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.

 

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

 

 

 

Hidden From View: The U.S. Open Cup


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This past Wednesday night in Hempstead, NY on the campus of Hofstra University, almost 11,500 fans packed Shuart Stadium and witnessed the New York Cosmos of (the minor league) NASL upset New York City FC of (the major league) MLS after extra time in a penalty kick shootout.  NYCFC found itself playing on a turf surface designed for college football and a visiting locker room without a tunnel to the pitch, leaving for an awkward walk through the concourse to ogling fans.  Why was a major league soccer team playing in these less than stellar conditions, as have many teams before it?

The U.S. Open Cup is the second oldest continuous tournament in the world, crowning its first champion in 1914.  During that inaugural competition, the Brooklyn Field Club claimed the trophy after defeating Brooklyn Celtic in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  The tournament has taken place every year since, including the years during World War II, and it includes every single professional soccer team in the country, as well as some amateur clubs.

In America, we love a Cinderella story.  But unfortunately, since Major League Soccer was created, only one minor league soccer team has claimed the trophy and that was the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the now USL (United Soccer League) back in 1999.  Since then, an MLS club has won the trophy every season, including last year’s champion, the Seattle Sounders.  Even more unfortunately, not every MLS team takes the tournament seriously with its final prize winnings of only $250,000 and an automatic place in the CONCACAF Champions League, North America’s weaker counterpart to Europe’s UEFA.

Similar tournaments to the Open Cup with a surprisingly less lengthy history are played each year in European powerhouses such as England, Italy, and France with formidable marketing, excellent TV ratings and sell-out crowds. In contrast, the U.S. Open Cup doesn’t even have an official website.  The Cup.us, arguably the most extensive website covering the U.S. Open Cup, was created in 2003 by an internet radio show called “Soccer Fanatics Radio Show” hosted by Josh Hakala.  Since then, the U.S. Soccer Federation has incorporated an Open Cup tab to its website, but with few features and typically just game highlights and a bracket of results.  The quickest way for fans to here about the draw for who their teams would play in each round of matches was through a U.S. Open Cup Twitter account.

In today’s society where sports fans are accustomed to real-time scores, extensive TV coverage, and a marketing blitz, it is amazing to see how the U.S. Open Cup is almost a secret kept in hardcore fan circles.  In order to pack the stadium at Hofstra University, the New York Cosmos marketing team had to work in-house to get the message across digital media and radio stations like WFAN in New York that the game was even taking place. The “derby” concept of two New York teams playing each other for the first time in history had to be more emphasized than the intrigue surrounding the century old tournament.

The U.S. Open Cup seems to be a missed opportunity for growing soccer’s success in America.  In a country that views baseball as its pastime, and football as its TV ratings king, the fact that soccer owns the oldest sports competition still played in the U.S. just might blow people’s minds if advertised effectively. Until then, let’s hope for a Cinderella story that can bring the tournament out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

REFERENCES

http://thecup.us/2015/05/11/about-this-site-how-thecup-us-became-us-open-cups-premier-independent-media-outlet/

http://www.nycosmos.com/news/2015/06/18/wild-finish-sees-cosmos-past-nycfc-on-penalties

http://www.ussoccer.com/lamar-hunt-us-open-cup/open-cup-champions

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/