Archive for May, 2012

War Story

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

While we’re in the middle of all this talk about the US Open Cup, here’s a little piece of history: a story from the Newark Sunday Call from October 5, 1924. What was then called the National Challenge Cup was just getting underway, but some of the country’s top pro teams from the American Soccer League weren’t competing because of a dispute over gate receipts “scheduling.”

This is one of the early dispatches from the front in the Soccer War that (along with the Great Depression) derailed American soccer’s promising momentum of the early part of the Roaring Twenties. The ASL pulled its teams out of the Cup for the 1924-25 season, for which the then-USFA suspended the league.

Then-USFA boss Andrew Brown said (as you may or may not be able to read in the clipping above), “Despite the absence of the big professional clubs the competition will continue and will be a National affair. Such competitions cannot be dismissed with a gesture. There are 126 clubs, many of them of strength equal or greater than those which quit, many of them representing large investments, many of them clubs of old standing and responsibility and all eager to fight for the honor or being declared champions of the United States. In National sporting matters whether tennis, golf or soccer, the honor and the dollar are important, but the honor is and must always continue to be first if the sport is to prevail.”

The Shawsheen (Mass.) Indians beat Canadian Club of Chicago 3-0 in the final on April 19, 1925, held, oddly enough, a Mark’s Stadium in North Tiverton, RI, the home stadium of the Fall River Marksmen, who were boycotting the Challenge Cup that year.

Four years later, the ASL said they’d play if the Cup was moved to the end of the season. The USFA refused, suspended the ASL again and things went all pear-shaped from there. The ugly dispute, the stock market crash and the ensuing depression helped kill the ASL in the spring of 1933.

Moneyball

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

The third round of the 2012 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup saw eight of the 16 participating Major League Soccer teams sent packing by lower-division sides (a record for number, obviously, but not percentage, as half of the field of eight crashed out in 2004’s fourth round). This has led to the usual sturm und drang on the internet, with some fans claiming the results are proof of everything from parity to the necessity of promotion and relegation to the existence of Bigfoot. What usually happens in these instances is MLS teams that lose get pilloried for not trying or not caring enough to put out a representative team. For many teams – like Chicago, which had four games in 11 days –  it’s a matter of prioritizing and making best use of rosters that aren’t as robust as in other leagues around the world. But I wanted to see how true the shorthand “Those teams that played more regular players were successful, and those that didn’t, weren’t” really was.

I first looked at league playing time by each of the 16 MLS teams’ first elevens (turns out, yes, there’s a correlation between teams that put a lot of their bench players in the lineup and teams that lost, not a surprise), but then I had an idea: why not total up the salaries of each MLS team’s starting lineups to get a different view of the types of players the teams were putting out there?

Thanks to the MLS Players Union, the salary information is readily available, so it was just a matter of plugging it all in. Turns out there’s a correlation between salaries and success. It’s not perfect, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Of the eight teams that had the most 2012 salary money represented in their first elevens, five won and moved on. Of the eight that were spending the least on their starters, only three were winners.

Here’s the chart of what each of the 16 MLS teams in this year’s Open Cup were spending on base salaries on the 11 players they started in their third round matches:

 

Club Total Average Result
Portland Timbers $2,334,925.00 $212,265.91 Lost
New York Red Bulls $1,535,562.00 $139,596.55 Won
Philadelphia Union $1,265,596.00 $115,054.18 Won
DC United $1,254,064.00 $114,005.82 Won
Real Salt Lake $1,083,635.00 $98,512.27 Lost
Houston Dynamo $1,048,487.00 $95,317.00 Lost
San Jose Earthquakes $993,212.25 $90,292.02 Won
Chivas USA $991,750.04 $90,159.09 Won
Sporting Kansas City $959,450.00 $87,222.73 Won
Seattle Sounders $941,901.00 $85,627.36 Won
Los Angeles Galaxy $867,200.00 $78,836.36 Lost
New England Revolution $857,675.00 $77,970.45 Tied*
Colorado Rapids $770,626.00 $70,056.91 Won
FC Dallas $741,829.00 $67,439.00 Lost
Columbus Crew $705,900.00 $64,172.73 Lost
Chicago Fire $681,300.00 $61,936.36 Lost
*Lost on penalties

 

(We don’t know what the lower division teams’ annual salaries are for comparison, but, rest assured, they’re south of Chicago’s.)

This chart makes Portland’s home loss to Cal FC - an amateur team bankrolled largely by US Soccer legend Eric Wynalda – all the more dramatic and baffling. The Timbers not only had the most expensive player of the round (Kris Boyd, who makes $1.25 million), they spent nearly $800,000 more than the second-place team (New York) and more than Dallas, Columbus and Chicago combined spent on their starters. Seven regulars – those who had played more than 50% of the possible minutes for the Timbers in the league – started for Portland, the highest figure in the league (Philadelphia and Seattle started six each and both won, Los Angeles, New England and Chicago started two among them and all lost).

Again, the correlation isn’t perfect, but Colorado was the only one of the five thriftiest teams that got a result and advanced (New England’s penalty kick defeat at Harrisburg officially counts as a draw). And the Timbers were the only one of the top four most expensive lineups that are out of the competition.

Salt Lake made no secret of being in it to win it, but despite the presence of five regulars and two part-timers, they lost at home to defending NASL champ Minnesota. Houston – which prioritized an important friendly, if there is such a thing, at home tonight against Valencia, fell to expansion NASL side San Antonio. Barring those results, and had Boyd not missed an 80th-minute penalty for Portland, the correlation would have been nearly perfect.

The takeaway? As always, money isn’t everything, but it helps. And when you run out a team of reserves against a hungry lower-division side in a one-off Cup situation, it’s buyer beware.

The full list of annual base salaries of each of the 171 players who started for MLS teams in the third round of the Open Cup is after the jump:

(more…)

Doing The Business

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Let’s say you ran a small business. It doesn’t matter what industry, just a small business, a start-up, still young. You’re still trying to make it work, still losing money, still hoping you can find a committed local investor who will put some money into the thing.

So you work on this one project for a week or so, while doing all the other things you do on a regular basis to try to keep the lights on and the staff paid. Partially because of the work you put in on the project (and partly because of some luck), an asset drops in your lap. You don’t have a lot of assets drop in your lap, so this is a happy circumstance for you.

Now, you could probably make some money from this asset. Probably. You’d have a short window in which to do it, a small staff to make it happen (and they couldn’t just drop everything to make it happen, they’d still have to do all the things they normally do while trying to keep the lights on) and there’s no guarantee the reward would be worth the effort.

And then, out of the blue, a company (not a competitor) from another state offers you guaranteed money for the asset. You don’t have to do anything but say “Yes.” The asset has value to them, and they’re willing to make it worthwhile for you to relinquish it. Remember, this is an asset you’ve had for about 10 minutes, and that you acquired partially through a week of work and partially through luck.

And, all the while, the light bill is in the back of your mind. It has to be. When you run a small business, keeping the lights on and meeting payroll are always the priorities.

Now, maybe you’re a gutsy entrepreneur. Maybe you think there’s a great opportunity here and that if you and your staff work tremendously hard for another week and expend more marketing dollars (that are in short supply to begin with), maybe you can make it work. Maybe.

And then maybe the guy from corporate who’s been helping keep you afloat the last two years says, “Make the deal.” Or maybe he doesn’t have to because you’ve worked for this guy for two years now, and you know he wants you to make the deal.

So you make the deal.

Now, if the small business in question is the Minnesota Stars or Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League, all bets are off. Those clubs, given the assets of home games against Major League Soccer clubs next week in the third round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, opted to make the deal. They’ll travel to Salt Lake City and Seattle, respectively, putting their teams at a bit of a competitive disadvantage, but paying the light bill.

Minnesota GM Djorn Buchholz told IMS Soccer News’ Brian Quarstad:

“We were presented with a business opportunity to change the venue of this match to Rio Tinto Stadium that we could not pass up. As we continue working to ensure the long-term viability of the Minnesota Stars FC, sometimes difficult decisions must be made, and this was one of them. But history has shown that Minnesota pro soccer teams have what it takes to go on the road and get a result, and we believe this team has just that.”

(A bit of spin at the end, there, but Buchholz’ point is exactly right. And kudos to Quarstad for tracking down the GM in the wee hours this morning.)

The Silverbacks, meanwhile, issued a statement Wednesday saying the Sounders had given then them the proverbial offer they couldn’t refuse, and then laid out exactly what the organization would do with the additional funds.

Predictably, the more vocal fans of the game didn’t take it well, alternately blasting the lower level clubs, the MLS clubs and, finally, the United States Soccer Federation for allowing such a thing to happen.

To which I say, “Really?”

US Soccer is in charge of overseeing and growing the game in this country. Recently, stabilizing and growing lower-division soccer has been something many of those same vocal fans have made their feelings known about. But in this case, they seem to think USSF should step in and deny those smaller clubs the right to use assets at their disposal to help stabilize and grow their businesses (as if restraint of trade is one of the things our national federation should be getting into). As if USSF should say, “No, smaller clubs, you can’t improve your financial situation. Not yours. We’ve been charged with stabilizing the lower divisions, but only in ways that pass muster with people on Twitter.”

After all, smaller clubs sell assets – players – to bigger clubs all the time and all around the world. Are those assets – which fans like and which could help sell you some tickets – off-limits now, too?

USSF Spokesman Neil Buethe shed some light on the process in an email today:

“Teams are provided the opportunity to come to any agreement to switch the home site of a game from one team to the other in the event that the two teams could meet.

Here is an example: Winner of Team A vs. Team B is to play winner of Team C vs. Team D in the Quarterfinals, with A vs. B winner pre-selected to host. Team C may negotiate a contingency agreement with Team A, Team B or both to have the Quarterfinal venue switched to its stadium, should Team C advance.

There is usually a week deadline to finalize such an agreement, but in certain cases that deadline could be extended.

Also, it should be understood that we only approve the change when the two teams have come to an agreement (provided the new host meets all the requirements). The details of the agreement are between the two parties involved and are not part of our consideration to approve the change.”

I get that some fans are upset (but, please, name for me one person who spent last night in a fetal position over this so I can mock them), but fans think like fans, not like business owners. Fans haven’t lost millions trying to stabilize a club and make it profitable. Fans always want to run clubs, but they only want to do the sexy things like pick the colors and design the badge and fire the coach and decide who plays left back. They’ve never had to make tough financial decisions in a public arena with emotional customers (and, no, I’m sorry, whatever emotional investment you’ve made pales in comparison to the actual money people lose in creating a team for your entertainment).

Seattle’s been buying home games for three years, but now, suddenly, it’s a problem? Two – TWO – of the seven lower-division teams that were set to host MLS teams kept sold those games. There have only been four lower-division teams that have hosted MLS teams in the Open Cup in the last two years, and there are going to be five six next week! This tournament takes place every year in relative obscurity, and now all of a sudden fans are acting like Knights Templar, guarding the “sanctity” of the Open Cup like it’s the Holy Grail.

Suddenly, Open Cup third-round home games are an asset – that’s progress in and of itself, isn’t it? – and smart business people make good use of their assets. The US Open Cup is a tournament that loses money, featuring teams that lose money, in a country that has, historically, lost money on soccer. This was a chance for someone to make some money for once. I can’t find fault with them for that, or with USSF for letting it happen.

Taking Attendance, 5/14/2012

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Now that everybody in the top three men’s leagues has had at least one home game, here’s the first Taking Attendance report of the 2012 season.

MLS G Total Average Median High Low
Montreal 4 162,115 40,529 41,016 60,860 19,223
Seattle 7 270,387 38,627 38,399 39,312 38,301
Los Angeles 6 139,182 23,197 22,696 27,000 18,466
Houston 1 22,039 22,039 22,039 22,039 22,039
Portland 5 102,190 20,438 20,438 20,438 20,438
Toronto 5 95,109 19,022 18,944 20,070 18,364
Sporting KC 5 95,087 19,017 19,777 20,404 15,161
Vancouver 5 93,074 18,615 19,271 21,000 15,382
Salt Lake 6 110,062 18,344 17,924 20,415 16,738
Philadelphia 5 91,563 18,313 18,526 19,074 17,189
New York 5 81,020 16,204 17,114 21,024 11,315
Colorado 4 58,019 14,505 13,949 19,152 10,969
Chicago 5 70,433 14,087 14,159 18,075 10,489
DC United 6 82,506 13,751 13,619 16,314 10,135
Dallas 7 92,179 13,168 11,702 20,906 10,069
Chivas USA 5 64,338 12,868 14,127 14,652 7,723
Columbus 5 63,290 12,658 11,516 18,197 10,479
San Jose 6 71,421 11,904 10,364 21,816 8,734
New England 4 41,575 10,394 11,251 12,925 6,149
MLS TOTAL 96 1,805,589 18,808 18,114 60,860 6,149
 
NASL G Total Average Median High Low
San Antonio 3 32,801 10,934 10,114 13,151 9,536
Atlanta 4 17,180 4,295 4,460 5,000 3,261
Minnesota 3 12,553 4,184 2,168 8,693 1,692
Fort Lauderdale 3 10,449 3,483 2,916 4,779 2,754
Carolina 3 9,442 3,147 3,041 3,683 2,718
Tampa Bay 4 12,119 3,030 3,148 3,536 3,536
Edmonton 2 2,393 1,197 1,197 1,273 1,120
Puerto Rico 4 4,074 1,019 1,006 1,542 520
NASL TOTAL 26 101,011 3,885 3,085 13,151 520
 
USL PRO G Total Average Median High Low
Rochester 1 7,959 7,959 7,959 7,959 7,959
Orlando 3 23,042 7,681 7,899 8,421 6,722
Charleston 4 14,979 3,745 3,544 4,729 3,162
Wilmington 3 10,620 3,540 3,682 4,456 2,482
Richmond 3 10,451 3,484 3,169 5,009 2,273
Harrisburg 1 1,223 1,223 1,223 1,223 1,223
Los Angeles 4 4,867 1,217 1,118 2,432 200
Antigua 6 6,400 1,067 900 1,800 800
Dayton 3 2,645 882 853 1,012 780
Pittsburgh 2 1,567 784 784 1,005 562
Charlotte 5 3,507 701 576 964 522
USL PRO TOTAL 35 87,260 2,493 1,223 8,421 200
 
PDL G Total Average Median High Low
Fresno 2 8,634 4,317 4,317 4,361 4,273
Des Moines 3 10,237 3,412 3,272 3,722 3,243
Carolina 1 2,741 2,741 2,741 2,741 2,741
Ventura County 1 1,547 1,547 1,547 1,547 1,547
Western Mass 1 1,491 1,491 1,491 1,491 1,491
West Texas 2 2,732 1,366 1,366 1,644 1,088
Portland 1 1,257 1,257 1,257 1,257 1,257
Victoria 1 1,172 1,172 1,172 1,172 1,172
Palmetto 1 1,031 1,031 1,031 1,031 1,031
El Paso 1 560 560 560 560 560
Boston 1 546 546 546 546 546
Worcester 1 531 531 531 531 531
Mississippi 1 418 418 418 418 418
CFC Azul 1 397 397 397 397 397
No. Virginia 1 375 375 375 375 375
GPS Portland 1 352 352 352 352 352
Va. Beach 1 314 314 314 314 314
Orlando 2 615 308 308 315 300
Reading 1 267 267 267 267 267
Tampa 2 505 253 253 365 140
West Virginia 1 251 251 251 251 251
Real Colorado 2 350 175 175 200 150
Los Angeles 2 334 167 167 184 150
So.West Virginia 1 155 155 155 155 155
Seacoast United 1 150 150 150 150 150
Westchester 1 140 140 140 140 140
Vancouver 2 274 137 137 154 120
Orange County 2 272 136 136 137 135
Bradenton 2 250 125 125 150 100
Springfield 1 80 80 80 80 80
PDL TOTAL 41 37,978 926 352 4,361 80

A few notes:

  • MLS projects out (if everybody holds their current average) to draw more than six million in 2012 and to break their all-time average record. Montreal’s average is going to drop (obviously) once they move back into the renovated Saputo Stadium. Also, for the moment, Montreal leads the league in average attendance, the first time in a while Seattle hasn’t been there.
  • San Antonio has taken Montreal’s spot as the NASL attendance leader, despite getting increasingly diminishing crowds after a 13,000+ opener. Atlanta and Carolina are both up nicely in average attendance over the same number of home games as a year ago (as is Minnesota, but that’s more a function of their large Metrodome opener skewing a small sample). But Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay, Edmonton and Puerto Rico are down (the latter two because of venue shifts). Tampa Bay, which lost 25% off its 2010 numbers by moving to St. Petersburg, got the supposedly magical “Rowdies” identity back and are now down another 10%. Nostalgia is great, but it doesn’t always sell like you think it will.
  • Rochester lead Division II in average for years, and they’re leading Division III for the moment on the strength of a home opening crowd not everyone believed was 7,959. Orlando continues to draw extremely well. There’s been no significant change among the other teams, though Los Angeles had a decent (2,432) home opener and now are back to drawing hundreds.
  • The PDL season is fully underway, with Des Moines and Fresno once again up top (all of Fresno’s tickets are free through a sponsorship deal) and the league so far running almost 100% ahead of its normal average (I’m missing six games worth of attendance figures here early). Carolina also drew well for its home opener this weekend (2,741). As you can see, many PDL teams put development ahead of everything else, and their attendance figures reflect that.
  • Though it’s too early to do a full chart on it, the WPSL Elite season (featuring the remnants of WPS and a few other ambitious clubs) opened this past weekend, with Chesapeake drawing an estimated 400 to their opener on Thursday and last year’s WPS champions, Western New York, getting 1,304 to theirs. Obviously, it helps to have Alex Morgan. The W-League season is also underway and also too early to chart, but Charlotte drew 559 to its Friday opener, while Tampa (playing in Brandon) drew 90 to its Sunday opener.
  • As always, standard disclaimers about announced figures apply. If I had drop counts, you’d get those, too, but I don’t, so these numbers are the ones we have. YMMV.