Major League Soccer, which has struggled mightily for six years to make a dent in the American sporting consciousness, yesterday announced its plan to eliminate the Miami and Tampa Bay franchises. The move, expected for months, represents the strongest statement yet on the league’s woes.
Since MLS’ formation in 1996, the league has enjoyed regular exposure on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 and the inclusion of many popular national and international stars. But with a level of play widely deemed as vastly inferior to most major European leagues and America’s historical reluctance to embrace professional soccer, MLS has lost more than $250 over its six seasons.
As a result, the contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny is being seen by league officials as an attempt to cut costs and devote resources to stronger clubs.
“These moves were about making us a more viable business,” said league commissioner Don Garber. “We intend for this to be a strong new beginning for MLS.”
Several of the league’s other 10 teams were also considered for contraction, but after a lengthy review by league officials, the two Florida franchises represented MLS’ clear choice. Tampa Bay has averaged 11,072 fans per game since 1996, 10th best in the 12-team league. And Miami, a 1998 expansion franchise, has averaged just 9,345 fans in its four years, worst in MLS. Additionally, Tampa Bay has been a league-run team for all six years, and both teams rank among the league’s worst in corporate support, season ticket sales and overall revenues.
“We came to realize that South Florida has too many hurdles we cannot overcome,” said Ken Horowitz, operator of the Miami Fusion. Horowitz, a cellular phone executive who sunk nearly $50 million into the Fusion, will remain on the league’s board of governors. “The market just didn’t step up.”
While Garber acknowledged many will view the contraction as the first step of the league’s demise, he said that is not the case. The league’s remaining investors are committed to funding the league through 2006, he said.
The contraction also heightens the power of Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz in MLS. Already the operator of five teams Colorado, D.C., New York/New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles the reclusive Anschutz now controls half the league.
The MLS Players Association, which has no collective bargaining agreement with the league, will not be able to contest the contraction.
“This is very sad day for the league, for everyone involved, from the investors right down to the fans,” said John Kerr, MLSPA executive director. “Will this make the league stronger? I really don’t know. I sure hope so because this is incredibly sad news.”
Because of that lack of player involvement, MLS was able to complete its contraction much faster than Major League Baseball. That league announced its intent on Nov. 6 to cut two teams, likely Montreal and Minnesota, for the 2002 season. Baseball’s effort, however, has since been slowed by a union grievance and stadium injunction in Minneapolis tying the Twins to the Metrodome this season.
The league will conduct a dispersal draft on Friday for the 35 players from Tampa Bay and Miami. An allocation draft, however, will be conducted first that same day for a group of international stars that will include Alex Pineda Chacon or Diego Serna, the Miami forward tandem that led the league in scoring last season.
D.C. United will select third in both drafts. United’s quota of three senior international players is currently filled, meaning the team will need to waive one of them if it wants a foreign star such as Chacon or Serna. Possibilities for the dispersal draft include Miami goalie Nick Rimando and Fusion defender and former United player Carlos Llamosa.
In other MLS news, Anschutz Entertainment Group, Anschutz’s corporate entity that includes his soccer holdings, completed its acquisition of MLS shares previously held by Washington Soccer L.P., the former operators of D.C. United. The transaction had been expected for nearly a year. A deal struck last February called for Anschutz to receive the operating rights to United immediately and then the MLS equity within two years. In the single-entity league, investors purchase shares in the entire league and receive only operating rights to individual clubs.
Walt Disney Co., owners of ABC and the ESPN networks, was aware MLS might contract when brokering a five-year extension to its TV deal with MLS. The deal was announced last week. But helping to alleviate any apprehension was Disney’s lack of financial risk in the accord. MLS is assuming the advertising inventory for its games, will sell the ad time themselves and not receive a traditional rights fee from Disney.
“ESPN still believes in the league and its long-term viability,” said Mac Nwulu, ESPN spokesman.
Staff writer John Haydon contributed to this article.