Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lost Tickets and Missing Eyeballs

[from the Sports Business Journal]
Too much daylight has appeared between what MLS is and what MLS wants you to think it is. Nowhere is this more clear than in the league's reporting of game attendance and television viewership, two key metrics by which MLS sells itself to fans, advertisers and media around the world.

What follows below is how, in a conversational voice, MLS handles these two measurements of success in terms of reporting. It's based on my own observations of the league and careful tracking of MLS ratings via Sports TV Ratings over the last two years.

Is the stadium full or not? Are you reporting that it is? Are you using these numbers in your analysis?

MLS likes to report the way most of the other leagues in the United States report. Tickets Distributed. But what sets MLS apart from the other US based leagues is that they heavily discount, bundle and/or freely give out tickets in hopes to fill the stadium and tell a good story. While there is no doubt that teams track turnstile, it is not widely (or consistently) reported.

Over the years in following and writing about the league I've heard as high as 30% of tickets distributed go unused. Unfortunately, those exact numbers are locked away. Good news, however. Much to the chagrin of stat trackers of the world, we don't need this number. All we need is to turn on the TV and watch the games to observe that a large percentage people don't show.

Turn on a MLS match in Colorado, Chicago, DC, Dallas, Houston, San Jose, NY (Red Bulls) or New England this year and you would have likely seen a stadium only around 50-75% full. Yet, if you were to read the match report afterward or wonder over to Wiki to check the updated season averages, you'd see these teams reporting 75-100% capacity.

(my estimates)

There is a second aspect to MLS attendance reporting that the other leagues based in the US do not have to deal with; the rest of the world. What's common practice in the US is not in foreign leagues. In top leagues or when dealing with top clubs, you don't get the same amount of attention to attendance as you do with MLS because the games are of high quality and/or they are clearly well attended. Put another way, if you are watching on TV, it passes the smell test.

In the English lower divisions you see that attendance is taken like school or church. Actual attendance. It's usually reported as X amount for the home side and Y for traveling support. There is a sense of real pride that comes with bodies that show up vs. a sort of cattle call in MLS.

MLS does have teams that fill up stadiums. Games at Seattle and Orlando are consistently full and, though there was erosion this year, Portland, Montreal and Vancouver aren't far behind.

So, how should MLS attendance be tracked? Certainly not using exact numbers like we see from press releases and most certainly not from people taking those numbers and trying to derive anything from them. A number that isn't rounded for "attendance" that isn't actually tracking attendance, but "tickets distributed" is more or less used for legitimacy. "Attendance: 13,298" sounds much more official than "Tickets Distributed 13,298" in a post game report.

Reporting a tickets distributed number isn't a big problem for the majority of US pro sports. NFL, NBA and NHL figures, by and large, pass the visual test. 15,628 at that last Columbus Blue Jackets game? Sure, maybe a little high. But 15,628 at that last Chicago Fire game? No. That is a good 10k off. And this is a problem. The Problem.

A straight forward measurement made complex by MLS to mask a drop in numbers.

TV viewership is much more clearcut in terms of how the league is performing in the larger world. There are well-established measurement systems and loads of independent forces living and dying with each day with the reports. This leaves very little room for fudging, but that does not stop PR firms from around the world trying to spin the numbers in a positive light.

An example of spinning the numbers to show growth is represented in a recent World Soccer Talk piece and over at Socccer America.

In the former, they wound up combining ESPN + ESPN2 + ESPN Deportes and compared it against... a number I can't figure out, no matter how I run the numbers. With Soccer America they just posted figures given to them by MLS. 279k for ESPN and ESPN2, which is different than the World Soccer Talk number of ~308k (actual was 261k via my records sourced from and 236k for Fox / FS1 that includes the over the air broadcast.

What this leaves us with us with is two influential US soccer outlets reporting a confusing (which it gets when you are making the numbers dance in a way they should not) array of different figures, but trying to tell the story MLS wants.

In truth, the reality of the TV viewership situation couldn't be more different. When the figures are matched apples the apples MLS is down double digit points on their primary English speaking network partners: ESPN (-14%), ESPN2 (-18%) and FS1 (-20%).

Just like attendance, massaging the numbers is not necessarily illegal in the sports world. It's a common practice. Leagues and business want to tell a good story for their fans and customers. They all thirst for the precious momentum that will actually propel them into success, but there are real problems associated with this practice.

Outside of the general heartburn MLS just making things up gives long-time fans / observers of soccer in the United States, the problem with playing around with numbers is that communities and cities start making expensive decisions based off of the fluffy data MLS provides. In fact, we already have cities and towns that acted on these numbers (Bridgeview, Illinois and Harrison, New Jersey) that otherwise might have pumped the brakes had they searched out honest information.

You also have sponsors who partner with the league based on the figures given to them. Heck, ESPN, Fox and Univision likely bought in based on general misinformation.

Is it good that MLS got broadcast on the over the air network and that ESPN and not ESPN2 are carrying more games? Of course. But, if you are tracking and reporting correctly, these two actions are to help the league gain footing and not because there is huge demand for it.

MLS can get away with a lot because of their relatively small size. Not only in the US sports landscape (including, importantly, college athletics), but the global one as well. Spend some time with an average MLS fan and you'll find that even defenders of the league watch very little of it. Taking it one step further, you'd be surprised to find that from my time writing and podcasting over the years that folks you think watch, do not. We are talking big voices.

For the most part, I believe people are starting to look at things more honestly and the analysis is getting better. There's a long way to go.

Since I started putting this post together the LA Times published a piece called "MLS math doesn't always add up" that discusses the same topics I covered above. It confirms some of the figures listed above in regards to attendance. This is the sort of thing that happens when there is too much distance between PR and reality.

Friday, October 28, 2016

MLS TV Update, ESPN / FS1

This is year over year average per game viewership for MLS on ESPN / ESPN 2 and FS1. This is a clean look.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

It's Still Warzycha's Team

The transition away from the players Robert Warzycha and Brian Bliss brought in - to Gregg Berhalter has been slow and (lacking in playmakers). The upcoming offseason will be critical to this team. Attrition of Warzycha's players has been steady, but the results of the past year now should have fans concerned. 

This is regular season only.

If you just look at warm bodies, Berhalter's (GB) signings outnumbered Warzycha's (RW) last year...

Year : RW - GB
2014 : 21 - 10
2015 : 13 - 16
2016 : 10 - 17

...but, the number of minutes played by those signings suggests that he's still reliant on RW's guys to carry the load.

Year : RW - GB
2014 : 26075 - 4480
2015 : 18161 - 12300
2016 : 14962 - 14658

Looking at assists by those players suggests that a huge hole has opened up now that Berhalter has to address. Highlight here is not only that RW's guys still contribute the most but also the total team drop off from 2015 to 2016 (-15 assists).

Year : RW - GB
2014 : 46 - 0
2015 : 51 - 14
2016 : 33 - 17

Similar story with goals, here. While Kei Kamara and Ola Kamara have helped GB's players overtake the contribution of RW's, the aggregate drop off -10 goals from 2015 to 2016 have this team finishing historically bad.

Year : RW - GB
2014 : 46 - 0
2015 : 32 - 25
2016 : 17 - 30


I'll take a look at some other items metrics here in the future, but I felt the simple facts and figures above tells the story well enough. Of course, the results of these three teams are most important - but who is driving them, for me, is most important.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Vote YES if Precourt Pays for it

Not just rumors this time. Add Columbus Crew SC to the long list of clients for Barrett Sports Group, LLC. BSC is going to assist the MLS franchise in transitioning into life after Crew Stadium.

We are now seven years away from the end of the 25-year stadium lease on the fairgrounds. A blink of an eye in the getting-stadiums-built-world. What that means is that work needs to get started immediately. And it has, in the for of a fan survey.

Clicking around the Barrett Sports Group site it's clear that they have the ability to take a complex issue like modern stadium building, happen. Looking closer at some of the projects they have taken on highlights how the mere existence of a sports group like this is a testament to how tricky the landscape has gotten over the last half century.

It doesn't have to be tricky or complex, however. And you certainly don't need a group like BSG to build something. In fact, comparatively, it can be quite simple: Build it with your own money.

Anthony Precourt has talked about wanting a downtown stadium. While space is tight for any building in a downtown area, money always finds space. It's just a question of where that money comes from. Precourt's hiring of BSG is the first steps in this direction.

Any attempt to work out a stadium deal that puts the burden on the people of Columbus will be met with fierce opposition (one that includes me). This city isn't one that needs another stadium to kickstart some sort of downtown revival. Nationwide and Huntington Park have already crossed that bridge. Nor does it need it to defeat some sort of Freudian inferiority complex that some residents have.

Columbus is a growing city and it's one that is well worth the full investment of Precourt Sports Ventures. A simple and modest downtown stadium would not only make a healthy return, it will also show the world that this town is worth the private investment. What a great message that would send out to the rest of the sports world. A wonderful story to tell.

A few years ago I wrote about the Crew test driving downtown by playing a few games in Huntington Park. It's big enough for a MLS sized field (thank you NYCFC) and seats a good 10k. Why not set this up? I have no doubt that it would prove to PSV that the investment would be worth it.

Playing a regular season game might be challenging, but not impossible. How about play a US Open Cup match or three there. Or schedule a friendly game against a Liga MX side. The buzz alone before the games would generate a groundswell of goodwill locally and national interest. What the team would lose in bodies would easily be made up for in ticket prices and merch sales.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Naess, Saeid lift a bad '16 Crew

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Here is a look at Columbus Crew SC team performance as far as points earned when each player starts. This will give us a general feel for how well the team did (in 2016) when a particular player was selected and perhaps give us some insight on where the issues were this year that otherwise might've been missed.

NameGms StartedPtsPPG34 GmsPlus/minus Team
Nicolai Naess11171.555315
Mohammed Saeid23331.434911
Hector Jimenez13171.31446
Justin Meram29361.24424
Ethan Finlay27321.19402
Harrison Afful28321.14391
Steve Clark32361.13380
Michael Parkhurst32361.13380
Tyson Wahl11121.0937-1
Dilly Duka12131.0837-1
Gaston Sauro12131.0837-1
Fedrico Higuain17181.0636-2
Ola Kamara18191.0636-2
Corey Ashe13131.0034-4
Wil Trapp27271.0034-4
Waylon Francis13100.7726-12
Tony Tchani18130.7225-13

That's an impressive haul from Nicolai Naess and Mohammed Saeid this year. The points per game average played out over 34 games would be enough to earn a playoff spot. Though, that sort of projecting is a little tricky because players don't normally start that many. It's used here to give me an idea of how much better the team is with them in there. It separates the numbers a bit, highlights impact a bit more than PPG.

When played together during the last part of the 2016 season Naess and Saeid earned 1.78 points per game (all but one game from round 23-32).

Fittingly enough, with Halloween right around the corner, there are a couple frightening figures in here. Most notably: Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani. The ballast to Gregg Berhalter's system the first two years he was in charge. Completely and totally did not work this year. Wil Trapp, in particular. Something was off. It's possible that it was his grandfather's passing early in the year, or perhaps lingering injuries. Not sure.

Waylon Francis' season went off course as well, but it's not like his backup / replacement Corey Ashe helped the situation. Interestingly, it wasn't until Hector Jimenez filled that role that things got a bit better (again, late in the season).

NameGms StartedPtsPPG
Adam Jahn372.33
Rodrigo Saravia133.00
Chad Barson310.33

Missing in the figure at the top of this post are three players that didn't get to start much. Normally, when looking at this facts and figures like this I tend to discount players under five or so starts. Adam Jahn's contribution to points, however, is important to a team that has so few.

Jahn's small impact, alongside the mysterious disappearance of Ola Kamara late this year, also points me in a direction that I didn't expect to go in in regards to the key issues with the season. Was there something Kamara was doing to hurt the team? The team record was statistically about the same with or without him over the course of the season and he did score goals, but the late mini-surge once Berhalter sat him in favor of Jahn, raises questions.

Examining the wreckage of a lost MLS season is much more complex than metrics like the one above, but it does give insight. A place to start digging and questioning. Light up some dark places, so-to-speak.

The year will probably be remembered for the Kamara fiasco, but maybe the season could have taken a turn towards the playoffs if a few players were left off the starting eleven during one of the bad runs this year.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Liga MX v. MLS

Friday, October 14, 2016

Crew Eliminated from Playoff Race

They've been effectively out of qualifying since July but Crew SC mathematically eliminated from the MLS playoff race last night.


Anthony Precourt and company have made it clear the leadership team is returning so why didn't they get to work on it when the season was obviously lost? The team should have been working on improving since summer and gotten a jump on next year. But they didn't.

I'll have to ponder that question for a bit.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Crew SC Projection Follow-up

Back on August 29, I mapped out the remaining schedule for Crew SC. It was the start of a critical time for the team. More than that... it was deadline time. Time to name the baby. Time to turn in that report you were given three extensions on. Time to friggin' wake-up and act like you give a damn.

Berhalter has shown that he doesn't mind sacrificing results in favor of maintaining a team style. What this has resulted in is some record runs of poor results each of his first three seasons. Even last year, when they finished near the top in the East.

That said, I've always felt like pushing the limits of a forgiving MLS competitive format is like trying to start a push lawnmower. When you first get it, one pull and it cranks right up on the recoil. Over time, however, it takes multiple pulls until you tune it back up.

Crew SC never tuned things up and the jumpy LLWWLW results record in the last six reflect that.

Columbus finished on the high side of my projections (3-10 pts in last 6). But, even at max projected points, it wasn't enough to salvage this historically bad year. Max Crew could have earned is 18 pts. They needed at least 15, in my opinion. Why that many? Because the last three are on the road.

Match. Team (venue): Projected Pts... Actual
1. LA (A): 0-1... 0
2. Vancouver (H): 1-3... 0
3. Orlando (A): 0-1... 3
4. New England (H): 1-3... 3
5. DC United (A): 0-1... 0
6. Chicago (H): 1... 3

EXPECTED: 3-10 pts
ACTUAL: 9 pts


Crew finish the season with a Thursday night game in Chicago and then both New York teams on the road in consecutive weeks.

Ending the season at the bottom of the table is hard enough, but it can be worse. If the Crew coaching staff pull and pull on that cord without fixing the problems, they will set the mower on fire.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

End the Playoff Scourge

Did you read the playoff news today about your local MLS or USL team? Again? How many weeks has this been a "Must win," or "Important for home field positioning."

One the things repeated around these parts is the circle of hell that is playoff talk. Over at the Columbus Dispatch, they are aware of the ridiculousness but do nothing in response to it. Here are some recent headlines from just last week:

"Ola Kamara's two goals keep playoff hopes alive"

"Heard this before? Every game is a must-win"

"Playoff fate now out of Crew's hands"

This is not to pick on the Dispatch. All news outlets in most markets devolve into mindless commentary about making the playoffs this time of year. Massive Report is a better place to get info on the team but much of the discussion still revolves around playoff situations.

The problem with all of this is that it detracts from what we are watching on the field. As in; the events happening within the game are completely cast aside for the End Result.

Important questions around play, style, player quality, improvement, future plans, etc are lost in the black hole that is the MLS playoffs.

What's interesting is that this playoff crack is much like a real drug. It's a quick fix and leaves you empty. Over in the corner of the Dispatch site you will find a podcast summary "Our reporters take a look at the disappointing end to the Columbus Crew Season." Like, they just want it to end already.

The reason for that is clear. They are sick and tired talking about a Cup that they know won't happen is because that's all they know how to talk about. They don't know the game. It doesn't excite them and they would rather be covering something else.

The key here is this: Not every sport is the same. You can't make it the same. Soccer, like the gridiron, like rugby, like hockey, is different.

For soccer, which has evolved in concert with common league structures all over the world for 150 years, it's having a tiered system where teams move up and down and a balanced schedule. This ensures competitive matches all season and championships for more than just one team (among many other things, but let's keep it on the competitive side).

These reporters who just want to see the end should be talking about next season in the lower tier. What players are worth keeping, what the budget will be, who will be managing the team. If this were the case we would be seeing the absolute best out of the teams out of the bottom right now. We'd see players and coaches trying anything and everything. Fightin', scratching, clawing. We'd see what they are made of. Really made of. Not the cliche you hear all the time.

But, we will not. We'll see two bad teams playing like it's April.

This post is in addition to "A Competitive Myth"