As Major League Soccer kicks off its ninth MLS Cup finals on Nov. 14, there are indications that American-style pro fútbol -- written off for dead again and again -- may finally have legs. German sporting giant adidas-Salomon (ADDDY ) recently announced that it will inject about $100 million into MLS over 10 years to become its key sponsor. Attendance is up 4.4% over last season. Soccer phenom Freddy Adu grabbed national media attention in his debut year. In 2005 the league is expanding to 12 teams from 10, and it plans to build four soccer-specific stadiums.
But it's still way too early to proclaim a turnaround in a pro league that has lost more than $350 million since its kickoff in 1996. MLS Commissioner Don Garber argues that the league's strategy is solid: "We want to grow slowly and steadily and be in as many markets as we can when the sport really hits," he says. "Our goal is to create a soccer nation in this country."
The question is: Does Garber understand that strategy isn't enough -- that the joy of soccer springs from 90 minutes on the pitch? That's why people fill stadiums around the world -- to watch the "beautiful game." While there may be sound business reasons to focus on clever marketing schemes and building new stadiums, such a focus has come at the expense of the quality of play. For the MLS to take advantage of its business successes, it has to put more energy and money into raising the level of its game.
Because the dirty little secret is that most Americans still greet the MLS with a big yawn. Many serious U.S. soccer fans ignore MLS games for higher-quality European, Mexican, or South American matches on cable TV. How many soccer enthusiasts -- let alone sports fans in general -- know that D.C. United is playing the Kansas City Wizards for the 2004 MLS Cup? More sobering, how many care? If playoff attendance is any indication, the answer is: not many. It was down by nearly a third in some venues compared with the regular season.
What's more, the league's emphasis on controlling all player contracts and limiting international players to three a team has produced mostly uninspiring parity. All but two teams make the playoffs, rendering the regular season meaningless. "We have a responsibility to inject much more excitement into the play," says Alexi Lalas, general manager for the San Jose Earthquakes and an ex-MLS player and U.S. National Team member.
That won't be easy, but the time may be right. Purse strings can be loosened without busting the bank as long as some changes take place. The league should break up its single-entity ownership model that sells operating rights rather than outright franchises. As it works now, the owners share equally in gains and losses, and the league controls player allocation to the teams, which hardly helps them create a local personality. Sure, it creates parity, but who cares if every team can win the MLS Cup in the same season? The best antidote to parity is letting investors own their franchises. The league could use some owners with egos who are willing to spend to compete. A salary cap would stop things from getting out of hand.
Today's league is essentially bankrolled by three billionaires willing to sustain losses to keep it going: Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt, and Bob Kraft. They believe that soccer will catch on and make money. But so far, only one team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, has ever made an operating profit -- a tiny one last year.
Garber also needs to ease the league's restriction on foreign players and do a better job of marketing international stars. "Imagine if we had a couple of David Beckhams on each team. We'd be talking a little more about the MLS," says Jeffrey Bliss, president of Javelin Group, a Washington sports-marketing firm. Obviously a superstar like Beckham at the height of his career commands more money than the MLS can afford, but as top players start to fade, they could bring their star power to America. "Individual owners could offer a player like Beckham a chunk of equity or a player-management position," says Bliss.
The American sports fan knows quality: When Manchester United comes here, the storied English soccer club sells out 60,000 seats in hours. Even the defunct North American Soccer League filled more seats than the MLS. That's simply because fans knew the quality of play was strong, in part because the league recruited such international stars as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, albeit in their twilight years.
Garber also should change the playoff structure to make the regular season more meaningful. Four teams ought to make the playoffs, not eight. That would give players the incentive to dribble and tackle harder during the season. Condensing the playoffs would also avoid competition with the World Series, National Football League games, and college gridiron games.
If nothing else, the MLS has proven its ability to survive. Under the shadow of football, basketball, and baseball, it has developed a modest army of supporters, built a business model dependent on leveraging marketing and stadium assets, and provided a place for U.S. players to develop and showcase their talents. Now the league is welcoming Chivas, Mexico's most popular and successful soccer club, which will form a team in Los Angeles as one of the two new franchises. "What Chivas brings to the U.S. is a Latino style of play, full of passion and intensity," says Chivas President Antonio Cué. That's just what this league needs.
By Stanley Holmes