Commercial Success: The Simple Solution That Could Save MLS

Jacob HarrisContributor IJanuary 21, 2011

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 21:  Kosuke Kimura #27 of the Colorado Rapids holds the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy and celebrates with teammates after their 2-1 overtime victory against FC Dallas during the 2010 MLS Cup match at BMO Field on November 21, 2010 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

Major League Soccer is failing on a national level.

According to the Nielsen ratings, Major League Soccer is nearly non-existent on television. The WNBA is getting higher ratings on ESPN2 than MLS games!

The only thing more laughable than the TV ratings is the fact that MLS asked Fox Soccer Channel to renew their expiring contract at a rate of $20 million per year. The previous contract, signed in 2007, had FSC paying $3 million a year.

MLS executives seem to be shooting for the stars without any idea how to get there.

They are focused on business negotiations and traditional marketing techniques but, with those approaches failing miserably, maybe they should take a look at the product on the field and how it is affecting their negotiations.

Simply put, they should be trying to create stars instead of shooting for the stars.

So, the obvious question is then, "How exactly do you create stars?" And my response, "Don't ask me. Just look at the most successful sports league (and one of the most successful business ventures) in modern history."

In last Sunday's Jets/Patriots game, the only athlete in the world prettier than Cristiano Ronaldo, Tom Brady, was trying to lead his Pats to a furious comeback late in the fourth quarter.

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He rushed the team into a no-huddle, hurry-up offense that seemed to be working as perfectly as Brady's hair gel. The Pats immediately gashed the Jets for three consecutive gains of over 10 yards.

So how did the Jets respond?

Linebacker Bart Scott fell to the ground with a calf injury so debilitating that he only felt the need to sit out one play because of it.

He was obviously faking the injury to stop the Pats' momentum but the obvious parallels between his "cramp" and World Cup "diving" are not the important things for Major League Soccer to note.

The thing most people may not have noticed, because it happens so often in football and basketball, was that the broadcast immediately went to a "TV timeout" while Scott recovered from his bad acting job.

Are you catching on yet?

Commercials. Commercials are the key. They matter more to MLS' future than all the designated player signings, overtime goals, shirtless David Beckhams and US World Cup success combined. 

But, why?

As early 20th-century American journalist Alexander Chase said, "People, like sheep, tend to follow the leader...occasionally in the right direction."

That may sound a little cynical but, in this world of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, I think I'm justified in basing an entire argument (and professional sports league) on the idea behind that quote.

Soccer is truly a great sport and is as entertaining as any sport Americans devour. The only reason that it has not enjoyed the same amount of commercial and monetary success as other sports leagues is Americans have not been force-fed the exposure they need to become familiar with rules, tactics and, most importantly, the players.

Once-a-week broadcasts on ESPN 2 and local games that are only occasionally aired on Fox Sports are not getting the job done.

The lucky network that realizes the only thing that is lacking is a LeBron-like barrage of coverage for two or three seasons will have found an untapped gold mine.   

But if the current viewership is not enough to bring in sufficient revenue to keep the partnership afloat for those two or three seasons, how does MLS bridge that gap?

Well, you could continue to promise networks that soccer will catch on and they will be able to charge more per commercial during the matches, or you can come up with a way to get more commercials into each game, thereby increasing the revenue.

Unless MLS can talk Nationwide into letting them borrow the "World's Greatest Spokesman," I don't think the former is a realistic option. But what about the latter? 

Earlier this week, I recorded the AC Milan-Lecce match on Fox Soccer Channel. Of course, all of you know that is an Italian Serie A contest and it featured talent like Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Nesta. 

Okay, so you probably don't know, that but remember those two names because I'll return to the subject of star-driven marketing in a few paragraphs.

I chose that game to record for two reasons: it happened to be scheduled during the time I was planning this article but, more importantly, it pitted a high-profile, high-payroll team (AC Milan) against a lesser opponent (Lecce).

Soccer fans know this means Lecce would go into the game knowing they needed to play tight, compact defense and exercise caution when venturing forward on attacks.

Or, in layman's terms, there would be fewer stoppages than a wide-open match so I can be confident the upcoming estimates are on the low end for a normal contest.

With stopwatch in hand, I watched the match twice and timed every stoppage of play, whether it was due to an errant pass, a corner kick or the infamous "dive." I made a note of every stoppage in which the run of play was stopped for over 15 seconds.

And, in so doing, I solved all of MLS' problem like a modern-day Euclid or Pythagoras.

There were 44 stoppages during which the ball was not in play for at least 15 seconds. Those 44 events averaged a stoppage of 30.62 seconds each.

So, there it is! We just need to run a thirty-second commercial every time the ball goes out of play, right?

Not exactly.

On several plays like throw-ins, corner kicks and free kicks, the player putting the ball back in play usually has the option to "quick kick" or throw the ball in immediately so there is no way for the network to know when to cut to commercial and when to stay on the field for a quick play-in.

But let's dig a little deeper.

There were nine shots or passes which resulted in a goal kick for the defending team. Those instances averaged 23.41 seconds from the time the referee blew the whistle to the time the goalie began his approach to boot the ball into play.

It wouldn't be tough to throw a 15-second commercial up while the goalie collected his thoughts and the players retreated to other half of the field to await the long pass. So, there is one opportunity to hear from a sponsor.

The second best opportunity to jump to a commercial is during a substitution. While subs do not occur in soccer very often relative to other sports, there were four times in which subs entered the pitch, stopping the run of play for an average of 38.90 seconds a piece, regardless of the previous play.

And getting the (dis)honorable mention for third best opportunity is the single "dive" that occurred in the game.

Whether it was faked is not the subject of this piece, all that matters for my purposes is that the desperate grasping of a nearly fatal leg injury required 64.79 seconds of medical attention.

That trio, though they would provide enough time for several life-changing quotes from The World's Most Interesting Man, pale in comparison to the advertiser's dream.  

When a foul is committed on an attacker within 40 yards of the goal, it results in a suspenseful build-up to a free kick that could determine the outcome of the match.

That's because free kicks from 40 yards or closer mean a set piece is coming.

Set pieces are the goal-line stand of soccer. At least 16 of the 22 players converge in the box and battle for position as the man taking the free kick either sends it into the box for a teammate or puts it on goal to test the goalkeeper.

There is a flurry of action and physicality, but the thing the advertiser cares about is that there is a chance for brilliance.

"Among set pieces, free kicks and corner kicks have been shown to be the greatest source of goals." Needless to say, nobody is changing the channel, fast-forwarding their DVR or taking a bathroom break.

Advertisers have their coveted captive audience.  

And, not only do they have a captive audience, they have the amount of time they need to show a commercial without running the risk of enraging the viewers.

There were nine times when this occurred in the match and there was an average of 45.23 seconds from the whistle to the approach by the player taking the free kick.

That is plenty of time to run two 15-second commercials and get back to the pitch in plenty of time to see the positioning, grappling and fondling that proceeds every set piece.

Even as the ratings currently stand, FSC or Versus or ESPN 2 or whoever is the network to realize the potential for soccer to make money could charge near $200,000 per 15-second spot, but I'll say they'll get $100,000 per spot just to be safe. 

If FSC would have aired commercials during half the goal kicks and all of the substitutions, dives and free kick from 40 yards or closer, they would have shown their viewers 31 advertisements.

You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that is at least $3.1 million per national broadcast!

All of a sudden, the $20 million MLS is requesting for the new TV deal is not quite so ridiculous.   

And say MLS and TV networks read this article and adopt these changes tomorrow. So what?         

"The first game for Red Bulls MF Rafael Marquez, was FSC's most-viewed game telecast this season with 144,000 viewers." The sole reason for that is that Marquez is a star because of his exploits in leagues outside of this country.

The good news is, this league is full of guys like Chris Wondolowski and Dwayne De Rosario who will make a name for themselves as soon as more people see them play.

And that is the star-driven marketing I mentioned earlier. The more casual exposure these brilliant athletes get, the more they will become recognizable and, as a result, the more they will help their teams draw viewers.

Then fans who tuned in to see De Rosario will inevitably stumble upon Julian de Guzman. Or maybe another star from Toronto's opponent in the game.

That may sound like a chicken-egg argument, but the point is that the product is there already. The consumers just need to be made aware of it.

It's now or never.  

"57 percent of viewers were in the 18-49 year-old demographic, with teenagers making up nearly 7 percent of the total audience" for the US match with England in the World Cup. MLS can grab hold of this demographic.

All they have to do is give the people who would like to watch and follow soccer increased access to MLS games, teams and players.

Interestingly, when you look at the highest ranked local markets in the US for World Cup TV ratings, only "50% of the top ten Spanish-language markets have a Major League Soccer team, while only 60% of the top ten English-language markets have a MLS team."

If that's not an opportunity for growth, I don't know what is.

Now, it would certainly take a few years to tweak the system and make it work well without diminishing the beauty of the game.

For example, networks could not go to commercial when a team that is trailing by two or three goals gets a goal beyond the 80th minute because the trailing team usually likes to grab the ball out of the net and return it to midfield as quickly as possible.

There are many other exceptions which would have to be made, most of which pertain to the trailing team trying to hurry the ball back into play late in the game.

But it could be done. And TV networks and the MLS would both be better for it.

Listen, I understand that this may not sit well with soccer "purists" in this country (all four of you) but, personally, I don't particularly care for the fact that millions of Americans watch Jersey Shore when they could easily pick up a volume of Lord Byron's poetry for $3.99 at Barnes and Noble.

The point is, MLS has to be a business first and Americans are simply not tuning into the "artistry" of home-grown soccer. As shallow as it sounds, money has to overshadow the beauty of the game, at least until the league is financially secure.

If not, MLS may take a dive. And it won't be faked this time.


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