Saturday, August 20, 2016

Crew SC, MLS and Fluff n Stuff

1. I still try and put "SC" in my posts. The team requested it when they changed the name and after years of trying to find different ways to say Columbus / Crew / MLS Columbus it was a welcome way to mix it up. While I'm thinking of it, however... what does "Crew" mean now, anyway? Wiki has the answer: ah, go look it up. Basically, means a group of soccer fans with a bunch of branding verbiage. Not sure how I missed that definition back in 2014.

2. MLS put out their "red line report" last week. Columbus has an average strength of schedule left. I thought it was kinda funny, the report. In leagues where you have good teams putting forth 90-100% effort each week, this stuff matters greatly. But in MLS, where the fire of competition are more like those hot rocks people walk across, it matters little. It was also funny that everybody in the east, were you to look at it as one team alone, had an easy-looking path remaining. Something like 1.30 PPG avg left. Sigh. It's because MLS regular season is such mush. They've got to fix it. That's not just me, the league critic / cynic talking.

2a. TV ratings. Speaking of. FS1 registered 50k last weekend for their evening RSL x SEA match. That's the lowest (by ~20k) that I have on record. Bad summer ratings are not what MLS needs. It's the Olympics that drove this figure, but the excuses are beyond tired at this point. There's always something fans of the league pin it one. At some point you have to say it's not working. Sportings viewership has become a little hobby for me. Not just MLS, but ALL OF IT. A lot of the MLS guys live in a little MLS bubble. These ratings are bad. Worse - they don't come anywhere near matching the hype and fluff of the league. Eventually, people will catch up. When they do, the league will be too fat and no longer nimble enough to change (like they did in the early 00s).

"sell-out"
3. Speaking of hype and fluff. There was a sincere hour by hour account in the SBJ about a lead up to a "NY Derby" in MLS. Humorous for me. First off, the guys they were following found tickets on the ground outside the stadium before the game. It's funny because MLS either hands them out or they were given as a group for next to nothing. Those tickets - worth nothing. In the very next hour in the account they talked about getting ready for "sellout crowd of more than 25,000 fans." Sure. There's very few that understand or find that funny, but it goes back to the fluff n stuff of the league. People (the larger business world) will figure it out. Right now it's "SOCCER IS HUGE, WAIT... THERE'S A LEAGUE IN THE US? I'LL PUT SOME MONEY THERE. SAYS HERE THEIR ATTENDANCE FIGURES ARE GREAT!" Massive generalization, but that's it in a nutshell for US biz folks. Heck, listen to Anthony Precourt talk. That's what he sounds like.

Good morning.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Crew SC Rolling Goal Difference


This is rolling 5, 10, and 20 game goal difference for Columbus Crew SC since the beginning of 2014. It's what got me going on my last post. You can explain part of this away in that it's normal MLS ebb and flow, but only part.

Take out of the chart specifically what this is and anyone would tell you that what's on the far right is very bad (or at best, very different direction than the rest). Interestingly, it also shows that the 2014 season was successful for a longer period of time than what we saw last year. This explains why so many fans were happy after that poor start to the Precourt era.

Take Down the Safety Net

Illustration - Alex Nabaum, NYT

Much has been made about Columbus bouncing around the bottom of the table all year. As a team performance this year - it is a flying "F" for Fail. This is the beauty of sports right? It's simple. You're near last out of a specific set of things. Don't be last.

Years ago General Electric head Jack Welch implemented his own form of promotion and relegation in the workplace. It was meant to weed out the poor performers and reward the best. It was ruthless and cold but it worked. 

What Welch did was / is called "rank and yank." The basics here are to reward the top 10-20% and cut the bottom 10%. It proved to be extremely effective in his time with GE. He grew the company by some 28 fold. 

In sports, you often get a conflict of cultures. One is obviously the sports one and the other being the business. In recent decades... let's say, since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the business side of sports has overtaken the jock side. It's to the point these days where the actual competition is everything off the field and has very little to do with what's on it.

Fast forward to 2005 or so and now you even on the "sports" side, you see the jock / meathead type getting crowded out of their own domain by they analytic approach. Looking at it this way shows which culture is winning out; The rise fo sports business begat analytics and that killed the jock.

"TEN GAMES? IT SEEMS A LOT LONGER"

Looking at MLS head coaches you see a lot of sameness. 18 of the 20 are 37-49 years of age, 15 from the US and 11 of them played together at some point from the late 1990s through the 2000s on the USMNT.

Gregg Berhalter checks off all those boxes. It's almost like some sort of simple Google algorithm could've predicted it. One the surface all of this looks horrible. Add race and it looks even worse. It's a club. Other US leagues are like this but there's one massive difference. The rest of the world does not play the damn sport.

Within this club we see a mildly paced march away from the meathead (let's put Peter Vermes in there along with Pablo Mastroeni and Jay Heaps) and towards an enlightened and reformed man that was born in 70s, grew up in the Jack Welch (and Roger Smith) 80s, formed their game in the 90s - 00s and is now coaching in our modern analytic time (the league structure that opens the door for this, not discussing it directly here today).

"Ten Games? It seems a lot longer," is the quote in the Columbus Dispatch from Berhalter this morning after another home draw. Maybe it seems long because it's the longest the team has gone in its 20 years without a win.

Crew SC had two weeks to prepare for this game against NYCFC last night only to see it devolve into a chaotic MLS match filled with penalties, fouls, generous amounts of extra-time for the home team and varying levels of effort and approach. To top it off, there was an hour-long weather delay that thinned out the crowd to about a third full. All this made last night's game seem like 10 games on its own.

From a competitive standpoint, Berhalter, both the Coach and Sporting Director, is the perfect candidate to be "yanked" for his performance in the bottom 10%. But Anthony Precourt is not Welch, and he's made it clear that he wants Berhalter to have a heavy hand in shaping his baby here in Columbus.

The question becomes is his nebulous role as part of the culture maker team in Columbus given him a pass in Precourt's eyes. The fall from where this team was last year, to where it is this year is a bad as it can get in MLS - but it seemingly appears that the accomplishments of last year are enough to let it slide this year. There's also a nebulous side of Precourt's selection of Berhalter and other leaders in the organization that they are there to be the creators of his culture with the franchise.

This makes it tricky to do anything with underperforming aspects of his team. A lack of simple segregation of duties has muddied the water at a time where you want to be finding the best and weeding out the worst. Not stubbornly holding on to what's not working.

COME TO COLUMBUS, THERE'S NO PRESSURE

Are you familiar with the boys club that is the Columbus Blue Jackets? A sports market like Columbus should absolutely be dropping the bottom and promoting the top. From ticket sales to concessions to players and managers.

There isn't time to wait around for it to bounce back. Look at the Columbus Blue Jackets. Look at the culture that was forged there early on their first 5-10 years. It's now embedded into the mindset and permeates every aspect of that NHL franchise. They are the poster child for what Crew SC should be trying to avoid, not replicate. Heck, look at the last three years under the previous operating group. A mirror image of a content culture.

Allowing a season drift bye like this sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the Columbus Crew SC under this new leadership. Maybe he's doing it behind closed doors and we don't see it, but quotes by Berhalter to the press suggest this isn't the case. Precourt needs to demand more from this first group of hires he has made. If not management changes, then simple and public calls for improvement. The same goes across the company. Do you want more butts in seats? A jersey sponsor the Sports Business Journal will write about? More games on national TV? Burn down the safety net. 

Bottom of the league should not be acceptable. Demand improvement. Expect results. That's the culture needed in these critical early times and results on the pitch are big part of that. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Replay Wrong


There's no easy way to title a post about "instant replay" in sports. It always comes out as wonky as the actual application of it in sports. Step back and think about replay for a minute.  The intention of it is noble, of course. Getting calls correct. But the reality of what it has become is far different than that.

Major League Soccer, along with a handful of other leagues across the world (Bundesliga being the big one) have been selected to test out / prototype Video Assistant Referees (VAR).

Just like other leagues in the United States, the pressure and stakes to get calls right have increased right along side of the increase in money. The NFL leads the way as far as integrating technology with sport. It started off with coaches headsets years ago and now has found its way into just about everything, from players checking plays on tablets during games to chips inside of the football.

Other major sports in the US have followed the leader here. NBA, NHL, MLB, college football and basketball have all implemented some form of tech. All of them in their own way and all of them using replay. It's to the point now where it is just part of the way thing are.

I've never been in on the benefits of instant replay being used to change official calls. And, I realize just as I type that, how ridiculous it sounds. But that illustrates how ingrained the practice is in modern sport.



No doubt that MLS (/USL) feels the same way. They want to be out in front of video replay for officials because the see it as progressive. They want to be seen as a nimble, fast-moving, cutting edge league. The always have. Even in the early days when they had clocks that counted down and no ties and extra subs and a team named the Mutiny with an actual mutant as a logo. It's kinda their deal.

Last night was the first live test during a (mostly) pro match. The video above is about as nutty as you could have done things, but whatever. It's here. And, sadly, it's probably not going away.

The reasons I have against this sort of thing don't have to do with getting calls right or wrong. And they don't even have much to do with the stop in action (though, I do despise it). No. It has to do with what replay has become.

It's about the TV product. It's a stop in action to pull in short attention spans. It's extra ad time. It's maximizing what little sporting action there is during a NFL game and reusing it over and over and over and then plastering ads all over it.

These days it's become so little about getting it right and so much about just another thing to make money off of.

A SMALL COLLEGE GAME

Basketball, along side soccer, is a sport I played up through college. I was good at it and enjoyed it, but watching the game stopped around the time I stopped playing. Stepping back from it I discovered that it just wasn't enjoyable to watch. Major college games and the NBA had (have) become unwatchable disasters that rarely flow for more than a minute or so.

A year or so ago I found myself down in Chillicothe, Ohio watching a small college basketball game in a gym about the size of most middle or high school. My wife's brother is the head coach. As I settled in on the hard wooden bleachers, something happened. Something changed. It was fun. I found myself working out what teams were trying to run, where players positioned themselves, when they looked for openings, how well the picked the spots.

About half way through I asked myself what the heck was going on?! At first, I couldn't figure it out but as the second half got under way I had it figured out. Fewer stops. No TV timeouts and no endless replay checks to get calls correct. The game had a flow. It had a feel. It wasn't just a series of one or two-minute snippets of action. By the end I felt I had experienced something instead of just consuming it.

Later in the year the annual "March Madness" college basketball tournament got going I found myself struggling to watch. So many stoppages. So many refs walking to the sideline to check calls. It was terrible viewing.

SOCCER HIGH AND LOW




Soccer, on the other hand, is completely different. Even at the highest levels. Every game flows and the only stoppages in the clock are at half-time and full-time. You can see the gears turning in player's heads. You can feel the weight of the action because it never stops.

And the best thing about it?

It's the same version sport being played in the poorest of poor areas in the world all the way to the highest of levels. On a fundamental level there was a massive difference between what I watched at OU Chillicothe and a UNC basketball game. Not soccer. You could go outside right now and watch a match that has the same rules as being played in England, at the highest level, today.

That's the beauty of the sport. It's what has made it the most popular in the world. What happens when you introduce something like replay is separate the game from the people. It becomes something else. The game that is played in the premier leagues around the world will now be different.

It's a tough thing to explain, but once you break that connection you've fundamentally changed the sport. Will soccer still be popular? Of course it will. Just as the NFL, NBA and other leagues are. But that's just it. It'll will become just what those leagues are. And in that, we will have all lost a big part of the beauty of the sport. Just another thing to consume.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

FS1 MLS ratings are falling


FS1 has a major Major League Soccer problem. There's no way to spin the numbers above. I can't imagine the league is happy with this performance.

What's the problem? ESPN and UDN are hanging in there (mostly). ESPN moved a lot of games from ESPN2 to the flagship station this year to try and get it to catch fire. It's kinda worked, but it's normal for the weekly MLS game to have the lowest rated program on the day. 

Fox is something different this year, however. It's bad and falling. Even before the Olympics started. 

There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, for me, is the competitive MLS format. It's phony-baloney. This impacts the other nets as well, of course. From there you have guys calling games that shouldn't even be near the local high school games. Alexi Lalas leads the way, here. Rob Stone a close second. It's just not working (I cringe each time I see a new tweet from Lalas). Another issue with the broadcast is the giant ad break-ins where the game screen shrinks to accommodate an advertiser. It's an action killer. 

This isn't some blogger opinion. The numbers are garbage and getting worse. The dip you see in 2015 is when the NFL kicked off. I'm expecting MLS ratings on FS1 to fall off the edge of the earth this year. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Crew SC Jersey Sponsorship Up


Sliding below the radar this year is that it is the final year of the Barbasol's deal with Columbus. Hard to believe that it's been five years.

During a recent #CREWSC RIDE ALONG with team Operator / Investor Anthony Precourt a question was asked about upcoming initiatives - here is his response:

I'd say that one of our big business initiatives I'm working very hard on is their new jersey sponsorship for next year. Barbasol has been a great partner of ours for the last five years, um, ya know, it's the last year of the contract, so we're hopeful that Barbasol will be in the mix and we're talking with some other companies and... that's a big thing.

That is a big thing. Barbasol has become a big part of the "brand." Looking back, it was a huge get for the previous group of investors in Columbus. I wouldn't expect MLS Columbus to have much trouble getting something on the front of the kit, just a matter of what and how much.

Side note: The cautious approach to the summer window was likely, at least in part, to the uncertainty with the jersey sponsor. It's a large revenue stream for MLS teams.

Congrats AFC Cleveland!



City of Champions!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

USA's Place in the Transfer World

Since 2010 FIFA TMS has been pulling the world of player transfers together. It's a complex world, but you had to start somewhere. FIFA TMS is that place. All transfers (a-hem, legal transfers) have to run through the TMS process.

Soccer is as global as things get, so it's a lot of data to absorb. But, as things of this nature tend to do, information will become more clear and easier to understand. Maybe that's happening now (probably).

Today I am digesting a couple recent reports I've wanted to get to for a while. One is the Global Transfer Market Report and the other drills down on the Americas. Both are available over at FIFA TMS. Most reports are $99, a yearly subscription is $750 - required materials for anyone who writes about this side of the sport, even if it's just a little bit.

It's a mountain of information to sift through, so let's start with overall spending / receipts and go from there.


No surprises at the top. What is revealing here, however, is England are spending double the next closest country, which is amazing. While they do receive the most for players in return ($529m) it's nowhere near the spend of $1.26b. Another callout is that Portugal received $436.3m in fees last year. It matches up a bit with their success in EURO 2016. Score one for the Market telling us where the talent currently is. You see that Germany and France are right there as well.

USA
Where is the United States? In 2015 the country spent $25.6m on 313 players and received $7.5m on 261. If that's not a jolt, I'm not sure what is. Things are looking better the first half of 2016 with $12.1m already received on 181 players in the Winter window. I'm not sure how much will be done in the summer, but it's low either way.

Going into this year I had a general idea of where things fell for the richest country in human history but did not have my hands on a YOY summary like the one in the figure. This summer we have seen more spending by MLS so the net positive balance will likely be erased come next report. It's hard not to be frustrated when looking at this. It runs contrary to just about every other global industry we participate in. It's so closed.

Mexico
Next door neighbors, Mexico are fairing better, but the are still minnows in the larger transfer market ocean. Both spending and receipts jumped before the last World Cup but receipts dropped directly after (similar to the USA). It marked the first year Mexico had a large negative balance. I'll have to think about why that might be. Comparatively, much less is spent in both Mexico and the United States than the rest of the world, so selling just one quality player (5-10 million) greatly impacts total receipts.

All I've got for today. Loads of info to still get to. Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 5, 2016

[podcast] ...

Crew SC stuff... in my brain during my commute to work.