.  Now a new era begins for a replacement franchise that has already recaptured many members of the small but proud Chivas USA fanbase.  This past week, the new team, Los Angeles Football Club, unveiled its first ever logo and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  The team even revealed a surprising co-owner with celebrity status when Will Ferrell crashed the stage.  On paper, things are looking very bright for the new LA team.  But when the team plays its first competitive game in 2017, will the atmosphere still be so rosy?

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MLS Cup: How Far Back Is The Futbol Championship from the Football Championship?

MLS-Cup-2015-imageIt’s a question you both want to ask and don’t want to ask at the same time.  Exactly how far back is the MLS Cup from its American football counterpart in terms of popularity? Without a doubt, the gap isn’t even close. But it would be nice to know what you’re up against when you face an upward climb, right?

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Copa America Centenario: When Good Ideas Go Bad

Copa_America_Centenario_USA_Logo_FC_Dark_bg_cmykIt was supposed to be an anniversary celebration that would be the highlight American soccer event of 2016. It was going to be a moment to honor 100 years of the storied Copa America competition with a special, unified tournament between CONMEBOL, the South American soccer federation, and CONCACAF, the North American soccer federation. Together, with star-studded lineups like Brazil and Argentina playing against northern powerhouses, USA and Mexico, it would truly be a cup of the Americas. The buzz might just have what it takes to rival the UEFA European Championship. But now, it might not happen. Or worse, it won’t happen with the USA involved.

How did we get here? Why would any soccer official in their right mind cancel or move what could be the biggest men’s soccer event in the United States since the 1994 World Cup? Corruption is almost always the answer when FIFA is in the picture. At the beginning of the summer, when U.S. and Swiss authorities acted on information that FIFA was involved in a bribery scandal, they uncovered a plethora of damaging information surrounding the 2016 Copa America tournament in particular, with the corrupt presidents of both CONCACAF and CONMEBOL playing a key role in its organization and development. As a result, holding the event is not just a question of marketing potential, but now a question of ethics for an organization attempting to rectify its deceitful public image.

Here is the lowdown on what this means for the U.S. The Euro tournament consistently gets great viewership not just in the stands but on TV around the globe. The Copa America, while not as big as the Euro, still generates better TV viewership than the paltry performance soccer fans expect to find at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The U.S. Men’s National Team performance at this year’s edition certainly didn’t help those figures.  A tournament combining the colossal giants from Copa America with the World Cup stalwarts, U.S. and Mexico, would almost definitely mean great TV ratings in the United States. Even more so, a tournament combining these teams that takes place inside of the United States would pretty much guarantee those great TV ratings, huge attendance figures, not to mention another boost for soccer in America that has been sought and coveted since 1994.

If the tournament is not held, all these potential sales dollars will be lost, which casts a negative shadow on both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. But if the tournament is moved to another country, the only real shadow will be cast on the U.S, the nation that sacrificed a marketing bonanza for the purpose of righting the corrupt ship that is FIFA. Time will tell just how noble this sacrifice truly was.  If no good deed goes unpunished, then a good deed involving FIFA could metaphorically be the equivalent of imprisonment.

REFERENCES

http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com/2015/08/27/2016-copa-america-centenario-will-be-played-but-concacaf-might-not-be-involved/

http://www.espnfc.com/copa-america/story/2583612/copa-america-2016-may-not-be-in-us-says-conmebol-president

FOX Sports on verge of acquiring Copa America Centenario TV rights

What is Causing the Downward Spiral of the Chicago Fire?

MaloneyThese are rough times for the Chicago Fire, Major League Soccer stalwarts since 1998. Currently sitting at the bottom of the standings in league play, knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup in the semifinals by the Philadelphia Union, and short on the heels of losing a bidding war to attract international (albeit aged) superstar Didier Drogba to Montreal, the team is now transferring midfielder Shaun Maloney, a respected international star in his own right, to Hull City in England.  What makes matters worse, Maloney reportedly requested the move back to England himself.  What is going so wrong for Chicago, and why can’t the third largest media market in the U.S. draw any star power?

Continue reading “What is Causing the Downward Spiral of the Chicago Fire?”