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Clint Dempsey

Another EPL Season is Underway – How Does it Impact U.S. Soccer?

The 2015-16 English Premier League season started this past weekend with some very unexpected results but some very good television ratings. Saturday’s four matches on NBC, NBCSN & USA Network combined for 2.02 overnight rating which was the best ever in the United States for the EPL opening Saturday. This rating was up 43% from the prior record set last August. The 12:30pm ET match on NBC, a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Swansea City, averaged a .93 overnight to rank as the best Saturday opener ever and topped last season’s NBC opener between Arsenal and Crystal Palace by 27%. Moreover the 7:45am ET match on NBCSN that featured Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham in the opening match of the EPL posted a .49 rating which was the best overnight rating in the early Saturday window.

Chelsea defender John Terry is shown a red card in the defending champions' opening game against Swansea.
Chelsea goalie Thibaut Courtois is shown a red card in the defending champions’ opening game against Swansea.

The results were surprising to say the least. Arsenal, who many considered a favorite to be atop the league after picking up Petr Cech in the off-season, dropped a 2-0 home match to West Ham. Defending champions Chelsea had a frustrating 2-2 draw with Swansea City. Liverpool were able to pull out a last minute 1-0 victory at Stoke City behind Philippe Coutinho’s “goal of the week” worthy winner. Manchester United squeaked by Tottenham in an evenly played contest 1-0. And yesterday, Manchester City impressed everyone in the way in which they beat West Brom 3-0.

Arsenal's big signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.
Arsenal’s big off-season signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance in net as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.

One of the things we know about US sports viewers is that they like stars and that they like big events, especially when it comes to sports outside the “big 4” (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). People in the U.S. are watching the World Cup in record numbers. The U.S. team’s final match against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16 million viewers) on ESPN, the largest rating at the time for a soccer match on ESPN. Also of note, the match between Mexico and Croatia set a record on Univision, as did the Germany-Ghana match set a record on ESPN for most watched soccer match not involving the U.S. national team. These numbers suggest that soccer interest in growing in this country.

Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago's Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belguim in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.
Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago’s Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belgium in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.

Having said this, over half of the goals in the World Cup were scored by players who play in the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. With NBC paying the Premier League more than $80 million annually to air every match of the season, Americans can now watch the stars of the World Cups on a regular basis. The U.S. viewership of the EPL has steadily climbed since 2007. Comparatively to Major League Soccer, where ESPN, NBC and Univision pay a combined $30 million, viewership has stayed relatively stagnant since 2009. Within the MLS television deal, many of the games are only available locally or with the MLS Live Subscription. This has caused very strong local fan bases (some of which rival the support of MLB, NFL and NBA teams). Along those same lines, attendance has increased over the last 14 years, with total attendance topping 6 million each of the last two seasons.

Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC.
Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC against the Montreal Impact.

The good news is soccer is growing as a sport in popularity in this country. The EPL is a more watched league, as it should be for the average sports fan. After all, the EPL is still a better product. Something Major League Soccer realizes it has to do a better job of is diverting stars (in their prime) away from the EPL and into the MLS. This year the MLS was able to do a substantially better job of this in getting Kaka to Orlando City, David Villa and Frank Lampard to New York City FC, and Steven Gerrard to the LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, they’ve been able to retain U.S. stars like Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England) and Clint Dempsey (Seattle) away from Europe and back into the MLS.

 

Needless to say, the EPL looks to continue to maintain its dominance after a very entertaining opening weekend, as it clearly is the most popular soccer league in the world. While it may not be the best thing in the world for MLS, the continued rise in U.S. viewership numbers of the EPL speaks very well to the future of the game in this country.

Major League Soccer’s Model Organization in the Pacific Northwest

While many Unite States soccer fans point towards the growth of Major League Soccer, most soccer fanatics around the world continue to view the MLS as the place where good footballers go to earn their final paycheck. And while that may be partially correct in looking at guys like David Beckham and Thierry Henry, and most recently Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, there is one organization that stands out above the rest within the league, the Seattle Sounders.

The Seattle Sounders’ average attendance last season was 43,734 which would have put them sixth in the English Premier League (behind Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Liverpool) and the 27th most supported in the world. In fact, the Sounders double the attendance figures of the next best MLS team. And yet many soccer fans around the globe don’t realize that because the organization is relatively brand new. So how have the Seattle Sounders been so successful so quickly in putting butts in seats and filling an NFL stadium every single home game?

Let’s first look at the top. The executive team is a crossbreed between the Seahawks and the Sounders. The vast majority of the organization’s employees, from ticket sales to corporate sponsorship sales to the business development team, work for both organizations simultaneously. This co-existing business relationship is rare for MLS teams that share a stadium with an NFL team. All business decisions are made with both organizations in mind. It is not until the actual technical aspects (scouting, player development, etc) where the Seahawks and Sounders organizations divide.

Eddie Johnson (left), formerly of the Seattle Sounders, Russell Wilson (middle) QB of the Seattle Seahawks, and Clint Demsey (right), current captain of the  Sounders all pictured together.
Eddie Johnson (left), formerly of the Seattle Sounders, Russell Wilson (middle) QB of the Seattle Seahawks, and Clint Dempsey (right), current captain of the Sounders all pictured together.

Secondly, the organization is run very democratically. There are 41 “alliance” season ticket members that sit on a council (voted on by all season ticket members) who meet with ownership on a quarterly basis to talk about strategy. The key, according to senior management, is keeping the fans engaged and excited because that ultimately drives everything. The decision to acquire Clint Dempsey was heavily weighed in on by the fans who wanted to see it happen. Moreover, every four years, the General Manager’s job is voted on by the fans, a practice implemented by Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Spanish Primera League.

Garth Lagerway, the Seattle Sounders newest General Manager and President of Soccer.
Garth Lagerway, the Seattle Sounders newest General Manager and President of Soccer.

When the franchise was bought in 2007, there were so many smart owners investing large amounts of money. Nonetheless, the Sounders seemed to pick up on some vital details involving fan engagement that helped elevate the club considerably higher than all others. For instance, the Sounders organization utilized their biggest supporter club “Emerald City” to lead a “March to the Match” an hour prior to every game to generate a true home field advantage, generally attracting three to eight thousand fans.

This group gets particularly rowdy when the Portland Timbers come into town. The Seattle-Portland “derby” is considered the best rivalry within United States soccer as it has spanned across several leagues including the USL, A-League, the NASL and now the MLS. The MLS has seemingly keened in on this notion of rivalries growing the game with the addition of New York FC this year (with the NY Red Bulls right next door) and Los Angles FC coming on in 2016 (with the LA Galaxy being right next door).

The Portland Timber's largest supporter group, the Timber's Army, in Providence Park during the Great Northwest Derby against the Sounders.
The Portland Timber’s largest supporter group, the Timber’s Army, in Providence Park during the Great Northwest Derby against the Sounders.

Joe Roth, the majority owner of the Sounders, explains his research on developing the Seattle Sounders organization from a minor league team to a major league team practically overnight, “I didn’t pay much attention to the past. I did my homework on Seattle. What I found out was that Seattle has the highest per capita youth soccer participation in the United States, an adult league that had 60,000 people, a minor league team that was drawing five to eight thousand fans while other minor league teams were drawing a thousand fans and that AC Milan came over here on two weeks notice and completely sold out the stadium.”

Clint Dempsey, left, captain of the U.S. National Soccer Team, is introduced as the newest member of the Seattle Sounders FC MLS soccer team by majority owner Joe Roth, right, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, prior to a match between the Sounders and FC Dallas in Seattle.
Clint Dempsey, left, captain of the U.S. National Soccer Team, is introduced as the newest member of the Seattle Sounders FC MLS soccer team by majority owner Joe Roth, right, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, prior to a match between the Sounders and FC Dallas in Seattle.

At the end of the day, the way any businessman measures a business is the bottom line; that is the profitability. The team is worth five times the value it was when they started, where now the organization is estimated to be worth roughly around $150 million. Roth points to their fan base as an advertiser’s dream with their focus demographics being 18-49 year olds, 60% male/40% female, and an average income of over $100,000. Roth says, “Soccer is generational. Twenty years from now, this will be like the Washington Redskins where the only way you can get a ticket is inherited.”

Roth is perhaps the most passionate owner in the league today. When the Sounders lost 4-0 to the Galaxy in their first year, he was so disgusted he gave every fan their money back on their tickets, costing the organization $1 million. He says “If you’re not willing to stand out here and be part of everything, than you’re missing something.” Over the years, the Sounders ticket pricing has stayed relatively stagnant, ranking 7th in the league. According to Roth, “professional soccer in this country is very price sensitive, as it has gotten to the point of something like Notre Dame football.”

While most sports businesses look at their organizations through pie charts, spreadsheets and diagrams, the Sounders are unique in that they measure their organization’s value in their stadium. They measure their success in their fans; fans that are buying food and merchandise, who are promoting the brand organically. The team set up shop in a city rich with soccer enthusiasm and they partnered with an NFL organization that already had strong connections in the sports world and then they let the brand loose … they gave it to their fans.

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