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

 

 

 

 

 

Viewing the Copa Half-Full for U.S. Soccer

usa vs argLast night, we witnessed Lionel Messi and Argentina embarrass the U.S. Men’s National Team, 4-0 on its home turf in Houston, Texas in the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario. Without debate, it was the biggest game for the USMNT since its 2-1 extra time defeat to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, there appeared to be a lot less positive takeaways this time around. But if we dig really hard, here is what we can find:

First off, nearly 71,000 fans filled NRG Stadium in Houston on a Tuesday night to watch soccer.  According to MLSSoccer.com, that was a Houston soccer record.  On top of that, they came to cheer on a U.S team of predominately MLS players face off against the top ranked international team in the world.  Everybody likes an underdog story and without having to market the game too vigorously, that is exactly how the bracket played this one out.  Sure, a home team win would have been nice, but we can’t have everything we want.

Next, the future pool of U.S. players includes some potentially marketable stories.  When the game was already lost, we saw Christian Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania substituted in to shake up the tempo.   Even though the U.S. finished without a shot on goal, the only opportunities that even made it close to the Argentina penalty box all came from the American wunderkind.  He may not even come close to Messi’s talents, but Messi is a once in a generation player.  Pulisic is the next best thing, already rising as a star in German soccer with Borrusia Dortmund, considered levels above American soccer.  There were reports that he had just went to his prom last week.  We also saw Darlington Nagbe, the Portland Timbers star from Liberia who became a U.S. citizen in 2015 to earn his shot at international glory, enter the game late in the second half to generate offense.  One of the reasons why the Olympics earn such excellent TV ratings  are the feel-good story lines of young American athletes triumphing over obstacles to reach some specialized sporting events that most average people could not care less about.

In many ways, the U.S. Men’s National Team has its own stories to draw interest. On top of Pulisic and Nagbe, there’s Clint Dempsey, the old but reliable scoring and rapping talent from Texas.  Even more intriguing, backup goalkeeper Tim Howard’s legendary performance against Belgium two years ago has kept him on the map. His name was brought up almost as much as head coach Klinsmann on Twitter after the score was 3-0 on Tuesday.

Third, while this has been considered an official Copa America, it’s not a typical Copa America.  The tournament is usually held every two years, but in order to create this anniversary edition (and to lure the event outside of South America) the Centenario was held this year, 2016, a quick year after the last official Copa America in 2015.  If you throw in the corruption scandal that had to be sorted out beforehand, it almost makes the whole tournament seem entirely meaningless (but probably not).

In the aftermath of the game, U.S Soccer President Sunil Gulati, comparing the U.S. to national soccer teams like Argentina said, “we have a long way to go.”  But that isn’t necessarily true.  If the US wins the third place game on Saturday night in Phoenix, it will be the best finish by the U.S. in Copa America history.  Out of the eight invitee nations outside of South America that have ever competed in the tournament, none have ever finished higher than second place.  Maybe our expectations are too high.  Maybe in a country used to dominating all sports, not being the best at one is just unacceptable.  If we wait until we’re the best international team in the world before soccer takes off in the U.S, then we truly have a long way to go.  But from a global perspective, the USMNT has plenty of reasons to hold their chins up high.

And finally, at least it wasn’t 7-0 like Mexico.

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.

 

What does hosting Copa America mean for US?

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Tonight marks the commencement of the Copa America Centenario tournament, the 100th anniversary of the storied South American competition.  However, all eyes will be on the United States as for the first time ever, the tournament will be held outside the Southern Hemisphere, pitting all 10 South American international teams against 6 of CONCACAF’s finest.  While there are many articles and stories out there predicting which nation will hoist the trophy, and which stars you should watch during the largest competition held in America since the 1994 World Cup, how easy is it to predict the economic implications of this event?

Before Orlando, Florida was awarded the rights to host three group stage matches, its bidding effort launched some pretty bold estimates on how much impact just one game could have on the region.  In the presentation by the Central Florida Sports Commission last March, $30 million to $50 million in revenue were projected figures depending on actual attendance.  In many ways, Orlando has realistic data to use as a reference when conjuring these estimates  based on its history as a host city during the 1994 World Cup.  Some other projections were the possibilities of 10,000 international travelers visiting the city, as well as 40,000-45,000 room reservations for at least one night stays in local hotels.  Orlando will host games on June 4, June 6, and June 8.  Time will tell if these predictions become reality.

The host city in the Bay Area of California, Santa Clara, is currently in the epicenter of American Sports with the Golden State Warriors of basketball competing in the NBA Finals, and the San Jose Sharks of hockey competing in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Tonight, Levi’s Stadium hosts the opening match between the United States and one of the favorites, Colombia.  A reported 67,000 seats have been sold as of the morning of June 3. Considering the capacity is 70,000, local businesses should be very pleased at the turnout.  Before San Francisco was awarded its bid, it projected a $139 million economic impact on the region based on the events. With the United States playing in the stadium, that number could reasonably grow even higher depending on the result.

From a sponsorship perspective, many big brands have hopped on the bandwagon to have their names associated with Copa America Centenario.   Anheuser-Busch, Delta Airlines, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Sprint will all feature prominently in this tournament.  Soccer United Marketing and IMG reportedly guaranteed the tournament organizers a minimum of $20 million for TV and sponsorship rights.  Fox Sports paid $15 million for the privilege of English language rights, while Univision reportedly paid over $60 million for the Spanish language rights. Realistically, the TV ratings for the Spanish language viewers should be tremendous given all the star power.  This proves once again that television reigns supreme in the sports world.

In short, the influx of international soccer fans, the passion of American soccer fans and the tourism revenue that will be present over the next month will be a spectacle that even the most passive sports fan can appreciate.  Copa America is normally held every other year, so the normal schedule would dictate that after the 2015 iteration, the next tournament would not be held since 2017.  To honor 100 years of the tournament (and cash in on the marketing implications of a South American competition on U.S. soil) an exception was made for 2016.  The most amazing part of all this is that the tournament almost didn’t happen after investigators uncovered a bribery scandal involving the organizers in the first place.

In case you’re curious, I predict a Mexico victory over Argentina in the final.

 

REFERENCES

http://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/blog/2015/03/big-score-if-bid-is-successfulcopa-america-could.html

Copa America Soccer Tournament Comes To South Bay

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-04-07/anheuser-busch-delta-to-sponsor-centenario-soccer-tournament

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?

Continue reading “A Fresh Start”

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?

Continue reading “MLS Cup: How Far Back Is The Futbol Championship from the Football Championship?”

A Fitting End to the NASL Season

2895399918This Sunday, in a college football stadium, repurposed as a lacrosse stadium, temporarily outfitted as a soccer stadium,  the modern iteration of the New York Cosmos raised their second Soccer Bowl trophy in three years.  10,166 fans turned out to the game in Hempstead, NY, a North American Soccer League record for the championship match in its still young existence.  With Spanish legends Raul and Marcos Senna retiring this year, it was a fitting end to the Cosmos’ season.  However, with the loss of both these players, the Cosmos, and the NASL lose a considerable novelty factor.  Can minor league soccer flourish in America?

A player who perhaps stole the show was the Argentine forward Gaston Cellerino who moved to the Cosmos after a respectable career in South America.  On the night, he scored a hat trick, proving to be the difference between the two sides.  The Cosmos have many other players that put in admirable performances not just this game, but all season long like goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, and leading scorer Leo Fernandes.

While Maurer played in the Chilean Primera division prior to coming to the NASL, Fernandes provides a feel-good story of a local boy turned team hero.  Born in Brazil but raised in Suffolk County, the NASL website reports that Leo played college soccer at Stony Brook,  leading the team in goals and assists before being promoted to the premier league of American soccer, MLS.  In January of 2015 he was signed on loan by the Cosmos, and made a huge difference for his local club, ending the regular season as its leading scorer, even higher than the legendary Raul.  These are the kinds of stories that NASL needs, but in reality we live in a saturated sports landscape filled with football, college football, baseball, basketball, hockey, European soccer, and American soccer.  To expect minor league soccer to succeed is almost an unfair expectation given the circumstances.

In England, the reality of promotion and relegation definitely tempers expectations for lower division sides that stand to make far less money than their Premier League counterparts who also profit from Champions League participation, Europa League participation, and massive television contracts.  In the closed system of American soccer,  this challenge becomes even greater as the teams in the lower divisions have no outside chance of promotion to the majors, especially when the MLS officially decides to end its expansion efforts.

The NASL has many success stories to be proud of.  One only needs to look at the other team playing on Sunday to see an example.  In their second season, the Ottawa Fury averaged around 5,400 fans at TD Place Stadium, over half of its capacity, without the novelty factor of Raul or Marcos Senna.  Another franchise, the Indy Eleven continued to draw large crowds despite failing to make the playoffs, and averaged almost 10,000 fans at their own setup in a university stadium.  Also in attendance at the championship match was Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, part of the ownership group that announced earlier this year that a franchise was returning to Puerto Rico.

Even though expectations are not as high as one might expect in MLS, the NASL still aims to be competitive.  The Cosmos have already set to work finding a replacement star for Raul, and are still attempting to rescue an ambitious stadium plan a few miles down the road from their current situation at Hofstra University where they only averaged less than 5,000 fans per game this season.  Unfortunately, the Empire State Development Corporation has shown no sign of interest in the project despite any political and union support that the team generates.  While the championship win definitely strengthens their argument for elite status in the league, a 25,000 seat stadium plan may need to be diminished in order for any movement to take place.

Time will tell if this version of the NASL can succeed in its own right.  If novelty factors like star Europeans choose to go to MLS instead, the NASL might need more reliance on local loyalties and the off-the-wall promotion strategies you can expect to find in other minor league sports to survive.

REFERENCES

http://www.nasl.com/roster/leo-fernandes

NASL Attendance: 2015