Tag Archives: Major League Soccer

The Football Business Column: MLS Expansions, Premier League Interest and the Rise of Football in the US

The latest installment in the never-ending story surrounding Major League Soccer and its expansion plans arrived last week, as Orlando City Soccer Club was officially announced as the league’s 21st franchise, to join New York City Football Club as new entrants in 2015.

The story of football’s expansion and rise in the US is impressive, especially given the context of its domestic league’s relative young age, but a look at the FIFA World Rankings shows that at 14th place (as of the time of writing), the US is here to stay.

To explore just how football has developed in America though, we have to first look back across the pond and to the Premier League, whose increasingly globalized product is at the heart of it all.

 

NBC Sports deliver polished Premier League product to US audiences

The new PL carrier in England, BT Sport, recently struck a groundbreaking deal to carry the Champions League from 2015-2018, as reported by BBC Sport.

But they’re arguably not even the biggest newcomer to have caused waves through the football television industry. That accolade goes to America’s NBC Sports, who have well and truly taken football coverage in the US up several notches, especially in comparison with the likes of FOX Soccer and ESPN.

NBC’s coverage is a curiously familiar one, especially to those already well versed in typical English broadcasts. There’s little to interfere with normal play, and the analysis shows before and after the matches—as well as during half-time—all feature English commentators and pundits.

Essentially, NBC have stuck to the basics and not delivered any coverage that might come across as patronizing towards the American viewer; they’ve assumed that their audience is familiar with football and have promoted intelligent discussion with this as the basic assumption.

Add in the aggressive marketing campaigns that NBC have embarked on—especially in New York City in the buildup to the 2013/14 season—and the conclusion thus far is that the English Premier League has been an unequivocal success. Keeping with the core English base but adding some of that famous American marketing and broadcasting technique on top? Sounds like a winner.

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesFootball’s rise in America

For avid fans of the Premier League—and no doubt for its executive team—the fact that NBC’s coverage has been a success in America bodes well for the future of what is surely now the world’s most popular and exported professional sports league, so much so that the PL is now seen in some circles as NBC’s flagship product.

But those worried about any possible decrease in interest in the US’ own Major League Soccer because of the widespread coverage of the Premier League need not fret: According to this New York Times report, since PL coverage began on NBCSN, viewership of the eight MLS games on NBC has increased by 60 percent, while the number of unique visitors to NBC-streamed MLS games has jumped 322 percent.

There was never any worry about Americans’ interest in their own national teams in World Cup years—whether it be the men’s or the women’s tournament. Neither was there ever any worry, especially in recent years, about support of their local MLS teams, who have boasted stadium attendance numbers to rival and surpass those of both the NBA and NHL, according to this Forbes article. Nor was there any worry about American football fans paying attention to their overseas-based stars, such as Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (the latter two have, of course, returned to the US).

So the fact that TV viewership of MLS is rising—and alongside the Premier League—is massively encouraging for the sport and its growth prospects in the world’s most sports-consumption-heavy country.

USA TODAY SportsMLS expansion, aggression and inevitable evolution

Given the Americans’ propensity and expertise at marketing, commercialization and business expansion—and especially given the increase in the number of American owners of European football clubs—was it any wonder that interest, both foreign and American, would eventually return to US shores?

Setting aside the increasing trend of relatively big names in Europe spending their final footballing years in MLS, the incident that really indicated the prospect of a “soccer boom” in the US was Manchester City’s investment in their joint venture, New York City FC, due to join MLS in 2015.

Sheikh Mansour interested in American growth and influence? A partnership with one of Europe’s newest big boys? Almost seems too good to be true.

If that wasn’t enough indication of a new era beckoning in American football (ahem), what about the recent announcement of the Orlando City SC franchise expansion—and the imminent possibility of a Miami-based MLS venture backed by David Beckham?

That both of these developments have hit the airwaves is not surprising: MLS have shown textbook aggression by aiming to capitalize on a rising wave of interest in football, by proclaiming that the Orlando-Miami rivalry will be one to look forward to, according to the Miami Herald. The bullish pronouncements of Orlando City’s owners, reported here by BBC Sport, regarding the possible signing of Brazilian star and AC Milan legend Kaka merely add to the hype.

And if even that wasn’t enough, surely the recent revelation that MLS franchises have increased 175 percent in value over the past five years (c/o SportBusiness.com) will do it. The current average valuation is $103 million, with seven teams—Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City—already surpassing it. (Don’t be surprised if NYCFC and OCSC join them at the top by 2016.)

Harry How/Getty ImagesThe growth will only continue. The beautiful thing about the beautiful game is that once interest starts to grow, it snowballs. And the beginnings of a real football revolution are starting to take place in America.

Which, inevitably, leaves club owners and the league with big decisions to make over the coming years, regarding the direction that they want to take the sport in. Murmurs of instituting the promotion and relegation system, so ubiquitous in the European leagues but almost nonexistent in the US, are growing in noise level, and with MLS expanding to a grand total of 21 teams by 2015 (22 if Miami is awarded a franchise by then), that leaves MLS wanting to join the world’s collection of elite first-division football leagues with the most number of teams in it.

The rest of the infrastructure—league-paid transfer fees, league-owned players, salary caps and Designed Player systems—is currently still a universe away from what the top professionals in Europe are familiar with, and there will need to be an inevitable coming together of practices and policies if MLS are to break into that top bracket of leagues.

While that’s being pondered by Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, and his executive team, they’ll continue to see the steady growth of the beautiful game in the US.

Perhaps one day, it’ll be they who look forward to exporting their product overseas.

 

This piece originally appeared on Bleacher Report and is also part of my Football Business Column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Two: The Coaches)

Big data.

It’s the flavor of the moment, whether it’s used in conjunction with politics, business or sports, and given the growing ease with which organizations and people can collect data, it looks as if big data is here to stay.

And when the BBC Technology section runs an article on how data analytics is influencing football, you know it’s a hot, hot topic.

In part one of this series looking at data-driven analysis in football, we discussed the growing popularity and importance of statistics to football scouts, which extends to how football clubs run themselves as organizations and businesses.

A key player in the stats arena that we looked at was Manchester City, so it’s no surprise that the BBC article just cited starts with City as a club to look at: They, after all, employ 10 full-time data analysts just for the first team (and this was the picture, at the time of writing, almost six months ago), and club captain Vincent Kompany has realized the value of in-depth analysis, such that he’s reportedly started meeting with his fellow defenders and the data analysts to discuss their findings.

We started off our last piece looking at the role that pre-match preparation played in Simon Mignolet’s exciting penalty save from Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters on the goalkeeper’s debut for Liverpool—the importance of data analysis and the simple of collection of statistics did the job there, and will continue to do this job.

We will now discuss the coach’s role and use of statistics in part two of our four-part series on Business of Soccer, in which we’ll look at how big data and related technologies and trends have influenced and augmented the beautiful game. Parts three and four will look at the sports scientists and, finally, the fans.

 

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

Club Information

Let’s start with a fascinating Sports Illustrated article from Jen Chang, who talks about the use of performance analytics by Premier League club Everton and how it influenced ex-manager David Moyes’ preparation work.

And there are major repercussions on the tactics side of the game. Steve Brown, Everton’s First Team Performance Analyst, performs this exact role, where he analyzes information provided by Prozone (more on the data providers later) to develop game plans. Where are opposing full-backs usually positioned? What positional traits do opposing wingers exhibit? How can Everton prepare their team shape to take advantage of any habitual practices of next week’s opponent? As Brown says in the article, American forward Landon Donovan was often eager to solicit more information from Everton’s analysts during his time on loan at Goodison Park.

We can thus see the importance of opposition scouting in terms of tactical approach and how teams can prepare their own players to negate formations and systems, as well as take advantage of any possible habitual holes that are magnified. Add this tactical and positional information provided by data analytics onto detailed observations and reports prepared by specialist opposition scouts (such as this quite brilliant analysis done by former Chelsea scout Andre Villas-Boas via the Telegraph), and it could make for a comprehensive picture and extensive preparation.

The implications of this method quite naturally also extend and have applications beyond opposition scouting. By studying a club’s own players, managers can get a feel for how they can better train and mold them into all-rounded stars with fewer glaring holes in their games—and this not only means they can do tactical and positional work, but also fitness work.

We’ll look more in depth at the science of sports fitness in part three of this series (particularly a high-profile example at Liverpool), but we’ll also refer to one of many interesting applications of GPS technology: to track player movement, position and fitness.

Arsenal, with their aesthetically pleasing attacking movement, self-sufficient financial structure and new world-class stadium, are known for their modern approach to the game, and their use of GPS to monitor their own players won’t come as a surprise, and in the case of midfield starlet Jack Wilshere, according to a Guardian report, it was this technology that persuaded him to miss the 2011 Euro U21 tournament.

 

Independent Information

So all is well and good with regards to data analytics and statistical analysis employed by football clubs, but where does all of this information come from?

Well, there are a number of big players in the sports analytics scene, and Prozone and Opta are the two biggest names around, mostly because their scope and coverage extend far beyond just a single team.

To that end, Prozone has struck up a number of high-profile partnerships with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Stoke City, Fulham and Wigan Athletic, and this self-styled performance analysis firm provides the information that helps the team preparation process of many other clubs around the world.

In the US, where as we covered last time Major League Soccer have been pioneers in the technological and analytical front, both DC United and Chicago Fire have struck up agreements with Prozone to provide technical and tactical analysis, while the US Soccer Federation itself also employs such data to aid its national team and referees association. Their work also helps the German Football Association, who does a similar thing for the German national football team.

Opta, whose succinct Tweets from a variety of accounts looking at different leagues complement a viewer watching football on TV, are probably as famous among fans for their one-word conclusions as they are among clubs with their information, but it is interesting that they seem to be more of a statistical analysis firm as opposed to “performance” per se.

What do we mean by this? This OptaPro blog will shine more light onto what exactly Opta does with its data. Opta is much more of an independent data provider, in that its information is gathered and supplied in a more third-party role, looking at league-wide trends and analysis, as the blog entry does for Premier League goal-scorers.

Opta is, as well, the official media partner of the Premier League, the Football League and the Scottish Premier and Football Leagues, and its focus is much more on the fan engagement level—official Premier League partners such as Barclays and EA Sports will be able to access use live Opta data, while other popular sites like EPLIndex.com and Squawka are built entirely on data provided by Opta.

But it is another kind of analytics project that Opta has done recently that really captures the imagination and the potential of such analysis.

Opta’s project with adidas on “The Engine,” in which a mathematical equation-based algorithm has searched out specific types of box-to-box, stamina-heavy players and will continue to do so over the course of the season. This collaboration looks on the surface to be an ambitious feature aimed at fans interested in player analysis and comparison, but in reality there could be big implications on the world of football scouting and coaching.

Will there be a day that third-party data analysts—not in-house analysts at clubs—take over all the information analysis functions of football clubs, much like generic call-centers and hardware manufacturers support different companies in the same facility?

Could Prozone come up with a standard set of coaching manuals and training regimes, based on their vast databases of performance-related data, that they could then sell onto clubs, academies and leagues as best practices as a “performance consultancy”?

Could Opta unearth players using specially designed algorithms to recommend to clubs as players they should be looking at?

How would clubs be able to turn down such offerings if both fans and they themselves knew that they are the organizations that have access to the widest range of data and as such should be the most reliable in their recommendations?

 

League-Wide Information

As we ponder the future roles of data providers like Prozone and Opta, we should also keep an eye on the present, where sports firms like adidas are expanding quickly and aggressively into the coaching analytics field.

We discussed above adidas’ “The Engine” project; in 2013, its miCoach Elite system will be implemented across MLS to provide real-time data available to both coaches and fans, who will be able to track performance levels to the minutest detail (if they wish) while the match is going on.

In part two of this four-part series on the proliferation of data-driven analysis in football, we’ve looked at the role data is now playing in the coaching arena. Most of the analysis is done pre- and post-match to prepare and debrief players and managers on what to do next, but when real-time data becomes widely available, everyone comes under heavier attention, and the pressure to perform becomes higher than ever.

As we look ahead to part three on sports scientists, there is already plenty of food for thought related to how all this information—and all the players in this field—can have ramifications for the beautiful game in the future.

Stay tuned.

This piece first appeared on BusinessofSoccer.com, where I cover business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.

The Football Business Column: The Money that Goes to Agents, Technology and Stadiums

football agents

The Money that goes to Agents

We can’t go anywhere in football without hearing about the money side of the game, such is the prevalence of commerce, sponsorships and brand partnerships, and the importance of financial might and ambition. So when it was announced this summer that the Premier League spent a record £630 million in the transfer window, no one really batted an eye.

It couldn’t have come as a big surprise though, given the enormous TV deals that were secured by the Premier League with broadcasters Sky and BT Sport. After all, the number of big signings and the amount of big money being flown around this summer—not least that mind-boggling world record deal for Gareth Bale—showed that money has become less and less of an object to Premier League clubs. (Crystal Palace paid £8.5 million for a League One player, Dwight Gayle from Peterborough.) It turns out, though, that it’s not just the Premier League, and it’s not just the signing fees.

As we saw from the Neymar megadeal to Barcelona, there are (too) many parties involved in a transfer deal. There are “investors”, “stakeholders”, agreements to play friendlies, first-option commitments and, of course, agents. And when your dad happens to be your agent and you happen to be Neymar, your family can suddenly become €40 million richer.

But it’s not just in conjunction with the biggest names in football that agent fees are considerable. The Football League released a report last week on agent fees at the Championship, League One and League Two levels, and the results were quite staggering. In the 2012/13 Championship season, 23 clubs (Blackpool excepted) paid a total of over £18.5 million in agent fees for 431 agent-involved deals, meaning that, on average, each club spent over £800,000 in payments to agents and each deal cost £43,000.

And that’s just at the Championship level. We await (dread) the official numbers affiliated with the Premier League for more discussion (depression). We haven’t even asked the all-important question yet: Are agents even worth it? (Blackburn Rovers spent over £3.5 million in agent fees—which is more than enough for a quality Championship-level player—and ended the season closer to relegation.)

The Money that goes to Technology

When we talk about money in the Premier League, the topic inevitably focuses on the lack of it spent on youth development and as such the promotion of homegrown talent, which adversely affects the performance of the English national team. And we all know the history of underachievement of said English national team in international tournaments, specifically in penalty shootouts, quite unlike their Premier League counterparts.

Fear not: Money can also be a solution there! Need to provide players with a simulated match environment? With a realistic atmosphere like a World Cup Finals penalty shootout? No problem. Engineering company BAE Systems are currently working with UK Sport, “the UK’s high performance sports agency,” to produce virtual reality simulators for Olympians and Paralympians to better prepare them for real-life tournament scenarios, and according to this Guardian report, this technology could be on its way to football as well.

And why not? Given the amount of money devoted to the mental and physical side of football these days—there’s also the sports science side, which has led to the spawning of many a sports science department at major football clubs, as well as the data analysis side—it’s only natural to see money being thrown at technology that can give teams and players that slight extra chance of success.

But is it really that smooth-sailing? Will virtual reality be able to compare to a real-world penalty shootout environment where everything is at stake? Unless BAE add a feature that projects a virtual reality of burning effigies in the penalty takers’ minds, it might not be enough…

The Money that goes to Stadiums

As ever, England isn’t the only country with huge financial burdens in football. Let’s cross the Atlantic for a moment and look at Major League Soccer, where DC United’s proposed new stadium has attracted criticism for its fee.

$300 million is the sum in question for the Buzzard Point, Washington DC location, and while there are obvious benefits to fans of the club and league, the mooted amount has been met with significant criticism from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, who will have had the current economic climate in mind.

It’s not only in the US where public spending on stadiums have attracted scorn. The 2013 Confederations Cup this summer was marred by public rioting and protesting in Brazil throughout the tournament, against the Brazilian government’s extravagant expenditure on stadiums for next summer’s World Cup and 2016’s Olympics. A total of almost $17 billion is estimated to be spent in conjunction with these two events, and well, there could be a variety of things that this money could be used on otherwise.

But even that is a drop in the ocean compared to Qatar (or should that be a grain of sand in the desert?), who will be spending a whopping £134 billion on their controversial 2022 World Cup tournament, the Middle East’s first ever. How’s that for stadium spending?

 

This piece was part of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.