SBJ/March 5-11, 2012/In-Depth

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  • Soccer's new stage

    Mark Abbott loved this year’s Super Bowl. Not because of Eli Manning’s heroics, but because of what he saw in NBC’s pregame and postgame shows: promotions for Major League Soccer. For Abbott, the president of MLS, feeling proud as a peacock is a mighty fine thing indeed.

    MLS Commissioner Don Garber (left) and NBC Sports President of Programming Jon Miller announce their television deal last year.
    Photo by: ICON SMI
    The Super Bowl promos marked the start of what network and league executives say will be an aggressive campaign to build the sister NBC Sports Network (formerly known as Versus) with soccer and hockey as the anchor tenants. For MLS, the allure is having not just a new television home, but also the rest of the NBC Universal portfolio, including the flagship NBC over-the-air network.

    MLS signed with NBC last summer for three years, starting with the 2012 season. Industry sources estimate the deal is worth $10 million annually.

    Terms call for NBC Sports Network to show 38 regular-season MLS games, with three more shown on NBC, the most on English-language U.S. network television in a decade. Five playoff games, plus four U.S. men’s national games, are also part of the 50-game package, though how those will be divided between NBC Sports Network and NBC remains undetermined.

    Fox Soccer controlled the portion of the MLS media rights that NBC acquired. ESPN, a league partner since MLS launched in 1996, will air 21 regular-season matches split among ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes, as well as the all-star game and MLS Cup. Univision has Spanish-language rights. All three MLS TV contracts expire after the 2014 season. (TSN has Canadian rights through 2016.)

    Some significant elements of NBC’s coverage plans still lack details. For play-by-play duties, NBC hired Arlo White, who covered the Premier League for BBC Radio before becoming the voice of the Seattle Sounders. Analysts, likely to be former players, have yet to be announced. Executive producer Sam Flood and Pierre Moossa, an associate producer on “Sunday Night Football,” will set the tone for the telecasts.

    NBC’s coverage begins March 11 with a match between FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls.
    “They will give it its own voice, its own look,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “They will be true to the sport. They will take an awful lot of input from the MLS and from soccer fans and from soccer aficionados as to what the fan is really looking for here. It will be much like our NHL coverage: geared towards the fan and making them feel part of the game.”

    Expect pregame and postgame previews and recaps of about 10 minutes each for all of the matches. Those segments have been built in to the allotted air time for MLS games, the network said.

    MLS “left money on the table” by accepting NBC’s offer, Miller said. The league did so for good reason, he said, because NBC’s blend of strong storytelling and combination of 20 TV networks and 40 digital networks can give the sport cachet and exposure few can match.

    Abbott is counting on those benefits.

    MLS regular-season ratings trends
    MLS averaged 291,000 viewers for regular-season matches in the 2011 season across ESPN and ESPN2, up 15 percent from an average of 253,000 viewers in 2010. MLS also saw gains on Fox Soccer in the 2011 season, averaging 70,000 viewers for its 27 telecasts, up from 53,000 viewers the previous two seasons.
    MLS viewership on ESPN/ESPN2
    SEASON TELECASTS VIEWERS (000s)
    2011 20 291
    2010 25 253
    2009 26 299
    MLS viewership on Fox Soccer
    SEASON TELECASTS VIEWERS (000s)
    2011 27 70
    2010 31 53
    2009 34 53

    Notes: Figures exclude All-Star Game, World Football Challenge matches and friendlies involving MLS teams.
    Source: SportsBusiness Daily research

    “The NBC Sports Group is legendary for their story-building,” he said. “You see that in all of the sports properties they have. They’re going to apply that skill and that approach to building people’s awareness of the stars in Major League Soccer.”

    David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry give NBC a solid foundation of star players, but executives want to help create more household names. Miller mentions the approach used in the network’s long-running Olympics coverage, a signature style of athlete profiles both famous and infamous for gauzy, heart-tugging angles.

    Executives on both sides hope to increase interest in MLS this summer with not just the style of the Games, but also the substance. NBC Sports Network will show a number of Olympic soccer matches from London, providing a natural tie-in for MLS games. Even better, four to five MLS matches will be immediately preceded by Olympic soccer.

    Coverage begins March 11 on NBC Sports Network with a match between FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls. NBC and NBC Sports Network will close the regular season Oct. 27 with a tripleheader.

    For NBC, adding MLS games satisfies a basic demand for content as the converted Versus begins its push for a broader audience. NBC Sports Network now reaches 76 million homes. ESPN and ESPN2, by comparison, are in just under 100 million homes.

    “To some degree, it reminds me of the early days of ESPN2 when they virtually built the network with NHL games,” said Mike Trager, a sports media consultant. “I think the NHL and MLS provide NBC with foundation programming until they can access more traditional opportunities that may arise in the future with football, baseball and basketball.”

    Turnkey Sports Poll
    The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in February. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
    In 2012, the NBC family of networks replaces Fox Sports as an MLS television partner. How will this new partnership affect the sport's long-term growth?
    Major positive effect 20%
    Minor positive effect 45%
    No effect 27%
    Not sure / No response 8%
    In your opinion, which of the following potential MLS All-Star Game formats would draw the most attention to the event?
    MLS All-Stars vs. an English Premier League team 55%
    MLS All-Stars vs. U.S. national team 14%
    MLS All-Stars divided into two teams (e.g.: East vs. West, U.S. stars vs. international stars, etc.) 13%
    MLS All-Stars vs. a team from a league other than EPL 3%
    Not sure / No response 15%
    Last fall the Columbus Crew, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Columbus Clippers launched a co-promotional marketing campaign. Will other MLS teams pursue similar marketing concepts in 2012?
    Yes, a handful of teams will go this route 56%
    No 16%
    Yes, many teams will go this route 5%
    Not sure / No response 23%
    Source:Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.
    Last year, NBC expanded its NHL relationship with a 10-year contract extension before pursuing MLS.

    Having soccer could also help the network cultivate the next generation of its audience. The latest ESPN Sports Poll of American fans found surging interest in pro soccer, particularly among people between the ages of 12 to 24.

    Miller, the NBC executive, said soccer appeals to a target audience of adults ages 18 to 49, but also resonates with audiences much younger and older. MLS sponsors Adidas and Pepsi are among the likely advertisers on NBC’s various broadcasts, network officials said. Executives declined to discuss rates and sales targets, but said they are pleased with the initial response.

    In the weeks and months ahead, MLS ads and promotions are planned across the NBC Sports portfolio, including Golf Channel, NBCSports.com and regional sports networks. Five teams (the Philadelphia Union, New England Revolution, San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago Fire and D.C. United) have regular-season TV contracts with Comcast-owned NBC Sports Group RSNs.

    NBC points to a range of positive business trends as proof the MLS is ready for prime time. Start with a boom of soccer-specific stadiums built or renovated in recent seasons, including Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City last year. In May, Houston opens a 22,000-seat, $95 million stadium for the Dynamo. NBC Sports Network will air the first game from the new stadium May 12. Last week, San Jose won approval to build a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium.

    Fourteen of the soccer-specific stadiums have naming-rights agreements. In December, BBVA Compass put its name on the Houston stadium, a deal worth a reported $20 million over 10 years. Similarly, all but a handful of the franchises have sold jersey sponsorships. Barbasol shaving cream became the latest addition, recently signing with the Columbus Crew for five years.

    Last season, attendance across the league increased by 7.2 percent, to 17,872, on average, according to MLS. The league had 18 clubs in 2011. This season Montreal enters as the 19th franchise.

    Despite the recent gains, NBC’s Miller urges patience.

    “We feel that it’s going to take some time to build it up,” he said. “We’ve got to get people used to coming to NBC Sports Network to watch soccer, just like we had to with hockey on Versus. Over time, we’ll do a good job and build this brand up.”

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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  • MLS shares the soccer spotlight in new KickTV video site on YouTube

    A couple of caveats about Kick TV, the latest venture from Major League Soccer’s digital division: It isn’t really about MLS, and it’s not on your TV.

    Instead, Kick TV is part of Google’s $100 million, 100-channel venture to kick-start its YouTube online video site into an infinite series of themed channels. MLS Digital pitched the idea of Kick TV to Google and YouTube as a global soccer site featuring news and analysis, instructional sessions and full-length versions of memorable games from past seasons.

    Kick TV launched in February, with a separate MLS Digital crew responsible for all of the content while YouTube handles ad sales and contributes Google’s promotional power. MLS and Google will share ad revenue.

    The soccer site features news and analysis, memorable games and instructional sessions.
    Chris Schlosser, general manager of MLS Digital, said the biggest worldwide soccer stories will take precedence. That means plenty of coverage of the Barclays Premier League and the UEFA Champions League as well as MLS.

    “This is not an MLS-U.S. soccer channel,” Schlosser said. “This is a channel that is covering the global sport of soccer.” As an example of the distinction, the official MLS site, MLSsoccer.com, won’t include a link to Kick TV, he said.

    Features include “The Mixer,” which is just what its name implies, a blend of topical news and stories from the soccer world shot in magazine-show format. Co-hosts include Jimmy Conrad, a retired MLS player who played in the World Cup as part of the U.S. national team, and Steve Nicol, the beloved Liverpool player from the 1980s who went on to coach the New England Revolution for 10 years. Additional Kick TV shows will be produced by freelancers overseas, Schlosser said.

    Kick Classics are uncut games from past years, with a heavy emphasis in the first few weeks on MLS friendlies against European powers and past MLS matches. Pop-up anecdotes and factoids have been added to the archival game broadcasts.

    MLS Digital plans to hire 20 full-time staffers to work on the YouTube channel, which is free for users and relies on advertising alone for revenue. An unspecified number of contractors will also be hired for the New York-based venture. Executives at MLS Digital and YouTube declined to discuss revenue and profit forecasts. Viewer numbers for YouTube are public and will be available soon for Kick TV.

    Sports ranks as one of YouTube’s most popular categories. In addition to MLS, the site has recently launched similar ventures with Red Bull, Tony Hawk, Bleacher Report and Alli Sports.

    Soccer clips already rank high on YouTube viewership, but a consolidated site with the sheen of professional production could command a bigger and more loyal audience, executives at MLS and Google believe. The sport’s global dominance is key. Seventy percent of YouTube’s 4 billion daily views come from beyond the U.S.

    Claude Ruibal, head of sports content at YouTube, knows the world of soccer — and soccer’s hold on the world — well. He spent several years leading Coca-Cola’s global soccer marketing campaigns.

    Ruibal mentions intense interest among fans for the smallest scrap of news or soccer-related clips as the basis to be bullish. Independent team sites for FC Barcelona and Real Madrid attract significant clicks and viewership merely by posting footage of players walking through the tunnel to the pitch, for example. “Fans can’t get enough,” he said.

    Beyond the global soccer site, MLS Digital has made changes to its leaguewide online offerings. Denver-based Double Encore redesigned the MLS apps for 2012, a year after the number of downloaded MLS applications doubled.

    In addition, NeuLion teamed with the league to relaunch its subscription service, including a monthly option for the first time. The subscription service, known as MLS Live, is $59.99 for the season or $9.99 a month. The full-season package consists of 230 games and is available online and on the iPad, iPhone, Roku and Panasonic TVs.

    ISM, a London company, has produced a new fantasy game for MLS, the company’s first U.S. project. Other clients of ISM include UEFA and the Premier League.

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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  • What a difference a decade makes

    A decade ago, MLS faced a future that was anything but secure. The 2001 season produced the league’s lowest regular-season TV ratings ever. The league contracted and shed the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion franchises early in 2002, leaving the league with 10 clubs and three owners — Phil Anschutz, the Kraft family and the Hunt family. And those owners were beginning to grumble about the money they were using to keep the league afloat.

    Tampa Bay Mutiny, circa 2001
    Photo by: Getty Images

    Fast forward to 2012, as the league kicks off its 17th season, and you’ll find an MLS on much more secure footing, with several positives to highlight. Among them:

    ■ Montreal paid $40 million to become the league’s 19th club and makes its debut this season. This comes on the back of MLS welcoming clubs in Portland and Vancouver in 2011. A potential New York expansion team could go for as much as $100 million.

    ■ This season, 15 of 19 clubs will be playing in stadiums built with soccer in mind. In 2002, only one club played in a soccer-specific stadium.

    ■ In 2011, MLS set a record for average attendance at 17,844 fans per game, with a record 87 sellouts during the regular season. Ten clubs averaged more than 17,000 fans per game. In comparison, attendance for 2001 averaged 14,961.

    ■ A decade ago, the league’s national TV agreements were barter arrangements and MLS covered all production costs. Now, MLS receives a rights fee from its TV partners with production costs covered. The Los Angeles Galaxy has its own multimillion-dollar agreement with Time Warner Cable.

    Seattle Sounders, circa 2011
    Photo by: Getty Images
    ■ In 2001, the league did not allow teams to sell jersey sponsorships. That changed in 2006 when MLS gave teams the go-ahead to add that lucrative category. Today, all but three MLS clubs have such sponsorships, with the latest being a five-year deal between the Columbus Crew and Perio (Barbasol) that was announced in February.

    — Staff reports

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  • Looking to make a major Impact

    The Montreal Impact takes to the pitch this season as the 19th MLS franchise, and front and center of the club’s efforts to prepare for that debut is Richard Legendre. The club’s executive vice president is no stranger to the Quebec sports scene. After playing tennis at Florida State University, Legendre returned home and represented Canada in the Davis Cup. He served as the Canadian Open tournament director and also as sports minister in the Quebec government. As for the Impact, the team dates to 1993 and is moving up to MLS from second-division play. Legendre and his team

    have been working to convey to the community what the “big league” is all about. Legendre said that a record number of season tickets have been sold and that there has been a steady buzz in the community. “Montreal is excited,” he said. The Impact will play its first game against the Chicago Fire on March 17 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Legendre recently spoke to SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Kristen Heimstead about the efforts to get the Impact ready for the transition.

    ■ How has the team been marketing itself to the community, and what has the evolving excitement looked like?

    Richard Legendre is helping to build enthusiasm for MLS’s newest franchise.
    Photo by: Montreal Impact
    Legendre:
    Historically we’ve been very, very accessible and we’ve developed a trademark that the Impact is the most accessible professional team in Montreal. Although we are now going in the big league, we want to maintain that. In the past, the majority of our fans have come as a family. [Impact President] Joey Saputo is family-oriented, and we want to continue that but also diversify our fans to those who really follow MLS and international soccer. I think a key message we are trying to convey is that it’s a new era, new product, new show. We are an existing team, but there is novelty. It’s a challenge because we’ve been there for 18 years, and then all of a sudden it’s new. The caliber is much higher and it’s more “soccer authentic.” It’s very important we convey that to the community. Our logo is in the shape of a shield, and we’ve been using words like “playing with pride,” “defending the north,” “a new conquest.” Our slogan is, “Tous Pour Gagner,” which means “All for Winning.” We’re trying to create a huge collective rally behind the team.

    ■Given your background as a professional tennis player and as the Quebec minister of sports, how did you arrive at the Montreal Impact?

    Legendre:
    It was a bit of being in the right place at the right time. In 2007 after being in politics for six years, Joey
    Saputo was looking for someone to help him out with the construction of Saputo Stadium. I had been responsible for the construction of the tennis stadium in Montreal, so that was good timing for me for sure. I had also been in contact with the Montreal Impact while in politics. I didn’t have a soccer background, but when you go through different challenges, you see that you can use stuff you learned … in tennis, politics … and they’re quite applicable to any field. I am now a soccer guy, but I wasn’t five years ago.

    ■ How has your experience as an athlete and ingrained sense of competitiveness prepared you to manage this first-year team?

    Legendre:
    It’s interesting you ask that. Once you’ve had the chance to compete, doesn’t matter which sport, you realize that the most important element of all is the athlete, the product on the field. And that has been Saputo’s philosophy from the beginning. Yes, corporate sales are important; marketing is important; ticket sales are important. But all of this is going toward one goal, which brings me back to our slogan, “Tous Pour Gagner.” That’s what sports are all about. I have a lot of respect for players, coaches, technical staff. The most important thing is to make sure the players are happy and can perform at their best. That’s what the fans are coming to see. I think once you’ve competed in your life you realize that’s first and foremost.

    ■What goals do you have for this coming season?

    Legendre:
    For our first game the objective is to break the record that we’ve had at the Olympic Stadium in our soccer
    history. In 1981, the [Montreal] Manic played Chicago and drew a little more than 55,000. We’re playing Chicago for our opening game again, so we want to rewrite history and break that record. The opening game is a major event in itself. It sends a very strong message. So that goal of beating the record is quite important to us. Then after that we have four more games at the Olympic Stadium, and then we move to Saputo Stadium, so we want to continue to maintain high attendance. We want it to be a good series of events. That word “event” is important to Montreal. Montreal is a city of events.

    ■ What are your feelings now as the first match approaches, and how do you think you will feel after the first match is completed?

    Legendre:
    We’re very, very excited, and there is still a lot to be done. Even though you plan, you prepare, you coordinate, we’ll be going full speed until March 17. It’s important we all realize it’s a new beginning, and just the beginning. As much as we say we really want to do well at that first game, this first season is important. It’s not just one game. We want support from the people throughout the season, and it’s to build up for the next season. It’s not a one-day affair. Duration and continuity are very important in everybody’s mind. After the first game, I don’t anticipate any kind of letdown. After the first game it’s, “Wow, get ready, Toronto is coming next, and we want to beat them!” And so on, and so on.

    ■ What kind of feedback did you get from fans on the construction of Saputo Stadium, and how did they react about the first games not being played there?

    Legendre:
    One of the key elements that came from the fans was a half roof all around the stadium, so the new stadium will have one-third of its seats covered. It has a real European flavor, and our fans really like that. We think the ambience will be much better and the sound will stay with the stadium much more. We’re adding seats and making the stadium bigger, but it’s really as if the stadium will become more intimate because of the roof. We’ve received great feedback from the fans. As for starting the season at the Olympic Stadium, I don’t think we will need to explain for very long on March 17 [because of the cold weather] that it is probably better that we play indoors. Even in the future, we may continue this idea of starting one or two games at the Olympic Stadium. Fans have really enjoyed watching soccer games at the Olympic Stadium. It’s not a consolation prize. For us it is a great opportunity.

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  • Teams toast the benefits of beer category

    MLS franchises have taken advantage of the ability to strike local sponsorship deals in the beer category.

    Beer is among the latest, and most lucrative, sponsor categories to be untethered from larger leaguewide deals, a development MLS and team executives call a sign of progress. Insurance, cars and soft drinks (Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s exclusive pouring rights at the new Houston Dynamo stadium serve as a prime example) have also been divided, giving teams the chance to generate more revenue and collaborate on local and regional promotions.

    The Portland Timbers struck a deal for homegrown microbrewer Widmer Brothers to be the franchise’s official craft beer.
    Photo by: Portland Timbers
    Budweiser and its parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, began sponsoring MLS when the league started in 1996. At the time, the company’s imprimatur gave the fledgling soccer league crucial credibility. By the time the beermaker negotiated its latest agreement, a four-year contract that began with the 2011 season, MLS had gained enough clout to exclude local beer rights.

    That gave teams such as the expansion Portland Timbers a key category for local sponsor sales. Portland struck a deal with Budweiser as its domestic beer and added homegrown microbrewer Widmer Brothers as the franchise’s official craft beer.

    The beer category ranks among Portland’s top local partnerships, said Mike Golub, Timbers chief operating officer. He declined to disclose specific terms. “What was really important to us as we were launching the franchise was the promotional power that both really bring,” Golub said, noting that Widmer produced a Timbers-themed seasonal ale and Budweiser put the team logo on local delivery trucks.

    Local beer sponsorships for MLS clubs sell in the range of $250,000 to $300,000 annually, industry sources say.
    Widmer Brothers produced a Timbers-themed seasonal ale.
    Photo by: Portland Timbers
    Terms can vary based on market size and how extensive the company’s involvement is with the team at the stadium and in other marketing aspects. All 19 MLS teams now have local deals in the beer category (see chart).

    In Chicago, the Fire had a deal with Miller Lite for a party deck at the team’s home stadium, but expanded the agreement to encompass broader local marketing rights once the new MLS agreement kicked in.

    Chicago also works with Crown Imports, the joint venture that promotes and distributes Corona and Modelo, among other brands, said Dave Beck, Fire vice president of corporate partnerships.

    Anheuser-Busch may no longer be the sponsor of all MLS teams, but it remains a strong player nonetheless at the local level. Ten teams have sponsorships with A-B. The company is also a founding partner at The Home Depot Center, home of Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Last season, Grupo Modelo signed a deal to put the Corona Extra logo on Chivas USA jerseys. In Canada, the Vancouver and Montreal MLS teams are tied to A-B, too.

    The shift reflects a new stature for MLS, executives say.

    “The commercial value for a partner today is vastly different than what it was 17 years ago [when MLS started],” said David Wright, MLS senior vice president of global sponsorship. “And that value has led to the evolution of this model.”

    Local beer deals in MLS

    Club Beer partner
    Columbus Crew Anheuser-Busch
    Chicago Fire MillerCoors, Crown Imports
    Chivas USA Modelo (Crown Imports)
    Colorado Rapids Coors Light
    D.C. United Corona
    FC Dallas Anheuser-Busch
    Houston Dynamo Anheuser-Busch
    Sporting KC Anheuser-Busch
    Los Angeles Galaxy Corona
    Montreal Impact Anheuser-Busch
    New England Revolution Quality Beverage
    New York Red Bulls MillerCoors
    Portland Timbers Anheuser-Busch, Widmer Brothers
    Philadelphia Union Anheuser-Busch, Miller
    Real Salt Lake Anheuser-Busch
    Seattle Sounders Anheuser-Busch
    San Jose Earthquakes Corona
    Toronto FC Carlsberg
    Vancouver Whitecaps Anheuser-Busch
    Source: Major League Soccer
    The current four-year contract Anheuser-Busch signed with Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of MLS, is worth a total of $10 million-plus for the soccer league. The national U.S. and Mexican teams are included in the deal.
    Anheuser-Busch has rights to all league and team logos. In addition to Budweiser, which remains a frequent advertiser during nationally televised games, Anheuser-Busch expects to keep using the MLS sponsorship to promote its Chelada beers.

    “Soccer United Marketing wanted to rework their revenue structure, not unlike NFL, MLB, you name it,” said Brad Brown, Anheuser-Busch vice president of sports and entertainment marketing. “Where there is a combination of league assets and rights and then the ability for the local teams to sell local access and rights as well. Given our commitment to the growth of soccer, the key demographics that it hits for us, it was still a very viable option for us to pursue a league deal.”

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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