- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Soccer is America's next big professional sport.

That has been the mantra in the U.S. among advocates of "the beautiful game" for more than three decades. It started with Pele and Kyle Rote Jr., pro stars of the 1970s, and on into the 1990s with the U.S. women's national team, which won the World Cup in 1999. And the statement received another boost this month as the U.S. men's national team made an unlikely and enthralling run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

The day-to-day reality of professional soccer in America, however, remains as murky as ever and not nearly as glittering as the current mainstream buzz over the World Cup would suggest. This country's two major pro leagues, Major League Soccer and the Women's United Soccer Association, both remain in a firm struggle to draw fans in a jam-packed sports marketplace. TV ratings are minuscule, and exposure on ESPN's "SportsCenter" is minimal. Real profits are, at a minimum, years away.

But hope is not lost within the 7-year-old MLS and the 2-year-old WUSA. Both leagues already are calculating plans to take advantage of any soccer fever sticking around after the World Cup ends on Sunday.

"Americans love winners, and this is a great opportunity for us to educate sports fans more about soccer and our league. This has been a great moment for soccer," said Lynn Morgan, WUSA president and chief executive. "But let's not kid ourselves. We know we're on a longer-range path to position ourselves, grow the league and make more people aware of us. We know this is going to be a slower build and we have to be more patient."

The World Cup, despite the 13-hour time difference between Korea and Japan and the U.S. East Coast, has generated peak viewership of more than 7 million U.S. homes among ESPN, ESPN2, ABC and Spanish-language Univision. The viewership for ESPN has been its best ever for soccer and simply outstanding for the early-morning time slots. American fans also traveled by the thousands to the Far East to watch the games in person.

Back home, MLS is averaging 15,294 people per regular-season game this year. The figure is 2 percent higher than last year, but still trailing its 1996 debut. WUSA's average attendance this season is 6,917, 15 percent lower than the first-year mark of 2001. All these figures trail those of the established American pro sports.

And the U.S. viewership to date for the World Cup, as impressive as it is, remains a fraction of other sports. The final round of the U.S. Open golf tournament nine days ago, for example, drew more than 38 million viewers.

An even more striking indicator of the difference between World Cup soccer and American pro soccer is the domestic attendance figures just since June 17, when the U.S. team upset Mexico 2-0 to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. With the Americans eliminated by Germany Friday, the soccer buzz still in full gear, and great weather across much of America, you might have expected MLS and WUSA to post great crowds this past weekend.

Wrong. MLS averaged 11,867 for games between June 19 and 23, well below its season average. WUSA averaged just 5,954 fans for games in the same time period.

"An average MLS game on a weeknight is not strong enough to draw respectable ratings and attendance numbers. But wrapping the thing in the flag seems to be the trick to make the numbers respectable," said Bob Williams, a Chicago industry consultant who helps corporations find athletes to promote their products. Williams has not received a single call from someone interested in a U.S. national team player. "This sport has huge participation levels, but something is still getting lost in the translation from childhood and teen-age years to adulthood."

To their credit, officials in both leagues are well aware of the long, checkered history of pro soccer in America and have written their business plans to project very slow growth and absorb heavy losses in the interim. Both leagues are currently unprofitable, MLS to the order of more than $50 million per year, and neither is projecting positive cash flow any time soon. MLS also closed down its Miami and Tampa, Fla., franchises earlier this year to get leaner. And both leagues, while enjoying the future promise of their relatively young fan bases, still are working to draw more advertiser-coveted men aged 18 to 35.

"It will be some years before we fully turn the corner," MLS commissioner Don Garber recently said. "Collectively, we will not turn a profit in the near future. We are still in a development mode with respect to building our fan base and building the kinds of stadiums we need to showcase our sport."

Going forward, MLS plans to heavily promote players it sent to the World Cup, including Clint Mathis and Landon Donovan. WUSA, which was born out of the 1999 Women's World Cup and will send dozens of players to the 2003 event, is making a similar marketing push.

"We have two basic things going on," Morgan said. "We have the World Cup players, who are great ambassadors for us. But there is the rest of our season and our championship as well. We'll be pushing on both fronts and try to turn this attention on soccer into actual, long-term viewing and attending."

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