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Now the Hard Part
Hank Hersch
October 31, 1994
Creating a U.S. Division I league hasn't been as easy as staging World Cup '94
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October 31, 1994

Now The Hard Part

Creating a U.S. Division I league hasn't been as easy as staging World Cup '94

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?All teams will have equal access to a player pool to be divvied up in a draft.

?No owner with deep pockets can disrupt the competitive balance or the payroll structure, which contributed to the NASL's downfall.

?Neither sponsors nor TV networks need fear being "ambushed" by local companies or affiliates.

?Should the waters get choppy, everyone will be in the same boat.

To make sure teams play hard and market aggressively, MLS has a bonus structure that takes into account won-lost records and attendance. If the league succeeds, those who have invested directly or have been operator-investors will make a profit, and the franchises run solely by MLS can be sold on the open market for far more than the $5 million initial pay-in. Rothenberg's crucial task now is to reel in the big-money people—the right ones. "We want people with an understandable business purpose in this," he says, "not people who see this as a rich man's toy."

Among those interested are some NFL owners whose stadiums are seldom used from April to October. Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, is rumored to be an MLS investor. "I think there is a potential there and would like to see it happen," Hunt says. Should the league announce its financial backers, the dozen national sponsors who are being asked to pony up $1.5 million are likely to follow. "The sponsors are waiting for something tangible—the name of a player or a team, or who the ownership groups are," says Peter Moore, vice president of global product marketing for Reebok. "If the dominoes do fall, we'll see the likes of McDonald's and Budweiser."

MLS has budgeted the bulk of its funds for its most important item: the players. With an average salary of $70,000 and with more than $20 million set aside for transfer fees from foreign teams, MLS hopes to sign many members of the "94 U.S. national team; a corps of unheralded (and underpriced) attacking players from around the world; and a sprinkling of stars such as goalkeeper Jorge Campos of Mexico and midfielder Carlos Valderrama of Colombia.

MLS has two advantages besides money to offer players. One is the prospect of endorsement contracts in the burgeoning U.S. soccer market; the apparel sponsors have already committed to a four-year, eight-figure deal. The other is being able to place players where they want to be, which is especially attractive to U.S. team veterans abroad such as Tab Ramos and John Harkes, who are eager to return home, settle down and raise families.

Until Rothenberg's dominoes do fall, the APSL—deemed the second division by the USSF—will remain the only outdoor game in town. According to Groff, who became APSL commissioner on Sept. 8, more than half of the players in the APSL are under multiyear contracts and will not be available to MLS. "Our goal is to be a Division I league," Groff says. But that notion seems quixotic. With salaries that begin at $15,000 and top out at about $50,000, the APSL doesn't offer enough dough to attract the talent from around the world that would give it clout. Nor does it have any national U.S. sponsorship or broad TV exposure.

All APSL owners have is the hope that MLS never gets rolling. They recently turned down an offer from Rothenberg to buy into MLS, saying the single-entity system would subvert competition and entrepreneurship. But given the ground-swell of interest created by the World Cup, Rothenberg's doggedness and the involvement of Reebok, Nike, etc., it seems likely MLS will launch come April. "First-division soccer here is as inevitable as tomorrow," Rothenberg says. "I just don't know if it's that imminent."

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