More movement in the LA sports scene

September 19, 2012

Today the Los Angeles Times published an article noting that Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), my former employer, headed by billionaire Phil Anschutz, was looking for someone to buy out the rights to their Los Angeles based sport properties.  Included in this are the Los Angeles Kings of the currently locked out National Hockey League (NHL), the Stapes Center where the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers play (NBA), as well as the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer (MLB).  This move came as a surprise to me, as AEG had long been working towards building a football stadium in Los Angeles in order to attract a National Football League (NFL) team.  As the plans have stalled several times and have moved forward and backward several times, it could be that AEG has finally decided to give up on the project, and abandon all their other Los Angeles projects as well.

At the same time, this is not the first time that AEG has sold off sport properties.  The company was one of the main investors along with Lamar Hunt to help get the MLS started in the 1990’s.  AEG once held the three major market teams in the MLS, the Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy and New York/New Jersey Metrostars.  Since then they sold of the Chicago Fire, as well as the Metrostars.  The Metrostars were purchased by Red Bull for a price reported around $100 million, which many thought was a great deal for AEG to sell off an MLS franchise at such a high price.  Now it seems that AEG is moving away from the MLS and is selling off a lot of their sport properties.  Additionally, it could be a combination of getting out of soccer while they can, selling off a franchise from a locked out league, and the LA football stadium problems that has pushed them in this direction.

In either case, if AEG does sell of the properties it will be a major change in the LA sports landscape.


Did the “Beckham Experiment” work for the MLS?

November 22, 2011

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy won 1-0 in the Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup final over the Houston Dynamo.  The Galaxy are lead by U.S. international Landon Donovan, as well as England’s David Beckham and Ireland’s Robbie Keane.  Notably, the game is the last before Beckham’s 5 year contract ends with the MLS.  Now the MLS is a curious league, as it is operated as a single-entity organization where the league holds all the player contracts.  This was done to originally keep costs in check so as to not repeat the failures of the North American Soccer League (NASL).  The strict salary cap rules were relaxed to allow players like David Beckham come to play in the league, with each team given the same number of exceptions in regards to players who do not count under the salary cap.  This has allowed players such as David Beckham, Theirry Henry, Robbie Keane, and many others to come play in the MLS near the end of their career.

I don’t think there is any doubt that David Beckham has had a significant impact on the MLS, but the question is whether Beckham was worth the large salary he was paid by the league.  This exact question was the focus of a research paper in the International Journal of Sport Finance by Robert A. Lawson, Kathleen Sheehan, and E. Frank Stephenson in 2008, entitled “Vend it Like Beckham: Beckham’s Effect on MLS Ticket Sales” (volume 3, p. 189-195).  In this paper, the authors conclude that Beckham increased attendance at stadiums by around 55%, and that he was probably worth the investment.  While it seems likely that MLS recouped the salary they paid Beckham, I wonder if the MLS has really just boosted the popularity of soccer in America, and not necessarily the league.

I point again to Sunday, a day when Liverpool played Chelsea and the MLS Cup final was held.  Not only were fans able to watch Liverpool vs Chelsea live early in the morning, but they could also watch the replay on Fox in the earlier afternoon, at the same time as the NFL was playing its early games.  The day was filled with sports, finishing with the MLS Cup occurring the same time as Sunday Night Football.  The numbers show that the MLS didn’t do very well in terms of ratings, even with David Beckham and other big names playing in the game.  USA Today noted that the Liverpool vs Chelsea replay had double the viewers as the MLS Cup Final.

Fox’s taped Chelsea-Liverpool soccer game Sunday afternoon drew an overnight TV rating that nearly doubled the rating for ESPN’s primetime MLS Cup Sunday.

Fox’s soccer got a 1.5 overnight, which translates to 1.5% of households in the 56 urban TV markets measured for overnights. ESPN’s Los Angeles-Houston MLS title game, which included stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan, drew just 0.8% of households.

This is not a good sign for the MLS, though their timing and placement of the finals was probably not the best.  Scheduling during the same time as a prime-time game between the Giants and Eagles.

Return of the New York Cosmos?

April 19, 2011

Back in the 1970’s, the New York Cosmos took America by storm, boosting the popularity of soccer in the country.  The team brought in Pele, Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia to play for them, and soon saw attendance as high as 70,000 in New York to watch professional soccer.  Just a few decades earlier, the U.S. managed to beat England in the World Cup in 1950, yet no America’s really knew that this happened or even really cared.  In fact many thought the score was a misprint, and some newspapers reported the score differently.

So what made soccer popular all of the sudden in the 1970’s?  The professional league then, the North American Soccer League (NASL) started with a small number of teams but quickly expanded with hopes of becoming the next major professional sport league in North America.  The crown jewel of the league became the New York Cosmos in 1975, when Pele joined the team, and with Beckenbauer and Chinaglia, the trio of extremely well paid stars the team was the toast of the town, as mentioned in this New York Times article.  The team was so popular that rock stars like Mick Jagger would show up to meet the team and hang out with them in New York nightclubs.  But the New York Cosmos, while being the most popular and famous team in the history of the NASL, also would be the team that lead to its downfall.  After the Cosmos started to pay high salaries for stars, other teams in the NASL followed suit, and with rapid expansion, the league was soon too big to be sustainable, and was paying salaries that were much more than any team could afford.  And within less than a decade of Pele’s appearance in North America, the league folded, going broke as teams just could not control their spending.

And yet, still people remember the wonderful days of the New York Cosmos.  In fact one man named Paul Kemsley loved the Cosmos so much he bought up a bunch of their stuff, put them in boxes and locked them away in storage, guarding them as he grew older, much like the guardian of the Holy Grail in the one Indiana Jones movie.  In order to keep the Cosmos name and logo, Kemsley ran soccer camps each year using the teams name and logo which he had bought the rights to, and spend almost a million dollars in legal fees suing those who tried to use the Cosmos.

Now, the Cosmos seem to be on their way back.  Recently Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer (MLS) said that the final spot in the league (the 20th franchise) would be sold to a franchise that would be based in New York.  Speculation began to fly as to who this team would be, and who would buy them.  No real news has come of this yet, but the Cosmos have seem to have risen from the ashes and are making a push towards being that 20th team to enter the MLS.  Quite ironic, as the Cosmos and NASL’s failure were the model for the single-entity league structure which the MLS has employed to keep down player costs.  In the New York Times articles this issue is discussed, especially with Mr. Kemsley’s goal of being number one soccer franchise in the world.  And already the words have begun flying between Garber and Kemsley in regards to the Cosmos’ future.

Garber notes:

“They need to believe in the M.L.S. system, which is not about one team dominating everybody else, like the Cosmos did 30 years ago, and if they don’t believe in our system, we won’t sell them the team.”

Kemsley counters:

“We intend to meet the requirements of the M.L.S. We intend to play nicely.”

I’ll be curious to how the MLS responds to the Cosmos’ interest in joining the league.  The tradition is something that the MLS likes, but it surely brings back bad memories of the NASL’s death, and the U.S. losing out the 1986 World Cup bid to Mexico because of the NASL’s demise.  If the Cosmos do come back, I’m sure the league will make sure their pocketbooks are kept under tight control.

On a final note for everyone’s amusement, the Portland Timbers, one of the MLS’ newest franchises began play this past week, and their “mascot” Timber Joey has stepped in to take the place of Timber Jim at games.  Timber Jim supposedly brought a chainsaw to games for decades, and now Timber Joey fires up the chainsaw each time the Timbers score a goal (Timber Joey was busy the first night with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Fire).  That said, the Timbers have been a real success this year in regards to attendance and fan support.  The Pacific Northwest is really looking to be the hotbed of soccer in the United States.

Video link to the chainsaw celebration here.

A Bad Way to End a Season?

November 23, 2010

That’s what is being asked over at the Reuters Soccer Blog on the back of the MLS Cup Final last night, where Colorado beat Dallas in a snowy Toronto.  For those uninitiated and used to a diet of European or South American football (soccer – like the Reuters blogger I’m English and hence snobbish about the name of our sport!), most American sports leagues end with a play-off tournament as opposed to the highest finishing team (which would have been David Beckham’s LA Galaxy) walking away with the honours.

There has to be multiple layers to this complaint; the English writer is used to a “European”, non-play-off system, but is also open to reforming the playoffs for the MLS Cup – the  game was played infront of a half-empty stadium in a chilly Toronto, thousands of miles from either of the competing teams’s homes.  Why not having something akin to a series of games, a-la Stanley Cup instead so that the fans of these two teams get to see their team’s moment of glory?

But the blogger at Reuters is also asking why the MLS doesn’t just crown the top team, as is common practice across the football world.  It gives some of the reasons, notably maximising TV revenue (but then they scheduled this game at the same time as a rather tasty NFL game by all accounts), and also adding that extra bit of excitement – it is true that having the top team win the whole thing means there is no guarantee of a winner-takes-all game (I can think of only one such thing in England and that came back in the late 1980s when Arsenal went to Liverpool needing to win by two clear goals to deny their hosts the Championship, and duly did so.

The question would seem to boil down to what the fee-paying spectators want at the end of the day: They are the life and death of a sport, and particularly in North America where sporting culture is somewhat different to elsewhere in the world, the playoff would seem the natural way to end a tournament, whereas it would seem entirely unnatural elsewhere and hence would be unlikely to work.