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Mixed Signals

Attendance holds steady but with $20 million in losses, MLS faces an uncertain future after three seasons.

October 23, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future of Major League Soccer has nothing to do with whether Marco Etcheverry can curl a shot into the net from 25 yards, Lubos Kubik's ability to execute a sliding tackle or Zach Thornton's acrobatics when making a save.

Instead, as with any young league, what happens in the boardroom is far more important than what happens on the field.

True, how players perform directly influences how many fans click through the turnstiles and, therefore, how much money piles up on the boardroom tables. But there are other factors at work.

Which of these developments, for example, should be taken as a true indication of the potential of MLS: Philip Anschutz's purchase of the Galaxy this week for $26 million or Lamar Hunt's Kansas City Wizards drawing only 8,072 a game in 1998?

Commissioner Doug Logan, not surprisingly, sees the glass as half-full, but there are examples aplenty of MLS's split personality.

Some signs point to a bleak future for the 3-year-old league; others suggest that prosperity is only a corner kick away. For instance:

* Television ratings have hovered between poor and abysmal on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, but are better on Univision and especially ESPN International, which carries MLS games to several dozen countries.

* Hunt's Wizards may be struggling in Kansas City, but his Columbus Crew next season moves into its own 22,000-seat stadium in Dublin, Ohio. All the box seats have been sold and season ticket sales are soaring.

* Robert Kraft's New England Revolution this season had the worst record in the league (11-21), failed to make the playoffs and still averaged 19,187 a game, second to the Galaxy's 21,784.

* Cumulative financial losses this season are expected to be near $20 million, but the league plans to expand to 14 teams the season after next, en route to an eventual 16 to 20.

What emerges from these contradictory clues is that there is a market for the game in the United States, although it is unlikely to ever rival that for football, baseball or basketball; that fans will accept a product that is several notches in quality below the top European leagues but improving, and that if MLS is very, very careful, it can fly.

Patience, said Logan, should be the byword.

"There are those who want us to be the [German] Bundesliga in the first three years or the first five years, and that's just not going to happen," he said. "First of all, even if we chose to spend unlimited resources, we couldn't make it happen. It's going to take us a while to be of that caliber.

"We're certainly not going to get there in the next decade, and for those who are disappointed by me saying that, they're the ones I have to say patience to. Beyond that, what we have to show is progress every year."

Which is why not much attention should be paid to the average attendance, Logan said, which dipped from 14,616 in 1997 to 14,312 in 1998.

"It really wasn't a dip," Logan said. "At the risk of sounding like a spin-meister, it was truly our objective this year to hold what we had last year, and I think we did that.

"Despite all the dire predictions that no one would come to MLS games because all the focus would be on the World Cup, we accomplished what we were after.

"And from the standpoint of total attendance, if you throw in the two expansion markets [Chicago and Miami], we went from 2.2 million to 2.7 million people in this country who parted with an average of $13 to watch a soccer game. So from a standpoint of absolute attendance, I think we did really well."

Playoff attendance rose by more than 20%, from an average of 12,563 last season (excluding the title game, which drew 57,431) to 15,278 going into Sunday's MLS Cup '98 championship game at the Rose Bowl between defending champion Washington D.C. United and the Chicago Fire.

With only 12 teams, MLS has yet to make a significant impression on the American sporting scene. That will change, Logan said.

"We're shooting for expansion in the year 2000 if we can assure ourselves it's going to be successful," he said. "I make no bones about the fact that my two preferred cities are Philadelphia and Houston."

There are more than half a dozen other cities that want an MLS team, among them San Diego; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Rochester, N.Y.; Milwaukee; Greensboro, N.C.; St. Louis and New York.

The Disney corporation has expressed strong interest in being an investor-operator in the league and wants a team in Anaheim or Orlando, Fla., or both.

Others also are interested, but Logan said MLS owners do not want to expand too fast or too far and thereby repeat the mistakes made by the defunct North American Soccer League in the 1970s and '80s.

"The NASL tried to do too much too soon," he said. "The expansion plan of going from 11 teams to 28 in three years was absurd. We have a more methodical approach that says we are going to be satisfied with getting better in small increments, and some people [fans] are just not happy with that."

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