By Barry Janoff
June 6, 2012: Major League Soccer.2012 is not your grandfather's game. And probably not even your father's game. MLS is still about goals, penalty kicks, offsides, yellow cards, defensive schemes and blood, sweat and tears. But it is also about iPhones, iPads, Roku, YouTube Kick TV, Twitter, Facebook, ExtraTime Radio podcasts, Wi-Fi, fat pipes, adidas' miCoach Speed_Cell data tracker and MLS Live, which offers HD streaming, multi-platform access of up to 230 out-of-market games per season.
The league's digital growth has been fueled by — and in turn has fueled — growth in attendance and marketing deals and stability in franchise cities. More than two-thirds of the league's 19 clubs have jersey-sponsor deals. And since 2007, MLS has opened nine soccer-specific stadiums, most with naming-rights partners, including BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, which had its ribbon cutting last month.
From 2003-2009, the MLS Web site was under the auspices of MLB Advanced Media, the interactive media and Internet division of Major League Baseball. But the league took its Web site in-house and ramped up expansion and production of its digital and social media properties.
Chris Schlosser was hired by MLS in 2008 as director of digital strategy, bringing with him a resume that included four years at Microsoft. In 2011 he was named general manager of MLS Digital. NYSportsJournalism spoke with Schlosser about navigating through and exploring new aspects of the digital side of the pro soccer landscape.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What did you see as your biggest challenges when you joined MLS, and have they been met?
Chris Schlosser: I joined in August 2008. I was, basically, Digital Employee No. 1 at Major League Soccer. At that time, all of our digital business was managed by MLB Advanced Media. They have done amazing things and have done a great job. But we saw the writing on the wall. We have a young, tech-savvy fan base, and with the growing importance of digital, we felt that it was really key that MLS controlled its own destiny in this area. So [in 2009, after six years with MLBAM] we took over control of our digital operation. Since then, we have invested significant money in building MLS Digital into our own business unit. We just hired our 35th employee. So we are growing fast. We now have a phenomenal suite of digital products on the marketplace.
NYSJ: Has your focus changed since you joined MLS?
CS: The interesting thing is that when I started here, our focus was on taking over the Web site content duties from MLBAM and building our Web site. But as we expanded our strategy we began to focus on two strategies. One was to create content. We now have the largest soccer content team in North America, with offices in New York and San Francisco and writers across North America and around the world. The second strategy was that we began to look at how would we distribute that content to our fans on whatever device they were using.
NYSJ: Can you tell whether or not core fans are supporting your digital strategies?
CS: The ecosystem has changed significantly over the last four years. And we believe that will continue as we go forward. The growth in metrics we have seen has been incredible. This year alone, visits to our Web are up 40%, mobile is up 200%, and fans are accessing more and more of our content across our system. So we are looking to continue to build our content and stay ahead of the changes in technology so were are providing information and data to our fans in the ways they want to consume it.
"Visits to our Web are up 40%, mobile is up 200%, and fans are accessing more and more of our content across our system."
NYSJ: Are you finding that you are attracting casual and non-soccer fans?
CS: Social is a key element in the growth of our league and the individual clubs. We see it as a major strategy to grow our fan base. One of the interesting stats that I look at is the percentage of people who are visiting our property for the first time. At any given time, a third of the people visiting our site have never been there before. That, to me, is an incredible stat. It shows how we are constantly reaching out to new people who are discovering the sport and discovering our content, whether that's through search [engines] or social or from an article they read on one of our distribution partners. But to constantly have that key user base is, to me, phenomenal.
NYSJ: How important is it to have a core base of young players who have grown up using technology and social media?
CS: Having tech-savvy players is incredible. Our players are all over Twitter. They use our products. They like our products. We get comments from them all the time. You'll see players posting comments on our site and have a dialogue going back and forth with each other. A recent ESPN poll showed that among 12-24-year olds, MLS and soccer is their second-favorite sport behind the NFL. I think that shows a pretty incredible shift in the American sports landscape. That's an amazing thing for the league. But for us in digital, having all of those young fans loving the sport just takes all of the things we are doing to the next level.
NYSJ: Some leagues don't want their players to use Twitter during games or at other times they feel might compromise certain situations? How does MLS feel about that?
CS: [Laughs.] I chuckle a little about that because we are so far from telling our players not to tweet. We want them to be part of it, and we want our fans to follow our players on Twitter. It helps connect the fans with the players. And the banter that goes on among the players is phenomenal. And we encourage our players to use our applications. I get requests from players every week asking for access to our live streaming system so they can watch games on their iPad or iPhone. They love it. They use it to follow the league, just as our fans do. We are working on All-Star Game planning and we will have Twitter as part of our voting so that fans can tweet for their favorite player.
NYSJ: What role do you see Kick TV on YouTube playing in the growth of MLS' fan base?
CS: Kick TV is the new TV channel from MLS and SUM in conjunction with YouTube as part of the Google Originals concept. It is able to cover the global sport of football in a broader way than we do at our Web site. It gives us a voice in the sport that is beyond MLS focus, and that has helped not only bring football fans worldwide into our realm but has also helped our fans to expand their soccer experiences beyond MLS. We are starting to see some very interesting opportunities.
NYSJ: In the 2012 AT&T MLS All-Star Game on July 25, adidas will embed its miCoach data tracker in uniforms worn by players, which will provide coaches with real-time data about player position and performance. Do you find you are able to experiment with technology?
CS: The best thing about digital in general is that it is so easy to make changes. You look at the data, the technology, the capabilities that you have and put out great products. But then you have to look at how consumers and fans are using them. Look at the feedback you are getting on Twitter and through social media. And then you continue to tweak and evolve your products and strategies as you move forward. That's the beauty whether it's from the consumer side or the product development side. You have to take advantage of that. I've said before that Twitter is the world's best customer-service tool. You constantly hear from and connect with your fans and consumers in a big way.
"We believe that there is an opportunity here over the next 18-24 months to completely change the digital match experience."
NYSJ: Considering how rapidly technology changes, how difficult is it to stay ahead of the curve and have platforms available for fans when they want them?
CS: That challenge is a constant focus of mine. When you ask, 'What comes next?,' we believe — and what we are spending a lot of time working on is — that there is an opportunity here over the next 18-24 months to completely change the digital match experience. If you look across the landscape today, there are a lot of amazing ways to consume sports. But we feel there are some things that we can bring to the table across various devices that will revolutionize the way people interact with our game.
NYSJ: MLS has opened nine soccer-specific stadiums since 2007. How important has it been to have them outfitted with the latest technology?
CS: It has been amazing for us and for sports in general. LiveStrong Sporting Park in Kansas City [KS, which opened in 2011], is, I believe, the most technologically advanced building in America. The folks in Kansas City are working hard to think about how to maximize the use of such technologies as Wi-Fi, mobile and fat pipes in partnership with Cisco and Google. They constantly think about how to revolutionize the way sports is consumed in-stadium and using technology to do that. Whether it's instant polling in a game, ordering food via an app, checking on memberships. They do an incredible amount of work and we work closely with them to bring these experiences to life.
NYSJ: How important has it been for MLS Digital to look not just at soccer domestically but in a global picture?
CS: That is an interesting aspect of our strategy. One of the businesses we put in place when I started here and that we have continued to grow is MLS Digital Properties. Today, we are commercializing 60 of the largest soccer sites in the world: the English Premier League official Web site, Goal.com, AOL, The Sporting News, and we are just about to finalize a deal with another large sports portal to [maintain] their soccer section. So today we are selling across the system, whether you are an Hispanic fan, a global football fan or a fan of MLS. We are commercializing those efforts today and, as I said, in the next 18-24 months you'll see us on the property side using our technology and content expertise and applying to areas that are broader than MLS.
NYSJ: What type of feedback have you gotten from MLS marketing partners and peers in other sports regarding what MLS Digital is doing and where it is going?
CS: The feedback has been that we are doing exactly what we should be doing with technology and that we should continue to move forward. If you look across the globe today, our mobile apps are the best in football. There is not another experience like it on with highlights, data, with social all built in, taking advantage of whether it's an IOS platform, Android, or on the Windows Phone application that we are releasing.
NYSJ: Head coaches and managers are usually old-school guys who might not want to adapt, or who might find it too challenging given the rapid growth of and changes in technology. What are you seeing and hearing from MLS coaches?
CS: I would say the biggest change I have seen from coaches on the field is the use of advanced data. Historically, or stereotypically, you hear a lot that 'soccer is not a data sport.' But we have a partnership with [research firm] Opta, with whom we analyze hundreds and hundreds of data points from every game. So you are starting to see our coaches take advantage of that. The presence of adidas will take that to a higher level not only by utilizing game data but also all sorts of physical data — speed, distance, power — to which coaches had never had access. So when you combine that, you'll see on the coaching side a further investment in technology as a way to make the players better and the game better.
NYSJ: What does MLS Commissioner Don Garber say about all of this?
CS: He loves it. He loves the technology. He's a great follower of Twitter — all hours of the day and night he'll send me something that he has read on Twitter. He has an iPhone and tablet, and he uses them. He consumes every bit of information and uses it to help improve and promote MLS and soccer.
"One of [our] key tenets is keeping the game first. We don't want to change the sport. But we believe that technology can make that experience even better."
NYSJ: How big a challenge is it to keep integrating technology into the game but not lose sight of the basic elements that make the game special?
CS: One of the key tenets of everything we do is keeping the game first. At the end the day it is all about an authentic game experience. You are not going to see glowing pucks. That is not what we are focused on. We are focused on soccer as a beautiful game. We don't want to change the sport. But we believe that technology can make that experience even better, whether you are in the stadium, at the pub with friends or at home. And not just for fans. Whether you are a player or a coach, we believe technology can make the sport better.
NYSJ: What are you looking at now as your next challenges?
CS: MLS is at a very interesting point in time where we have this incredible technology. We have this phenomenal fan base. We have these incredible young players. So it makes sense that MLS sees this as a great area for us to advance our technology, to innovate. We want to innovate, not just in the U.S., but on a global platform in the sport of soccer. So everyone from ownership and management on down is focused on creating truly amazing digital experiences. That is my team's mandate now and our mandate moving forward.
Photos: MLS Digital (5); Livestrong Sporting Park courtesy Sporting Kansas City