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MLS Eliminates Florida Teams

Soccer: Tampa Bay, Miami are contraction victims. Anschutz now controls half the league.

January 09, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With relative ease, a major sports league was able to contract Tuesday, limiting the pain, suffering and litigation.

Unlike major league baseball, there were no courtroom battles or congressional hearings for the controlling powers of Major League Soccer while it considered contraction.

MLS started Tuesday with 12 teams and finished with 10, eliminating the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

The reduction essentially leaves half of MLS in the hands of one man, Colorado-based billionaire Phil Anschutz, operator of the Galaxy, Chicago, Colorado, Washington D.C. United, and New York-New Jersey. The MLS also announced Tuesday that Anschutz Entertainment Group exercised its option to become the investor-operator of D.C. United.

Additionally, the league will move to a two-conference format with the Galaxy in the Western Conference, joining Dallas, Colorado, Kansas City and San Jose. An allocation and dispersal draft will be held Friday. The dispersal draft--in which the Galaxy has the ninth pick--follows the allocation draft.

Among the top players available include Fusion forward/midfielder Alex Pineda Chacon, Mutiny forward Mamadou Diallo, Fusion goalkeeper Nick Rimando and Fusion forward Diego Serna.

MLS contraction was not unexpected and the vote to reduce was unanimous, league officials said. Tampa had been without an owner since it was founded in 1996, and the Fusion's Ken Horowitz said he and his investors felt there were "too many hurdles" to overcome in the South Florida market.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who said the move will help the league cut losses by 30% this season, also realized there would be some viewing contraction as the beginning of the end.

'I want to say that this could not be farther from the truth," he said in a conference call. " ... There are always and there will always be naysayers. There are always those who continually look at this league with criticism. That is something that we in the soccer business deal with every day, not only in professional soccer. I want to reiterate that we have a five-year funding commitment. We have a five-year deal with ABC and ESPN."

Although already obvious, Tuesday's developments made it more pronounced than ever that the league's future rests with Anschutz, said David Carter, president of the Sports Business Group, a consulting firm that specializes in strategic marketing for the sports industry.

"What's amazing about it is the swiftness they pulled it off," he said of contraction. "The league had been hemorrhaging money. It puts added influence on Phil Anschutz's role in the entire league. Phil Anschutz clearly was the most important individual and now he is, by far and away, the most influential. As he wants the league to go, it will go. He has more power and influence than the commissioner at this point."

Garber addressed the Anschutz issue of control. In MLS, investors purchase the right to operate teams, which are owned by the league. Player contracts are owned by the league under the single-entity concept, and teams share revenue with MLS.

"Our single entity ensures competitive balance," Garber said. "We have always had multiple team ownership and have never had any issues with that. We have a wide variety of checks and balances in place and we will continue to enforce them. Phil Anschutz and his group are investors in soccer.

"They have made a massive commitment to the sport. This sport has never had that one person or entity who has single-handedly said to the naysayers: 'I'm right and you're wrong."'

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