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women’s professional soccer 2.0

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A fellow named Kevin Alexander (@KAlexander03) published a provocative article in Boston Magazine this week.  “The Krafts Are the Worst Owners in the League” is an unusual public takedown of the Kraft family in the mainstream New England press.  The Krafts are widely lauded in the region for their sparkling stewardship of the NFL’s New England Patriots over the past two decades.  But the widespread discontent among New England Revolution fans with the Kraft family’s dispassionate attitude towards Major League Soccer has rarely attracted notice beyond insular supporters’ group message boards.

The entire article is worth a read and I won’t attempt to summarize it other than to say Alexander uses the popular framing device of MLS versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 to illustrate the club’s stagnation.  He’s certainly not the first to paint the Revs as a franchise still languishing in an MLS 1.0 mindset while the rest of the league keeps lapping them.  I like Alexander’s simple framing of these stages, with a couple of additions from his article commenters added in as well:

MLS 1.0  (1996-early aughts)

  • American football stadiums awkwardly repurposed for soccer
  • Youth soccer target audience
  • 2002 Contraction of Florida franchises

MLS 2.0 (early aughts – 2008ish)

  • Attractive soccer specific stadiums in inconvenient suburbs  (Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, etc.)
  • Rise of supporter’s culture
  • Resumption of expansion in 2005

MLS 3.0 (2009 – Now)

  • Soccer-specific stadiums in urban areas on public transit (Houston, Portland)
  • “Urban hipster” target audience that feeds supporter’s culture
  • MLS an increasing player on the international transfer market due to the Designated Player Rule

 

So after that long lead, let’s shift gears now to women’s professional soccerToday marks five years to the day since Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) launched on March 29th, 2009 with a match between the Los Angeles Sol and the Washington Freedom before 14,832 fans at the Home Depot Center.  It was the first women’s pro match in America since 2003.

A lot has changed in the five years since.  WPS is dead and gone and so is Fox Soccer Channel for that matter.  Marta, the world’s best player and WPS’ flawed tentpole attraction, is back in Sweden.  Even the Home Depot Center, with its $11.00 bottles of Bud Light, is now the StubHub Center.  But the women’s pro game in America – amazingly, improbably – is in better shape than ever under the auspices of the National Women’s Soccer League, which emerged from the smoking ruins of WPS in late 2012.

For the first time in history, we have an uninterrupted five-year sample size for the women’s soccer, so maybe it’s time to talk about classifying the 1.0 and 2.0 versions and theorize about what 3.0 might look like in the near future.

Here’s my take, with more of a business-side slant.  I’d love to hear yours in the comments section:

Women’s Professional Soccer 1.0 (2007- June 2010)

  • Starts with: 2007 formation of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS)
  • MLS participation: Arms length (AEG’s one-year commitment in L.A., SUM struggles to sell league-wide sponsorships)
  • Target Audience: Girls youth soccer players and their families
  • Secondary Market:  Brazilians who want to see Marta, LGBT, Hipsters but there’s no coordinated effort to reach any of them
  • Venues:  A mix of terrible leases (LA, Chicago), awful turf (Boston, Philly) and great potential (Atlanta, St. Louis at the end)
  • Uh-Oh: WPS execs, many of whom are former players, capitulate to U.S. National Team representative John Langel and to player agents on a series of salary cap rules negotiations, imperiling cost controls that were key selling points to league investors.
  • Key Events:
    • WPS launches March 2009 with 14,382 on hand for the inaugural game in Los Angeles
    • All eligible USWNT players sign contracts in WPS except for Ali Krieger, who plays on loan
    • Attendance leader and top regular season performer L.A. Sol folds after one season.
  • Ends with: St. Louis Athletica folds midseason in June 2010.  Investor wallets slam shut.

 

Women’s Professional Soccer Year Zero (2011-2012)

  • Starts with: WPS closes league office and eviscerates franchise-level staffs league-wide in wake of Athletica collapse
  • MLS Participation: None.
  • Target Audience:  People who can figure out when & where WPS plays through their own hard work & ingenuity.
  • Secondary Market:  Stadium custodial workers.
  • Venues: Whatever’s cheapest.
  • Uh-Oh: Owners ask: What’s the worst that could happen if we operate in a Darwinian hellscape devoid of any rules or experts to enforce them?
  • Key Events: 
    • MagicJack (see “Uh-Oh”)
    • WPS crowds surge in the wake of the 2011 World Cup, but no staff or marketing dollars remain to exploit the attention
    • WPS folds January 2012
    • WPS survivors join semi-pro WPSL Elite for 2012 season, where World Cup veterans play against high schoolers
  • Ends With: Formation of the National Women’s Soccer League in summer 2012.

 

women’s professional soccer 2.0 (Summer 2012-Present)

  • Starts with: NWSL partnership with the U.S., Canadian & Mexican Soccer Federations.
  • MLS Participation:  Direct ownership in Portland (2013) and Houston (2014).
  • Target Audiences:  Girls youth soccer players & their families & USWNT fans
  • Secondary Audiences:  Urban hipsters and MLS brand loyalists.
  • Venues: No enforced standards.  MLS palaces at the top and cheapo high school fields at the bottom.
  • Uh-Oh:  The NWSL’s lack of transparency about its complicated, constantly shifting player personnel policies is exasperating not only to the league’s diehard fans, but to often-confused team executives as well.
  • Key Events:
    • The U.S., Canadian & Mexican soccer federations agree to subsidize NWSL franchise payrolls.
    • The 2012 Portland Thorns turn a sizable operating profit.  The first American women’s pro soccer team to do so.
    • All eight clubs return for the NWSL’s second season in 2014, plus an MLS-owned expansion club, the Houston Dash.
  • Ends With: ???

 

So what might women’s pro soccer 3.0 hold, assuming there is one and it marks continued forward momentum, unlike The Troubles of 2011-12?  Here’s a few random thoughts…

  1. I don’t think there will be much more Houston-style expansion.  The secret sauce of the NWSL is the national federation subsidies of the U.S. and Canadian national team players.  Weirdly/brilliantly, the best players are also the cheapest.  Since the supply of subsidized stars is fixed and there’s no significant value in media rights, there would seem to be a disincentive for expansion among the existing clubs.  In other words, this league doesn’t need to be in the New York, Chicago and L.A. markets for the sake of a T.V. deal as so many past leagues, including WPS, have claimed.
  2. No American women’s pro club has ever been sold, let alone sold for a profit.  (Dan Borislow paid $0 to the Hendricks family for the Freedom). Now that Portland has turned the first operating profit in the sport, a profitable franchise sale is the next major economic landmark to chase.  Explicitly limiting expansion would help, by reducing the perceived supply of teams.  I’d love to see Toronto or Vancouver get an NWSL team.  But I’d rather see U.S. Soccer strengthen the league on two fronts by brokering a sale and relocation of Sky Blue, for instance, rather than award another expansion team.
  3. As encouraging as the new NWSL business model is, here’s something that would concern me as an investor: all of the national federation partnerships are reviewed on an annual basis.  Mexico already made noise about cancelling their subsidies after year one, which is… whatever.  Feel free to take your ball and go home, Mexico.  But if Canada or the U.S. ever pulled out, that would present a huge problem.  The subsidy program is basically the NWSL’s de facto collective bargaining agreement.  Would you buy into a league where the CBA was cancellable every August?  Me neither.  If the league has another strong year in 2013, it will be interesting to see if franchise owners push for Canada and U.S. Soccer to sign a 3 or 5-year deal.  But it’s hard to know where the NWSL ends and U.S. Soccer begins, so maybe this will never happen.

What do you think the next five years will hold for women’s pro soccer in North America?  Leave your comments below or on Twitter @AMCrossley.

 

 

 

Written by andycrossley

March 29th, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Posted in Columns,Soccer,Women's Sports

Tagged with ,

History Buffs Unveil 1974 World Football League Trading Card Series

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Helmet logos of the 12 original WFL franchises circa 1974

Forty years ago, four young boys were among those transfixed by the announcement of a new professional football league.  The World Football League and its brash young Commissioner Gary Davidson conjured visions of a worldwide sports organization, with teams one day spanning the globe from London to Tokyo.  (For the WFL’s inaugural season in 1974, fans would have to be satisfied with a 12-team league that spanned the country from Jacksonville to Anaheim).

The WFL offered bold colors, such as the Southern California Sun’s retina-scorching Magenta & Orange uniforms, innovative scoring system and rule changes, and a salary war with the NFL that was perhaps more entertaining than the action on the field itself.  The WFL provided a form of exceptionally high-risk free agency for NFL stars that were otherwise bound in perpetuity to their clubs by the Rozelle Rule.  Big name stars like Larry Csonka, John Gilliam and Paul Warfield jumped leagues.  The whole thing went bust in less than two full seasons, but the cult of the WFL lives on, thanks to historians, collectors and young boys now long grown who got their first taste of big-time professional football when the World Football League briefly blew through their town.

Now, decades later, four of those men have banded together to issue an eye-catching 40th anniversary trading card set covering the WFL’s debut season in 1974.  Greg Allred, Richie Franklin, Bill Jones and Willie O’Burke combined photo archives culled from 20 years of networking with former players, officials and team photographs and curated this 70-card collection, which evokes the classic Topps bubble gum issues of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  Fun While It Lasted got an early look at the card designs and an opportunity to quiz the creators on this unique set.

 

FWIL:

Can you each explain how you came by your fascination with the World Football League?

Greg Allred:

As a 12 year-old in the state of Alabama, I was already a football fan in 1974, so when the WFL announced that Birmingham would have a team I was excited.  I had never been to a professional football game, so actually getting to go to a couple of the Birmingham Americans games was something that I would never forget and it gave them a permanent place in my heart and memory.

 

Richie Franklin:

I remember hearing about the WFL in October of 1973 when they announced the formation of the league.  I was 12 years old. I followed their 1974 WFL College and Pro Drafts.  It was the new logos, team nicknames, colorful uniforms, and the star NFL players making the jump to the new league.  I loved the TVS Sports Network’s promos.  The Florida Blazers trained at Madison College (now JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I live an hour away, and a guy from our hometown, Don Ratliff tried out for the Blazers and made the team.  I was also a huge fan of the mustard brown football with the orange stripes made by Spalding.  The WFL created a lot of excitement in 1974.

Willie O’Burke:

My dad was a big-time American Football League fan.  He loved the “underdog” quality of that league and passed that on to me.  We lived in Houston.  When the WFL came out and we found out Houston was getting a team, we were instant WFL fans.

Bill Jones:

I was raised in Anaheim, California.  When the Sun came to play at Anaheim Stadium, my father took me to my first professional football game.  I was hooked.  It was fan friendly, affordable, and colorful.  As I grew older, the concept of starting such a business venture, the behind the scenes actions and the historic similarities to the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association became very interesting to me as well.

 

FWIL:

Color photos from the WFL are rather rare.  Can you describe the process of pulling the photos used in the set together over the years?

Richie Franklin:

Yes, color photos are very rare, and we used as many as we could find.  Sometimes you may have a great WFL photo, but we couldn’t use it because we did not select that player for the set.  Over the years I have met a lot of former players and coaches from the WFL.  I also met a few team photographers.  I have been fortunate enough to receive photos from their collections.  We compiled photos and as a committee chose the best action shots or still pictures we had for each player.

Greg Allred:

It’s always been such a long search for photos of any kind that relate to the WFL, so when we find a color photo it’s a really big deal.  For me this has been a 20-plus year search for photos, so sometimes there are spans of time with no success, then there are spans with quite a bit of activity and fruitfulness…it’s always exciting to find something new.  Willie, Bill, Richie, & I just basically decided to open our collections to each other and see what we had to work with. It a lot of was fun.

 

FWIL:

Do each/any of you have a “wish list” player you wanted to include, but couldn’t because there were no quality photos?

Richie Franklin:

Yes, unfortunately that did happened with a few players. There were many players we did not make cards for that were good WFL players, but quality photos are just as rare for black and white as they are for color pictures. We are starting to see more photos pop up on eBay and from private collections. Hopefully, we will locate a few quality photos for our Traded set and include cards of players we missed in Series I.

Bill Jones:

Not really.  If it were up to me, we would have had more Southern California Sun players, but I think all 4 of us have our favorite teams.  I think we came up with a very balanced representation of WFL players that made an impact in 1974.

Greg Allred:

I would like to have better photos of Tim Delaney of the Hawaiians. He is included in the set, but I sure would like to see a quality color photo of him. I am always amazed when we find photos that folks have had in their basements, attics, etc. for years. It gives me a little hope that there are more out there just waiting to be uncovered.

 

FWIL:

Have you heard reactions or reviews from any former players?

Richie Franklin:

I have heard from Upton Bell who was the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Jere Brown, who was a linebacker for the Hornets, signed the guestbook on our Web site, along with Bob Rush of the Florida Blazers, Rick Cash of the Philadelphia Bell (1974) and San Antonio Wings (1975), and Don Van Galder of the Portland Storm. I also received a nice message from Bob Paschall of the Bell and Gary Wright who worked in the front office for the Southern California Sun in 1975. The overall reaction from everyone has been extremely positive and complimentary.

 

FWIL:

Are your plans for a 1975 Series and a Traded Series definite, or does that depend on the response to this first set?

Richie Franklin:

Yes, the Series II set is in the planning stages right now.  We are currently selecting players and gathering photos.  The big name NFL players who jumped to the WFL will be in Series II along with the top 1975 WFL rookies, such as Anthony Davis and Pat Haden. When we started this project we were looking to find ways to celebrate the WFL’s 40th anniversary. The cards were something that we ourselves would want to collect in celebration of the WFL.

Willie O’Burke

This project is a labor of love for all of us, so I see us finishing series 2 & 3 regardless of series 1 sales.

 

FWIL:

The production design, front and back, is striking and really evokes the classic Topps issues of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Was there a particularly set from the past that inspired the design elements of your set?

Bill Jones:

We had at least a dozen designs that we considered.  Ultimately, we wanted a classic, Topps-inspired design.  It was important to have team logos on the cards, and we really wanted to have a classic card stock look to the backs.  I think we accomplished all of that with this set.

Richie Franklin:

We took our time and exchanged many, many e-mails to come up with the best retro feel of the 70’s. It was a total team effort and I think as a group we hit a homerun.

 

==Links== 

1974 WFL Trading Cards are available at WFLFootballCards.com

World Football League History Site curated by Richie Franklin & Greg Allred 

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Written by andycrossley

June 1st, 2013 at 6:32 pm

National Women’s Soccer League Heats Up

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As I draft this column, I’m sitting in the athletic center at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts administering the final exam for my Sports Promotions & Marketing course (SM 203).  I taught two sections of the course as a guest instructor this semester and it was a blast.

The course was focused on creating demand for minor league and developing pro sports, so we came back frequently to my four years as a start-up consultant and later General Manager for the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011).

The students’ first graded assignment this semester was a case study about the Breakers’ start-up phase in 2007-08.  At that particular time, WPS was trying to analyze the “mistakes of the past” (i.e. the failed Women’s United Soccer Association of 2001-2003) in order to create a sustainable business plan.  Today, a new women’s league – the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) – is doing the very same thing.  Sadly, the subject of this latest autopsy is WPS itself.

Take a look at the case study and think about how you might answer the eight questions I posed to my students:

Download my Boston Breakers Case Study Here

After holidays at home with their families, many of my students are off to internships with the American Hockey League, box lacrosse teams, ski resorts and arena management companies during Endicott’s extended six-week winter break.

Unfortunately, none of my students are headed to work for the NWSL, which is ramping up operations this month for a spring 2013 launch after months of behind-the-scenes organizing.  It’s too bad, because during the past four months these 42 young men and 7 young women have likely devoted more time to analyzing the history, challenges and opportunities of women’s pro soccer than any other business students in the country.

As they sit here this morning scribbling away in their blue books about variable pricing strategy and permission-based marketing, I think to myself:

If one of these kids was headed off to sell women’s soccer, what else would I share with them?

##

The first thing I would suggest to a young person learning the ropes with an NWSL club is to read Joanna Lohman’s recent blog “How To Market Our New Women’s Professional League.  Joanna was a player for the Washington Freedom and Philadelphia Independence in WPS.  She is perhaps the most articulate and insightful player voice when it comes to the marketing of the sport. Updating an eternal debate in women’s soccer circles, Joanna talks about the dream of a thriving Supporters culture versus the disappointing reality of a group sales-driven target audience of distracted youth soccer families.  Should teams:

  • Keep targeting a proven audience that is demonstrably incapable of sustaining a pro league? OR
  • Cultivate a totally-awesome-sounding-but-possibly-mythical tribe of urban, childless, pan-ethnic, hipster fanatics?

Joanna believes the NWSL has to make a bold all-in bet on fostering Supporters culture or else be doomed to failure.  I’m like 90% on board with Joanna’s direction, but I don’t entirely agree with her conclusion.  She’s created a false dilemma. Teams don’t have to choose between these two approaches.  In fact, they need to have both.  Neither audience is sufficient on its own.  Your stadium environment has to be inviting and thrilling to everyone.

Where I agree with Joanna is that too many inexperienced team operators confuse the idea of creating an environment “for everyone” with creating a “family environment”.  After all, families are adults + kids, right?  That’s everyone!  Not so fast.  Because “Family Environment” is a too often a  euphemism for a Children’s Environment.  And an atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Chuck E. Cheese than Old Trafford is bound to alienate passionate adult soccer fans.

Kids loved the Boston Breakers, but we probably did less for them than any other team in WPS, except MagicJack.  I believe that kids need to have the following experiences:

  • A team to cheer for and believe in
  • An opportunity to meet one of their heroes, even if they’re too shy to say a word
  • A shirtful of autographs at the end of the night
  • A fun, safe place to play before the game, with rides, contests and activities

They need these things because they may go home disappointed if they’re missing.  On the other hand, here’s what I believe they don’t need:

  • One Direction, Biebs, and Carly Rae Jepsen on the stadium sound system
  • P.A. announcers commanding them to MAKE SOME NOISE! every ten minutes.  Or ever, actually.
  • An intern who can’t dance in a smelly mascot suit listlessly waving at them.
  • Halftime youth soccer games that thrill 40 parents in the crowd and bore the piss out of everyone else

Do kids like all the things on this second list?  Of course they do.  But will they miss them if they’re not there?  No.  And these elements tend to annoy more sophisticated soccer fans.  You know – the ones who buy season tickets, and blog, and watch your blurry webcasts, and shell out for $8.00 beers and $80.00 authentic jerseys?  The ones you always say you wish you had more of?  Yeah, them.

At the Breakers from 2009 to 2011, every element of game production was designed for the enjoyment of adult soccer lovers.  This included everything from the Afro-Brazil samba band, to the professional entertainers at halftime, to the creation of a permanent Pillars of Excellence installation to honor retired Breakers stars such as Maren Meinert, Angela Hucles, and Kristine Lilly.  We even excluded youth groups from sitting in our most desirable midfield seating sections.

That was just our philosophy.  I’m sure it had its flaws as well.  You have to develop your own.  Whatever that is, I suggest you memorialize it in careful detail, like we did for our sales & marketing staff:

Download the Boston Breakers (WPS) Ticket Sales Manual Here

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So now our hypothetical NWSL staffer has considered the case study, read Joanna Lohman’s manifesto, downloaded a proper ticket sales manual, and perhaps even started to think about his or her own personal values about marketing.  (Whether your boss agrees is a different matter, but part of being an intern is deciding how you will do things differently when your day comes).

What else would I put in my imaginary care package for this young man or woman?  Here’s two things:

  1. A copy of Jon Spoelstra’s Ice To The Eskimos: How To Sell A Product Nobody Really Wants.  This is an industry bible, along with Spoelstra’s earlier Marketing Outrageously.  Spoelstra was the President of the New Jersey Nets during the Dark Ages of the Derrick Coleman era.  He has plenty of great advice for low-budget/no-budget minor league operators as well.  All of our Breakers account execs read this book.  Get it on Kindle for $9.99.
  2. The phone numbers of Los Angeles Galaxy Senior Manager of Ticket Sales and Service Heather Pease and Columbus Crew Director of Ticket Sales Brett Zalaski.  Consummate sales people who sold a very challenging product in WPS and used their success to make the leap to great jobs in Major League Soccer.  If you’re an NWSL executive and you haven’t been on the phone to pick the brains of WoSo sales leaders like Heather and Brett yet, you are missing a huge opportunity.

##

NWSL Odds & Ends

Here’s ten impressions and crystal ball predictions for the NWSL after this week’s league announcements:

  1. Thorns F.C. draws the best numbers since WUSA.  That means better than the 6,298 per game claimed by Los Angeles Sol in 2009.
  2. The Breakers will sell out the entire season at Somerville’s Dilboy Stadium for a second consecutive year.
  3. The appointment of Cheryl Bailey gives the NWSL a top-flight administrator to make the trains run on time.
  4. I don’t buy FC Kansas City President Brian Budzinski’s claim that his club is drawing “huge interest” from senior National Team players, unless he means Mexicans and Canadians.  Only two USWNT players were willing to go to St. Louis in WPS allocation in 2008, just one of whom is still active.  FCKC’s unknown head coach won’t help compensate for a general lack of enthusiasm about playing in Missouri.
  5. More than 50% of USWNT players will select Portland or Seattle as their preferred destination in allocation.
  6. Sydney Leroux headlines a list of surprising allocations, sent to Kansas City, Boston or Western New York when her lack of seniority keeps her out of a coveted Pacific Northwest allocation spot.
  7. The Boston Breakers will have the largest contingent of non-North American imports, due to the club’s long-standing ties to Australian players.
  8. Here’s hoping that 2014 sees a place for Charlie Naimo and Paul Riley in America’s top league.
  9. After Year One is in the books, the national federations will demand more control in return for their subsidies.  In particular, the federations won’t tolerate sending players to franchises with under-qualified, unorthodox or revolving door coaches.
  10. I no longer buy into the cliche “if it fails this time, it’s never coming  back”.  There are now and will continue to be plenty of people willing to invest in the women’s game, particularly as the price has come down.  The problem is that up until now, it’s been more attractive for new money to let everything die off and start all over again than it has been to buy existing clubs and take on their problems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by andycrossley

December 19th, 2012 at 4:49 am

What’s Up With The New Women’s Soccer League???

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 This was the last public image of Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-2011).  At this time last year, WPS was in a state of massive organ failure: largely insolvent, under-staffed by those demoralized few who ignored the evacuation orders, slogging through internecine warfare with a rogue owner and forced to prove it even deserved re-sanctioning by the United States Soccer Federation.

Improbably – and perhaps irresponsibly – the league roused itself at the NSCAA convention in January 2012 to hold its fourth and final college entry draft.  Budding USWNT star Sydney Leroux (left) was the #1 overall pick of the Atlanta Beat.  Some unknown person snapped this picture of her for the Beat website, inadvertently becoming the last person to ever attempt to market WPS.  Two weeks later the league bled out and it was all over.  Leroux will never wear that Beat jersey, nor will anyone else.

2012 was a lost year for the women’s game in America in terms of a pro league.  The loss of WPS was ameliorated for most fans by the USWNT’s Gold Medal triumph in London.  2012 was a great year for women’s soccer in America even without a pro league.  But the success of the American women in London also sparked a renewed appreciation in certain influential offices (i.e. Sunil Gulati‘s) of why we need a viable women’s pro league.

The U.S. has now won back-to-back Olympic Golds in 2008 and 2012.  Many of the key figures in those victories – Angela Hucles, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe – may never have even made the National Team without the platform of the WUSA or WPS to showcase their talents.  This isn’t about a pro league sitting atop the “developmental pyramid”.  Get real.  The USWNT and the Brazilian, Canadian, Swedish and Japanese National teams are the top of the Pyramid.  Those are the Major Leagues in this sport.  The purpose of a North American pro league is to be the equivalent of triple-A baseball, providing a proving grounds and a showcase to develop talent for international competition.  Rather than sit back doing nothing and charge exorbitant sanctioning dues to the brave investors willing to invest in professional women’s soccer here, the USSF ought to be f*&*#ng thrilled that a bunch of rich guys want to heavily subsidize the USSF’s effort to bring home World Cup and Olympic championships.

Now there’s a third pro league in the works and this time – for the first time – U.S. Soccer is reportedly taking a lead role and planning to subsidize the participation of USWNT players, much the way that NHL and Major League Baseball clubs pay the salaries of their prospects in hockey and baseball’s developmental leagues.  As the peerless women’s soccer journalist Jeff Kassouf reported this week, progress has been agonizingly slow and a series of “big announcements next week” have come and gone with silence.  Women’s soccer die hards are concerned – as they should be – that Thanksgiving is nearly upon us and we don’t yet have a league in place.  The time to sell tickets, close sponsorship deals and forge community inroads is ebbing away.

After reading Jeff’s article (linked above), I came up with five plausible theories about the persistent delays.  Perhaps I should clarify.  Five plausible but totally speculative and uninformed theories about the lack of action.  Then I reached out to a few veteran players and other sources close to the league to test my theories.  Each of them asked not to be identified by name, but provided helpful insights.   But before I share their comments, here were my initial scenarios on the lack of progress:

  1. There is a split between league owners who want to push forward for 2013 and a group that wants to hold off until 2014. (This is what derailed the planned 2008 launch of WPS).
  2. The key questions of USWNT player participation are unresolved: How much will they be paid? Will players have a voice in choosing the cities they play in, as they did in WUSA and WPS?  Without USWNT commitment prospective owners might question why they should commit to the expense of an air travel league without marketable talent.
  3. The league cannot be announced yet because of legal wrangling with the USL (W-League) or the WPSL who are upset over losing franchises to the new league.
  4. The “herding cats” theory.  The investors of the new league are not rich enough to give this substantial attention.  They all have core businesses that require most of their day-to-day attention.  Therefore, getting them together and on the same page for any type of coordinated announcements or commitments is extremely difficult
  5. Dan Borislow“.  (I don’t even know that that means, but I guarantee someone out there assumes this is a sticking point.)

So…I have to say that after talking to several reliable contacts, I came away rather encouraged by their responses, which were pretty consistent:

  1. Everyone is committed to a 2013 launch.  There could be as few as eight  but as many as twelve teams.  Eight seems most likely – more on why in a second.
  2. The USWNT players – or at least a critical mass of them – are committed, which is crucially important to the league’s relevance.  It appears that the mechanism for allocation is not yet in place.
  3. Early on it looked like the USL might manage the league and/or take an equity position in ownership.  This didn’t pan out and now U.S. Soccer has become the dominant player/de facto Commissioner’s office.  USL will not be involved, but there seem to be no over-hanging legal issues holding things up with migrating franchises.
  4. The “herding cats” theory is the one that seems to hold some water.  U.S. Soccer is vetting the franchise applications and set an early October deadline for interested parties to submit business plans.  Not just skeletal W-League-style plans for fielding a soccer team, but actual business plans for balancing revenues and expenses while maintaining acceptable standards of professionalism.  Although numerous parties were interested, few met the early October deadline and U.S. Soccer was compelled to extend the timeline, contributing to the delay in meaningful news.   Although there are now enough applications to select as many as a dozen franchises, one source expects Gulati will only approve eight for the first season.
  5. Dan Borislow.  –  “Haha.  No, he’s not remotely an issue at all.  He’s not interested or involved,” one source said.

The reported expense budgets in this league are still going to be around $500,000 – $700,000 per year.  Franchises will be responsible for the salaries of non-USWNT players, but U.S. Soccer will reportedly pay the salaries of the USWNT players.  One player said she expected “strong” participation from the Canadian National Team as well, although who would be responsible for paying the Canadians is not clear.

All in all, the behind-the-scenes news seems encouraging.  My more dysfunctional theories were consistently shot down by those in the know.  Of larger concern is the tight window that new teams will have to sell tickets and sponsorships.   Established clubs like the Chicago Red Stars and Boston Breakers should be okay regardless.  Even in a worst case scenario of dropping back to WPSL Elite, they have established fan bases that will support the teams at certain scalable levels.  More challenging will be the brand new teams that need to forge relationships and launch organizations with only four or five months of ramp up.

UPDATE!  (11.15.2012) – Charles Boehm at SoccerWire.com reports that the eight 2013 franchises will be: Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, Sky Blue FC (New Jersey), and Western New York Flash – all formerly of WPS – along with new teams in Kansas City, Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C.   It’s possible but unconfirmed that the D.C. franchise will be a revival of the old Washington Freedom brand.

Written by andycrossley

November 15th, 2012 at 3:44 am

Breaking Into Sports: Jeff Eisenberg

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When I had a chance to interview Jeff Eisenberg last week, I knew it was time to revive the Fun While It Lasted Breaking Into Sports interview series.

I first met Jeff ten years ago when I interviewed for a PR job with his Manchester (NH) Monarchs hockey club in the American Hockey League.  I lived in the neighboring town of Merrimack, New Hampshire  at the time and the Monarchs were the hottest ticket in minor league hockey back then. 8,000 hockey fans packed the Verizon Wireless Arena for 40 nights each winter.  In 2004 and again in 2006 the Monarchs were the top minor league hockey draw in all of North America, besting more than 90 other teams, many in much larger markets.

Prior to working for the Monarchs, Jeff was President of the AHL’s Portland Pirates, and held executive sales & marketing positions with the Buffalo Sabres, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies.  But in keeping with the format of the series, we’re not interested in any of that today.  We’re looking back at Jeff’s first job(s) in minor league baseball, as a 12-year old clubhouse boy with the 1968 Memphis Blues in his native state of Tennessee and later as a grad student working for the Holyoke (MA) Millers of the Eastern League.

The following is an excerpt of our complete interview with Jeff Eisenberg.  Click here to read the full piece.

FWiL:

You don’t see too many LinkedIn profiles that go all the way back to age 12, but I noticed you’ve listed “Clubhouse Boy” for the Memphis Blues baseball team in 1968.  Is it fair to say that baseball was your first love when it came to sports?

Eisenberg:

Oh, far and away.  I only played football and basketball during the off season when I couldn’t play baseball.  That was pretty much what we did – my friends went from one sport to the other.  But baseball was far and away my first love.

FWiL:

Who were some of the memorable players and personalities that you remember from that boyhood summer with the Memphis Blues?

Eisenberg:

Well, probably the one name that you might know is John Milner who went on to play for the Mets and the Pirates.  He was on that ‘68 Blues team.  I don’t know if I can even recall any other guys who made it from that team.  I mean, I remember Chico Diaz, of course.  Every minor league team has a Chico Diaz – a fan favorite who never makes it to the Majors.

Our stadium was still called Tim McCarver Stadium.  Tim McCarver is a Memphis native.

FWiL:

What brought you up to Holyoke, Massachusetts?  Was that connected with attending the University of Massachusetts?

Eisenberg:

Yes.  I was at UMass and I was up there for the summer.  The owner of the Millers back then was Tom Kayser.  Tom reached out to the sports management department looking for some students to come down and work in the boiler room.  We were making calls to sell buy outs for Mackenzie Stadium, basically.  We were selling the stadium to companies for $5,000 – for that amount you got every ticket in the place for the night.

I was completely dedicated to working in professional baseball.  When they asked us “what do you want to do?”, I said “I’m working in pro baseball.”  I went to work on the phones every day trying to get companies to buy the stadium out for $5,000.  And then Tom hired me for the summer out of that job.

FWiL:

And was that the first time in your life that you had to sell anything?

Eisenberg:

No.  The summer before I drove the Tasti D-Lite van around Nashville, Tennessee selling ice cream.

That really doesn’t count, does it?  So besides that, yes, Holyoke was the first time I ever sold anything.

FWiL:

I drove by Mackenzie Stadium a couple of years ago. It’s hard to believe today that a Major League team would have put their prospects there back in the 1980’s.  It really does look like a high school field.  What are your memories of that ballpark?

Eisenberg:

Well, the most vivid memory is the cinder track that ran through the outfield.  Did you know about that?

The ballpark doubled as Holyoke high school track stadium.  So this cinder track ran right through the outfield from halfway down the left field line straight across to the right field wall.  It was the weirdest thing.

Other than that, it was just a non-descript, nothing fancy kind of place.  It wasn’t exactly located in the garden spot of the world either.  It was challenging to promote that franchise in that building.

FWiL:

Was there anything that people in Holyoke responded to, such as 10-cent beer night or other types of promotions that would get them to turn out for Millers games?

Eisenberg:

Um……no. (Laughing)

Listen, I was a grad student, so it’s not like I had a ton of experience at this stuff.  Tom was trying to sell the stadium out for five grand a night.  It was a small staff – it was Tom, me and this other woman in the whole office.  I defined my own job.  I basically created things to do and would ask Tom “could I do this?” and he would say “sure.”

I walked in one day after a couple of months and asked Tom: “Can I be Assistant General Manager?”  I was building my resume, you know?  I’m planning to go on and do great things, and I want that to be my title.

And Tom said “Yeah, sure, sure, that‘s fine.  Now go finish the popcorn.”

I used to make up stuff to do.  Group sales and PR and press releases.  I did a community project – a kids fair and fun day, with hit, pitch and catch contests.  That stuff wasn’t around as much back then.  It wasn’t a tremendously structured situation.  It was really just before minor league baseball boomed and went to the next level.

In fact, I had a 13-week internship lined up with the Phillies after grad school but there was no commitment that I would have a job after that.  When I first started in Holyoke that summer, I knew that Tom Kayser was selling the team.  The asking price was around $75,000.  I started to call people, like friends of my older brother’s to see if we might put together a group to buy the Millers.

It didn’t happen.  The Phillies offered me a full-time job and I said well, this was my goal, to get to the big leagues.

One of my brother’s friends was a pretty prominent banker type in Philadelphia.  For years later we had fun with that one.  It was an “I told you so” and we used to laugh about it a lot.  Because, of course, the value of that franchise soon became exponentially higher than the $75,000 asking price in 1980.

FWiL:

When I worked for the Brockton Rox, the Commissioner of the Can-Am League was a guy named Miles Wolff who owned the Durham Bulls when Bull Durham was made.  He bought the Bulls in 1979 for $2,417 as an expansion team in the Carolina League.  He sold the team in 1990 and the rumor was it sold for around $4 million.

Eisenberg:

Oh my God.  That is amazing.  Well, that is classic.  Back then, that’s what the business was.  The boom was just around the corner.

But even now, minor league baseball is still all hands on deck for everything.  For me, it ranged from making the popcorn to writing the press releases to making group sales to pulling the tarp with the grounds crew.

That was a great summer.  We actually won the Eastern League championship, that year.

Kevin Bass played for that Millers team.  He was probably the biggest name.  Great guy.  We had David Green, who later played for the St. Louis Cardinals.  He was wildly talented but we thought he might have lied about his age.  He claimed to be only 19 or something and we didn‘t believe it.

Who else?  Steve Lake made the Major Leagues.  Frank DiPino was on that team and had some good years with the Astros as a pitcher.

Here’s a funny thing that happened.  The Millers won the Eastern League and then right afterwards I joined the front office of the Philadelphia Phillies, who had just won the World Series.  So I was at the Phillies when everybody on the staff got their World Series rings.  And I had my ring!

Well, my ring didn’t exactly hold up compared to theirs.  But I was just as proud of it as they were of theirs.  Mine looked kind of funny – I still have it.  It had some sort of loose stone in the middle – I don’t really know what it was.  And it was kind of shaped like an old box TV.  The head of stadium operations for the Phillies was a really funny guy and he used to ask me where the vertical hold was on my ring.  He’d flash his World Series ring in front of me and then he’d look down at mine and ask where the volume knob was.

I’ll never forget getting my ring while they were getting theirs.

FWiL:

Was there anything you learned selling Holyoke Millers tickets that helped you sell Philadelphia Phillies tickets?

Eisenberg:

(Laughing) No.

I mean, God bless Tom but…he was a baseball guy and that’s where his focus was.  We were making it up as we went.  He didn’t vend concessions.  One night I said “How about I sell beer in the stands tonight and see if it works?”  And he said “Go ahead.”   That’s where we were at.

I was 23 years old.  I’d do anything.  I had the best time.  I loved it.  Going through the stands hawking beer yelling “Last chance for romance!”  I was trying to get his attention. I wanted to push the envelope to be a little bit more aggressive with revenue.  I was probably a little over the top.

But in terms of selling tickets, no, I didn’t learn much there.

It was just before the day of real aggressive, progressive sales techniques in the minor leagues.  They just weren’t around then.  And we didn’t do well.  At all.

But I knew it had potential.  And that’s why I considered putting a group together to buy the team.  I just sensed that a real organized sales and marketing program had never been undertaken like it could have been.

But Mackenzie was not a great facility at all and that would have been an impediment.

FWiL:

During your career you must have brought a lot of young people into the industry either as interns or entry-level hires.  I think a lot of kids trying to get their foot in the door struggle to differentiate themselves.  What qualities stood out for you when hiring young people into the industry?

Eisenberg:

Three things come to mind.

One is…hiring for salespeople, I didn’t always pick the top sellers.  I looked for someone certainly who was in the top 20%, but it was very important to me how that person helped others and participated as a team member.  It’s important to know that sales are critical, but it’s not the only thing.  I’m looking for good team members and people who are going to help each other.  I’m looking for the team player who might give up a sales in a controversial situation – such as a dispute over where a lead came from – for the good of the team.

Number two: volunteer for anything and everything.

I remember we lost our graphic designer at the Manchester Monarchs who put together our game program in house.  There was a kid on the staff who stepped forward and said ‘I can do this.  I know this enough – I’ll do it until we can find someone else.’  He didn’t ask for more money, but I’m sure I gave it to him.  He put in a lot of extra hours.  I said ‘thank you’ and he said ‘it’s my honor. I’m happy to do it.’

You always notice the people who put themselves out there to do something extra.  To do that community appearance on a weekend.  Because so few people do it.  And if you love what you do, it’s not a problem.

The third thing – and I did this at the Phillies and it worked out very well for me – is do a market research project.  It’s very simple isn’t it?  And very simple is nice.

When I was an intern at the Phillies, I went to a guy named David Montgomery who is now a part owner of the team.  I said ‘I’d like to do a survey. Can you give me ten ushers for ten games from doors open until the 2nd inning?’

I made a questionnaire, the ushers collected it, I collated it all and wrote up the results and turned it in.  And where do you think it goes?  On to everybody’s desk, right up to the top, including the owner Bill Giles.  So I got to author something that showed off my enthusiasm and energy and ability to write and work and think and have it seen by key people right up the organizational ladder.

Click Here to Download the Full Interview

Written by andycrossley

November 13th, 2012 at 6:23 pm