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MLS still has growing pains

TV ratings are low, few teams make money, Chivas USA is a mess, and now there's a Beckham void.

December 23, 2012|KEVIN BAXTER
  • David Beckham is joined by his sons as the Galaxy celebrates its MLS Cup championship.
David Beckham is joined by his sons as the Galaxy celebrates its MLS Cup championship. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

For an executive generally short on time under the best of circumstances, this winter must seem painfully compact for Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber.

The longest season in the league's 17-year history stretched into December this year before giving way to its shortest off-season, with most 2013 training camps scheduled to open three weeks before the Super Bowl.

What hasn't changed, however, is the pressure on Garber to keep MLS moving forward.

By most measures Garber, commissioner since 1999, has done a phenomenal job, and in many ways 2012 was his league's most successful season. Average attendance grew for a third straight year, topping 6 million leaguewide for the first time. With San Jose having broken ground for a new home two months ago, 15 of the league's 19 teams either have or are building soccer-specific stadiums. And if Garber is able to nail down the still-elusive details that have kept the league from awarding rights to a second New York franchise, the expansion fee is expected to reach $100 million, 10 times what Toronto paid to join MLS in 2006.

"Not many leagues in the world have kind of grown up -- or moved up as many rungs on the global sports ladder -- as we have over the last decade," Garber says. "The demographics and the overwhelming market research do not lie."

Nor do the numbers that show the league to still be struggling in several areas. Although revenue has increased dramatically -- gross royalties from licensed merchandise jumped more than 230% over the last seven years -- no more than a handful of MLS teams have ever turned a profit. Most have never come close.

TV ratings did not meet expectations this season; the MLS Cup final on ESPN was outdrawn by the third round of an unofficial golf tournament. Despite the overall attendance gains, seven teams experienced declines at the gate in 2012, including the MLS champion Galaxy. And the front-office telenovela that has enveloped Chivas USA the last three years remains an embarrassment to MLS' big-league aspirations.

Yet the greatest challenge facing Garber this off-season may be to keep the league's momentum going without David Beckham, the man most responsible for MLS' recent growth.

Beckham, who turned the league and the Galaxy into global brands, played his last MLS match in the championship game three weeks ago. And though he'll soon be back in an ownership role -- most likely as a partner with the Galaxy -- the league must prove it has moved beyond relying on one player to be relevant.

"We needed Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity and to show the world really that the United States ... was ready to support a Division 1 league," Garber said. "We do not need anything today to get us to the next level."

That remains to be seen, with setbacks on a number of other fronts threatening to chip away at the gains Beckham inspired.

Some Queens residents are protesting a $300-million plan to build a soccer stadium on public land in the New York borough, stalling Garber's efforts to add a second New York team. Despite new broadcast deals with ESPN, NBC and Univision, underperforming TV ratings have led some to conclude that MLS, though hugely popular in league markets such as Seattle, Kansas City, Houston and Columbus, has not caught on in areas of the country where there are no teams.

The addition of a big-name star to fill the Beckham void -- someone such as Brazil's Kaka, a former world player of the year -- could help.

"We need to continue to focus on growing our television ratings," Garber said. "We are pleased in the growth that we have had this year, but it is about scale. We are putting a lot more resources into this area."

Then there is Chivas USA, which hasn't had a winning record since 2009. Its attendance fell nearly 12% this season, the club has been hemorrhaging money and it is in the midst of its second complete front-office overhaul in two years.

The league helped Chivas sort out its problems this season, eventually brokering the August deal that saw Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara and his wife Angelica Fuentes buy out former partners Antonio and Lorenzo Cue. Whether Garber comes to regret that decision could depend on whether Vergara makes Chivas USA competitive again or turns it into a developmental arm of his first-division team in Mexico.

"The team has not been successful on the field for many, many years. And I'm convinced that these guys will get focused and get it right," Garber said. "They paid a lot of money to buy out their partners. They wouldn't have done that if they didn't believe in the league or believe they could get it right."

The next few months will tell if the league is getting it right as well, or whether life after David Beckham will be as difficult as it often seemed to be before him.

"We have to be a lot better at everything that we do because we still have a lot of work to do," said Garber, who admitted there is no time to lose.


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