Work in Sports
MLS claims to be ahead of its plan after four years
Posted: Sunday December 19, 1999 04:32 PM
NEW YORK (CNN/SI) -- Things aren't that bad for Major League Soccer. Really, they aren't.
Faced with the perception that MLS was struggling four years into what some considered the game's last chance in the United States, league officials say they are on pace or ahead of their original plan.
Average attendance has dropped each year, while TV ratings are stagnant, and its teams failed in the semifinals of the 1999 CONCACAF Champions Cup.
"Initially, we had great impact," said New York-New Jersey MetroStars midfielder Tab Ramos, who played in three World Cups and was the first player to sign with MLS. "The interest has been lost. I don't know how we get it back."
Former NFL executive Don Garber, who replaced Douglas G. Logan as commissioner in August, said he wanted to "re-launch" the league, starting with Sunday's MLS Cup title game between D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"I want to get it back to the optimistic side of the ledger," Garber said. "It's about managing expectations. Our constituents believe in the game and the league. And they have shown us they hold us to higher standards.
"Right now it's vogue to bash MLS. I think it would have been much easier if we said initially we were expecting only 5,000 fans a game. We said 10,000 and nearly doubled that. Then we set our goal at 20,000, so 15,000 is seen as a failure."
Under Garber's guidance, MLS decided to drop its controversial shootout next season, allowing games to end in ties if no goals are scored in 10 minutes of sudden-death overtime. It also announced a new television strategy that includes a Saturday game of the week and weekly highlights show.
The strategy is MLS alienated many core fans in the United States by altering the rules of the game to attract non-fans. By reverting to international norms, such as letting the referee control the clock, Garber said he hopes to reinvigorate the base and gradually "layer" new fans on top.
"Our strategy is, as I feel it should be, is to go back and shore up our relationship with the core soccer fan and build our fan base from these fans out, as opposed to trying to leap over the core fans and go after the fans that we don't know who they are or where they are," Garber said.
In its four years, none of the teams have folded or moved, and the value of the clubs has increased from $5 million apiece to $25 million. D.C. United is in the process of being sold to a New York investment firm for a reported $25 million-$30 million.
Lamar Hunt, who owns both the Columbus Crew and Kansas City Wizards, constructed his own stadium for the Crew that opened this season. Chicago, Los Angeles, Colorado and the New York-New Jersey MetroStars are considering sites for their own venues.
The stadium has Columbus within range of turning a profit, and although general manager Jamey Rootes won't say it, many in the league expect the club to be in the black next year.
Although one report said D.C. United will lose $2 million-$3 million, sources speaking on the condition they not be identified said the New England Revolution have been close to turning a profit every year but haven't done so for accounting reasons. The Revs' investor-operator group, the Kraft family, owns Foxboro Stadium, where the team plays.
Additionally, six of MLS' nine top-level sponsors are up for renewal this year. Honda, Budweiser and Pepsi announced four-year renewals last week.
The league generated in excess of $100 million in sponsorships so far, and new deals will bring "well in excess of $25 million" next season, the most since the league began, according to chief marketing officer Randy Bernstein. That accounts for about a third of MLS' annual budget of about $75 million.
"If you would have said four years ago that somebody was going to build a stadium and ABC would televise six games, I would have said you were nuts," MLS chief operating officer Mark Abbott said. "We had hopes but... we've achieved more than originally anticipated."
But average attendance has dropped 18 percent from 17,406 in 1996 to 14,282 this season. However, that's only about 300 fans short of MLS' most optimistic initial prediction for its fourth year.
Reports repeatedly claim the league has lost over $100 million in four years, and Garber admits MLS will not break even next season, as the original business plan predicted. But the plan also didn't include expanding to Chicago and Miami within five years (the league expects to add two more teams in 2001) and allocated far less money to acquire foreign players.
While TV ratings are stagnant, they're on par with those of the NHL.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.