- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

For five years, Major League Soccer has rhapsodized at length about its improving quality of play, its footholds among minorities and young people, and its fast-growing cadre of young talent.

But to advertisers, TV executives, legions of soccer fans and much of the general sporting public none of that has mattered greatly. The primary focus almost from the minute MLS was born in 1996 has been how many people are in the seats.

The league's average draw has sunk each year to 13,756 per game a year ago. But more important than the raw number, the unmistakable downward trend has severely hampered the league's ability to craft its own public image. It's far more difficult to convince sponsors, TV executives and prospective fans that the league is a growing, thriving entity when core fans continue to show up in declining numbers.

Commissioner Don Garber insists the 2001 season, which starts tomorrow, finally will be the year the attendance monkey gets off his back. Garber's track record at predictions has not been good; he made a similar pledge last year only to be proved wrong. He also mistimed the sale of D.C. United's operating rights by nearly a year.

Now, however, Garber has one key number in his back pocket: season ticket sales. The league's 12 teams have combined to sell nearly 44,000 packages for this season, a record. A new series of league initiatives, such as sharing the best sales practices and incentives for top salesmen, have made selling tickets MLS' biggest priority since Kansas City won the 2000 MLS Cup in October.

The result is a likely increase in the average attendance. Garber refuses to predict a number; predecessor Doug Logan's inability to deliver on his pledge of a 20,000 average helped get him fired in 1999. But Garber said the spike in season ticket sales makes him feel better about MLS now than at any other time in his 20-month tenure.

"We realize selling tickets and filling stadiums is a fundamental priority for us," he said. "Clearly, selling more tickets will lead to many more benefits. We have to start with that. It's a very important first step."

As beneficial as the ticket sales are, the league enters its sixth season still grappling with several pressing issues. MLS says it has lost more than $250 million since its inception, with no real sign of profitability on the horizon; the players' union is still appealing an antitrust civil suit despite two losses in a Boston federal court last year; and sinking TV ratings resulted in ABC reducing its 2001 commitment from six games to just the All-Star Game and MLS Cup.

Predictably, these issues are all interrelated. Because of the league's profit-sharing system with ESPN and ABC, the low ratings have hurt ad sales in an already soft sponsorship market and cut cash flow. The latter has prevented the league from making any changes in its salary cap. The low cap and the arbitrary exceptions made to lure foreign stars to MLS have enraged many U.S. players, particularly the rank and file.

The combination has made player movement to and from the European leagues a higher profile issue, with transfers in both directions having picked up in the last year.

MLS has shown a greater interest in its players performing well overseas and commanding higher transfer fees for those who want to stay in Europe. Most notable is United forward Ben Olsen, who performed well on loan to England's Nottingham Forest before injuring his right ankle in February.

Nottingham showed interest in keeping Olsen full time, but the league's insistence on a record $3.5 million transfer fee killed negotiations. The possibility of Olsen playing elsewhere in Europe this summer still exists.

Garber, however, bristles at the suggestion that MLS is shopping Olsen and other stars overseas strictly in the name of revenues. The league's original business plan called for player sales to other leagues to be a regular, albeit secondary, revenue source.

"We're not in the business of selling players, period. Where it makes sense, we'll do it, but only in those situations," Garber said.

Where it makes sense, he continued, is where an MLS player such as Olsen can play well abroad and serve as a marketing tool for the league.

"We're not going to sell Ben cheap, but that's not really the point," Garber said. "We obviously feel we have talented players and have a very high level of soccer here. Players like Ben showing their skills abroad helps demonstrate that."

Meanwhile, no movement is planned on the salary cap. But without some escalation soon, talented young players like United's 17-year-old Bobby Convey and the 18-year-old DaMarcus Beasley of Chicago soon could depart for the riches of Europe and remain there.

"We'll worry about where Bobby Convey is in his early 20s when Bobby Convey gets to his early 20s," Garber said.

The players' union suit also is a thorny issue. The union failed to prove that MLS officials conspired to depress player salaries or that the league's single-entity structure violates federal antitrust laws. But an appeal is continuing and continues to tax league resources. The next step comes May 9 when the two sides sit down for a mandatory mediation hearing.

"I'm hopeful we can work something out," said John Kerr, executive director of the MLS Players Association. "We are willing to resolve the differences. But there's so much clear evidence the current system doesn't work. There are things we want and MLS claims they're willing to give, such as a higher salary cap and a pension plan. But I'm also sure they're keeping those for negotiation so they can get something in return."

And although TV is not the key revenue source for MLS, making it an anomaly in modern pro sports, Garber is similarly under pressure to show improvement there. Besides ABC's decision to cut its coverage, strong gains last year in the advertiser-coveted 18-34 age group on ESPN broadcasts were more than eaten away by steep losses in other demographics.

"We're actually encouraged by our setup now," Garber said. "We think we what have now, with much more an emphasis on ESPN, is a good formula. Right now, we think we have a more credible story for ESPN and ESPN2."

The league is now talking with the Walt Disney Co., parent company of both ABC and the ESPN networks, about a new contract; the current one ends after this season. MLS is eager to move away from the current profit sharing into a conventional fee-for-rights contract that would likely guarantee more money to the league.

"We'll be watching MLS very closely this season," said Steve Risser, ESPN vice president of programming. "We're encouraged to hear the ticket sales picking up. We obviously want that to translate that to us. We intend on continuing on [with MLS], but we need to see what happens this season and then determine what can be done to keep both sides happy."

Another major goal of Garber's, luring new investors into the league, has been a mixed bag of late. The league finally found a new buyer for United's operating rights after a search of nearly three years: Philip Anschutz, who already owned the rights to three other MLS teams. Expanding beyond the current 12 teams also is on hold until at least 2003.

More successful this winter were the San Jose Earthquakes, who are now being run by George and Gordon Gund, lead owners of the NHL's San Jose Sharks. A similar situation is brewing in Tampa Bay, where the league-run Mutiny are close to being taken over by the Malcolm Glazer family, owners of the NFL's Buccaneers.

"There are some really great stories brewing in a lot of markets, we think," Garber said. "It will get even better if we can get a shovel into the ground in each of them for new stadiums."

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