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Send me an angel

Miami, Tampa fight to keep MLS teams

Posted: Sunday December 16, 2001 12:37 PM
Updated: Monday December 17, 2001 1:09 AM
  Kenneth Horowitz Kenneth Horowitz says he has spent a total of $40 million on the Miami Fusion. MLS

ATLANTA (CNNSI.com) -- Elected officials in Tampa and Miami are working to rescue their Major League Soccer teams, as newspapers in both areas lamented the widely reported pending contraction of the Mutiny and Fusion.

According to reports, Miami Fusion investor-operator Kenneth Horowitz has turned down an offer of $18 million that would have saved that club, while MLS has increased the asking price for the league-operated Tampa Bay Mutiny in negotiations with the Glazer family, owners of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- who already earn revenue from Mutiny games at Raymond James Stadium.

Mayor Dick Greco told the Tampa Tribune that he is working with community leaders to save city's team. He said MLS had proposed that the Glazers fund operation of the Mutiny without initially becoming full investors, similar to an arrangement that the San Jose Earthquakes have with Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, owners of the NHL's San Jose Sharks.

"From what I understand, Joel Glazer, who loves soccer, did what he could to keep the team. He was willing to pick up the Mutiny's losses and operate the club," Greco told the paper. "But the MLS owners upped the price on the investment, which changed things.

"I've had discussions with [MLS] commissioner [Don Garber] regarding three potential owners of the Mutiny who have emerged since the threat of contraction came up this week," Greco said. "The city wants to keep the team, but contraction has come up so quickly that we need time to respond."

In South Florida, Horowitz reportedly has objected to losses incurred in support of league-operated teams. The financial burdens on Horowitz would likely be eased if operators were found for the two teams currently run by the league, the Mutiny and the Dallas Burn.

New Miami Mayor Manny Díaz told the Miami Herald that he entered talks with commissioner Garber before reports of contraction surfaced Friday. Miami's Orange Bowl was the first choice for the Fusion before it began play in 1998, but failure to reach a lease agreement led the Fusion to spend more than $5 million expanding Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

"We have been in communication with the league commissioner, and I have expressed how important it is to keep the franchise here," Díaz told the paper. "I don't believe the decision to dissolve the team is a final one."

Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who was active in arranging two regular-season Fusion matches at the 74,000-seat Orange Bowl last season, said the city was trying to bring the Fusion to Miami.

"Although I don't want to go into details, we are putting together a plan to assist the franchise," Sanchez told the Herald. "Before the league makes any final decision, we would like to present our options. The Fusion belongs in this community."

On Friday, MLS officials denied reports that the league had finalized plans to fold the Fusion and Mutiny.

"Contrary to published media reports, Major League Soccer has not finalized any decisions regarding how many teams will compete in the league during the 2002 season," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. Horowitz later issued a statement reiterating Garber's comments.

However, sources including Soccer America reported on Sunday that the contraction would be announced early in the week after details such as player dispersal are worked out.

Shocked and angry fans

Reaction in Florida newspapers ranged from surprise at developments that would leave the state without a top-flight team, to disappointment that the existing clubs weren't managed more effectively.

"The question on the lips of shocked and angry Fusion fans Friday was how could Major League Soccer include the club in plans to contract," Jeff Rusnak wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

"The Fusion has an owner, a 20,000-seat stadium that is the envy of other teams, a low-cost lease that is among the best in MLS, and a city that is smitten," Rusnak wrote. "It makes you wonder how hard Horowitz fought to keep the Fusion in South Florida? Or, more to the point, did he fight at all?"

Wrote Hal Habib in the Palm Beach Post: "By pulling the plug now, Horowitz and MLS are saying professional soccer and South Florida don't mix. No one can say that."

Habib reported rumors that a "knight in white armor" such as Anschutz might save the team, possibly following a one-year hiatus.

"But if a team does succeed the Fusion -- and I doubt that'll happen for years -- it will have scores of cynics waiting. Today, though, just remember that South Florida didn't fail the Miami Fusion. The Miami Fusion failed South Florida."

Mick Elliott at the Tampa Tribune appealed for the rescue of the Mutiny.

"One day the Tampa Bay area will regret allowing Major League Soccer to lop off the Mutiny like some vetoed line item," Elliott wrote. "Somewhere, is there an angel in need of its wings?

"Soccer was Tampa Bay's first big-league professional sport when the Rowdies arrived in 1975. Since then, the game has been one of the area's most proactive in youth sports... Anybody want to invest in a soccer team? And youth?"

Until now, MLS has not seen any of its 12 teams relocate or fold since its inaugural season in 1996. But having admitted losses in excess of $250 million after its fifth season, MLS appears ready to scale back to 10 teams. Other clubs that had been mentioned as possible contraction targets in recent weeks include the Colorado Rapids, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wizards and San Jose Earthquakes.

The league's board of governors recently committed to operations through 2006 but said it would "evaluate closely the viability of several teams and markets, based on their ability to provide value to the league and the sport overall, long-term."

That announcement came about two weeks after Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz took over his fifth MLS team, buying the rights to the MetroStars from Stuart Subotnick and John Kluge of MetroMedia and taking effective control of the league's board of governors.

Notes: Civic leaders in Johnson County have made an initial proposal that a stadium for the Kansas City Wizards be constructed on the Kansas side of the state line as part of a metrowide Missouri-Kansas bistate tax in 2002, according to a report in the Kansas City Star. Wizards investor-operator Lamar Hunt said he was "delighted" with the idea, but it was not clear whether he would be asked to provide any of the funds.... MLS still has not announced a new television contract to replace the one with ABC/ESPN that expired at the end of last season, despite widespread reports of a five-year renewal that would also include English-language World Cup rights.... Meanwhile, the Major Indoor Soccer League is negotiating for a television deal with Pax TV and CNN/SI, according to the Kansas City Star. CNN/SI is also reportedly negotiating a deal to broadcast NBA games under which the league would take part ownership in the revamped network.... The MISL sent out a media advisory last week that commissioner Steve Ryan and World Indoor Soccer League commissioner Gordon Jago would make an announcement in Dallas next Wednesday "regarding a new and exciting direction of professional indoor soccer." The two leagues have reportedly discussed merging.

 

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