From The Editor's Desk

Starting A League On Short Notice Won’t Work

Have you heard about the MLFB? No? Amazing. Neither had I. Yet Major League Football is kicking off a 2016 Spring Football campaign, announcing it in June 2015. The headquarters will be in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.

That’s not even 8 months to set-up shop and get going.

But hey, it’s Major League. It says so in the title. So, you have to take it seriously. Because of the title. It says “Major League,” therefore they are ready for Major League scrutiny.

While I have to give them some credit, it’s been a while since the XFL reared its ugly head toward a spring football effort (2001), the ghosts of spring football past (when it was the 1980s), continue to haunt these halls of sports greatness.

I’m not against spring football. Or any football for that matter. But all of this continues to run through similar machinations of every start-up league of the past 30 years.

I’m against the idea of not understanding sports business. You cannot have a fancy car without a great motor, unless you want it sitting in the garage. And that’s what those with passion on the roster side, neglect on the business side.

Here’s the mentality that bothers me most about the MLFB: Instead of building something slowly, they have to launch immediately. They have to get on the field and start playing. There isn’t time to build a fanbase, or even a season ticket holder base. Or use the fundamental basics of good business practices. And for darn sure, even though everyone claims to want to have a Major League product, they are going to have a shoe-string sales effort in place as an alternative.

Am I wrong? I looked forever on their website. No indication of ticket deposits, pricing, or (because they are launching in 2016) a schedule.

Call it the Minor League Baseball affect on Major League start-ups. Seeing MiLB as a cash cow with a small staff forgets that the majority of those MiLB business owners not only do not pay players, but they have a continual base of revolving players through a Professional Development Contract (PDC) with a Major League Baseball team as an affiliate club.

It allows MiLB to be in the sports business sector, not the fantasy team roster sector.

And that’s the issue with most of these teams. They want to proclaim to be a Major League product, yet don’t have the buying capacity to secure NFL-quality free agents, or want to push out retreads who burned out from the NFL or CFL in the past. And that is the extent of their overall marketing strategy.

If you cannot sell the stars, then you need to sell the fun.

So, what exactly is the MLFB selling?

Fun promotions? Outrageous marketing? Massive group sales? Nope. Probably more of a “focus on the game” type of mentality on the front office.

Sorry, but the majority of “football fans” are there for everything, including the spectacle that the diehards don’t care for.

There are as many people at a Seattle Seahawks game for the beer, noise-making & flag raising of the 12th man, as there are for the people who only want to see the teams play because “they know the history of the game better than anyone else.” Plus, it helps that they dominate a league televised internationally. Everyone wants to be seen, so being a Major League is part of showing everyone that the world cares about what you do.

So, here’s my question: How much is budgeted per team as an expense for a sales team and sales strategies by the MLFB? $1.5 million? $1 million? $500,000? $30,000? $5?

Not the amount budgeted for the roster. Not budgeted for equipment. How much to have people making out-bound sales calls, or advertising on social media platforms, in order to create the sales effort required to support the ticket sales needed in order to feed the league?

Any league without a TV contract, the per cap (ticket sales, merchandise, parking, corporate, media) becomes heavily important. Look at the NHL in the 2000s. They were heavily reliant on ticket sales and the per cap, because they didn’t have a huge national TV contract to buoy their other expenses.

What does each MLFB franchise’s front office staffing efforts look like? Do they have 3 corporate sales folks? Do they have a 20 person inside sales unit? How many are full-time staff with a base plus commission as compared to part-time gameday staff? 10 premium folks? Are they even selling premium? Premium seating is the highest-end product, sold to the least diehard fans, but the ones who end up keeping the lights on for most franchises and leagues. How exactly is a non-premium sales effort, avoiding suites and luxury seating, going to be survivable for any franchise? Even MiLB has premium seating options for its high-end clients. The $5 bucket seats do not make a franchise’s bottom line.

I’m guessing the only costs that MLFB has figured out have been for roster, travel, equipment and some light staffing. How exactly is that a Major League effort again?

What any franchise puts into its sales staff & strategy efforts (see digital marketing) will show the revenue results.

And the NFL has a full compliment of sales staff in order to sell 65,000+ tickets for 10 home games per year. As does the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS. It isn’t 3 guys in a room, trying to sell 10 teams. It is 40-50 staff, per team, earning $18,000-$20,000 base plus a 7-percent commission on new sales. Does the MLFB have that type of hiring backbone behind it? That’s about $2 million in overhead, just to earn $50-$75 million in ticket revenue.

And even then, the NFL is probably behind the times in what they are doing. Because everything in sports business is about spending more, to catch every elusive fan who might possibly want to buy your product. The days of 50,000 showing up on Saturday through the turnstiles are over. They’re now binge-watching Netflix and doing multiple other activities, including other Major League sporting events where they have been sold in advance.

If you think ticket, corporate or any type of sports sales is easy, then you are mistaken. Either you are all-in as a business owner and understand what it takes to sell a ticket to a sports fan, or you are not.

The Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Braves both have contracted out to third-party seller Van Wagner, two years away from their stadiums even being opened, in order to sell their new stadiums out. It takes that much effort to sell out a Major League product, despite full name recognition and a sales staff. And even after that point, there will be attendance issues during the season. That’s aside from their current sales staff, focusing on their current stadiums and seasons.

This is the problem with the sports fan gearheads who worry about playcharts and sports radio. The diehard fan isn’t going to overwhelmingly be the focus of your attendance, they will be 10-12 percent (maybe). And that’s only if they think you are “legit.” And they will abandon you as soon as your team “sucks.”

If MLFB happen to hit on something big, a specific way of doing something outside the box, they are merely waiting for the NFL to steal it. Notice how the TV camera views from behind the quarterback that the XFL pioneered are now routinely used by the NFL. The XFL became the best research and development department for the NFL, yet were never paid a dime for their efforts.

So, in a nutshell, here is what the MLFB is really offering:

  • Shorter play clock.
  • Field goals from 50 yards or more will earn four points.
  • The ground can cause a fumble.
  • An increase in the number of plays per game.

All of these are not selling points except to diehards. Nothing says family fun like more scoring (isn’t this the Arena Football League’s main selling point? 145 points or more per game?). MLFB doesn’t even have 500 twitter followers (they follow 1,050 accounts). Arena Football has 13.3K twitter followers. How exactly is the MLFB preparing to sell in the new era? How will they beat a competing product such as the AFL, MLB, MLS or anything else that fights for the sports dollar?

May I ask the question: If this is such a great opportunity for a real spring football league, why not actually develop a business model? Why rush to run out teams and a full schedule? Why not actually SELL the product for 2-3 years with deposits in order to build up team interest, as well as make sure that the league is viable long term? Because it takes effort and everyone wants immediate results? If that’s the case, then it isn’t being done for the right reasons. Therefore, it will fail.

The MLFB says it is not a feeder league for NFL. So, what exactly is it? It’s not Arena Football which plays in 18,000-seat arenas. 2015 Arena Football League attendance average is 8,438. The AFL has four teams in the south, two in Florida, but don’t fill their entire buildings with ‘diehard football fans looking for a spring football fix.’ The MLFB is going to be played in gigantic football stadiums (50,000+?) in college towns. When most college sports have moved indoors, and college basketball is playing. How exactly is the league going to fill all of those stadiums with die-hard football fans? The college football fan doesn’t necessarily crossover to the professional side, and for good reason, especially in the South. Especially if you’ve got a team with a tight-end from Auburn and a quarterback from Alabama. Not gonna happen.

The MLFB hopes to have 10 teams in place by 2016, with the MLFB owning all of them. The locations named are in Little Rock, Birmingham, Oklahoma City among others. So then, here’s where the rub comes in. I’m certain they’ve probably found a facility, or a sweetheart deal to host games in each city. But what have they done to actually secure a market?

Where is the sales staff? The materials, or even the individualized team websites? Who are the league’s corporate sponsors?

It’s appropriate to mention all of this, specifically because podcast Ep. 503 – Rick Olivieri was launched today:

Rick is part of the team trying to bring the NHL to Las Vegas. They already have 11,500+ seat deposits for season tickets, with a 3-to-10 year commitment for those buying in. And they don’t even have a team yet, nor a year that they are launching.

Yet, the MLFB has decided to launch 10 teams in 10 markets in 2016. Exactly how many people have bought into any of those teams in any other market?

Here’s my prediction: 1,500-3,500 fans per game (I’m being generous), regardless of the venue. Half of the tickets comp’d out by someone the league has doing “out-bound sales calls” who wants to fill a stadium by freebees, thereby killing whatever market for buying tickets is available. And, a few people that the league gets to buy-in in 2015 will end up leaving within a year.

The XFL at least had a major TV network, NBC, behind it as well as the WWE marketing & sales staff with a foothold in prospective sports fans in each area. That lasted one year, after poor ratings and the fact that the buildings really weren’t filled that much by comparison of leagues in the past. Here are the old XFL numbers, notice that the two teams in the South, Memphis and Birmingham, were No. 6 & No. 7 out of eight total teams in terms of attendance.

These things happen not because the XFL and MLFB don’t have the potential for a good product, but because good business people turn off their brains when it comes to sports business. Specifically, the MLFB has been quoted as saying that they will focus on the football diehards. Really? How well did that work for the XFL?

This isn’t the 1980s anymore, where there are a few cable stations, but the majority of the entertainment was through live experience. Now, there are multiple entertainment options competing for that dollar. Especially in Spring. Especially after the Super Bowl is done, and this little thing called March Madness removes all interest of football in its wake, right before Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and everything else.

Maybe that’s why you haven’t heard of the MLFB. Maybe it’s a secret. Because lord knows, I’ll be surprised if you’ll hear about it by 2017.

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