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Volume 20 No. 42
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Bold, innovative … but still secret

MLS not ready to reveal plans for money from equity firm’s stake in SUM

MLS Commissioner Don Garber was not ready last week to divulge how the league will use the money resulting from Providence Equity Partners earlier this year buying a stake in Soccer United Marketing, MLS’s marketing arm. The deal, completed in March, was expected to bring $125 million to the league.

“We should be ready to share our vision for the investment at some point in the next six months,” said Garber during a break in the two-day meetings of more than 250 team, league and industry executives at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel. He did not shy away from saying that the move will be bold.

“How we allocate the monies that we received from Providence will be innovative,” Garber said. “Balanced risk is important. We’re going to go as fast as we can and as hard as we can so we can meet our goal of being one of the top leagues in the world in the next 10 years.”

Risk was a key theme in MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s state of the league address.
In Garber’s Wednesday morning address to open the summit, risk was a key theme.

“Teams need to have a good plan but also push the envelope,” he said after the session. “The league did with the Providence deal. We did it with the creation of SUM 10 years ago. We’re encouraging teams to take risks.”

Garber’s state of the league address was followed Wednesday morning by updates from MLS President Mark Abbott, SUM President Kathy Carter, MLS Chief Marketing Officer Howard Handler and Todd Durbin, league executive vice president of player relations and competition. The theme of the summit was “Go to Goal.”

NSC SHAPING THE FUTURE: Bryant Pfeiffer, MLS vice president of club services, said the league’s National Sales Center has placed 82 trainees in jobs with MLS clubs over the last two years.

Created by Pfeiffer in July 2010 in Blaine, Minn., the NSC trains salespeople — optimally, true believers in soccer and the MLS brand — and recommends the best candidates to franchises with openings after they take coursework that lasts anywhere from 45 to 120 days. The trainees also sell season tickets for all MLS clubs from the NSC, resulting in added revenue for the clubs. (MLS would not divulge sales figures). The program was recognized in May at the international Stadium Business Summit in Turin, Italy, as winner of the Sponsorship, Sales & Marketing Award.

As a result of the NSC’s success, Pfeiffer said he has started to hear from other leagues and teams.

“We’ve even had inquiries from companies outside the sports industry,” he said. “They want to know how the program works, and I’m happy to take them through it.”

All 19 MLS clubs have hired at least one of the 82 trainees placed so far. Some have already been promoted internally. Zeeshan Hussain, now the corporate ticket sales manager for FC Dallas; Eric Hanninen, the inside sales manager for the San Jose Earthquakes; and Jacob Hanselman, a senior ticket sales executive with the Chicago Fire, are all graduates of the program. This year, Hanselman finished in the top 20 among MLS salespeople in new season tickets sold.

“We’re proud of how the initial blueprint for the program started on the back of a napkin and continues to evolve,” said Pfeiffer, the former senior director of ticket sales of the Minnesota Timberwolves before joining MLS in 2007. “It has become an industry leader in sales training innovation and a test laboratory for developing sales culture and management ideas for MLS.”

BRAND BUILDING: Prior to the start of departmental breakout sessions for the rest of the summit, MLS and SUM hosted a panel discussion titled “Brand Building in a Fragmented Marketplace.” Participating in the discussion were Betty Noonan, vice president of marketing and brand management for Panasonic; Mark Wright, vice president of media services and sponsorships for AT&T; and Quaker Oats Chief Marketing Officer Justin Lambeth.

“What sport is the most popular globally and the fastest-rising in the U.S.? Soccer,” said Lambeth, whose company signed a jersey sponsorship deal with the Chicago Fire this year. Lambeth told the audience that the deal fit in with Quaker’s strategy to update its brand image.

Noonan joined Panasonic last year after 25 years at Kodak. In her first month on the job, she had to decide whether to renew Panasonic’s deal with MLS.

“My job is to change the brand,” Noonan said. “I didn’t think Panasonic was utilizing the asset of soccer as effectively as it should. We did another deal with MLS but expanded it to the U.S. national teams.”

After the panel discussion, Noonan explained why she accepted MLS’s invitation to attend the summit.

“I like to meet people and get my hands dirty,” she said. “In my opinion, not a lot gets done in the office.”

Since Wright is also in his first year at his company after two decades at Anheuser-Busch, he embraced the opportunity to represent AT&T at the summit.

“These league meetings are a good chance to talk about what’s important to us,” Wright said. “Also, I want to work with people I like — and the people at MLS are first-rate.”

EXTRA KICKS: On Tuesday night, summit participants watched the World Cup qualifier between the United States and Jamaica from the porch of the Upper 90 Club, overlooking the pitch at Crew Stadium. According to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, the sellout crowd of more than 24,000 included fans from 43 states, with only 38 percent of the game’s attendees from Ohio.

“We worked closely with U.S. Soccer to have the match here,” Garber said after the match. “I’ve been to dozens of qualifiers, and I’ve never been to an event quite like that. Too often, the U.S. team plays in this country and feels like a visitor. We had the home-field advantage [Tuesday]. Columbus over-delivered in every way.”

The match was also a good night for networking. Among the conversations, while speaking with Noonan of Panasonic during the game, FC Dallas President and CEO Doug Quinn told her, “We need to talk about our stadium.” The naming rights of FC Dallas Stadium are available — but no word if that’s where any subsequent discussion led.