Can Soccer Kick It Big?

Article excerpt

Welcome to the wide world of sports fop the new millennium. As America's new soccer league demonstrates, the business of sports increasingly means staying in business.

Lamar Hunt knows about taking risks. As the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, formerly the Dallas Texans, Hunt helped launch a little endeavor known as the American Football League nearly four decades ago. The league eventually merged with the National Football League, precipitating seismic changes in the sporting landscape. Today, professional football franchises sell for almost a billion dollars.

Now Hunt may be taking an even bigger risk. The entrepreneur is placing $28.5 million on a less-than-sure bet -- Major League Soccer, or MSL. That's the price Hunt and associates have paid for Columbus Crew Stadium, a 22,500-seat facility that is the first of its kind in the United States. Replete with a million-dollar jumbo scoreboard and a requisite "Wreck Room" for the kids, Crew Stadium is unique to its sport -- but that may change soon.

"Soccer has succeeded" says Hunt, who owns not just the Columbus franchise but also a second MLS franchise in Kansas City. "What we've got to do now is make sure a professional league succeeds.... One stadium is not going to make a sport. But I think the result we will produce will have an impact."

Except for Columbus, there is no such thing as a hot MLS ticket. Of the league's 12 franchises, all rent football stadiums except for the Crew and the Miami Fusion, which plays in a Fort Lauderdale high-school football stadium reconfigured for soccer. "It's not good for any of our teams to be playing second fiddle in stadiums that are too large" says D.C. United general manager Kevin Payne.

The MLS has struggled since starting in 1996, a dozen years after the collapse of the North American Soccer League. After averaging crowds of 17,416 during its first season, attendance slipped to 14,616 in 1997 and 14,312 in 1998. The average is slightly higher this year, but that's due to the 9,000 season tickets sold by Columbus.

MLS has TV contracts with ABC, ESPN and Univision, but the $5 million in revenues is a pittance compared with other major sports. Despite the proliferation of youth leagues -- one estimate has 18 million high-schoolers and younger children kicking the black-and-white balls all over the country -- pro soccer has not capitalized on that interest.

No one is more consumed with the state of the sport than MLS commissioner Doug Logan, an inveterate promoter who quotes P.T. Barnum. "There isn't an automatic bridge between participation and fandom," responds Logan, when asked why so many kids play soccer yet fail to become pro-soccer fans. "Kids get involved in soccer through a whole lot of societal trends, none of which is fan-based." That is, many young players are women, while parents see the sport as a less violent alternative to football. …