Friday, January 29, 2010

Football Follies

This week I had the pleasure to join Scott Bornstein, Sandra Franz, and Joe Covino on Winning Ugly Radio's Episode 60: "Don't Sweat It, Bornstein is Gonna Get It."  If you've never tuned in, it's a comedy game show about the beautiful game.  Trust me, it works.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stars of Tomorrow: The NPSL

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ryan Knapp, the Co-owner of FC Buffalo in the National Premier Soccer League as well as the current PR Director for the six-year old, national amateur soccer league.  My interest in the NPSL stemmed from the recent announcement that the New York Red Bulls would field an Under-23 team in the league's Atlantic Conference for the upcoming season.  The Chicago Fire will also field an NPSL squad in 2010 as they did in 2009.

The NPSL was created by a few former west coast PDL team owners in the mid 00's, who wanted to operate in a league run with the clubs' input, rather than by a central league office. (sounds a lot like the new NASL offshoot from USL-1).  Over the NPSL's first five seasons, the league expanded regionally to minimize team travel expenses; first to the midwest, then the southeast, and finally, the northeast. For 2010, the NPSL will boast 22 clubs, each playing 12 matches from May to July, with a "Final Four" championship in Huntsville, Alabama on July 30 and August 1st.

There are two main differences between the NPSL and PDL: First, the $5,000 team entry fee is a fraction of the USL-run PDL, where team owners must pony up $75k to enter the league.  Second, there are no age limitations in the NPSL.  Some clubs run their team as an extension of their youth development programs.  Others' rosters are filled with players in their mid-20's.  Some teams run out college players exclusively (College-age NPSL players, like the PDL, keep their college eligibility).  The freedom to make the clubs fit the owners' wants (along with those low operating fees) is a big part of what makes the NPSL attractive, as well as the "one team, one vote" NPSL system, which determines league strategy & direction.

The NPSL's goal, according to Knapp, is to become the premier national amateur soccer league in the US.  "We strive for longevity," says Knapp, who notes that the league lost only a single team from the northeastern region this off-season.  The NPSL is affiliated with the womens' 65-team WPSL, which is nearly three times larger than the USL's W-League.

NPSL match attendances range from a few hundred per game to the low thousands.  Chattanooga FC drew a league-high 4,300 fans on last July 4th, and all of the Tennessee club's matches drew at least 2,600 in 2009, a number that would rank well with many USL-1 clubs. However, in Chattanooga's stadium, fans can buy beer. Many of the league's teams play in high school and college stadiums.

While the NPSL has yet to produce an MLS-quality star, Bob Shuttleworth, former keeper for Knapp's own FC Buffalo  is currently with the New England in an backup role.

So why should fans care about the NPSL?  Says Knapp, "These are the kids that will be playing in the USL and MLS in the coming years.  In many NPSL markets, the teams are the best level of soccer that fans can see live."  Indeed, operating in markets like Huntsville, AL, Madison, WI, Sonoma County, CA, and Reading, PA, allows for cheaper operating costs, and a down home feel.  With MLS continuing to expand by at least three teams in the next two years, odds are you'll see NPSL alums dotting MLS rosters in the years to come.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Photo Tour of Red Bull Arena & Team/Stadium News

On Tuesday night, I had the pleasure of attending an event for "ticket evangelists" at Red Bull Arena.  I brought along two soccer-crazed pals who were on the fence about buying Red Bulls season tickets, and they weren't disappointed.  Neither was I.  I hadn't been inside RBA since September's ticket relocation event, and the place looked absolutely fantastic.  Nearly all the seats were in, and with the lights on, one could feel the energy in the place. 

Click here for a photo tour of my visit.

Before the tour began in earnest, though, was a short presentation from Marketing VP Andrew LaFiosca, Head Coach Hans Backe, Sporting Director Erik Soler, and Managing Director Erik Stover.  Among the things I learned...

-Red Bull will invest nearly 20 times the 2009 marketing budget to promote the 2010 season and Red Bull Arena. The campaign will begin in early February.

-The team hopes to fill its second designated player slot for this season, has set aside one million dollars to invest in star attacking player to complement Juan Pablo Angel (Raul?  Henry? stay tuned)

-Red Bull should receive its Certificate of Occupancy for Red Bull Arena today, meaning folks won't have to wear hard hats in the arena anymore.

-The stadium will open before the MLS season opener v. Chicago on March 27th.  On March 20th RBNY will host Brazil's Santos FC.

-There's great news for fans driving to the arena.  RBNY will provide three free trolleys to get fans from the Newark Ironbound district (and restaurants therein), from Kearny, & one other route TBD.  Fans will be given schedules to plan their trip using the trolleys.

-RBNY is smartly educating the Portuguese population in the Ironbound about the team.  Apparently, some soccer-mad fans there had no idea RBA was a soccer stadium.  Some mistakenly believed RBA was built for baseball.

-The international club tournament that will be held at RBA this Summer could have some big names, reflecting the fanbase surrounding the stadium.  While no one has signed on, Celtic and Sporting Lisbon were mentioned as possibles.

-Full season ticket holders will have their RB tickets delivered via a smart card.  STHs will tap the card at the turnstile to gain entrance to RBA. The cards will be used at concession stands and the team store, and reward points will be awarded for purchases.  Eventually, sponsors may take part in the RB smart-card program as well.

-The RBA concourses will include panels that will block the view of the seating bowl.  Why?  Red Bull wants folks IN THEIR SEATS during play, watching the match.  This is a very smart move that will surely look great on TV.

-Why hold Big East Soccer semis & final at RBA in late 2010 and beyond? Red Bull wants to prevent local talent from slipping away to ACC schools.  If the chance of playing at RBA drives local HS stars to the Big East, fantastic. While the Big East tourney may not be a moneymaker for RBA, the relationship with local players & fans is important for the team.

All in all, it was a fantastic night, and frankly, made this Red Bulls fan incredibly excited for Red Bull Arena, 2010, and the franchise direction as a whole!

Friday, January 15, 2010

More Blither, More Blather

I had the honor of speaking with Richard Farley at World Soccer Reader's "Inside The Six" podcast this week about the Red Bulls and marketing in MLS in general.  Check it out!