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

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Dan Perkin and Scott Bissmeyer, vacationing work buddies, sat on metal bleachers watching the Portland Timbers take on the San Jose Earthquakes in the first of four Major League Soccer preseason games this that day.

They had spent $125 each on VIP day passes, which included food, drinks and access to tents for refreshments. Self-described “MLS road trippers,” they have visited many MLS stadiums and watched teams in Tucson, Arizona, where up to 11 clubs have gathered for pre-season training in the past.

But this year, as 12 MLS teams — including two from the United Soccer League and four from the National Women’s Soccer League — gathered on a 1,000-acre property outside Palm Springs, Calif., to a pre-season workout, Mr. Perkin and Mr. Bissmeyer decided to check it out.

“Compared to Tucson, they’ve done a great job here,” Mr. Perkin said of the venue, the Empire Polo Club, best known as the annual site of the Coachella music festival. “If you’re going to drive six hours, you might as well have fun.”

MLS — and specifically entertainment conglomerate AEG, owner of the LA Galaxy, one of the league’s 10 original franchises — hopes that more fans will start thinking like Mr. Perkin and Mr. Bissmeyer.

Professional sports leagues have tried for years to make money from their preseasons by marketing them to fans who want to see their team up close in a casual — and less expensive — setting. Major League Baseball is holding spring training in Florida and Arizona, with exclusive jerseys and caps. National Football League teams open practices to fans each summer during their training camps. The National Basketball Association is hosting its Summer League in Las Vegas.

But in its 30-year history, MLS hasn’t held many large-scale training camps aimed at fans. The league experimented with this concept in the late 1990s, but the efforts failed. Teams from warm-weather states prefer to stay home while other teams fly to Sun Belt states to practice. Some teams prefer to travel to Spain, Mexico and beyond to prepare for the season. This month, Inter Miami traveled to Asia and Saudi Arabia to showcase Lionel Messi, although an exhibition match in Hong Kong went awry when the Argentinian star did not play.

In late 2021, however, AEG CEO Dan Beckerman had an idea. What if the Empire Polo Club could be converted to host MLS teams in February, a relatively quiet time in the calendar? Mr. Beckerman believed AEG could mobilize its subsidiaries to sell sponsorships, tickets, merchandise and food to give the event the feel of baseball spring training, where fans can see a a number of teams play close to each other.

“I wondered if we could create something like the Cactus League with meaningful competition and quality fields,” Mr. Beckerman said, referring to baseball’s spring training in and around Phoenix. “But I didn’t know if it could work.”

Mr. Beckerman said cold-weather soccer clubs have been asking the Galaxy for years if they could train at their Carson, Calif., facility. But with only eight fields, there was never enough space. So despite the potential difficulty of an MLS team making money from its rivals, Mr. Beckerman asked Tom Braun, the Galaxy’s president of business operations, whether the polo club and much of its lawns lush Bermuda could be used.

Mr. Braun had a six-team entry before discovering that many fields had divots due to polo horses and concert festivals. Galaxy head goalkeeper Shaun Ilten repaired enough pitches in time for the inaugural training camp in 2022 which, due to Covid restrictions, had no 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 called, had 18 teams. Food trucks and exclusive merchandise like bucket hats and team stickers have been added. Attendance is expected to increase by around 40 percent, to around 30,000 fans over the seven match days. The invitational ends on Saturday, with NSWL teams playing; the MLS season started this week.

“It’s our version of thinking outside the box,” Mr. Braun said. “Our hope is to get teams to commit to this path in the long term. »

Preparatory games do not count in the rankings, but they are essential for coaches, who must evaluate their players, and doing so on high-quality fields is essential to prevent injuries. AEG promises teams two dedicated training grounds each and access to four- and five-star hotels of at least 40,000 square feet for meetings, training rooms and equipment. Teams pay for travel to California and hotels, as well as what Mr. Braun called “reasonable” rental fees for the fields.

There are no changing rooms, so players come to the polo club dressed in their football gear. Each team is assigned a dedicated groundskeeper to meet the demands of each coach. AEG provides goals, tents and other equipment, and has spent about $2 million renting high-end equipment for a makeshift gym.

“Our goal is certainly to make money, but we want it to run efficiently,” Mr. Braun said, adding that the event was “a long-term build, but I wouldn’t say anything other than d be a money generator in the “short term”.

Yet, he added, it will only succeed if the teams are satisfied.

“You look at the scenery, the pitches, it’s perfect,” Timbers coach Phil Neville said. “We travel 11 months a year, so we don’t need to travel by plane anymore.”

Mr Neville and other coaches enjoyed working with players in semi-isolation. It allows their teams to bond over dinner, a round of golf or a game of hybrid soccer 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, where we come here and play,” New York City FC midfielder Keaton Parks said. “Last year it was more like a youth tour where we sat around for a while waiting to play.”

Mr. Parks and other players practiced in a country-club atmosphere. One of the two game grounds adjoined a rose garden with a large fountain amid palm trees and snow-capped mountains in the distance. The Tack Room Tavern, a stone’s throw from the fields, offered a menu including the “Saddle Up Breakfast” and Peach Bellinis.

White fences served as boundaries around the field and coaches’ tables stood on the sidelines. At the end of games, players would cross paths with the next teams, often stopping to hug friends and former teammates. Fans wearing Sharpies, shirts and footballs asked for autographs and posed for selfies.

Based on the reaction of many fans, the experience is off to a good start. Maria De Luca, who lives in Toronto, was sitting with her sons, Emi, 10, and Mati, 11, watching Minnesota United play Chicago Fire FC. She thought paying $25 for a day pass was a good deal, and it allowed the boys’ soccer fans, both of whom wore Messi Argentina jerseys, to meet the players and see the game up close. She said they would return next year because her husband was attending an annual conference in Palm Springs.

“Football is like everything to these guys,” she said, pointing to her boys. “I think it can become important.”