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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.

Behind the Numbers: The Growing Trend of Analytics in the MLS

Sports statistics and box scores have existed for many, many years, but it wasn’t until recently that the perceived importance of “numbers” really exploded when it comes to sports. In 2003, Michael Lew published a book called Moneyball (which would turn into a film in 2011 starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill), which highlighted Billy Beane’s “sabermetric” approach with the Oakland Athletics. Beane’s rigorous statistical analysis demonstrated that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success compared to the more popular statistics of stolen bases, runs batted in and batting average. This approach enabled the Oakland A’s to find undervalued players in the market while remaining competitive with teams like the New York Yankees whose salary cap was three times their size.

Oakland Athletics Vice President and General Manager Billy Beane and his sabermetric approach to analytics has caused a trickle down effect to how other sports view the importance of statistical analysis.
Oakland Athletics Vice President and General Manager Billy Beane and his sabermetric approach to analytics has caused a trickle down effect to how other sports view the importance of statistical analysis.

It is certainly a little surprising that this level of quantitative analysis has not existed to a greater level in the hyper competitive sports business industry. This level of quantitative analysis certainly exists in finance, real estate, medicine … the list goes on and on. Of all those industries, sports is one founded and based on getting that slight competitive edge to be better than your next competitor. Needless to say this heightened level of statistical analysis in baseball has seemingly caused a trickle down approach to other major sports, including soccer.

 

There is no better place to look at this emerging trend than Major League Soccer. Due to the salary-capped nature of the MLS, a disproportionate amount of competitive advantage can be derived from effective usage of the cap space. Unlike baseball, there are much less statistical categories in the game of soccer (goals, assists, shots, fouls, offsides, corner kicks) and so there is sometimes a perceived notion of less statistical analytical value. However, in a league like the MLS, where teams operate on extremely tight budgets in a vast, global, and competitive talent exchange; knowing what it is you are and what you are not, what you need and what you don’t, and how your limited dollars are best spent, effective analytics can offer concrete advantages. On top of all that, outside of the Designated Player exception, everyone is working under the same salary cap constraints, creating a very even playing field … increasing the incentive to recruit and evaluate current talent.

 

Because of this recent heightened importance of high-level analytics within the MLS, those few clubs that are using the analytics are really not willing to speak publicly about the specifics of what they’re doing. The industry’s reliance on proprietary data sets restricts worthwhile discussion to a select few, and that’s ultimately unhealthy and stunts overall growth. A lot of teams are re-inventing the wheel behind closed doors and there is no strategy in place for collective growth. This has ultimately resulted in a “cold-start” problem that has hindered club’s incentive to make an investment into analytics. There is no club incumbent to decipher the difference between good and bad analytics and moreover there is no tangible way to measure the return on investment; thus creating a bottleneck of sorts for the industry.

Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto's young forward thinking General Manager, has been a pivotal reason Toronto FC has been on the forefront of the analytics scene in the MLS.
Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto’s young forward thinking General Manager, has been a pivotal reason Toronto FC has been on the forefront of the analytics scene in the MLS.

One club that has made a splash in these waters is Toronto FC. Toronto FC has a very young, forward thinking GM, Tim Bezbatchenko who has gone on record as saying “There’s more information available to coaches and General Managers. You need to collect it, organize it, and then look at it and try to figure out patterns and new ways of looking at the game… You don’t know what you don’t know.” Toronto has hired a Director of Analytics, Devin Pleuler, who previously worked for the Opta statistical service and has a strong soccer background writing as a columnist for MLSsoccer.com. Toronto will break down game film looking at trends in pattern of play while scouting their upcoming opponents. By processing games algorithmically, season trends are uncovered and it allows for game film to be watched with a specific focus. In addition to scouting opponents, this level of analytics also helps Toronto better understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which leads to useful information regarding player acquisition.

 

The San Jose Earthquakes, which coincidently share an owner with the Oakland Athletics, said they use a variety of services to provide data. The club has contracted with Wyscout for international scouting services, Match Analysis for in-game analytics, and Catapult to monitor players for overuse at practices. Match Analysis has a league-wide deal with the MLS and is an “xy coordinate system” that has become popular with many college programs within the United States. Catapult is a heart-monitoring device that is easily worn by players in practice, and is something that many teams throughout the league implement. However, they have not gone in greater detail about their specific use of these programs.

 

Two services that some teams use that San Jose didn’t mention are Pro Zone and Opta. Pro Zone, like Match Analysis, also has a MLS league wide deal. It’s a system that is used by over 70 college teams and is based in Leeds, England. They will turn a match back within 36 hours that has over 4,000 data points (touches, tackles, headers, etc). From these data points, coaching staffs are able to break down passing completion and accuracy as well as shots and shots on goal. Even more specifically, they can see where on the field certain players have success and where on the field they might have a high turnover rate. Opta, is a manually tracked system that is done live, giving it more practical use in the course of a match whether it be on a live broadcast or if it’s produced for a coaching staff going into the halftime locker room.

Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes believes in using analytics, specifically around fitness levels, in order to evaluate his current players' performance
Sporting KC Head Coach Peter Vermes believes in using analytics, specifically around fitness levels, in order to evaluate his current players’ performance

Peter Vermes, the Head Coach of Sporting KC, is a big believer in analytical data. However, Vermes admits that soccer is unlike baseball in that there are so many variables that go on within a game (from pitch size and condition, to formation, to a team’s style of play). Thus, Vermes argues, you have to use both the statistical analytical data along with the actual game film to pick up a greater understanding of player trends. Sporting will rank each of its eleven players comparatively to the rest of the 19 teams in the league through a set of statistical categories. In general Vermes points out, if Sporting has at least 6 of their players in the top 10 (half) of the league they are successful.

 

A former Los Angeles math teacher, Tim Crawford, runs the New England Revolution’s analytics and they take more of a “best practices” approach. What I mean by that is the Revolution will try to understand what is successful in the MLS, what works. From there, they will take those data points to evaluate their own style of play and then take it one step further to use those higher valued statistical data points to scout players. The Revolution take a more academic sabermetric approach where they come up with a thesis and try to find a proof for it.

Jay Heaps, Head Coach of the New England Revolution, lifts the Eastern Conference Trophy after beating the NY Red Bull in 2014 to advance to the MLS Finals. Heaps, who was a former wealth management analyst for Morgan Stanley, is very big on statistical data analysis and has hired Tim Crawford to head the Revolution's analytics efforts.
Jay Heaps, Head Coach of the New England Revolution, lifts the Eastern Conference Trophy after beating the NY Red Bull in 2014 to advance to the MLS Finals. Heaps, who was a former wealth management analyst for Morgan Stanley, is very big on statistical data analysis and has hired Tim Crawford to head the Revolution’s analytics efforts.

The last club in the MLS that is known to use a fairly large amount of data specifically around injury prediction and prevention are the Seattle Sounders. While the club has become the model organization around the league from a business perspective, it should come to no surprise that they are out in front on the analytics side as well. Dave Tenney, the Sounders sports science and performance manager, uses the Catapult gps tracking heart-rate monitors in training to see how hard each player is working during certain sessions of training.

Ravi Ramineni, a sports science data analyst with SoundersFC, works at a station on the practice field as he collects data during a team training session on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, in Tukwila, Wash.  MLS SOCCER - SOUNDERS FC TRAINING REGIMEN - STARFIRE SPORTS COMPLEX, TUKWILA - 148753 - 072215
Ravi Ramineni, a sports science data analyst with SoundersFC, works at a station on the practice field as he collects data during a team training session on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, in Tukwila, Wash.

Meanwhile, the Sounders use Ravi Ramineni, the team’s performance analyst and former Microsoft employee, to automate and streamline the data. Tracking software allows the technical staff to measure how often a player reaches top speed during a given practice, to design drills that best simulate game action. Players that are pushing themselves too close to the limit get dialed back, while teammates that are loafing are put through extra paces the following day. Sounders Head Coach Sigi Schmid sums his viewpoint on this data:

Analytics is just part of the identification package. I don’t think anybody is at the stage where you’re going to make that your sole identifying source or the sole determinant of your decision, but it certainly factors in. Does the objective data support what you’re seeing?’ I’ve never been a person that just looks at the data and goes, ‘OK, that makes them a good or a bad player… You’re looking at whether the objective data supports what you’re seeing subjectively.

Schmid’s words capture what seems to be a shared sentiment amongst the league. That is, “we see the value in collecting and reviewing data, but we are not completely confident in relying on the data standing alone.”

 

While teams like Manchester City in the English Premier League have upwards of a dozen analytics staff, MLS teams are lucky to have one. Those few MLS teams that are investing into the analytics field have remained very secretive about their processes. The verdict is still out as to who is really capitalizing on their investment into analytics. And so it seems that the growing trend towards capturing data and finding meaning to it all is very quickly coming to a tipping point in Major League Soccer.

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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