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Dec 1, 2005

Sticky relocation issues

"It's not a charity."

Those are Don Garber's words. He's talking about franchises in Kansas City and, particularly, San Jose. And with those six simple syllables, Major League Soccer's determined commissioner has peeled back all the layers and removed all the clutter regarding two pressing relocation issues.

There's more than a little hint of frustration attached to the commissioner's words, too. And for good reason. Solutions to the conundrums in those two markets don't come easy. This doubleheader of potential relocation is a real toughie -- easily the stickiest issue MLS faces in an offseason that includes important decisions on Amado Guevara and Carlos Ruiz and on scheduling in a World Cup year and could include movement in that slippery-slope proposal for a designated marquee player.

The relocation puzzler is tough because few things this side of a match-fixing scandal like the one in Germany can smudge the league's collective image more than franchise flux. Anyone with a little knowledge of soccer's domestic history knows about the alphabet soup of indoor and outdoor leagues that have come and gone, and about franchises that hopscotch maddeningly across the map. It's unbecoming, and nothing stirs the stink of league failure like contraction and relocation. Garber knows as much.

But the situations in San Jose and Kansas City have become untenable. Those clubs don't just need a home, as was the case in 1996. Ten years later, clubs need good homes, not just a stopgap place to stay so the league's franchise roster can arrive at a respectable sum. A decade in those markets has yielded unsatisfactory results. Lamar Hunt in Kansas City and Phil Anschutz in San Jose -- although Anschutz Entertainment Group hasn't presided over the Earthquakes the entire time -- have done what they can.

If the moving vans show up to collect the office furniture and bags of training balls, it's going to leave MLS a little bruised. It's going to hurt some fans, who will fill up the Internet message boards with hateful musings about "uncaring" owners. Generally speaking, it's going to stink, especially in San Jose, where the Bay Area has a good history of supporting soccer.

But it needs to happen. As Garber said, it's not charity.

Unless leaders in those cities can summon Garber, Hunt and Anschutz into one of those fancy meeting rooms quickly, unfurl ready-to-go stadium plans and solid, plausible ideas on financing, MLS needs to call those moving vans and tell 'em to get started. City leaders in both places are scrambling to assemble deals that, at least, move matters in the right direction.

But it might already be too late. It's really quite simple. Big hitters like Hunt and Anschutz have plenty of scratch. Nobody in their lordly manors will be lowering any thermostats to save a buck or two. But that doesn't mean they need to keep wasting their cash. If MLS maintains the status quo in San Jose and Kansas City, well, heck, why not just start peeling off 20-dollar bills and dropping 'em out the car window on their way home from the office tonight, too.

Benevolence might enter the conversation when it comes to sports owners, but it shouldn't rule the day. League operators deserve to play in markets where they have, at the very least, a shot at making money.

And it's all about stadiums. San Jose and Kansas City will never be profitable without a dedicated stadium. Period. You can talk all day about media strategies, season-ticket plans, marketing hocus pocus, TV revenues and how a better brand of soccer will conquer all financial ills -- but it's all about stadiums now.

There is only one move to be made here: Find a city that's serious about pouring concrete and erecting grandstands. Get a stadium or get going, I say. And the folks in San Jose and Kansas City have had their chances.

Interestingly, every MLS soccer facility blueprinted or christened since Crew Stadium in 1999 has turned up the pressure on San Jose and Kansas City. (League leaders will tell you privately that New England will have to face down the stadium demons one day, too, even if the Krafts aren't losing their shirt in the current, adequate arrangement.)

An editorial in the San Jose Mercury News just made the case that the Earthquakes don't need a stadium. The club already has one, it says, and city leaders shouldn't press for a new facility. Instead, they need to lean on San Jose State University to craft a more favorable deal that will keep the Earthquakes happy at Spartan Stadium.

But that's silly. San Jose State exists to educate young people -- not to provide venues for professional sporting enterprise. Besides, it misses the point: That arrangement might be splendid for the community, but it doesn't provide a scenario in which AEG can make a buck. Remember: "It's not a charity."

Officials at Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment have been hemming and hawing about potentially taking over the team. The idea becomes more palatable for SVS&E if city leaders move forward on a land deal that makes a stadium more feasible. Remember that out-of-nowhere announcement from Garber two weeks ago that AEG has permission to move the team to Houston? League officials might not be willing to say so, but you'd better believe that was directed at SVS&E. The message: Dudes, get going on this, or else!

It might be tough for some people to understand why the Hunts want to shake loose of the Kansas City setup, which Hunt Sports Group put up for sale a year ago. Doesn't Hunt have a decent arrangement with Arrowhead Stadium because HSG controls the stadium? Heck, Lamar Hunt even has a fantastic apartment inside the stadium. (Word is that it's a virtual museum with all the cool sports memorabilia.)

So in Kansas City, it's not a matter of being beaten down by exorbitant usage fees, a la Giants Stadium. It's more a matter of "What's the point?"

The Hunts have strained their eyes, but they just can't see a way the Wizards ever can turn a profit. The Hunts do see the correct model elsewhere, however. It's right there in Frisco, where they just opened $85 million Pizza Hut Park. At the FC Dallas offices, officials can't reload a paper tray without thinking up a new way to maximize profits and use of the complex's 145 acres. So even with a suitable stadium arrangement at Arrowhead, the potential for black ink is simply too far-fetched.

People once talked about soccer stadiums in terms of creating the preferred, intimate atmosphere, and for all the symbolic perks attached to venues dedicated to soccer. That's well and good. But there is a hard economic reality that underlines the importance of soccer-specific venues: Major League Soccer -- any professional sports enterprise for that matter -- simply cannot work economically without its own facilities. The difference between owning and renting can't be overstated.

Barring an 11th-hour miracle in San Jose or Kansas City, it's not going to happen. So MLS leaders would do well to start hitting Google looking for the best deals on moving vans.

Steve Davis covers soccer for The Dallas Morning News and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at stevedavis@dallasnews.com