SBJ/November 26-December 2, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

MLS gets home-field advantage

L.A. a familiar site in MLS Cup’s first year away from neutral field

Thirteen days before her department was to run the events for the 2012 MLS Cup, Jen Maurillo was at home in Connecticut, watching the Western Conference Final on ESPN with a personal interest in learning the location of the league’s championship game.

“I’ve never watched a match with so much interest,” said Maurillo, vice president of special events for MLS. “It could have been Seattle or Los Angeles. We were prepared for both, but still, you wanted to know.”

The Galaxy and Dynamo meet again at The Home Depot Center, but it’s no longer neutral ground.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The Los Angeles Galaxy closed out its two-game aggregate series with Seattle on Nov. 18 to earn the right to face Houston for the MLS Cup on Saturday and host the league’s first title match not played at a predetermined site.

In the first 16 years of the league, the location for MLS Cup was chosen from a pool of applicant cities and announced in the spring. The host club, league executives and corporate partners had six months to prepare for the event. Now, Maurillo and company had 13 days.

MLS caught a break for the new venture, though. The Home Depot Center hosted the MLS Cup last year (coincidentally, also between the Galaxy and Dynamo). The Carson, Calif., venue was the selected neutral site of the championship game in 2003, 2004 and 2008, as well.

“There’s definitely a familiarity,” said Maurillo, who has been with MLS since 2000. “We’re very comfortable in Los Angeles.”

It was a year ago that the league’s ownership board approved moving the MLS Cup from a neutral site to the city of the conference champion with the best record.

“We thought the idea of a stand-alone event would be special, and our industry would be able to come together,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said of the first 16 title matches in league history. “But the trade-off was that we were playing a game without having a home crowd. Unlike the Super Bowl, where the home fans travel anywhere, we were not getting that environment. It wasn’t an environment that was as special as any of our regular-season home games.”

Garber said the league’s attendance growth — MLS set a record in 2011, when the decision was made, and the league set a record again this year — convinced the owners that the host team could sell out the game with less than two weeks’ notice. Ticket prices for the 2012 MLS Cup, which will be broadcast on ESPN, TeleFutura, TSN and RDS, range from $57.50 to $450.

“Years ago, we didn’t think we could sell out only a week or two in advance of a game in early December,” Garber said. “In many of our markets, we would have been concerned about attendance. That’s a no-brainer today.”

The match is expected to sell out, even with Home Depot Center’s capacity increased by temporary seating from 27,000 to more than 30,000. The Galaxy helped the league get a jump at the box office: After Los Angeles took a commanding 3-0 lead in the first leg of its playoff series against Seattle on Nov. 11, the team held an advance sale for its season-ticket holders, allowing them to buy their own seats plus additional tickets.

“We actually had to put the brakes on it a little bit,” said Chris Klein, Galaxy vice president. “This is a big deal for L.A. We started hearing from everyone on Monday morning [Nov. 19]: celebrities, star athletes, corporate partners. The problem won’t be selling out the game but having enough tickets for everyone to purchase.”

Further adding to the atmosphere is the fact that the game will be a farewell match for David Beckham, who announced last week that the MLS Cup will be his last game with the Galaxy.

The Dynamo last Monday received 1,000 tickets from MLS to sell to supporters and season-ticket holders in Houston. The tickets, made available online on a first-come, first-served basis, sold out immediately.

There were concerns, however, about the ability — and in some cases, willingness — of some of the league’s top sponsors to activate at the MLS Cup on short notice.

“It’s a race to book flights, arrange staffing and have materials shipped,” said Tracy Drelich-Knauer, associate promotions and sponsorship manager at Castrol. “There’s no question that any hassle will be compensated by the intense home-crowd atmosphere for the match, but there is a lot of work to be done.”

David Wright, MLS senior vice president of global sponsorship, acknowledged that a few league sponsors — including Panasonic, which is focused on its sponsorship of a tour of the U.S. women’s national team — declined to activate in Los Angeles this weekend.

“The new format is another example of the league’s growth,” Wright said, “but there will always be a handful of partners that aren’t able to activate due to logistical or geographic constraints.”

Wright added that sponsors skipping the MLS Cup are “already gearing up” for the First Kick platform, the league’s opening series of games to the start of the 2013 regular season.

Among sponsors participating in Soccer Celebration, the pregame activation space on the stadium grounds, are A-B InBev, Allstate, AT&T, Castrol, Continental Tire, El Jimador Tequila, Makita, National Guard, Xbox, The Home Depot and Volkswagen.

For the visiting team, taking sponsors on the road can be good for business. At last year’s title game, Dynamo executives hosted several prospective clients. Among them were representatives of BBVA Compass.

“We paid a lot of attention to them,” said Dynamo President Chris Canetti.

Three weeks later, Houston signed BBVA Compass to a 10-year, $20 million deal as naming-rights partner of the club’s new stadium, which opened in May. Canetti said the Dynamo did “more prospecting than entertaining” last year in Los Angeles and that this time it will be the other way around. Canetti also hopes for a change in the outcome on the scoreboard. The Galaxy defeated the Dynamo, 1-0, to win the 2011 MLS Cup.

The winning team this year will receive a new spin on the standard championship T-shirts and caps. The champion will receive scarves and wool skull caps in team colors marked 2012 MLS Cup Champions.

“It is in line with our demo, the Gen Y crowd,” said Maribeth Towers, senior vice president of consumer products for MLS. “Our players have expressed a desire to do something different, and we embrace being indie and edgy.”

Of course, the league’s most radical move is to give one team a home-pitch advantage in the championship match. MLS’s commitment to the new format is open-ended.

“Think of the World Series, but only one game,” Garber said. “That’s the kind of experience we’re looking to do locally.”

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