- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

There was a time not long ago when Major League Soccer was a glorified name for the Phil Anschutz Intramural League.

The mercurial, publicity-shy Anschutz controlled six franchises in the 10-team league, a situation unheard of in any other sports enterprise purporting to be a big-time entity. And with season after season going by without an infusion of new investors, soccer fans knew a sudden change of heart or corporate strategy from Anschutz would mean the beginning of the end of MLS.

The 2003 season is now in the books, and by far the most noteworthy element of the campaign is not San Jose’s championship or D.C. United’s much hyped signing of child prodigy Freddy Adu. Rather, this is the year MLS finally lessened its dependence on the Colorado billionaire and brought in a respectable collection of new investors to join mainstays Robert Kraft and Lamar Hunt.

In short order, Stan Kroenke, owner of the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, purchased the operating rights to the Colorado Rapids from Anschutz Entertainment Group, with an eye toward developing a soccer-specific stadium in the Denver area.

Jorge Vergara, owner of the Mexican team Chivas, will start a team called Chivas USA and begin play in 2005, most likely in San Diego. Joining that club as a 2005 MLS expansion team will be Cleveland, backed by noted Ohio developer and philanthropist Bert Wolstein.

And that’s not all. Beyond that group of confirmed entrants, a second collection of markets, including Oklahoma City and Rochester, N.Y., is seeking to join the league. Rochester, currently in the A-League, has gone so far as to secure $15million in public sector funding for a stadium.

When those cities come in, probably for the 2006 or 2007 season, Anschutz almost certainly will not be involved. AEG might even reduce its current level of team holdings as MLS seeks to double to 20 teams.

The moves are nothing short of remarkable for a league that in the last three years admitted to more than $250million in operating losses, folded two troubled franchises and is still struggling to establish a solid television foothold.

“A lot of people assumed our situation before was worse than it really was and probably are assuming our situation now is better than it is,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “But people generally feel better about soccer now. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And we are simply continuing to be dogged, be patient and continue to execute on our business plan.”

So what’s the real secret? What turned the struggling MLS ship around?

Several factors are play. First and probably foremost, fiscal prudence is at last entering the MLS corporate lexicon. After years of doling out special bonuses to incoming foreign veterans like European star Lothar Matthaus, the focus is now much more on younger, cheaper homegrown talent.

Corporate sponsorships have been pursued with unprecedented vigor. And the start-up Soccer United Marketing, a sister company to MLS that holds domestic English-language TV rights for the men’s and women’s World Cups, provides an important ancillary revenue stream.

That economic scrutiny has produced the best results to date in Los Angeles, where the Galaxy this season became the first MLS club to post an operating profit.

Also, and not unlike hockey, MLS simply by surviving an eighth season in today’s highly competitive sports marketplace, Anschutz or not, shows that a passionate fan base for soccer exists. That fan base will never rival the NFL or Major League Baseball, but it is there and, despite a 6 percent drop in regular-season attendance this year, a further drastic fall is not likely.

In addition, MLS is at last beginning to realize its long-held promise of the lure and potential of soccer-specific stadiums. Columbus, Ohio, the first city to build such a facility, has the Crew as a solid, stable MLS franchise. The Galaxy’s profit would not have happened without the new Home Depot Center, now the country’s pre-eminent shrine to soccer. Another such soccer-specific stadium is under way near Dallas, with similar plans developing in Chicago.

Interestingly, long-discussed soccer stadiums in Washington and suburban New York have yet to come close to seeing even a shovel in the ground. But Garber insists it is “inconceivable” those projects will not come to fruition under his watch.

So is MLS really healthy? Is it completely safe from the fate that befell the now defunct Women’s United Soccer Association less than three months ago?

Not at all. Several years remain before MLS begins to approach any aggregate profits. And with last week’s title game drawing less than 1 percent of U.S. TV households, major financial help from the networks isn’t coming anytime soon. Even Garber acknowledges the long, hard fight for respect and survival is far from over.

But it still speaks volumes that American pro soccer has transcended from the curious hobby of a few wealthy men to a more mainstream opportunity for the sporting-minded investor.

“It’s been a long, slow process,” Garber said. “But we’re beginning to see the fruits of our labors. This is definitely a big deal for us.”

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