Magazine article Insight on the News

Can Pro Soccer Score?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Can Pro Soccer Score?

Article excerpt

Major League Soccer has a new commissioner and high hopes for the future. But the players are dissatisfied with their pay, the owners with their earnings, suggesting trouble ahead.

More than anything, Don Garber hates talking about the make-or-break season for Major League Soccer, or MLS. "I just don't think that's appropriate at all" says the MLS commissioner. "I think this concept is nothing but a media creation. I certainly don't see it that way, and the investors of this league don't see it that way."

Garber's pet peeves aside, the league's fifth season is shaping up as one that finally sets the money-losing venture on a course toward stability -- or as one that accelerates a decline dating back to 1997. Three years of flat attendance, eroding TV ratings and the league's ability to attract investors cost former commissioner Doug Logan his job last August. But in less than eight months, Garber has attacked all three issues head on.

Since September, the former NFL Europe executive has reworked MLS television schedules with ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, tweaked several on-field rules to appeal more to soccer purists and crisscrossed the country scouting sites for four expansion franchises he hopes to have playing by 2004 in soccer-specific stadiums.

"We are in a position to have a very good season, but every team needs to execute, both on the field and with their business plan," says Kevin Payne, president and general manager of D.C. United in Washington. "There just isn't any magic wand to what we do. It's just execution. I think some teams along the way have not made a lot of right decisions and haven't deserved to win. If every team continues to commit to doing their job, we're going to be fine."

The situation with United, a three-time champion, is perhaps the most obvious symbol of the current state of the MLS. United averaged 17,419 last year, far above the league average of 14,282, and now has more season-ticket holders than the Washington Capitals. The demographics of the team's core fan base -- young professionals from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds -- are exactly what MLS wants.

But without a groundswell of national support for the league, United's success has failed to captivate fans outside Washington or new investors. The team has lost more than $2 million annually and needs a soccer-friendly, long-term home. With United and Los Angeles Galaxy expected to clash again for the MLS title, the key question is whether the league will ever make money.

In four years, MLS has bled more than $100 million in red ink, with at least another $20 million estimated for this year. …

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