Kicking Soccer Ever Higher

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Soccer Sampling

As Major League Soccer prepares to kick off its 10th season on April 2, the TV futbol arena is a vastly different one than when the U.S. pro league began a decade ago.

MLS was born as a condition of soccer’s world governing body FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) when it granted the 1994 World Cup to the United States. Since then, it has vastly expanded its on-screen presence on a national and regional basis.

While ESPN2 and ABC Sports — as well as Telemundo and Univision — have continued to televise an array of soccer programming, Mark Cuban’s HDNet joined the action in 2003.

Moreover, a pair of networks have emerged that devote their lineups almost exclusively to the globe’s most popular sport. Three years ago, Gol TV initiated a bilingual, Spanish- and English-language push that has thus far netted some 7 million subscribers. Last month, Fox Sports World, with significant promotion during Fox’s pregame coverage of Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6, was rechristened Fox Soccer Channel at midnight the following day.

“When we started 10 years ago, I think we had around 30 games on the national side,” says MLS chief operating officer Mark Abbott. “This year’s lineup calls for 26 games on ESPN2; three on ABC Sports; 25 to 30 on Fox Soccer Channel; 28 on HD Net, 11 or 12 on ESPN Deportes; and 20-30 on Fox Sports en Español. And that says nothing about coverage by regional sports networks and over-the-air stations.”

The networks are attracted to a product that has seen vast improvement on the field and from various business perspectives in recent years.

Abbott says MLS provides an “aspirational destination” for young Americans, more and more of whom are taking to the pitch. According to respondents to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association International State of the Industry Survey, soccer has been voted the hottest sport in each of the past five years. Total soccer participation in the U.S. is at some 17.7 million people, according to SGMA.

“The thought process was that if we brought a top pro league here, more Americans would be interested in the game, and that would result in better performance on the field. We were in last place in World Cup 1998, and in the 2002 World Cup, the U.S. made the quarter finals,” Abbott says. “We almost tied [finalist] Germany [a 1-0 loss] and certainly belonged on the field with them. Our young players are admired worldwide, and are playing successfully here and abroad.”

Gol TV director of business development Constantino Voulgaris says: “The U.S. did a great job in Korea/Japan. MLS is making strides on field and in the stands. Average attendance was around 15,000 last year, and that’s larger than many games in Europe and South America.”

For the record, attendance improved to 15,559 in 2004 vs. 14,898 in 2003, according to MLS.

David Sternberg, executive vice president and general manager of Fox Soccer, takes an even broader view of the league’s progress.

“With participation continuing to grow, attendance up, American’s growing interest in the World Cup, and the National Hockey League’s labor problems, MLS could become the fourth major pro league in the U.S.”

Developments on a number of fronts suggest that could happen. To bolster ancillary revenue streams from luxury boxes and restaurant concessions and enhance fan experience overall, MLS has long championed smaller, soccer-specific stadia. Facilities in Columbus, Ohio (for the Crew), and the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. (for the Los Angeles Galaxy), opened in 1999 and 2003, respectively, and will be joined by venues in Frisco, Texas (for FC Dallas), this August and Bridgeview, Ill., next year (for the Chicago Fire).

The 2005 season will see the addition of two expansion clubs: Real Salt Lake City and Chivas USA, which is controlled by the owner of Team Chivas de Guadalajara, Mexico’s most popular club. More important, the team should form a natural rivalry with the Galaxy, their co-tenants at the Home Depot Center, and continue MLS’s outreach into the Hispanic community, which currently represents about 30% of the circuit’s fan base.

MLS will look to expand again in 2007, with groups from San Antonio, Houston, Cleveland, Seattle, Toronto and maybe other Mexican clubs pursuing franchises, according to Abbott.

On the sponsor side of the pitch, Honda, Gatorade, Budweiser, PepsiCo’s Sierra Mist, Kraft Foods and Radio Shack are among the key partners. The league also recently scored a 10-year, $150 million contract with adidas-Salomon AG, a pact under which it will supply the ball and ultimately the uniforms for all teams, as well as invest in promotions and commercials.

“This underlines MLS as a solid place for the leading soccer company to invest its marketing dollars,” says Abbott.

“The first major soccer boom in this country came in 1975-’76 when [legendary Brazilian striker] Pele came to play for the New York Cosmos [of the now defunct North American Soccer League],” he says. “Kids that went to see him play are now in their 40s and in positions of influence in the business community. The soccer generation has come of age.”

But coming of age, in a different respect, continues to pose problems for MLS. Soccer is a young person’s game: 70% of all players are ages 6-17. Parents are interested in the game while their progeny play, but often lose interest when they move on,

“More kids are playing here than ever. Sure some lose interest, but more are playing and will maintain their interest,” counters Voulgaris.

Interest in the pitch has not translated into big interest on the small screen. Despite some big run-ups during the World Cup, especially with the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, and strength for Univision and Telemundo fare, soccer’s Stateside ratings have been small. ESPN2’s 2004 season average was flat at a 0.2. It did generate an 18% rise in delivery, though, to 180,872 homes.

“MLS viewership on ESPN2 increased 18% last year on a household basis, reflecting growing interest in the sport overall, a larger fan base and the Adu factor,” says ESPN director of programming and advertising Leah Buhl, referring to the debut of Freddy Adu, then a 14-year-old domestic phenom, who was rookie on the circuit last year.

Adds Abbott: “We’re encouraged by what happened with ESPN2 last year. This year, for the first time every game is going to air live, and five will be in primetime. We’ll see how that works out.”

“We’re looking at other friendlies, as well as some Women’s National team contests,” says Buhl, noting that the company’s World Cup lineup has not yet been finalized.

The more friendly time zone differential — seven hours to Germany from the East Coast — will likely enable ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC to show all the matches live.

“We did very well with World Cup in 2002 with some matches that aired in the middle of the night and early morning. Things should be more favorable with matches in daylight hours next year,” she says.

ESPN’s rights-free contract with MLS and for the World Cup expire after 2006.

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