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Grant Wahl
July 01, 2002
Can Major League Soccer capitalize on the U.S.'s Cup run by cultivating the new fans, marketing the new heroes and making soccer viable?
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July 01, 2002

Now The Hard Part

Can Major League Soccer capitalize on the U.S.'s Cup run by cultivating the new fans, marketing the new heroes and making soccer viable?

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Sore, Jet-lagged and running on the fumes of worldwide acclaim, Landon Donovan sprinted onto the Spartan Stadium turf last Saturday night for the final minutes of the San Jose Earthquakes' 4-0 home win over the Colorado Rapids. Only 38 hours earlier Donovan, the U.S.'s breathtaking 20-year-old striker, had tearfully trudged off another field, in Ulsan, South Korea, after Germany had ended the Americans' stirring World Cup run with a 1-0 quarterfinal defeat. But who needs R and R when you're trying to grow Major League Soccer? "It's important for all of us to get back here on our teams," said Donovan, who traveled on to New York City on Sunday to make the talk-show circuit. "Everything's just crazy right now."

Keeping it that way will be the hard part for U.S. soccer. As difficult as reaching the World Cup's elite eight may have been, turning the sport into a viable domestic enterprise is a far more daunting challenge. Now that the Yanks have proved they can compete at the highest level, what comes next? Will soccer be like track and field, another niche sport in which Americans excel but the masses watch only once every four years? Or will MLS someday be the country's fifth major league, with popularity comparable to the NHL's?

Whatever happens, nobody in MLS expects the U.S.'s World Cup success to turn the seven-year-old league into a rival of the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. "There's no lightning in a bottle," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, a former NFL marketing honcho. "One of our biggest challenges is persuading the media of what we want to become. In their minds we're aspiring to be the NFL, but we're not. We're aspiring to pack 20,000- to 25,000-seat soccer stadiums on Saturdays. We're aspiring to have stronger television ratings, to continue developing top-level players and to have great relationships with our local communities. We're not going to start filling up Giants Stadium. This is about slowly growing the sport."

If anyone doubted that Americans could play this game, snapshots from the Germany match provided indisputable evidence to the contrary. There was Donovan, fearlessly nutmegging midfielder Dietmar Hamann on the dead run and firing a screamer off the fingertips of Oliver Kahn. There was right back Tony Sanneh, launching himself on an 80-yard jailbreak one minute, heading the ball just wide of the goal the next. There was midfielder Claudio Reyna, suddenly the bold instigator, trash-talking the Germans and starting every attack. Michael Ballack's first-half header off a free kick from the right may have given the mistake-free Mannschaft the victory, but it was the fluid Americans who won over impartial soccer fans, creating more scoring chances and responding with grace after referee Hugh Dallas failed to call a penalty following a clear German handball on the goal line. "I'm not [afraid] to say that we were the better team," Reyna said afterward, and he was right.

U.S. soccer has made big splashes before—at the 1994 World Cup and the '99 Women's World Cup—but this time a pro league is already in place to capitalize on the buzz. MLS players filled 11 of the 23 spots on the U.S. World Cup roster and struck five of the six goals scored by Americans. League attendance, after stagnating for five years, had risen slightly to an average of 15,294 at week's end, a figure comparable to arena sports such as hockey and basketball. A 22,555-seat soccer-only facility houses the Columbus Crew, and ground has been broken on a $100 million complex in Carson, Calif., which will include a 27,000-seat stadium for the Los Angeles Galaxy and a national training center.

Still, despite soccer's massive youth-participation numbers and surprisingly good World Cup ratings—the U.S.- Germany match on ESPN was watched in 3.8 million households, the biggest soccer audience in the network's history, though it kicked off before breakfast—there's no guarantee that more viewers will now tune in to MLS games, whose ratings have been microscopic. Will enough Americans watch to deliver the league a sizable TV contract, one that would eat into losses in excess of $250 million over the past six years? Not for nothing did MLS shutter the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny in January, reducing itself to 10 teams.

Yet MLS must continue to serve as the national team's primary feeder system if Americans are to keep improving in the World Cup. With commitments from its television and sponsorship partners through 2006, the league has at least four years to approach profitability. Here are some ways it might use the U.S.'s World Cup performance as a springboard:

?Hold onto as many young stars as possible and market the hell out of them. Besides Donovan, many of the Yanks' most entertaining attackers ply their trade domestically: midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, 20, of the Chicago Fire; striker Clint Mathis, 25, of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars; forward Brian McBride, 30, of the Columbus Crew; and striker Josh Wolff, 25, of the Fire. While the Cup raised their profiles Stateside, it also piqued the interest of wealthy European clubs, which will probably want to purchase their contracts from MLS. (The league negotiates all of its players' deals.)

Despite claiming in the past mat they would do little to stand in the way of players who want to go to Europe, MLS executives now say they're unlikely to sell their most popular assets for a quick buck. "Those people assuming that all our players are going to Europe will be proven resoundingly wrong," says deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who signed Wolff to a four-year, $1.1 million extension at the start of the Cup. "In 12 months the vast majority of this group will still be in MLS."

Beasley and Donovan are the most coveted players of the bunch, but while Beasley has been clear about his desire to go overseas, Donovan is strikingly ambivalent. "I don't want to go back and sit on the bench for five years," he says. Bayer Leverkusen, the German club that signed him at 16, banished him to its reserve team before loaning him to MLS last year. Donovan, who led San Jose to last year's MLS Cup, says he'll stay with the club for the rest of this season—and maybe longer. "My experience was pretty bad in Germany," he says, "and sometimes I think no matter where I go, it's going to be the same way. I love my life in San Jose."

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