Saturday, October 3, 2015

Chp 17) Marketing Challenges

Even with so much soccer momentum trending its way in the U.S., MLS doesn't appear to have the ingenuity to take full advantage.  There are constant missteps that appear to be rooted in failures of leadership.

Rather than any attempts at irreverence or dissension, MLS was constructed to adapt to the world's soccer community.  Pretty much all of the designs for how the league should operate are borrowed from how other worldly leagues do their business.  From its inception, the driving force of MLS is to try everything possible to be accepted as a respectable, traditional league.

The league operatives have missed the forest for the trees.  They have been so blinded in watching how soccer is conducted in other leagues around the world that they have completely lost out on fundamental American sports-themed opportunities and altogether profiting from American culture.

It might be a surging league, but there are marketing challenges that are not being met to full capability, for sure.  One only has to look at MLS' history with American holidays.  Or, should I say, lack of history.

I have written a few times on this topic.  Beginning in 2011, I asked, 'Should MLS Have Played Cup Final on Veteran's Day?'

Veteran's Day should not be looked at as a day for marketing sports, but it became that yesterday for college basketball.  The 'Carrier Classic' aboard a warship looks like it may be the signature event for the start of every NCAA College basketball season from now on.  There was an unbelievable feeling in the air on top of the airbase.  It was the first basketball game at this level to be played outdoors for the first time in a long time.  The emotions ran deep in this inaugural game being played on an important holiday of remembrance in front of the President.  For players, it was something different and a lot of fun to be executing game plans on a military ship (aircraft carrier).

An argument can be made that the NCAA College basketball game on the USS Carl Vinson stole the limelight from MLS.  What if MLS decided to have its Cup played on Veteran's Day?

Yesterday's sports headlines would not have been College basketball dominated, but may have been more about the culmination of an MLS season.  MLS could try and make Veteran's Day into MLS Cup day, have a big celebration to honor Vets and invite the President.

Soccer has a rich history in the U.S., maybe not as glorified as the other team sports, but the sport has involvement at all levels, including the military.  MLS should embrace American heritage.  It should be bold, rather than bashful, when it comes to celebrating U.S. military history.  Using American holidays to build traditions are how sports have gained more popularity with sports fans.

The first one I wrote on MLS and American holidays was titled, 'MLS Schedule Abandons Memorial Day.'

No tributes to fallen Veterans.  No new alliances forged.  No U.S. flags waving from fans at MLS stadiums.  No games scheduled for play on Memorial Day.

As MLS continues its battles for American mainstream status, it must always look to stay relative in the sports fan's consciousness.  Scheduling games on Memorial Day is a no-brainer.  It is a day of reflection, a day of remembrance and a day off from work.  It is the perfect day to create new memories.

American holidays have become a partnership with sports.  Whether its the NFL at Thanksgiving, the NBA on Christmas day, college football on New Year's Day or NHL's newest version for New Year's Day, holidays can be counted on for sports entertainment value.

Americans have used sports as a catharsis during holidays.  Sports have become a framework to what holidays represent in the U.S.  There seems to be always some degree of watching movies, eating, resting, activity and sports.  Memorial Day is when traditions are rooted, grown, maintained and eventually become part of the celebration of history.  The Indianapolis 500 is one example of a sports-event tied to the holiday. Baseball has always taken advantage of Memorial Day by keeping a full schedule of games and their attendance numbers for this day have always proven out to be solid.

The major significance of Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day should never be overlooked by MLS.  Sport galvanizes the nation on these days.  These holidays provide an opportunity to combine history, celebration, remembrance and sports.

It is not a wise decision from MLS executives to not schedule matches on Memorial Day.  Hopefully, this is the last season fans will have to endure this poor decision.  Wouldn't a nationally-televised doubleheader or even triple-header be an awesome event to keep MLS in the sports news?  Surely, one of the games would make its mark and be an unforgettable experience for sports fans.

In its 20 year history, one of the biggest problems for MLS has been in finding an agreeable sports channel that can provide the branding needs for the league.  The obvious choice would be ESPN, but, even with an ESPN contract, there is a lack of coherency and continuity to the broadcasts.

By seeking money over common sense, broadcasts have been scattered about so much that fans have no idea when to tune in for MLS.  A variety of networks own a part of MLS broadcast rights. MLS has sold itself to any bidder out there in the cable Tv sphere instead of seeking the casual sports fans by coordinating specific time slots with traditional networks.

In the 20 year history, no channel has had a dedicated prime-time partnership with MLS that had any lasting duration to it.  In 2015, I wrote 'MLS Misses Key Element on TV Deals.'

In its 20th season, MLS begins three new television rights deals. This is great news except for one crucial item.  None of the deals are structured for consistent prime-time viewing.  This is a big disappointment for MLS, especially as expectations are so high for new teams joining the league and the new Tv deals in place.  Momentum seemed to be on the side of MLS and then there is this stark realization that clearly shows an incompetence from the league in the public relations department.
It would seem like a no-brainer and an easy steal from a Marketing 101 class-Make sure to get a national audience to watch in prime time.

In looking at the entire schedule on MLSsoccer.com, the weekly nationally scheduled games by the three networks are set mostly for the same times. Friday and Sunday night games will generally start at 7:00p.m. EDT. Friday's broadcast is by UniMas and Sunday's broadcast is on FoxSports1. ESPN2 is scheduled as a lead-in to FoxSports1 on Sundays.  Games on ESPN2 are generally scheduled for 5:00p.m. EDT.

It should be noted that in July and August, UniMas has MLS games scheduled to start at 11:00p.m. EDT.  Also, FoxSports1 and ESPN2 do have a minimal few games (combined-I counted five or six) scheduled for prime time.  Also, it should be clarified that Univision, owners of UniMas, will broadcast other MLS games consistently in prime-time, but on a different channel that requires a preferred cable Tv package not a standard one (generally, cable Tv is divided into three categories-basic, standard and preferred).  It is called Univision Deportes.

The scheduling of MLS matches for these national broadcasts may be an issue of whether the networks have faith in putting MLS on in prime time.  Are the broadcasters suggesting these new time slots or is MLS asking for them?

The NFL, NBA and MLB have all found network deals to broadcast their games in prime time. Each of them has a home in a time slot that keeps their sport front and center.  MLB has had national recognition on Sunday nights on ESPN for 25 years.  The NFL shows off its national appeal on Sunday and Monday nights, on NBC and ESPN respectively, and on Thursday nights with CBS.  The NBA reveals its skills on Thursday nights on TNT and Wednesday and Friday nights on ESPN.

At this point, some of these sports broadcasts are legendary or quickly becoming legendary.  The NBA on TNT on Thursday nights, Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN and Monday Night Football are part of the culture of American sports.  Sunday Night Football in America on NBC is starting to reach that level.

MLS needs to take a cue from the mainstream leagues and get its name etched for at least one night on one channel in America.  Soccer has its advantage of lasting just under two hours.  It can start at 8:30 or 9:30p.m. EST and sports fans will still be tucked into bed by 11:30.  Any MLS broadcast start time not in prime time is for soccer fans only and won't attract the casual sports fans that MLS desperately wants and needs.  It is a mistake that has to be corrected starting next year.

MLS would be much better off paying less money in a Tv contract in order to find a home with a popular network and the guarantee slot of prime-time.  A doubleheader the same night every week during the season would be in its best interest.

The money trail towards not making any common sense continues with how MLS teams handle their team uniforms.  Taking a cue from the English Premier League (EPL), teams insist on having three or more uniforms (or 'kits' as they are called in England).  More uniforms means more opportunity for the teams to make money off the fans.  Unfortunately, the casual sports fans are left out of the equation. I wrote, 'MLS Team Colors Lack Uniformity' in 2011.


Watching Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas last night took some time to get used to.  Usually, FC Dallas plays in red, but last night, they were dressed in blue.  

Toronto's main theme color is red.  They were the home team, so they got the privilege of wearing red over FC Dallas.  The confusion among team colors merits a review of whether MLS teams are doing a good job or bad job in selecting their colors and uniforms.  Overall, there are too many teams with similar color schemes, too many reds and blues. Compounding this problem, teams don't wear their team names anywhere on the uniforms, giving the space to advertisers.

Advertising on the uniforms is fine.  It's one more way to generate revenue.  But, team names should always be visible and easy to spot for sports fans.  For example, if D.C. United has Volkswagen on the front of their uniforms, there's room enough right below the VW insignia to put their team name.

Also, there does not seem to be enough synchronicity among MLS teams when it comes to home and away uniforms.  A lesson from other U.S. sports leagues, may be needed.  For the most part, in the recent past, in both the NBA and the NFL, the home team chooses to either wear mostly white or their dominant team color.  The visiting teams play in opposite style, with either their dominant color or their whites, depending on how the home team chooses.

It seems, some MLS teams are using multiple uniforms for both home and away.  They are mixing up 3 or 4 colors and forming sets of uniforms.  They have borrowed the term, 'kits.'

In world Soccer, it is typical to change-out the uniform from year to year, as the advertisers change. This is another area in which MLS has tried to copy too much of what the rest of the world is doing. It's not necessary to make wholesale changes.  It may be about selling more uniforms to the public, but a team playing with too many uniforms takes away from the main uniform's importance.  

There are some impressive uniforms.  Seattle and Houston come to mind.  They have chosen bright colors.  It is excellent to see Seattle in green and Houston in orange, sometimes even wearing their colors for both shorts and shirts.  These colors stand out and are immediately recognizable.  They are able to build a bigger constituency not just within their own city limits, but throughout the country.
Other than Houston and Seattle, Portland has done a good job in standing apart with forest green as their main color.  It goes well with their Oregon Timbers theme.  There are other good colors in MLS too, like the yellow of Columbus, the purple of Real Salt Lake and the black of D.C.

Teams should stick with more simple themes.  Interestingly, it seems the more simpler, the more distinctive.  Sports fans are able to match colors to cities better for long-term memory.  Local fan bases are able to identify with a color and embrace it as their own.  MLS is still in a battle for mainstream status.  They have to get all the little things in order to maintain their momentum. Uniformity among uniforms will make it easier on sports fans.

All of these things are linked to how MLS manages itself.  It pays too much heed to the ways of other leagues around the world and what USSF and FIFA order for how the league must be operated.  This is why MLS has so much trouble with its image and branding for sports consumers and U.S. sports fandom.  MLS must figure out how to bridge the cultural divide of casual sports fans in order to make a bigger imprint on American culture.

(I could turn this chapter into all scheduling stuff 'Scheduling, Scheduling, Scheduling' or 'It's All About Scheduling' and then create other 'Marketing Challenges' on its own. Put scheduling piece after 'lost in the shuffle.')

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