A Tale of Two Expansion Cities

The 2017 MLS season is up and running and as expected, the two expansion teams are dominating league headlines, yet the two sides are off to vastly different starts.  On one hand, Atlanta United FC has opened its inaugural season with tremendous success both on and off the pitch, but on the other hand, Minnesota United FC is experiencing the growing pains of transitioning from the NASL to a major league level.

From the start it looks like Atlanta United has struck gold by acquiring Josef Martinez from Torino, Italy who already has the first hat trick in club history as well as providing exciting celebrations for the fans.  The opening loss to the NY Red Bulls drew a sell-out crowd of 55,297 to Bobby Dodd Stadium and the club reportedly sold out tickets for its second straight match against Chicago as well, a 4-0 victory.  With two wins in its first three games, and reason to believe more wins are coming, fans of Atlanta United have every reason to be happy.

On the flip side, Minnesota United FC seems to have struck nothing but coal with its current lineup.  While a promising start is not expected for any expansion side, starting off the season with 5-1 and 6-1 losses arguably fall below the already low expectations needed to be considered an inaugural season success.  The home opener of 35,043 was the largest crowd for a soccer game in Minnesota since May 1984, and the snow in the forecast made for an interesting optic on television.  However the result left a lot to be desired from the expansion side that is sadly showing why it finished in 8th place out of 12 teams in the minor league NASL last season.

Intriguingly, Minnesota has acquired a much bigger brand name as a shirt sponsor in Target, and the public opinion of the team’s new logo and kits has been extremely positive overall.  While financial details were not disclosed for the deals, Atlanta’s shirt sponsor American Family Insurance is nothing to sneeze at either.  In addition, the red and black striped jerseys are a kit combination that has not been used in MLS for years.

As it is only Week 4 of MLS action, it is still early to speculate which team will finish its inaugural season with more success, but for now, give the advantage to Atlanta.

REFERENCES

https://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2017/03/16/wiebe-too-early-minnesota-united-panic-team-taking-long-view

https://www.atlutd.com/post/2017/03/17/atlanta-united-sells-out-second-straight-home-match

http://www.foxsports.com/soccer/story/atlanta-united-first-gam-crowd-sell-out-030317

http://mlsmultiplex.com/2017/03/13/minnesota-united-fc-vs-atlanta-united-fc-three-key-takeaways/

2016 MLS TV Ratings So Far

mlsWe are currently three months into the MLS’s 21st season, on the heels of a successfully hosted Copa America Centenario, and now seems like as good as time as any to have a status report on how things are going.  After all, if MLS was a living, breathing human being, it’s finally old enough to buy a beer now.  Could this be a sign of more lucrative beer sponsorships to come? And can MLS finally get over the heavily coveted TV ratings hump that has been dogging the league for years?

Back in March, this year’s MLS opener featuring defending champion Portland Timbers and defending runner-up Columbus Crew on ESPN averaged 362,000 viewers. The following nationally televised matchup between Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting KC on FS1 averaged 267,000 viewers.   Since both ESPN and FOX Sports are continuing a Sunday afternoon/night doubleheader that was put in place last year, comparing viewers becomes much easier.  Last year’s MLS opener featuring Orlando City and NYCFC averaged 539,000 viewers, 33% higher than 2016.  But last year’s New York Red Bulls vs. Sporting KC matchup on FS1 drew virtually the same amount of viewers as 2016. At best, these figures suggest that MLS has found a small but steady niche audience.

The “newness” element of having two expansion teams playing in their first ever competitive match was clearly a contributing factor to the higher than normal average viewership for the opening match in 2015.  But MLS cannot keep expanding so that wow factor will soon become unavailable.  Other factors such as star power, team loyalty, and must-see TV will be more paramount as the league moves toward this next phase in its history.

Perhaps less surprisingly, viewership for the plethora of international soccer that has been on TV this summer is significantly higher.  ESPN has reported an average of 815,000 viewers per game as of the end of June for Euro 2016 in France.  The Saturday quarterfinal match-up between Germany and Italy, two contingents with heavy fan bases in the U.S. drew over two million viewers and a 0.8 rating among the 18-49 demographic on ESPN.  The Copa America broke TV records across the board in the tournament’s history.  MLS was even able to capitalize on the Copa, albeit for one game by featuring a doubleheader on Univision after the third place match between the U.S. and Colombia.  The following game between the San Jose Earthquakes and Los Angeles Galaxy was the largest TV audience for an MLS game since 2008, drawing an average of one million viewers.  While piggybacking off the coattails of games that are popular to mainstream audiences is a brilliant way of exposing MLS to the masses, making sure the product on the field is exciting to watch is the best way of retaining higher percentages of those audiences for future games.

One source of inspiration for MLS could be the Icelandic national soccer team.  It’s thrilling Cinderella performance in Euro 2016 captured the small nation by storm and an incredible 99.8% of Iceland’s TV viewers at the time witnessed the team’s final game in the quarterfinals against host nation France.  The NFL by comparison drew around 70% of TV viewers in the 18-49 demographic for Super Bowl 50.  Is there reason to believe an MLS game can draw the interest of 99.8% of American TV viewers? Absolutely not.  But it proves once again just how important it is to have an exciting game to watch on the field.

On July 17, MLS will hope that its nationally televised Cascadia rivalry match-up between Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers on FOX can pass the test to prove MLS Soccer deserves a steady position on broadcast TV, and not just cable.  Based on the league’s current ratings performance that probably won’t happen.  But one can dream, and the dream of MLS becoming a ratings monster lives on until it becomes a reality.

REFERENCES

http://thebiglead.com/2016/03/09/mls-opener-viewership-down-33-percent-on-espn/

http://worldsoccertalk.com/2016/05/26/mls-fails-make-positive-impression-tv-ratings-big-soccer-weekend/

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/uefa-euro-2016-staggering-998-908124

 

 

 

 

 

The U.S.A. Could (And Should) Host Another World Cup

chile-copa_2706getty_875Last night the Copa America Centenario came to a close with Chile defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw. This was almost an exact replica of Copa America 2015 when Chile defeated Argentina in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw.  The difference? The United States does it bigger, and does it better.

The predominately Argentine attendance last night in East Rutherford, New Jersey was reportedly over 82,000, a New Jersey soccer record. This comes on the heels of last week’s impressive crowd at the USA vs. Argentina semifinal in Houston, Texas that was reportedly over 70,000, a Houston soccer record.  For a country that has played host in the past to Pele, Ronaldinho, and David Beckham, there are many reasons for tournament organizers to be pleased right now.

The amount of records broken by this edition of Copa America cannot be ignored.  After last night’s final, the accumulated attendance of the 32 games played was just over 1.5 million, shattering a record held for over 25 years by over 350,000. In addition, the average attendance was nearly 46,000 fans per game, topping 5 of the last 9 World Cups (excluding the USA hosted World Cup in 1994).  Average attendance even topped the past 6 European championships despite an average ticket price of just over $100.  Using just attendance alone as a measuring stick, the U.S. has raised the bar as a host.

In terms of TV ratings, even more records were broken.  Not including the final, the first 30 matches of the Copa America Centenario drew over 100 million viewers in the U.S. from the combined broadcasts of Univision and Fox networks.  Univision reported that ratings for the tournament have been higher than average ratings for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  The USA vs. Argentina semifinal even drew 3.29 million viewers on Fox Sports 1, a network soccer record.  In terms of reach, the tournament has been broadcast in 160 countries, and 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. While the days until MLS reaches 1.5 billion viewers are still a long way off, competitive international soccer in the US has consistently proven to be record draw since the ’90s.

In short, the Copa America Centenario achieved every feat it intended and then some.  As Sunil Gulati accurately concluded, the United States Soccer Federation successfully proved that this country has the infrastructure, management system, and consumer base to thrive as an international soccer tournament host.  In many ways, the United States has everything that Brazil is missing for the Rio Olympics in less than two months.  Even with all the bribery and scandals that surround FIFA, it would be incredibly hard to avoid the potential money-making machine that the United States just displayed for a memorable, drama-filled, and lucrative three weeks.

REFERENCES

http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/24/copa-america-has-been-successful-with-attendance-tv-ratings/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sergeiklebnikov/2016/06/26/successful-copa-america-2016-smashes-records/#44766b89734b

http://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/la-sp-copa-us-argentina-tv-ratings-20160622-snap-story.html

http://www.news18.com/footballnext/news/lionel-messi-misses-penalty-as-chile-win-copa-america-2016-title-1262520.html

America’s Oldest Cup Needs an Upgrade

US-Open-Cup-630x300
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.

 

Should MLS expand to Sacramento?

sacramentoDuring a recent fan fest held in Sacramento, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that the next round of MLS expansion would most likely occur in the year 2020 after Los Angeles FC, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, and ideally Miami Beckham United, have all entered the league.  One of the biggest potential candidates would have to be the Sacramento Republic which already draws an average of 10,000 fans per game and possibly has the backing to get a new stadium deal completed in time for 2020.  This conversation has happened since before the team started play in 2014.  Don Garber has even called Sacramento “MLS ready” multiple times as evidence of all the pieces it already has in place. But will it become a reality?

As the Republic website states, Sacramento is “committed to bringing MLS” to the region. So far they would seem to be on the right track with a solid supporters group called the Tower Bridge Battalion, a soccer specific stadium named Bonney Field, and the backing of the local government.  The region would have very little competition from other sports as well, with no football, baseball, or hockey franchises to eat into fan interest.  On top of that, Sacramento has consistently high TV ratings for marquee World Cup games compared to other U.S. cities. The team even has a shirt sponsorship deal in place with U.C. Davis Children’s Hospital.

On paper it seems like MLS in Sacramento would be a winning combination. But here are the roadblocks.

  1. The expansion fee.  One could expect the MLS to ask for over $100 million, especially after the record fees paid by NYCFC and Orlando City to join the league.  Money talks, and this could be one of the main reasons Sacramento has been bypassed thus far by cities with less concrete franchise plans in place.
  2. Location.  While the lack of competition in the area could be seen as an advantage, there is also a reason why few other major league sports franchises reside in the area.  There are bigger media markets out there to take advantage of.
  3. Commercial commitment and sponsorships.  This is more of a league-wide issue than a Sacramento issue.  In a recent interview, Garber stated that the “last piece of the puzzle” for the Republic ownership group would be to secure commercial commitment and sponsorship.  If a more lucrative shirt sponsorship can be found, and TV partners as well, Sacramento could be in business quicker than 2020.

Overall, Sacramento Republic FC is in great shape to move up to MLS.  It has the fans, the ownership group, the stadiums, and the can-do spirit necessary to take the next major step.  Sacramento has more pieces in place than Miami at present, and time will tell if the Republic can leapfrog Beckham to earn their fair place in the top tier of American soccer.

 

REFERENCES

  1. http://www.sacrepublicfc.com/community/sacramento-soccer-history/
  2. http://www.sacrepublicfc.com/football-club/built-for-mls-sacramento/
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacramento_Republic_FC
  4. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/apr/21/st-louis-sacramento-among-leading-mls-expansion-ca/

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