By Paul Kennedy
MLS Commissioner Don Garber met with Soccer America editors Paul Kennedy, Ridge Mahoney and Mike Woitalla Thursday in San Jose, where he was speaking at the Silicon Valley Business Journal's Sports Summit.
As it has expanded from 10 teams in 2004 to 19 now and 20 in 2015 with the addition of New York City FC and built new stadiums across the country, Major League Soccer has seen rapid growth in attendance. But behind the scenes it is investing heavily on learning about its fan base and developing content to serve its growing fan base.
MLS's announcement this week of the launch of new media company MLS+ and a new business unit, MLS Business Ventures, reflects the multi-million dollar commitment it has made on the media side, in part through the injection of capital from the sale of a part of Soccer United Marketing to private equity giant Providence Equity Partners two years ago.
Just as MLS is about to enter into critical negotiations with television networks on a new television deal to begin in the 2015 season, it is betting that there will be increasing opportunities for it in the digital world, where its growing core of young fans reside. Garber hinted that MLS will look to expand these new media ventures abroad, hoping to duplicate its success in North America and take advantage of the strong reputation MLS has developed internationally for some of its business ventures.
Garber calls some of the content MLS+ is producing for such shows as MLS Insider, which launches Friday at 7:30 p.m ET on NBC Sports Network, the "tip of the iceberg."
Garber doesn't know how the fast-growing soccer media market will shake out -- all the major soccer properties change hands by 2015 or are, like MLS's rights. up for bid between now and then -- but there is no doubt that, as he says, soccer has gone from being dismissed or considered an afterthought in American sports media just a decade ago to being "one of the buzz properties."
Here is what Garber had to say about some of MLS's latest developments ...
The launch of MLS Business Ventures, to be headed by Gary Stevenson, its president and managing directorwho has a long record of success in the sports media industry, most recently with the launch of the Pac-12 Networks ...
"We're positioned to continue our leadership of the commercial market for soccer in North America and expand upon the resources we have in Soccer United Marketing and to delve far more deeply into the media space. So whereKathy Carter, who has done a really capable job of growing a commercial business, a sponsorship business, a licensing business, an international game market business, we really have not had resources to try to develop a broader media business since we started Soccer United Marketing with a media premise in 2002 with the purchase of the World Cup rights.
"Gary Stevenson is a guy whom I've known most of my career, back to my pre-NFL days when I worked for a p.r. agency in sports marketing and he was at ProServ. We've kept in touch over the years, and he's arguably one of the most seasoned sports business media executives in the industry and will give us the firepower to really figure out how we can grow a very important part of what every league has to be strong in, which is the world of traditional media and digital media. Our television rights are up [at the end of the 2014 season] and we're in the process of working through how to package our rights to go out of house to market. I think there will be a robust market for MLS rights from all of the various partners we have today as well as others, and Gary is going to take charge of it. He's also going to spend a lot of time working with Kathy on how to really superserve all our relationships with the corporate community. I think we've done a good job there. We are arguably one of the leading corporate commercial soccer companies in the world."
How MLS Business Ventures will differ from SUM ...
"I think there is an opportunity for us to even get broader. There are new businesses to look at. We could look at expanding our relationships globally and look to lead this market overseas similarly to how we've done in the United States. For the the most part, the vast majority of these commercial activites will flow through SUM. Certainly, SUM owns all the MLS intellectual property and hopefully will continue its relationship with U.S. Soccer and Concacaf. So the vast majority of it will flow through SUM, but there are opportunities out there to create new businesses that may or may not be under the SUM umbrella."
The goals for MLS+ ...
"MLS+ has got two objectives: to grow our fans and the other is to develop revenue. Today if we developed our revenue and didn't grow our fan base I wouldn't view it as successful. We hiredHoward Handlera couple of years ago as our chief marketing officer, a guy who is really spending a lot of time on managing the MLS brand and figuring out how we can grow our fan base from the bottom up as opposed to more traditional ways from the top down through advertising. We have invested deeply in CRMs, customer relationship management, and creating a big database, both of current and potential fans. And we're doing a lot of analytics and research and dashboards, what we're calling, ways we're measuring what's happening with our fan base on a weekly basis, both in our stadiums and on air and from a consumer research perspective. And now that we understand our fan base better and we have our hands around them more we want to communicate with them better. We cannot depend on others to do that. Most of the other leagues have that promotion as either part of their television deals or just part of the traditional media in the world they live in. So this is an initiative that came out of our relationship with Providence and the capital that came in through the sale of a piece of that company [SUM]. And Howard has gone out and put together a killer team. This an eight-figure commitment."
MLS Insider, the new magazine show MLS is launching on NBC Sports Network ...
"This is not just a show that will air on NBC. Components of that show can be pulled out and be exposed globally to a variety of multi-channel platforms. That show might air on the NBC [MLS] Insider show. We might see that on KickTV, you might see it distributed on the MLS web site. You might see it on our partners' web sites. You might see us takingthe components of these showsand getting as much exposure with them as we can. That's a relatively unique approach. This is just the tip of the iceberg. You'll see a lot more content and a lot more programs and initiatives coming out of MLS+. Howard's working with Roger Bennettto help us on the creative side. And Roger is absolutely brilliant. I don't think I've been around a more articulate, more inspiring, creative soccer guy in my years of playing the sandbox. I love spending time with him. And he's a big part of the creative genius behind a lot of the stuff you'll start seeing with us."
Chances of an MLS TV network ...
"We are going to continue to look at what we would call an MLS vertical, or perhaps a soccer vertical as opposed to just an MLS vertical. Whether that's distributed traditionally or more digital is still to be seen. But I think we have the germ of that idea with KickTV, which Google views as one of their more successful YouTube channels. It's so fantastic, I think it will have 600,000 subscribers this week and we think will hit 1,000,000 before the end of the year. It's hip. It's creative. It's nimble. It's perfectly positioned for our audience, which skews younger than most sports."
MLS's priorities for a new television contract ...
"Our priorities are clearly we'd like to grow our revenue and get the broad commitment of what we hope to be able to achieve. We are very proud of our ESPN relationship, one that we've had really since the launch of the league. [ESPN president]John Skipperremains a big fan. Clearly, they've got a lot going on on that channel, and as a more emerging sport it is easy to get lost in the power and ubiquity of ESPN, but when you're on ESPN you matter. And we love that relationship. NBC has done a great job of embracing the sport, of embracing the league, promoting and really making it a priority, and clearly now with World Cup on the Spanish-language side [Telemundo] and their commitment to the Premier League which I think will be dramatic and provide more programming than this country has ever seen is a development that I hope will provide a broader platform for soccer fans for MLS. And we've got to make sure 1 plus 1 will equal 5. We have great relationships there and we hope to achieve that. Ratings are doing very well in Spanish-language this year, up quite dramatically than where we were last year. There's just so much going on in this space. Soccer has gone from being a media sport that just a little more than 10 years ago had little to no value to being one of the buzz properties in American sports media. People who years ago didn't understand the sport or cared about it now view it as a priority. And that development is a positive one for Major League Soccer. We hope to figure out what that means, and we'll know in the next 12 months."
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