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Archive for Tuesday, October 17, 2000

MLS seeks attendance boost

October 17, 2000

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— Each year, Major League Soccer tinkers with its product, trying to make itself more popular. Each year, the result has been the same: attendance down slightly, profits nowhere to be seen.

After five years, the league is pretty much where it began. There's a solid corps of fans and several committed investors, but they don't seem to be growing. An impressive neutral-site crowd of 39,159 watched Kansas City's 1-0 victory over Chicago in the championship game, but for most of the United States the event was at best a footnote on an NFL Sunday.

"I am disappointed that our attendance did not increase," said commissioner Don Garber, citing the small drop in the leaguewide average from 14,282 to 13,756. "This is a major focus for us, and we must show increased numbers in the future."

After trying a few gimmicks to Americanize the sport, this was a back-to-basics year for MLS. Shootouts were eliminated; a game could actually end in a tie.

The official time was kept on the field and not on the scoreboard, the way it's done by the rest of the world.

Aging European superstars Lothar Matthaeus and Hristo Stoitchkov joined the league, while younger and younger American players were recruited through the Project 40 rule, which offers incentives for postponing college. Bobby Convey became a regular starter for D.C. United at 16.

"The level of play has been tremendous this season," said Kansas City goalkeeper Tony Meola, who won the MVP awards for both the regular season and the MLS Cup title game. "If we bring in half the players next year that we did this year, the league's going to be unbelievable. If we continue to do that, this will one day be the place everyone wants to play."

Dutch great Johann Cruyff may have felt the same way 20 years ago, when he played for the Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League.

The NASL eventually folded, and Cruyff was back at RFK Stadium on Sunday reliving the memories.

"Little by little, you have to teach to the United States that this is the best game in the world," Cruyff said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be so popular. But people here are the way they are."

Next year, there will be more tinkering. The schedule will be reduced from 32 to 28 games, and this year's confusing playoff format might get an overhaul. More games will be on Saturdays, when attendance is best, and teams will have more time to schedule games in various international tournaments.

Such changes come too late for ABC, which is dropping four games from its six-game MLS package because of poor ratings. Ratings on ESPN were unchanged from 1999.

There is good news. The league has been able to retain its major sponsors and attract new ones. And while MLS hasn't attracted any new investors in recent years, the ones it has are deep-pocketed and promise to stay for the long haul, even though the league has lost a reported $100 million since its inception.

"I think it's going to be a very big sport in America, and we're only seeing the tip of it," said Lamar Hunt, who owns both the Kansas City and Columbus franchises under the league's single-entity structure.

"In the long run, we've got to sell more season tickets, get more group sales, establish more rivalries."

Hunt built a 23,000-seat soccer-specific stadium for his Columbus team, the perfect size for a sport that's never regularly going to pack 80,000 into an NFL stadium. It's the wave of the future, with Garber touting stadium plans in the works for Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

Hunt has been through this before, as a pioneer in the old AFL with his Kansas City Chiefs. He's finding MLS to be a tougher sell.

"There the sport was established. ... This is a different battle," Hunt said. "The battle here is against the bill collector. Here, the battle is to sell tickets."

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