SBJ/March 4-10, 2013/In Depth

MLS club presidents on the season ahead

With the 2013 Major League Soccer season opening, six club presidents took the time to share their thoughts on some of the major issues surrounding their teams and the league. Here are highlights of what they had to say to SportsBusiness Journal MLS writer Christopher Botta.


What are the biggest challenges in your markets?

Manning: Two things for us in Salt Lake: keeping up in the revenue race with the bigger market teams and fielding a team that any year can win a championship.

David: We need to recover Chivas USA’s identity in the Hispanic market in Southern California and get the true soccer aficionados back at a time when parts of the economy are still struggling.

Bilello: We’ve been trying for years to get a project off the ground around Boston. Right now [in Gillette Stadium], we’re about 40 miles outside of Boston. If you look at how strong MLS has become, a lot of that growth has taken place in urban soccer stadiums with the young-adult demographic. We are still in a football stadium. Wanting to be in the city makes the process more difficult and expensive, but it’s really important for the team and the sport in Boston.

Hinchey: With the Rapids, we have a beautiful stadium [Dick’s Sporting Goods Park] that’s just 7 miles from Denver. But there’s a perception that it’s difficult to get there. That perception is wrong, and we’re in the process of changing it.

Kaval: Completing our new stadium for its opening in 2014 will enable us to launch the Earthquakes as a real major league franchise. We haven’t had our own home [San Jose has been playing at 10,000-seat Buck Shaw Stadium at Santa Clara University]. Getting our stadium up, building our fan base and fielding a competitive team are our major objectives.

Canetti: We’re just 7 years old, so I’d say simply trying to grow the game. We’ve got a lot of momentum in Houston, with a new stadium, strong sales and a winning team. It’s a constant quest to continue to win and grow the fan base.

How many season-ticket holders do you have? Are season tickets a tough sell for your club?

Kaval: We expect to double our season-ticket base when we move into the new stadium next year, but we have 5,000 heading into our last season at Buck Shaw. Keep in mind, at the old stadium we don’t have a lot of amenities that drive
Dave Kaval is looking forward to 2014 when the San Jose Earthquakes will be moving into their new stadium, where the club can offer fans more options and amenities.
Photo by: San Jose Earthquakes
season tickets.

Bilello: The Revolution will have between 4,000 to 5,000 at the start of this season, a little down from last year. When our stadium project is done, we don’t anticipate any problems selling tickets. In the interim, we’re investing a lot in customer service to show how we keep people happy.

Manning: I understand why the final teams without new stadiums want one. Before we opened Rio Tinto Stadium [in October 2008], we had 4,000 season-ticket holders. We will pass 10,000 this season in Salt Lake after having exactly 8,754 last season. The updated numbers are always on my desk. That’s how closely I stay on top of it.

Hinchey: The Rapids have gone from 1,900 to 4,000 over the last two years. We’re not where we want to be, but it’s a start. We’re not giving tickets away and we’re going to build up value with our team performance and customer service.

David: Chivas USA has 2,500 season-ticket holders. The sports market in L.A. is very competitive with the baseball and basketball teams. Many of our fans tell us they find it difficult to commit for a whole season. But with the soccer experience we plan on delivering, with a new roster and coach, that will add full and partial-plan holders as the season goes on.

Canetti: Season tickets are the backbone of our business. The good news for the Dynamo is we doubled our sales going to BBVA Compass Stadium last year. We should be at 12,000 season tickets this season.

What are the next big steps the league has to take to reach Commissioner Don Garber’s stated goal of being one of the world’s top soccer leagues by 2022?

Hinchey: We have to not lose sight that this is a long-term process.

David: We have to make soccer a bigger part in the lives of every citizen in this country. The potential is there, especially with the new generation of soccer players coming from our academies.

Bilello: The goal of 2022 is only nine years away, and kids in the academies now are going to be in the league by then.

Manning: The next television contract will be a big part of the equation [MLS’s three-year deal with NBC expires in 2014]. Just look at where we were in 2002, having contracted two teams, versus where we are now. Night and day. Now think about where we’ll be at this rate in nine years.

Kaval: Continued creative promotion of the game and league is essential. There’s a lot of competition out there for the entertainment dollar.

Television ratings are up, but not near where you want them to be. Agree?

Kaval: Who knows if by 2022, television ratings will even be the proper metric? Here in Silicon Valley, half the people in the Earthquakes’ office don’t even have cable or dish. They consume things through the Internet. With our young fans in MLS, we might have an even greater opportunity to stake out the digital area than other leagues.

Hinchey:
At our quarterly presidents meetings, TV and digital numbers are a big part of the discussion. We’re seeing advances. People watching U.S. Open golf on NBC last summer saw regular plugs for the Rapids’ game against Philadelphia the next week. MLS has never had promotion like that before. It’s only going to get better with NBC also having the Premier League this year, too [see related story, Page 23].

Canetti: The Dynamo had a road game last season against the Revolution that went head-to-head with an Astros-Rangers interleague game. We beat them in the ratings. TV ratings locally and nationally will continue to climb.

Bilello: The ratings for the World Cup and other soccer properties show what this country is capable of. We’ll get there.

Do you think MLS should expand?

Kaval: We’ve seen the NBA and NHL, where they expanded and had some problem franchises. I know Don Garber understands this. Getting to 24 teams instead of the more typical 30 could be the way to go.

Colorado Rapids President Tim Hinchey (left) welcomed new head coach Oscar Pareja last year. Hinchey thinks 24 will eventually be the magic number of franchises for MLS.
Photo by: Getty Images
Hinchey:
Twenty, to me, like the Premier League, feels like a good number for the near future, with 24 being the perfect total after we address the hole in the Southeast that we have.

Manning: As a native New Yorker, I’d love to see that team in Queens. Minneapolis would make for a good rivalry for us in Salt Lake. In the south, Orlando is worth exploring again.

Bilello: One more team in the short term would be great from a scheduling standpoint since we currently have an odd number of teams [19]. I’m sure we’ll look at other markets, but I don’t expect to see a lot of expansion in the near future.

Does MLS need another David Beckham?

David: At Chivas USA, we really need to develop our own stars and my belief is that now should primarily be the case for the league, too.

Canetti: I’m not sure there’s another one like David Beckham, who has the ability to transcend the soccer community and reach the pop culture marketplace. If there is another Beckham out there, we’d love to have him. But I wouldn’t say it is a need at this point to drive league business.

Kaval: With Beckham leaving for Paris Saint-Germain [in France’s Ligue 1], I feel like MLS closed one chapter on
soccer in America about bringing a European superstar here and seeing the impact he had. We’ve moved on to a new chapter, which to me is about what’s going on with the rabid support in the Pacific Northwest. Communities supporting their soccer teams at that high a level is more important than anything that one superstar brings.

Is your team profitable?

Canetti: The new stadium had a dramatic impact on our business in Houston. We saw huge increases in revenue, while our costs were under control. It put us into profitability. The plan is to stay that way and invest some of that profit back on the field.

David: I just got to Chivas USA in October, so I cannot tell you much about the past. But our new ownership is committed and resourceful. We will get on the road to being profitable.

Kaval: I can’t give specifics, but I can tell you the Earthquakes’ revenues have increased each of the last three years. We couldn’t generate enough revenue, even with selling all our seats at the current stadium. But we justified the new stadium with regular sellouts. When we get to the new stadium in 2014, we plan on being profitable.

Manning: Before taxes and debt service, Real Salt Lake is profitable. After that, we’re not. We expect, in the next year or two, to be completely cash-flow positive. We’re in the last year of a jersey deal, and the market has gone up considerably the last few years. That’s an area we see great opportunity in.

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