Major League Struggle – Major League Soccer – Statistical Data Included
Tony Meola and the Kansas City Wizards may have won on the field, but off the field MLS continues to too often lose. What’s next for the five-year league?
TRYING TO PAINT A TRUE PICTURE of MLS depends on the artist If you’re an optimist, you might want to use bright, vibrant colors as you look toward the future.
If you’re a pessimist, you might have to use harsher tones to bring out the long, hard road the league has taken.
If you’re a realist, you might have to combine those two styles into a unique mixture of those shades and hues.
As MLS moves toward its sixth season, it faces a number of familiar problems and challenges, including attendance, TV ratings, ownership concerns, expansion, and soccer-specific stadiums.
On the bright side, the quality and level of play continues to rise. So does the number of promising young American players that the league is developing. MLS also got rid of the shootout and added some traditional soccer trappings to appease the traditional soccer fan.
Commissioner Don Garber has some lofty goals as he attempts to turn MLS into a masterpiece. “In time, we should be able to achieve the significant importance that the other four established sports leagues have achieved,” he says. “When you look at demographic changes, ethnic changes, and global community changes that are taking place, we believe soccer is poised to capitalize on those, and other sports, long-term, might be at risk. The question is: When? And our investors are committed until that happens. I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to achieve some of that significance in time.”
Like it or not, attendance was down during the regular season and playoffs.
It dropped 3% from 1999’s average of 14,282 a game to 13,756. That might not sound like a big dip, but in the bigger picture it must leave room for concern. After drawing an average of 17,406 in its maiden season in 1996, attendance has leveled off and dropped a bit in each year–14,619 in 1997, 14,312 in 1998, and 14,282 in 1999.
Seven teams saw attendance go down, including the Columbus Crew, which led the league in 1999 at 17,696, but fell to 15,451 last season. There also has to be serious concern with the New England Revolution, which might have MLS’s most loyal fans. The Revs fans were among the top teams in attendance during four lean years, but actually fell 7.6% to 15,463 despite the team finishing at .500 for the first time in five years, and reaching the playoffs for only the second time.
The five clubs that saw increases? The MetroStars (up 19.8% to 17,621), Los Angeles Galaxy (15.6 to 20,400), Kansas City Wizards (11.3 to 9,112), Dallas Burn (7.2% to 13,102), and D.C. United (6.6% to 18,580).
The Tampa Bay Mutiny took the largest drop: 27.8% to 9,452.
What was perhaps the most disturbing and disappointing thing was that the league pushed just about all the right buttons to market itself before the season.
MLS went back to real soccer. It got rid of the controversial and hated shoot-out, added stoppage time at the end of halves and games, and the clock counts up instead of down. MLS added Soccer Saturday, in which more games were televised on that day. It also introduced MLS ExtraTime, a weekly highlights show.
In fact, the league’s theme of the year was directed right at the fans–“It’s Your Game.”
“I would say our attendance has stagnated [not dipped],” Garber says. “We’re down about 3%. That’s several hundred people a game. Not improving is my concern. Next year we’ve got to show progress. We’re not going to predict that we’re going to hit a particular number. I will say that we will must get better and improve our attendance…. Am I concerned about it? Yeah. I would like to be sitting here and telling you that our attendance has gone up.”
Playoff attendance was abysmal, plummeting from 16,338 in 1999 to a puzzling 11,973 in 2000.
“The playoffs were a disappointment for us,” Garber says. “You have to consider that for a number of years–and last year in particular–we had two of our top-selling teams [Columbus and D.C.]. Those 20,000 and 23,000 gates for the third games really help those averages. We’re questioning whether we have the right [playoff] format. There are a lot of different concepts that are on the table that may help us create more of a compelling interest story.”
Like it or not, too few people own too many teams.
While they must be given a tremendous amount of praise and credit for their commitment–emotionally and financially–there is a perception among American sports fans that the league is run by a handful of billionaires and multi-millionaires. Critics claim it might discourage potential new owners.
Let’s take a look. Philip Anschutz is investor-operator of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire, and Colorado Rapids. Lamar Hunt and his family own the 2000 MLS champion Kansas City Wizards and Columbus Crew. The Kraft family operates the New England Revolution and San Jose Earthquakes.
John Kluge and Stuart Subotnick own the MetroStars, with sights on having a expansion team in the New York metropolitan area and perhaps another East Coast club. Ken Horowitz is operator-investor of the Miami Fusion, a Fort Lauderdale-based team that has under-achieved and attracted an all-time league low of 7,460 per game this season.
“There are a handful of visionaries carrying soccer on their shoulder,” Garber says. “It’s fortunate we have them, but we’ve got to get more to drink from that potion.”
Since its inception, the league has operated the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Dallas Burn. That the league hasn’t been able to find buyers for two teams for five years hasn’t helped its credibility. Garber says that one team will be sold in 2001 and the other in 2002.
Just as devastating has been the off-field demise of three-time champion D.C. United, which has been a shining example of how to run a team on and off the field.
A number possible of potential sales has fallen through for various reasons. As of mid-October, the league was had taken over responsibility of selling the team.
Like it or not, ABC had dropped all but two games for 2001. ABC televised six matches in 2000. Ratings on ABC were 0.7, while remaining stagnant at 0.34 on ESPN in 1999 and 2000. Ratings improved on ESPN2 by 47% among adults from 18 to 34.
“If ABC exercises not to show regular-season games next year, 0.7 and 0.8 ratings won’t affect our business what-so-ever,” Garber says. “We have a great relationship with ESPN. ESPN is committed to soccer in this country. Whether we have one game, three, five, or eight games on ABC, it won’t affect anything other than [naysayers] making this out as an indication of dark things to come. We need to have the right schedule, the right partners, the right production. If it’s not working on ABC, then we’ll get the right scenario with those who believe in us.”
Like it or not, the lack of soccer-specific stadiums is killing attendance. Teams can’t always schedule games on weekends due to commitments these municipality-run stadiums have to other sporting events, concerts or other entertainment events.
When the league moves into its most important part of the season–the homestretch of the regular season and playoffs–many teams can’t always get prime weekend dates (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) and many times have to settle for mid-week dates.
The Crew is the only team of the dozen that has built a soccer-specific stadium, although new stadiums are planned for Los Angeles, Chicago, Colorado, and New Jersey. -When a team has a place it can call home, it can could eliminate paying rent and start bringing in revenue from parking, concession stands and hosting other sporting and entertainment events.
“We clearly need to be in a situation where we control our schedule, commercial opportunities and are a primary tenant,” Garber says. “Outside of providing a great environment for our fans, control is ultimately the key concern.”
Soccer tans around the country have got to like this: The goal is to have at least four new teams in place by 2004. A second team in the New York market is already a go, and the league has agreed to own a team in a Women’s United Soccer Association market, probably Philadelphia or Atlanta, in 2002.
Other possibilities, in no particular order, are Seattle, Rochester, N.Y., Houston, Sacramento, Milwaukee, and Winston-Salem, N.C.
“There are many markets for us to pick from,” Garber says. “We have to pick the most appropriate time frame, if you will, for all those markets to fall into place. New York fell into place and hopefully Philly and Atlanta will fall into place.”
The fans have got to like it, or even love it. The new generation of American players has been gifted and promising, which makes comparisons with the old North American Soccer League like comparing apples to watermelons.
Take a look at who the league has produced over the past several seasons: MetroStars forward and MVP candidate Clint Mathis (16 goals, 14 assists), Chicago Fire forward Josh Wolff, a standout in the Summer Olympics, Fire defender and MLS Rookie of the Year Carlos Bocanegra, Wizards defender and rookie-of-the-year candidate Nick Garcia, Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, and United forward Bobby Convey, among others.
The owners also dug into their pockets one more time and brought in a number of high-profile players. Some might have been past their international prime and underachieved, but who could deny that former Bulgarian World Cup star Hristo Stoitchkov made a huge, positive impact on the Fire?
The league also has become a proving ground for players and has started to become a springboard for players who want to play overseas. Former Columbus Crew forward Stern John, who led the league in scoring in 1998, moved to Nottingham Forest in England. Tampa Bay Mutiny striker Mamadou Diallo, this past season’s scoring champion, has generated interest in Europe as well.
Players are the league’s most valuable commodity and ultimately will be the determining factor on whether MLS can establish itself with mainstream American sports fans.
The players have got to love it. Starting in 2001, the league has cut back games from 32 to 28, which will help a congested schedule. It seemed that every time you turned around last season, teams were playing a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday scenario. That took its toll on many tired players.
While they follow a similar schedule in many European leagues, players and teams can’t survive such a grueling regimen without reserve teams to help during lean times (injuries, national team callups, etc.).
So, don’t worry. The league, despite its faults, isn’t about to go out of business and leave an empty canvas. Who knows? When we get an opportunity paint a picture late next year perhaps it will have more vibrant colors.
But to do so, MLS must make some bolder strokes in attendance and TV ratings if it wants its painting to be appraised by the big boys.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group