- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

Sports Biz

All organizations, whether they be fledgling sports franchises or multinational corporations, are spiraling up and improving or spiraling down toward disarray. There is no such thing as standing still. At least so goes the theory, oft-repeated by Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and other prominent executives.
Most sports teams and entire leagues of late have been spiraling down. Baseball's ongoing struggles are well documented. So, too, are those experienced by younger outfits like the WNBA. Even the NHL, with four straight season attendance records in its pocket, still has a nasty labor fight looming in its future.
Major League Soccer, however, is an unlikely candidate to be spiraling upward. With nine weeks left in its regular season, the league's average attendance of 16,082 entering yesterday's games was 4 percent higher than last year and left it on pace to post a full-season increase for the second year in a row. After suffering steady drops of the gate each season from 1997 through 2000, such an extended run of larger crowds was altogether unexpected outside MLS offices.
If the attendance marks hold for the rest of the season, it will be the league's second-best draw in seven years of operation, trailing only the 1996 debut average of 17,406.
To be certain, the league's standing business issues are many and serious. MLS is still far too concentrated in the hands of too few investors.
Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, who controls 55 percent of the league, is now facing serious troubles with Denver-based telecom giant Qwest Communications Inc, which he founded and is the country's largest shareholder. The company is awash in debt, suffering under a deeply sagging stock price and is now under federal investigation for its accounting practices, but it remains unclear whether Qwest's issues will have any direct bearing on MLS.
League stadium development efforts, particularly here in the District, are proceeding much slower than expected.
MLS fiscal losses also remain heavy and still approach an estimated $50million a season.
But any new league must walk before it can run. Unlike its fellow relative newcomers to the scene, the WNBA and Women's United Soccer Association, MLS is showing definable, significant and lasting signs of expanding its fan base in what remains a down market for the sports industry. League executives, just months after eliminating the Tampa Bay and Miami franchises, are entertaining notions of expanding back out, perhaps first to Oklahoma City.
The boost from the U.S. team's run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup predictably has begun to help somewhat. But even before that event, MLS officials had spent many months tightening up ticket sales and marketing efforts around the league.
"We think we're now on the right track," commissioner Don Garber said. "This is still a business where you have to get up, get out and sell tickets every day. But this has taken a long time, and we have a number of teams who are finding the right formulas."
The league's attendance charge has been led by Colorado and Los Angeles, each of which played to crowds of more than 55,000 on July 4, as well as New England, now playing in the Patriots' sparkling new CMGI Field. Even Dallas and Kansas City, both historically among the league's more troubled franchises, are posting double-digit percentage increase at the turnstiles this season.
Several special events also have fueled the increased fan interest. Colorado, New York/New Jersey, New England and Dallas have benefited greatly from doubleheaders scheduled with the WUSA and international matches.
Of the 10 teams left in the league, three are showing heavy declines at the turnstiles: D.C. United, Chicago Fire and San Jose Earthquakes. The Fire are playing this season on a college field in suburban Naperville, Ill., while waiting for renovations at Soldier Field to be completed. The Earthquakes, despite winning last year's league title, remain in a struggle to find a solid niche in what is an overcrowded sports market.
United's situation, however, is a bit more complex. Washington has long been one of the best MLS markets, and United led the league in attendance last year with an average 21,518. But not unlike what the Baltimore Orioles are experiencing at Camden Yards, United's current malaise after winning the 1996, 1997 and 1999 league titles is now catching up with the club.
After finishing last in its division the last two seasons, United this season again is in last place and searching for an identity. The team's falloff to an average attendance of 16,297 is the second worst in the league on a percentage basis, behind only Chicago.
"We're pretty hopeful that we'll get back to the kind of numbers we've had in the past," said Kevin Payne, former team president and now managing director for AEG Soccer, which operates the team. "But I've said before, I don't think [United] should lead the league in attendance. The people that lead the league in attendance ought to be places like New York and Los Angeles. As long as [Uniteds] numbers are solid we would like them to be higher than they are, we would like them to be higher in every market it doesn't concern me if [United is] third or fourth in leading attendance as long as the other teams are doing well."
There are, of course, no guarantees that the spurt of MLS interest will continue. But for now, Garber is enjoying the small piece of hard-won success.
"There are number of things falling into place. The gains in places like Kansas City are exactly what we want to see," Garber said. "But we know there's still quite a bit of work ahead of us. Our eyes are wide open."

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