Friday, June 24, 2011

Dear Don Garber and MLS With a Copy to ESPN

by Dick Mac

Dear Mr. Garber:

I am a season ticket holder at Red Bull New York. I've been a member of MLS for about seven of the 10 years I have known of the league's existence. It is my plan to be a member until I die (or lose my job).

When I first started following the MetroStars in 2002, it was an effort. The commute from my apartment in Manhattan to Giants Stadium was easy enough, but television broadcasts of my team's away matches were inconsistent, and local media coverage was almost non-existent.

I have watched MLS grow in a similar fashion to the NHL of the 1960s and '70s. Slow, steady growth with the occasional burst and breakthrough.

I know MLS likes to think big and compare itself to (and behave like it is) Major League Baseball, but that is an in-house belief and nobody outside of 420 Fifth Avenue (MLS headquarters) believes this. We don't laugh in your face about it, but the snickering is deafening.

Still, the league's growth has been impressive. When a business venture grows and expands either organically or through acquisition, there is a certain amount soul-selling that takes place. Anyone with a grasp of the free-market understands this. You can't retain all the features of a family enterprise and become a corporate behemoth. Consumers and workers commend any effort that a company makes to retain some of the old-time feel; but, we all know it is transient. That is the price of success.

That equation cannot be controlled, however; the growth takes time and proper decisions need to be made. Bad decision-making results in a huge corporate house of cards, and good decision-making results in a blue-chip stock.

Take the NHL comparison. The NHL and the NHLPA are partners, just as the players association and any other league must work as partners. They did a great job until one day the partnership his a snag, infidelity ensued, a work stoppage was the result, and the league was shuttered. The organic growth that saw the NHL grow from regional also-rans to the international stage with a huge television contract withered faster than you could sneeze NASL.

The NHL work-stoppage lasted so long that ESPN lost interest in them. I knew they were in trouble when an ESPN executive, who was asked about the impact of the strike on ESPN scheduling said something to the effect that (and I paraphrase): "Every truck-pull, arm-wrestling competition, and poker tournament we've put in those time slots has drawn better numbers than hockey; we don't care if they ever come back."

Now that's love!

When the NHL finally resumed play, they were without a national contract, and settled on creation of the Versus network for broadcasting. It took many years, but the NHL has grown Versus into a viable sports network that is part of the Comcast family (for better or worse).

I discuss the NHL story because I think MLS should pay close attention to that league's growth, expansion, and (especially) television history.

ESPN is not a nice organization (and I do not mean to imply that MLS is nice, so forgive me if that is how this sounds), and has become so big that they call all the shots with all their contracts. Even Major League Baseball and the National Football League are unable to stand up to Mickey Mouse and his Disney family of networks. Mickey is a formidable opponent and a dangerous ally!

Soccer is an amazing sport: it is the beautiful game, and there is no wonder why billions of people follow it day-to-day while millions follow basketball, baseball, hockey, and the NFL. Soccer leagues, confederations, ruling bodies, and supporters clubs are also more sophisticated than those other sports. Although the game played on the pitch is rather simple and easy-to-understand, the social, political and corporate structures are, as you know, much more complicated than can be imagined.

It must be tough to manage a league that must also accommodate the schedules of its regional confederation along with the whims of the regional and international governing bodies. Many leagues suspend play temporarily so their players can participate in their countries' tournaments like the World Cup, Confederations Cup, Gold Cup, etc.

MLS and its executives have a unique approach to this: operate in a vacuum, pretend the confederation and international events don't exist, and march forward as a brave lone soldier in the wind against all odds.

I am not sure how that is working for MLS and its Executive Board, franchisees, and talent, but I can tell you that it is working very poorly for your consumers (that is, me).

MLS has worked carefully, diligently, and deliberately to grow the league. The restriction on international players and the existence of salary caps may appear to the unsophisticated as bad business decisions, but I see those rules and their metamorphoses as a brilliant business plan. You protected your early investors' investments, stabilized the league, grew the fan base, expanded slowly, and have reaped benefits that another league (say, the NHL) might envy.

Some things aren't working, though, and I think you need to re-group and reconsider recent events.

As a supporter and season ticket-holder of Red Bull New York, the creation of the designated player (whose salary is outside the salary cap), the increase of DPs per team, and the increase in international players has been a great thing for me.

It's easy for any supporter of any club, in any league, in any country, in any federation, to know if they have a good team: how many of your players are called-up for international duty. RBNY is an example of a good team: six (6) players were called-up.

Many people think RBNY is a foreign team because of the signings of Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, and other foreign-born players. I will point-out that we had six players called-up to international duty in this last month's cycle of international play, and two of them are USA players and three others are from CONCACAF nations (Jamaica, Canada, and Mexico); only one player is from far away (Senegal). So, our players on international duty are pretty local internationals. We are not talking about our players rushing half-way around the planet to play for some obscure little nation that no American has heard of!

MLS is part of CONCACAF. I know you believe that CONCACAF has nothing to say about soccer in the United States and you would never even consider their planning in your business decisions, but their planning has a dramatic impact on MLS, its teams, and consumers; and your decision to act in a vacuum, without consideration of CONCACAF's planning shows a parochialism that is unbecoming an American corporation.

If the lawyers I work for (and I work for really successful, famous lawyers) were in this discussion, I know they would refer to this aspect of your business plan as "stupid."

Do you know why it is stupid? It isn't a political issue, it's a business issue! You have a force affecting your marketing, your product, its consumers, and your franchises, and you pretend you are somehow removed from it, above it, and fail to respect the impact it has on your product.

Then there is the MLS strategy for television. This is not an easy thing to plan and I am certain that it is easy to be blinded by bright shiny objects seen on the long road to complete market saturation.

I know that Mickey Mouse holds a lot of bright shiny objects in the view of producers who have a product they want to sell via television broadcast; and no matter how old we are, Mickey is a very powerful player in the lives of all Americans. In your case, Mickey owns ESPN, and you covet a spot in his bed to enjoy the orgy of cash that other leagues (except the NHL) eat up.

I understand this plan and this desire. If I owned MLS, I would want my matches on ESPN.

I don't know if you actually watch ESPN, and it doesn't matter to me really. What I do know is that ESPN, its producers, and on-air talent hold soccer in such disdain that they rarely deign to discuss it in their "news" broadcasts, and when they do, our sport is spoken of with such derision that I feel dirty and small afterwards. Perhaps you are OK with that, but I find it embarrassing.

On the other hand, ESPN worships at the altar of MLB, NBA, and NFL. Our sport is secondary to all of those other sports and if we have the nerve to appear on their schedule, they treat us as an unwanted house guest.

Last night, you sold my team's match to ESPN. Instead of broadcasting the match to which they had exclusive rights, they decided to broadcast a college baseball game instead.

So, the RBNY kick-off came and went, and I was treated to a display of young men with metal bats watching other young men throw a ball by them. This went on and on, and ESPN even treated me to some commercials they were broadcasting while my team played the sport ESPN contracted to broadcast. Then their announcers were kind enough to show some highlights of the game when it had ended and give me a recap. All this time, my team is playing a professional match that I can see nowhere else.

My season ticket doesn't get me access, the league provides no access online, but . . . wait . . . I have my MatchDay Live subscription! I can watch it online because I paid for the entire season.

MatchDay Live is another one of the services you sell me after I have purchased my season tickets, spend money getting to and from the stadium, purchase kits and souvenirs, and food and drink at the stadium.

So, while your broadcaster of choice, who hates your sport, is showing a college baseball game while my team is playing in Seattle, I rush to my computer, log-in to MatchDay Live, and find that you have blocked this match, even though I have paid for the service!

Your relationship to ESPN is beginning to look like the relationship of a battered wife to her abusive husband, and my relationship to you is beginning to look like the fallout that happens to the children when the battered wife then beats them.

My beloved team, the team I support through thick and thin, that is decimated by international call-ups you have ignored, is playing three thousand miles away and I cannot watch (even though I have paid for the television service, own season tickets, and subscribe to your online broadcast service).

This isn't working for me.

MLS really needs to get down off its high horse, examine its real spot in the marketplace, make some decisions that show it can operate as a real business with a relationship to its vendors, consumers, and governing bodies, and start treating its supporters a little better.

I will spare you discussion of the Ricardo Salazar incident and the general state of your officiating. You can read about that here, if you care to read what I said about it. That is a problem you will never address publicly, nor should you (but I hope you will address it).

MLS isn't working for me today, and I am a big supporter.

I am angry and you will be punished!


Anonymous said...

The game last night was on for free. It was even advertised at the bottom of the screen during the baseball game. I watched the first 10 minutes on then watched the rest on ESPN2 when the baseball game was over.

DM said...

I generally don't respond to anonymous comments, but EPSN3 is available to only 30% of RBNY's market, and I am not lucky enough to have access.

Anonymous said...

ESPN3 is not carried by all cable networks.