MLS Makes Bid for Relevance

The U.S. soccer league hopes showcasing games with European powers, such as Real Madrid, will rub off.
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Ole, ole ole!

Real Madrid, the world-famous soccer team from Spain, is making its first U.S. tour this week, with exhibition games against American teams in Seattle and Salt Lake City.

Real Madrid's roster includes the British midfielder David Beckham, a worldwide celebrity known as much for his ability to trick goalies by "bending" the arc of a soccer ball as for his sex appeal and his marriage to Victoria Adams, better known as Posh Spice of the Spice Girls.

Unlike European soccer leagues, and -- for that matter -- leagues in just about every corner of the globe, U.S. sports fans have never embraced soccer.

Major League Soccer, the North American league, has struggled to lure those fans since its founding in 1996.

The MLS hopes that Beckham and other stars of Real Madrid can spur interest in the league's 12 teams, which operate in 11 markets: Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles and New York (New Jersey), Salt Lake City and Washington.

I fit the profile of the ideal MLS fan. Like millions of American kids, I spent years playing soccer and then stopped altogether after high school. Yet my money has gone toward professional baseball and football tickets, even though I have always preferred soccer.

The Real Madrid tour started Wednesday, with a surprising 1-1 draw with D.C. United before a capacity crowd of 66,830 at Seattle's Qwest Field.

On Saturday night, I will attend the game between Real Madrid and Real Salt Lake.

Win or lose, MLS Commissioner Don Garber hopes such high-profile games can elevate the stature of the MLS, which has lost more than $350 million in the past decade.

Garber points to recent business announcements, and predicts the 10-year-long money slide will end. He says that with the marketing strategy of the MLS, along with a new broadcast partnership with ESPN, more American sports enthusiasts than ever will be exposed -- and begin to appreciate -- soccer, the world's most popular sport. The 2006 World Cup, in which Italy defeated France, attacted a sizable TV audience in America.

Real Salt Lake, which joined the MLS in 2005, has threatened to leave the city because local elected officials recently refused to invest $35 million in taxpayer money toward building the team a 20,000-seat soccer stadium. The team plays at the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium, a 45,000-seat football venue with artificial turf.

Elected officials in Salt Lake City expressed skepticism about the feasibility of the stadium deal. A Real Salt Lake business plan, submitted with the request for the public money, showed the team continuing to lose money, and only making money in the near future by hosting an ambitious schedule of music concerts and selling naming rights. The plan projected season ticket sales doubling from 6,000 this year to 12,500 in 2015.

Real Salt Lake's owner is Dave Checketts, a former general manager of the New York Knicks and a partner in a National Hockey League team in St. Louis. Checketts has said he would sell the MLS franchise or move the team to another state if Utah officials fail to make a new offer by Saturday.

Despite the questions raised in Salt Lake, Garber is bullish about the league's financial future and its ability to attract millions of fans of soccer in America.

Garber said millions of American viewers watched this summer's World Cup in Germany on three broadcast outlets -- ESPN, owned by


(DIS) - Get Report




, and Fox, owned by owned by

News Corp.


-- "and we've got to figure out a way to capitalize" on that audience reach.

That potential has so far eluded the MLS. Over the past decade, average attendance at MLS games has dropped, from 17,400 a game in 1996 to 15,100 in 2005.

Last Friday, ESPN announced a new eight-year deal for broadcast rights to MLS games, the first time a network had agreed to pay for the rights to MLS games, Garber said.

John Skipper, the senior vice president and general manager of, declined to say what ESPN paid for the MLS broadcast rights, but "it's in the million and millions of dollars."

Beginning next year, ESPN2 will broadcast 26 regular-season MLS games on Thursday nights from April to November, as well as three playoff games each season. The games are to be promoted across ESPN's various programs and Web sites, Skipper said.

Meanwhile, ESPN's sister Disney network, ABC, will air the MLS season-opening game, the All-Star game and the MLS Cup, the championship game.

"I'm the latest knucklehead to think soccer is going to work in the United States," Skipper said. "But it's impossible for me to believe that we


move this forward" with ESPN and ABC.

"I'd like to say something to those in Salt Lake City," Garber said, "who question the viability of MLS and therefore of an investment" in a stadium. "The time is right for soccer in this country," he said.

Clearly irritated by what Garber portrayed as misconceptions about the MLS, he cited some recent achievements: the ESPN deal; "more than $1 billion" in investments since 2005; rising team prices, including $100 million paid by Red Bull, the Austrian energy-drink maker, for the New York franchise; and "blue-chip partnerships," such as the $150 million, 10-year deal with


, the German sneaker and sports equipment manufacturer.

Garber also reiterated the MLS three-part strategy for "slow, steady growth" -- player development to produce more competitive games; league expansion; and - the sore issue in Salt Lake City -- building so-called "soccer-specific" stadiums to ensure that teams play in a stadium "they can call their own."

As for expansion, the MLS is adding FC Toronto in 2007, followed by another team in 2008, and two more by 2010, Garber said. Cities interested in having a soccer team include Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, Seattle, Miami and San Diego, he said. Another interested city, San Jose, lost its franchise this year.

MLS player improvement may be bearing fruit. Another touring European powerhouse with a roster of international superstars -- Chelsea of the English Premier League -- lost 1-0 to the MLS All-Stars on Saturday in Chicago.

But on the financial front, the MLS is "still in the mode of not being profitable in almost all teams," Garber said. "We're got a lot of growth left to do, and we've got to be cautiously optimistic."

Garber didn't mention it, but others point to another reason for optimism: the rapid growth across the U.S. of soccer-loving Hispanic immigrants.

Of course, hard-core soccer fans still yearn for higher-caliber MLS play. Many of the best American players have been lured by the money in the European leagues, which do not have a MLS-style salary cap. The MLS is considering a rule change that would create a marquee player exemption from the strict caps. It's dubbed the "Beckham Allocation," for David Beckham, who has talked about playing in the U.S. after retiring from Real Madrid. Beckham reportedly earns $32 million annually, far above that of the highest-paid baseball player, the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, whose salary is about $25 million. Beside Beckham, Real Madrid carries a $90 million annual payroll for just six of its other superstars.

But the MLS is likely to remain far behind baseball, football and hockey in game attendance, team loyalty and the hearts of American fanatics. But I'm still eager to see the Real Madrid-Real Salt Lake game. After all, soccer may not be around in Real Salt Lake next year.

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Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.