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Mark Thomas talks Breakers business plans for 2017

New Breakers president of business operations Mark Thomas discusses some of Boston’s plans to improve off the field this season.

UPDATED to reflect the Orlando Pride’s ticket prices based on a 12-game season.

The Boston Breakers have had one heck of an offseason in terms of their roster, with trades, releases, and draft picks galore. But they’ve also made moves off the field as well, changing up their front office and bringing in Mark Thomas as their new president of business operations.

Thomas has plans for the Breakers, some new, some just keeping the team on track. 2017 is a chance for Boston to keep building on a pretty good 2016, in which they had several sellout games and averaged 3,570 in attendance. Everyone wants the Breakers to win more this season, but Thomas also has business goals for the team.

“To increase sponsorship revenue. To increase merchandise revenue. To increase ticketing revenue,” he said in an interview at the Breakers’ offices in Watertown. “But more importantly than those three things are to improve the experience that the fans have every game. Because the more fun and the more enjoyment the fans have, the easier the sell is the following season, the following week...if we can get a success rate of between 80 and 85% of people being happy in the stadium, that’s a good target.”

Can the Breakers expect fans to be happy when season ticket prices have jumped up to $275 the for the cheapest possible option, making them the team with the most expensive season tickets in the league?

2017 NWSL cheapest ticket options by team

There are several reasons for the price hike, one being that fans are getting more home games this season, increasing from 10 to 12. Other reasons are related to Boston’s expenses.

Jordan Field, the Breakers’ home field, is located next to Harvard Stadium. Thomas was clearly up on the location given the positives associated with the Harvard name, despite hints that the location doesn’t come cheap.

“We pay a premium to play at arguably the best location that we can have in Boston,” he said. “As in we have to have a soccer-specific field. The only other soccer-specific field that I can think of is BU. There’s pluses and minuses for both but we’re established at Harvard. Everyone knows us at Harvard. It’s a good location, field’s nice, players like it. There’s good reason for us to be there so paying the premium is what we have to do.”

On top of their stadium, Boston is also just plain more expensive to live in than a lot of other markets. “That causes us issues, as in housing,” said Thomas. “We have to pay for players’ housing. We have to pay for the opponents’ hotels. So if you look at [some other teams], they can get a five-bedroom house for like $500 [per person] a month and we can’t even get a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1500. So we aren’t fighting on a level playing field in that sense. Same with the hotels. We’re trying to get hotel deals for visiting teams. We are more expensive than I think 90% of the other cities that play because of the city we play in. We shouldn’t be penalized for that but in same ways we are. We just accept it. But in that sense that’s where the little increases go, it’s to make sure that we cover housing for our players, cars for our players, players’ wages. We don’t make any profit so everything that we make goes back into improving the club.”

Thomas pointed out that compared to other sports teams in Boston, the Breakers are still much more affordable, and given that the league will be more than doubling minimum salaries this year, the money has to come from somewhere. “If you look at major cities, they do charge a lot more than what we do. And we finally got maybe 4000 capacity [at Jordan Field], so we have to maximize our revenue and also...the increase in wages. I mean this in the right way; we’re not a charity, as in we still have to provide our players money, our staff money, improve training facilities, give our team a chance to be successful. If we kept prices as they were last year or even a year before, we potentially wouldn’t be able to sign Natasha Dowie as an example.”

Increased players’ wages are all coming from the clubs too, not as part of the recently-announced A+E deal as some have speculated. “A+E didn’t give us any cash injection [for salary cap increases],” said Thomas. “We didn’t receive any money. So it’s been reinvested into the league. So we didn’t receive any money.” Thomas said the cap raise was “a case of US Soccer, the NWSL, and the owners meeting and deciding that in order to take the next step in the league that we had to improve certain things.”

“That minimum wage has now been raised and rightly so in my opinion,” he said. “Doesn’t help us,” he added, laughing, “But rightly so, so we’re happy to pay it. And now I think it’s still not where it should be, but for where we are as a league and as a club it’s what we can afford.”

That doesn’t mean Thomas wasn’t up on the A+E deal. “It hasn’t affected us at all negatively,” he said. “Positively, obviously it raises awareness for us. The major positive in my opinion is the fact that A+E took a stake in the league. So in terms of longevity, that is massive, because the previous leagues have failed for whatever reason. Now you have a multinational company that’s I think part-owned by Disney as well, so they’re now taking 25% of the league, that shows you that things are working well and improving year to year.”

A+E is moving livestreaming of games in-house, meaning individual clubs won’t all be making their own separate plans for livestreams. That also means that it should bring up the production value on every team’s livestream, which is value for fans, but also a backup plan for A+E, which will be broadcasting one live game every Saturday at 4 PM ET on Lifetime as part of their deal with the league. “Let’s say for example [the Breakers] aren’t a live game on the third Saturday of the season,” said Thomas, “But we will be asked to play at the same time as the live game just in case there’s technical issues or there’s a typhoon, whatever reason the live game gets postponed. There’ll be a backup game being played at the same time. Because the four o’clock slot, there has to be a live game there.”

These logistics are also partially to blame for the holdup of the NWSL 2017 season schedule. Thomas said home openers would probably be announced by the end of the week, but was less definitive about the full schedule. “It’s changed a few times in the last week but we’re hopeful that it’ll be done, finalized in the next 10 days,” he said.

So the season is coming together, ownership groups have committed even more money to their teams, the league got a big fancy sponsor, and players at the bottom of the payroll should be making more. On the flip side, with growth comes increased expenses, but Thomas said the team is still on track to break even in 2018. “Whether that’s achievable is dependent on whether we have any unforeseen costs that come into play,” he said. “Ideally, that’s the target and the plan.”

Thomas said that part of that break-even plan was doubling sponsorship revenue. Despite last season’s partnerships including a deal with Budweiser (the team is negotiating with them to return as a sponsor for 2017), sponsorship revenue was “okay.” Doubling that revenue, though, would bring it more into the “healthy” range. On top of that Thomas wants to sell out at least half of the team’s games and get 90% attendance at the rest. Assuming Jordan Field remains at 4000 seats, that’s an attendance average of 3,800, or a 6.4% increase over 2016’s average.

Is it doable? The Breakers seem to think so. They’re trying to tie the team into more local businesses, and they’ll be having events like College Night and Pride Night as part of efforts to reach out to more than young girls who play soccer. “I don’t believe that we should approach any certain group,” said Thomas. “I think we should approach every single group.... You shouldn’t second-guess who will say yes and who will say no to you. I’d rather we approached a million people and we get 900,000 no’s and we get 100,000 yeses.”