Spring training at Coachella: Can MLS capitalize on its preseason?

Spring training at Coachella: Can MLS capitalize on its preseason?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, vacationing co-workers Dan Perkin and Scott Bissmeyer sat in metal bleachers watching the Portland Timbers play the San Jose Earthquakes in the first of four Major League preseason games. League Soccer that day.

They had spent $125 each on VIP day passes, which included food, drinks and access to tents to stay cool. Self-described “MLS travelers,” they have visited numerous MLS stadiums and seen teams in Tucson, Arizona, where up to 11 clubs They met for preseason training in the past.

But this year, with 12 MLS teams, along with two from the United Soccer League and four from the National Women’s Soccer League, gathering on a 1,000-acre property outside Palm Springs, California, for preseason training, Mr. Perkin and Mr. Bissmeyer decided to check it out.

“Compared to Tucson, they ran a good deal here,” Perkin said of the venue, the Empire Polo Club, best known as the site of the annual Coachella Music Festival. “If you’re going to drive six hours, we might as well treat ourselves.”

MLS (and, more specifically, entertainment conglomerate AEG, which owns the LA Galaxy, one of the league’s original 10 franchises) hopes more fans will start thinking like Perkin and Bissmeyer.

For years, professional sports leagues have tried to make money from their preseasons by promoting them to fans who want to see their team up close in a casual, less expensive setting. Major League Baseball has its spring training in Florida and Arizona, complete with exclusive jerseys and hats. National Football League teams open their practices to fans during their training camps each summer. The National Basketball Association holds its Summer League in Las Vegas.

But during its 30-year history, MLS hadn’t had many large-scale training camps marketed to fans. The league experimented with the concept in the late 1990s, but the effort failed. Teams in warm-weather states prefer to stay home while other teams fly to Sun Belt states to train. Some teams prefer to travel to Spain, Mexico and beyond to prepare for the season. This month, Inter Miami flew to Asia and Saudi Arabia to introduce Lionel Messi, although an exhibition match in Hong Kong went awry when the Argentine star did not play.

However, at the end of 2021, Dan Beckerman, CEO of AEG, had an idea. What if the Empire Polo Club could be repurposed to host MLS teams in February, a relatively quiet part of the calendar? Beckerman thought AEG could bring together its subsidiaries to sell sponsorships, tickets, merchandise and food to give the event the feel of a baseball spring training, where fans can watch multiple teams playing close to each other.

“I was wondering if we could create something like the Cactus League with meaningful competition and quality fields,” Beckerman said, referring to baseball’s spring training in and around Phoenix. “But I had no idea if it could work.”

Beckerman said cold-weather soccer clubs had asked the Galaxy for years if they could train at its facility in Carson, California. But with only eight fields, there was never enough space. So, despite the potential discomfort of an MLS team making money off its rivals, Beckerman asked Tom Braun, the Galaxy’s president of business operations, if the polo club, largely with lush grass lawns, Bermuda, could be used.

Braun had commitments with six teams before discovering that many of the fields had polo pony slots and concert festivals. Galaxy head groundskeeper Shaun Ilten put together enough pitches in time for the inaugural training camp in 2022 which, due to Covid restrictions, did not feature fans.

The teams were happy and last year a dozen clubs showed up and AEG sold tickets and sponsorships. This year, the Coachella Valley Invitational, as it is known, featured 18 teams. Food trucks and exclusive merchandise like bucket hats and team stickers were added. Attendance was expected to grow about 40 percent, to about 30,000 fans over the seven match days. The invitational tournament ends on Saturday, with the NSWL teams playing; The MLS season started this week.

“This is our version of thinking outside the box,” Braun said. “Our hope is to get teams to commit to this for the long term.”

Preseason games do not count towards classification, but they are essential for coaches, who need to evaluate their players, and doing so on high-quality fields is essential to prevent injuries. AEG promises teams two dedicated practice fields each and access to four- and five-star hotels with at least 40,000 square feet for meetings, training rooms and equipment. Teams pay for their travel to California and hotels, as well as what Braun called a “reasonable” rental fee for the courts.

There are no changing rooms, so players come to the polo club dressed in their soccer uniform. Each team is assigned a dedicated groundskeeper to handle each coach’s requests. AEG provides goals, tents and other equipment, and spent about $2 million renting high-end equipment for a makeshift gym.

“We’re certainly in the business of making money, but we want to make this work efficiently,” Braun said, adding that the event was a “long-term build, but it wouldn’t pass up being a source of income in the short term.” “

Still, he said, it won’t be successful unless the teams are happy.

“If you look at the backdrop, the courts, it’s perfect,” Timbers coach Phil Neville said. “We travel 11 months a year, so we don’t need any more air travel on top of that.”

Mr. Neville and other coaches liked working with the players in semi-isolation. It allows your teams to bond over dinner, rounds of golf, or games of the table football hybrid known as teqball. The addition of fans, as well as small scoreboards and announcers, also helped give the games a more authentic feel.

“It’s definitely more organized this year, when we come here and play,” said New York City FC midfielder Keaton Parks. “Last year, it felt more like a youth tour where we sat around for a while waiting to play.”

Mr. Parks and other players trained in a country club atmosphere. One of the two playing fields bordered a rose garden with a large fountain among palm trees and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The Tack Room Tavern, a stone’s throw from the fields, had a menu that included “Saddle Up Breakfast” and Peach Bellinis.

White fences served as boundaries around the field and coaches’ tables were on the sidelines. When the games ended, players passed by the next teams and often stopped to hug friends and former teammates. Fans with Sharpies, T-shirts and soccer balls asked for autographs and posed for selfies.

According to the reaction of many fans, the experiment is off to a good start. Maria De Luca, who lives in Toronto, was sitting with her children, Emi, 10, and Mati, 11, watching Minnesota United play Chicago Fire FC. She thought paying $25 for a day pass was a bargain, and allowed soccer-loving kids, both wearing Messi Argentina jerseys, to meet the players and watch the game up close. She said they would return next year because her husband attended an annual conference in Palm Springs.

“Football is like everything to these guys,” he said, pointing to his boys. “I think this can get big.”

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John C. Johnson

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