UPDATE: The United States Soccer Federation announced significant changes in the format of the bidding/hosting process for the US Open Cup. While the tournament will use a new system through the Quarterfinals, the process detailed in the following piece will continue to be utilized for the Semifinals and Final.
Greenbacks; Cash money; the almighty buck – that is the easy answer for what ails the nation’s most historic soccer championship, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. While the economy of the United States has been in a ditch for several years, the knowledgeable domestic soccer fans throughout the nation can attest that the tournament has suffered from economic hardship for far longer and has yet to find a financial boon. That moment could be in the near future with the growth of Major League Soccer on and off the field in the past five years in contrast to the nation’s struggles, but the question remaining is just how can that be accomplished given the current format of the tournament. A format that remains one of the most complained about issues among ardent fans.
Many fans, primarily obsessed with making everything an identical copy of the English counterparts, point directly at how the draw is conducted and hosts are determined as the focal point of the disappointment, but the issues permeate much deeper.
“I would welcome USSF to engage MLS or others in trying to come up with some of those ideas ,” said Seattle Sounders co-owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer. “The first thing is, are we going to turn this into a meaningful tournament or not? If we’re not, then let’s just kill it. If we are, then let’s make a plan. A five-year plan? A 10-year plan? Where do we want to go and how are we going to get there? As far as I know, USSF hasn’t come up with a plan. I know I haven’t seen or heard one. It’s really the biggest source of frustration. We just bump along down the road, doing the same thing. There’s a lot of things we could do, but some of them would cost money. If there was a plan in place, and USSF worked on a partnership with MLS, it could work.”
Hanauer, who also experienced the tournament as a lower division club owner for many years, is not alone amongst the MLS circles in looking at the bigger picture of what the US Open Cup needs to revise.
“I think it’s a really cool tournament,” said Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerway. “It’s something that American fans will latch onto, but it’s over our heads at the club level. USSF and MLS need to sit down and try to work something out. There should be a focus on sponsors and television, and not worrying about if a team bid $10,000 more than another team. It’s about who has the better crowd, and who can put on a better event.”
And that is the matter at hand. TheCup.us editor Josh Hakala has spent the past few months discussing the tournament’s bidding process with general managers and owners throughout the various flights of the game for their views on the event’s format. The Host Bidding method is reviled by many, but in the following piece he explores the heart of the rationale for the controversial selection process, revealing the costly factors that weigh into a team’s decision of what to bid in addition to the financial burden of travel. He provides some of the unseen costs and examines who exactly has been hosting matches during the Modern Pro Era by the numbers.
Here is our exclusive report on the US Open Cup bidding process:
DOLLARS & CENTS: THE CONTROVERSIAL US OPEN CUP HOSTING BID PROCESS
The 98th edition of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is in the books and the Seattle Sounders won a third straight title, 2-0 over the Chicago Fire in front of a record crowd of 35,615. It was a historic event between two clubs who have enjoyed tremendous success in the competition over the years, with the Fire winning the competition four times previously and the Sounders claiming a rare three-peat that night.
For the Sounders, on that Tuesday evening on October 4, it was the seventh Open Cup game in a row that they had hosted. In fact, nine of their 12 Cup matches have been played at home since they joined MLS from the United Soccer Leagues in 2009. Including their USL franchise, the Sounders have reached the Semifinals or better in each of the last five seasons. During that time, they have been the home team in 17 of their 22 matches, including the last two finals which have drawn record crowds in excess of 31,000 fans.
The Fire, winners of four Open Cup championships, have had similar success, hosting eight of their last 12 Open Cup matches, including a string of games in the 2006 tournament where all four of their games, including a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Final, were played in front of their home fans at Toyota Park.
Why have the Sounders and the Fire hosted so many of their Open Cup matches? It isn’t by luck, or by seeding, but rather it’s determined, largely, by which team writes the bigger check.
The United States Soccer Federation (USSF), who has run the tournament since it began in 1913, utilizes a bidding process to determine who hosts each game in the competition.
When professional clubs joined the Open Cup in 1995, the USSF implemented the bidding process for later round matches. In the early rounds, the Open Cup commissioner would announce the hosts for each game, taking into account factors such as travel, venue quality and availability while also making sure that one team did not host too many consecutive games. Prior to 1995, the cup commissioner, backed by a committee, would determine who hosted every game of the tournament.
George Mellis, the long-time general manager for the New York Greek American Atlas, a four-time Open Cup champion founded in 1941, said, in his experience, the decisions by the cup commissioner were almost always fair. Very simple logic was involved in the decisions, such as, if both venues were equal and you hosted the last round, then you wouldn’t host the next round.
In 2002, the USSF expanded the bidding process to include all games of the tournament, in an effort to remove subjectivity from the decision-making process and to help with the costs associated with the competition.
The process has evolved slightly since 2002, but for the 2011 Open Cup, the system for determining home games began with the USSF setting a deadline of May 26 for qualified teams to submit their bids for the first and second rounds.
Part of the bidding process allowed interested teams to declare two different venues (e.g. Seattle Sounders used both Starfire Sports Complex and CenturyLink Field in 2011), and submit an application declaring which venue they plan to use, and answering questions that would help the USSF determine if that venue meets their minimum standards (lights, locker rooms, field size etc.).
In addition to meeting those standards, each team is encouraged, not required, to commit to a financial bid to the federation. Assuming the team’s proposed venue is acceptable, the criteria comes down to who writes the biggest check. The team who bids the most, gets to host. While the amounts of the bids are kept a secret, the team officials interviewed for this story estimate the amount can range from as little as $500, to this year, where sources say Chicago and Seattle both submitted bids in excess of $100,000 to host this year’s final.
Writing a check isn’t the only option. In fact, according to the Open Cup handbook distributed by the USSF to teams, the proposals can vary.
“The parameters for such proposals are open-ended and may include a financial guarantee to U.S. Soccer, a guarantee plus percentage of the gate, or a percentage of the gate alone,” the handbook reads. “Teams may consider a financial guarantee paid in advance to strengthen their proposal, although this is not a pre-requisite. However, U.S. Soccer will take the absence of a check at the time of submitting a Hosting Proposal into consideration in the selection process.”
The teams submit their checks in advance, but only the winning bids have their checks deposited, with the losing bids getting theirs sent back.
After the Second Round, the stadium standards increase, but the same procedure is followed with USSF setting a deadline in advance, and teams bidding to host the Third Round and the Quarterfinals, and later the Semifinals and the Final.
THE CHALLENGE OF HOSTING/TRAVELING
No team wants to travel in any competition. The cost of hotels and airfare for a team can be very expensive but luckily the USSF reimburses the road team up to $8,000 (the amount goes up to $11,000 for the championship game). Anything above that amount has to be covered by the club.
In recent years, the USSF has focused on making the early rounds more regional in an effort to minimize travel costs.
However, even with the assistance, many lower division professional teams, and especially amateur clubs, struggle financially to compete in the Open Cup either as road teams or as the host team.
In the early rounds, when your opponents could be an amateur team or a lower division professional club, it’s difficult to draw fans. In fact, since 2002, the number of games in the first two rounds that have exceeded the 3,000-fan mark are few and far between. The last three years (72 games), only one game has surpassed 3,000 fans in attendance (2010 First Round: Dayton Dutch Lions at Rochester Rhinos – 3,127 fans). This has become more challenging for lower division clubs as the economy has reduced attendance and has driven up the cost of travel.
Tom Zaiss, the long-time general manager for Bavarian SC from Milwaukee, which was founded in 1920, said as much as he loves the tournament, financially-speaking, it can be a lose-lose situation.
“As an amateur team, you lose money hosting, and you lose money when you travel,” said Zaiss, who was a player on the Bavarian SC team that finished as the runner-up in the 1994 Open Cup. “Flights aren’t cheap, especially on short notice, bus prices have gone up … it’s very expensive.”
The ‘short notice’ that Zaiss refers to is in reference to the fact that for the last decade, the first three rounds of the Open Cup move at a fast pace, with only two weeks in between some rounds. In the last two years, the gap between rounds has shrunk even further, with the first three rounds taking place on consecutive weeks. Focusing on creating a more regional draw has been a focus for the USSF to minimize travel costs, but the challenge of promoting and selling tickets to a game in less than a week is difficult, according to Zaiss and other teams like his.
Among the numerous costs associated with hosting a tournament game is the increased cost of the referees.
|Minimum Referee Costs
USL PRO: $415
US OPEN CUP
Round 1: $435
Round 2: $825
Round 3/QFinals: $1300
*Amounts exclude travel and per diem and vary
depending on the level of referee assigned to the match
As the level of play increases, and as the tournament progresses, the cost of game officials goes up, which can be challenging for amateur clubs. For example, based on 2011 league costs, PDL teams pay a minimum of $220 per USL game for a referee crew, excluding travel and per diem expenses. The opening round of the Open Cup, on the other hand, can cost a minimum of $435, with Round 2 jumping to $825. Round 3 and beyond starts at $1,300. Travel and per diem can push those costs around the $2,000 mark.
Other challenges associated with hosting occur when MLS teams have to draw crowds for midweek games against lower division opponents. However, recently some teams have taken it upon themselves to invest in marketing their Open Cup games.
The Sounders’ effort almost goes without saying. They have broken the Open Cup Final attendance record two years in a row at CenturyLink Field, and almost every game at Starfire Sports Complex has been packed, regardless of the level of competition.
|Home game bidding: The best/worst
(Minimum: 10 games)
|Highest hosting percentage
1. Carolina RailHawks (10/12, 83%)
2. El Paso Patriots (15/18, 83%)
3. Wilmington Hammerheads (17/23, 74%)
4. Western Mass Pioneers (8/11, 73%)
5. Charleston Battery (26/37, 70%)
6. Harrisburg City Islanders (11/16, 69%)
7. Rochester Rhinos (31/45, 69%)
8. Ocean City Nor’easters (8/12, 67%)
9. DC United (24/37, 65%)
10. Michigan Bucks (11/17, 65%)
Lowest hosting percentage
1. Colorado Rapids (3/19, 16%)
2. Chicago Fire PDL (2/10, 20%)
3. San Jose Earthquakes (5/18, 28%)
4. Pittsburgh Riverhounds (4/14, 29%)
5. Charlotte Eagles (4/14, 29%)
6. New York Red Bulls (10/27, 37%)
7. Houston Dynamo (4/10, 40%)
8. Chicago Fire (17/39, 44%)
9. FC Dallas (18/38, 47%)
10. Sporting Kansas City (12/24, 50%)
Real Salt Lake drew the Wilmington Hammerheads of USL PRO (Division 3 pro) in the Third Round this past year, and made a great effort to market the game. In their first Open Cup match in five years, RSL slashed ticket prices ($5 for season ticket holders, $10 for the general public) and with the winner of the Open Cup earning a place in the CONCACAF Champions League, they sold the game as the first step toward returning to the tournament where they finished as the runner-up earlier this year.
“It was our technical staff that promoted the match somewhat by default by decreeing that RSL would place more emphasis on the tournament,” said RSL spokesperson John Koluder. “ Garth Lagerway and coach Jason Kreis mentioned often throughout the summer that winning the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup was the ‘easiest path back to the CONCACAF Champions League.’”
RSL managed to draw 7,620 fans on that Tuesday night against the Hammerheads (and won 2-0), which most wouldn’t see as much of an accomplishment but it was the sixth-best attendance for an MLS team hosting a lower division team since MLS joined the competition in 1996 (excluding doubleheaders).
Koluder added, “When you put in the time and resources that our front office did to educate our fan base on the CCL and then see the tremendous results that came from it in the stands, pushing the US Open Cup as a conduit back to CONCACAF Champions League seemed a logical decision.”
“I think it’s a really cool tournament,” said Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerway Lagerway. “It’s something that American fans will latch on to but it’s over our heads at the club level. USSF and MLS need to sit down and try to work something out.”
Lagerway would like to see the Open Cup operate more like the CONCACAF Champions League, a competition his team reached the finals of this past spring.
“I was impressed with the resources that CONCACAF had. Travel is $40,000 per game, every game is on TV, and they spent a lot of money to make this a big deal. The profile of that tournament has been raised and it’s increased MLS teams’ priorities.”
Lagerway’s frustration with the bidding process stems from last year where after RSL defeated Wilmington, they were outbid by FC Dallas to host the Quarterfinals. Dallas bid more to host it and only drew 3,189 fans, less than half of what RSL drew for a game against the Division 3 Hammerheads.
“There should be a focus on sponsors and television, and not worrying about if a team bid $10,000 more than another team. It’s about who has the better crowd, and who can put on a better event.”
THE RICH GET RICHER?
It would appear as though the system favors the richer clubs, but the numbers don’t really back that up.
“US Soccer gives all clubs the same opportunity and makes decisions based on objective measures,” said USSF spokesperson Neil Beuthe. “Since 2007, the first year where the format changed to having eight MLS teams enter in the third round to play eight non-MLS clubs, lower division teams have hosted 19 third round games while MLS clubs have hosted 21.”
While MLS has hosted 32 of the 56 games (57 percent) played against lower division opponents since 2007, that balance has radically shifted in the last two years. MLS has been the home team for 17 of the last 20 matches (85 percent).
|Games with MLS vs. non-MLS teams,
hosted by MLS clubs (MLS’ record)
|2011: 9 of 10 (7-2-0)
2010: 8 of 10 (7-0-1, 0-1 in PKs)
2009: 4 of 11 (3-1-0)
2008: 7 of 12 (5-1-1, 1-0 in PKs)
2007: 4 of 13 (3-0-1, 1-0 in PKs)
Many fans point to this past year when MLS teams hosted seven out of the eight matches against lower division opponents, but 2011 was unique due to the fact that for the first time since MLS joined the competition in 1996 that there were no Division 2 teams in the competition, with NASL earning sanctioning too late to be included in the tournament. Without a second division, MLS was able to outbid USL Pro and PDL teams participating with much smaller budgets.
The last two years could be an anomaly, but it could be the beginning of a trend. Now more than ever, MLS teams own their own soccer specific stadiums, giving them more control over scheduling and removing the cost and burden of renting a stadium, as many have dealt with in years past.
But there may be more pressing overriding concern for the paradigm shift the past two years.
By bidding aggressively, MLS clubs avoid travel, which is a huge value to a club like the Seattle Sounders. The last two years, the Sounders have had to balance a schedule that included three major competitions (MLS, Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League) for the club in addition to external player commitments such as international matches. The West also tends to be more spread out geographically. Seattle, for instance, outside of their Cascadian rivals, has to travel over 800 miles to get to their next closest opponent. FC Dallas has to travel over 2,000 miles to play teams like Seattle and Vancouver.
Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer says his team is a lot like other top level clubs in the world, as they would rather risk losing money to host in place of “putting the extra miles” on players and coaches.
“As a USL franchise, we used to bid aggressively, but we didn’t want to overbid,” said Hanauer. “The best scenario for us was to host an MLS team; that way, we could recoup the money on ticket sales. But for MLS teams, they just don’t want to go on the road and they are willing to compromise their profit loss so that they don’t have to travel.”
The reality is, smaller clubs can’t lose money as easily as larger ones can.
A NEW APPROACH?
Some members of the soccer community would like to see changes in the way home teams are determined in the tournament. Some view it as an issue of fairness while others take it a step further, suggesting it is an opportunity to grow the game of soccer in the United States.
Tim Holt, president of United Soccer Leagues and co-chair of the Open Cup committee, told The Examiner recently that he would like to see a blind draw.
“One of the things the tournament will need to address going forward is the manner in which teams are selected to host in each of the individual rounds, and de-emphasize the economics of hosting each round and emphasize competitive balance,” he told L.E. Eisenmenger in an interview. “In many cup competitions around the world, there’s a draw for each round – home or away – and mathematically, you’ve a fifty percent chance of hosting and fifty percent chance of traveling.”
Neil Holloway, the general manager of the PDL’s Ocean City Nor’easters, thinks the draw itself could be a useful way to increase the popularity of the Open Cup.
“You could broadcast the draw, either on TV or online, like the FA Cup and promote it,” said Holloway who has led Ocean City to the second-most Open Cup wins among PDL teams (6), including four upsets against professional clubs. “Draw it out of a hat and bring some attention to it. You also could get a sponsor, cover all of the travel costs for lower division clubs and that way you’re not going broke trying to compete in the tournament.”
Chris Economides, the senior director of USL PRO, echoed Holt’s ideas about the draw, seeing the possibility of giving lower division clubs a better chance of hosting is good for the game.
“When I was , we played a game against the New Hampshire Phantoms (formerly Division 3 pro based in Manchester, NH, now in the PDL) and it’s a big deal when the bigger club comes to town. You have to look at what’s good for the sport.”
Many of the teams and administrators that were contacted for this story had plenty of constructive criticisms of the competition, but not all of them were completely against the current organization of the tournament.
“I think the system is fair,” said Michigan Bucks owner and president Dan Duggan. “Does it have flaws? Yes. But it is not an easy tournament to manage.”
The Bucks, a PDL team since 1996 currently based in Pontiac, Mich., have more wins than any team in PDL history, and are the most successful amateur club in the Modern Professional Era with a record seven wins over professional teams. They also have played in 17 cup games, which is more than any amateur team since 1995. Duggan is well-versed in the process of bidding for home games, having hosted 11 of those games. Four of those home games were played against MLS teams.
“If you saw some of the venues that people suggested we play Open Cup matches in, it would set the sport back 50 years,” said Duggan. “If you have a professional organization and a venue that meets and exceeds FIFA standards, and you have a passionate fan base, then you should get an opportunity to host. And I believe that is why we have hosted as many times as we have over the years.”
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Simply getting rid of the bidding process, and implementing a new procedure for choosing home teams, is not as easy as it would seem. The federation depends on the money from the bidding process to operate the Open Cup. If the money for home games stopped coming in, something would have to be done to replace those lost dollars.
It remains to be seen if the USSF will choose to allocate more funds to the competition, or if additional sponsors or investors will be rounded up. If not, the status quo will likely continue.
“No other traditional American sport has a system like this to determine their championship games,” said former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt. “Money is a big part of the process, travel is a big part and they just try to bring a sense of fairness.”
It’s no secret that the tournament isn’t as popular as it could be. With almost all games taking place during the workweek, and almost none of them broadcast on television, except for the final, attendance for the competition rarely moves the meter. Only 26 games (out of the 117) in the last three years have drawn more than 4,000 fans.
If you take away games involving the Seattle Sounders during that span, only nine of those games have cracked the 4,000 mark.
Without promising attendance numbers or television exposure, it will be difficult to sell to sponsors.
What does the USSF plan to do to fix this? Prior to this year’s Open Cup Final, Adrian Hanauer really wanted to know.
“I would welcome USSF to engage MLS or others in trying to come up with some of those ideas ,” he said. “The first thing is, are we going to turn this into a meaningful tournament or not? If we’re not, then let’s just kill it. If we are, then let’s make a plan. A five-year plan? A 10-year plan? Where do we want to go and how are we going to get there? As far as I know, USSF hasn’t come up with a plan. I know I haven’t seen or heard one.”
“It’s really the biggest source of frustration,” he added. “We just bump along down the road, doing the same thing. There’s a lot of things we could do, but some of them would cost money. If there was a plan in place, and USSF worked on a partnership with MLS, it could work. Let’s say, for instance, bigger prize money. How about a million dollars?”
If changes are going to be made, or if, as Hanauer puts it, the tournament will continue to “bump on down the road,” there’s no silver bullet solution to raising the profile of the US Open Cup, one of the US Soccer majors. Regardless of whatever solution you feel needs to be implemented, it will cost money. If the current bidding process is discontinued, the money will have to be found by other means, and considering the gaps between the money needed and the crowds drawn at this point, that will not be an easy task.