Major League Soccer – does anyone really care anymore?
The MLS Cup takes place Sunday evening at Toronto’s BMO Field (it will be cold in the Frozen North on a late November evening). One look at Toronto’s three daily newspapers and media across Canada and one has to wonder if anyone in Canada’s biggest city is aware a championship is going to be contested this weekend. Major League Soccer has done a lot of things right, but appears to be at a crossroads. Attendance seems to have plateaued, television ratings are terrible, but the league continues to expand and move forward. The league’s destiny may be decided on December 2 when FIFA awards the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. The United States is bidding for the 2022 event, a key to the future of Major League Soccer.
In 1999, Don Garber was named Commissioner of Major League Soccer after spending 16 years with the National Football League as head of NFL International. Under Garber’s leadership, MLS has moved forward. In 1998 MLS reportedly lost an estimated $34 million. One of the key decisions MLS made during Garber’s tenure took place in 2003 when the league mandated that all of its member teams had to play in soccer-specific-stadiums, facilities that seat approximately 25,000.
Garber’s insight into FIFA (the governing body for soccer worldwide) and the popularity of the sport in America led Garber to create Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of Major League Soccer. Garber’s first major decision with SUM was to purchase the 2002 and 2006 World Cup rights for $40 million. Garber next sold the rights to Disney (ABC and ESPN). The package Garber sold ABC and ESPN included regular coverage of MLS games, a classic example of using one sport property (the World Cup) to leverage another sports entity (Major League Soccer).
Garber’s goal in creating SUM was to make the MLS the sole proprietor for soccer properties in the United States.
Major League Soccer averaged 16,675 fans per game, an increase of about 4%, the league’s third best figure ever. The Seattle Sounders, who play at Qwest Field (and who don’t play at a soccer specific stadium, and utilize only the stadium lower bowl) averaged 36,173 fans per game; their average dramatically boosts the league’s overall attendance. Overall the league is playing to 78 percent, a respectable attendance figure.
Television ratings for MLS haven’t been good. MLS ratings on ESPN2 reportedly fell 12% from last year (284,000, 24 telecasts), and down 2% from 2008 (253,000, 25 telecasts. When compared to ESPN2’s WNBA ratings, the WNBA is attracting more viewers than MLS. ESPN2 averaged 258,000 viewers for WNBA regular season games this year, and Versus averaged 366,000 viewers for IndyCar racing.
According to majorleaguesoccertalk.com, ratings on Fox Soccer Channel were ‘flat’ although terrible might be a more appropriate description. Fox Soccer Channel, whose MLS telecasts aired primarily on Saturday nights, saw its slate of 31 matches average 53,000 viewers this season, flat with last season. Fox's Galaxy-Red Bulls match on August 14, which marked the first game for Red Bulls MF Rafael Marquez, was FSC's most-viewed game telecast this season with 144,000 viewers. To put that into context, Fox Soccer Channel's viewing audience for the 2010-11 opening weekend game between Liverpool and Arsenal was 291,000 viewers (an 8am PT/11am ET broadcast on a Sunday).
Toronto is hosting the MLS in only their fourth year in the league. Vancouver joins the league next year and Montreal the year after. Ottawa and Edmonton might be looking at MLS in the next five years. Canada and MLS are working well together, something Garber acknowledged during his state of the league Tuesday.
“Well, I think our expansion into Canada has transformed Major League Soccer. I don't think we'd be the league we are today without the success of Toronto FC and without the emergence of that club and its supporters' culture, which I believe is helping to drive our focus on being more and more authentic and catering to the soccer fan.
“Toronto helped establish that foundation for us, and it will be taken to an even higher level with Vancouver and Montreal in the years to come.
“(Vancouver Whitecaps owner) Greg Kerfoot is an active member of our competition committee. He is a soccer guy through and through. I think he will help us as he will be a very strong voice on our competition committee with his experience and his thinking.
“We're actively engaged in television discussions, renewal discussions in Canada. And I believe that we'll have a broader footprint for our MLS national and local Canadian MLS team broadcasts, both next year and years to come.
“It will allow us to continue to tap into the passion that exists up in Canada for the sport. I said when I was up in Toronto last month that I believe that Toronto FC fans and the support overall in that country is helping in many ways guide the connection that many American soccer fans have with their local clubs. And that's something that I think has been a positive development for our league.
“We're certainly excited about being up in Toronto. I have said many times before, the city, the ownership group, the team and fans have earned the right to host our championship game, and I look forward to being up there this week.
“Just a couple of important points, the U.S. Soccer Board meeting will take place during the week. The United States Soccer Foundation will have a board meeting up there this weekend, and MLS Board will be meeting. We'll have close to 600 or 700 sponsors, broadcast affiliates, and friends of the sport converging on Toronto to celebrate our championship game. And I think that's just a great way for us to say thank you to the city, to the team, and to their fans.”
MLS has two franchises based in the Los Angeles market. With the Red Bull moving into their soccer specific stadium this year (attendance average 18,441 or 73 percent capacity) Garber is focused on the league’s 20th franchise becoming a second franchise based in the Greater New York market.
“As I said before, we're very focused on our 20th team in New York. We've been meeting with the city; we've been meeting with the Wilpon family, the owners of the Cosmos name and brand. We've also been meeting with other investors who have expressed interest.
“We are very, very focused on this entire process and hope to be able to get something done for 2013.
“The Red Bulls are very supportive of it. They believe a local rival will add even more passion for this sport and for the league in this market. There are 13 plus million people in this city, and there is more than enough to go around for two teams, particularly if one is in New York and one is the stadium is based across the river in New Jersey.
“I'm not at all concerned about saturation, and I'm not concerned about our ability to manage 20 teams.”
Colorado Rapids vs. FC Dallas will meet Sunday night in the MLS Cup, a match-up that doesn’t involve teams from major markets or major players, a concern Garber dismissed.
“There isn't a commissioner anywhere that doesn't sort of wring their hands when you have historic, legendary, impactful matchups because that will drive ratings and helps breakthrough.
“It happened with the NHL this past year where they had record ratings for their Stanley Cup. Because they had two of their more historic teams that hadn't been there for a while in their final. The NBA certainly had it with the Celtics and Lakers.
“However, we now have a lot of people buying season tickets in Denver, Dallas, Columbus and Salt Lake. And they're building fan bases and they're building relevance in their community. They (Dallas and Colorado) deserve to be in the championship game. If they do things right based on our system, then they have the opportunity to do so.
“So thankfully we have long term relationships with our broadcast partners who have told you (journalists) many times they're in this for the long run. So I don't sit there and worry if we don't get the right rating that we will lose a broadcast partner.
“I will say that I was in Denver Saturday night. There were 17,000 plus people there in 29° F weather. It was a great crowd and I was proud of what they were able to achieve. They sold all those tickets in a six day period. It was not part of the season ticket package.
“That proves that if you have the right team and you market it right, that you can get people to attend games in any market. It speaks to the second question. Perhaps Denver needed this boost to re-launch what had been a very strong fan base in the early years of MLS.
“Dallas certainly has an incredibly exciting team with great players who play a stylish game. Players that have been able to, I think, represent the great diversity that exists in Major League Soccer. I hope that Doug Quinn, their new president, is able to deliver significant crowd growth. I know FC Dallas’ season ticket renewals are way ahead of where they were last year. Their new season tickets are tracking faster than they have been almost in the last 10 years. So I'm confident those two teams will do better with the great seasons that they've had.”
Garber’s sentiments aside – why is the league playing its championship game on a Sunday night in Canada, in late November and outdoors? Would the league not have been advised to have played its championship game during the daytime? If MLS officials were concerned about going head-to-head with the National Football League, the NFL’s Sunday night game on NBC this week features Michael Vick and the resurgent Philadelphia Eagles meeting the New York Giants – a sure-fire ratings winner.
During his state-of-the league Garber did shy away when asked about the terrible television ratings the league is attracting. Remember the league’s biggest TV partner; ESPN’s soccer focus is the World Cup. ESPN televises MLS because its part of their World Cup package. Good for MLS, not so good for ESPN.
“We collectively could spend more money marketing our game broadcast. It is a changing landscape here in the United States and in Canada.
“We have been working with our broadcast partners to ensure we have the right schedule, to ensure that we're producing the games of the highest quality, all in high definition, to provide more exclusive nights or windows, and to work hard with each of them on promotion.
“It's important to note that our seven of the highest rated games on ESPN occurred post World Cup. While our ratings haven't grown as much as we would have hoped, the overall growth and the number of soccer broadcasts, the number of soccer channels, and the overall excitement for the sport on television here and in Canada is such that we feel very positive about what our future television picture will be.
“So at the end of the day, we spend a lot of time thinking about this, as do our broadcast partners. But it's not an easy solution.”
Garber’s comments don’t offer a great deal of insight, but he pointed out this past summer, which featured the quadrennial World Cup, saw a great deal of soccer on American television. Maybe a little too much for the consumer as far as Garber is concerned.
“There's so much soccer on television, so it's a double edged sword. People consumed a lot of soccer this summer. They got a lot of soccer with Premier League, with La Liga, the Champions League.
“One of the challenges that we have as a league is we are uniquely part of a much more competitive landscape than the other major leagues are in this country. They (other domestic leagues) are competing against each other. We're competing against them, but also a half a dozen other soccer content providers. And we've got to find ways to breakthrough that clutter with the right partners, with the right schedule, with the right players on the field.”
If New York becomes the league’s 20th franchise Garber believes 20 is the right number for the league. What happens with struggling franchises though? Dallas at 51 percent capacity, New England at 57 percent, and Chivas USA (one of the two Los Angeles based teams) at 54 percent are three examples of franchises that aren’t doing well at selling tickets. How does Don Garber feel about franchise relocation?
“Every sports league tries to avoid team moves at all costs. It is not a priority for us to move any of our existing teams. We'll do everything we can to work with those clubs that are not performing well.
“That comes from deeply engaging them with our club services group to working with them to support their efforts with branding and marketing initiatives.
“We know that in time, and I don't know what that time is, there will be a lot more teams in Major League Soccer. It's a big country. We cross three time zones. I don't know when it will be where we go beyond 20, but I would think at some point in our lifetime there will be more than 20 teams in MLS. But we have a long way to go before we can even consider that.
“We'll work hard with New York, but we're still talking to people in Atlanta. We've had people in Florida reach out to us. Fans in Miami continue to inundate me with emails, and I appreciate that.
“We've had interest in Orlando and in Tampa, plus interest in San Diego. There is a great deal of interest from many other cities and we'll continue to talk to those cities as we evolve our expansion plans.”
Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 as part of the United States' successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The first season took place in 1996 beginning with 10 teams. What future Major League Soccer has may indeed be linked towards the United States being awarded the 2022 World Cup. If the Lords of Football really understand the global picture, if they really want to see the sport grow in the United States, they’ll award the 2002 World Cup to the United States and Don Garber will be very happy. If not, MLS may not be around to enjoy a 2022 season.
For SportsBusinessNews.com this is Howard Bloom