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Growing the game

If you believe the talk coming from numerous followers of MLS, the league's future is so bright it has to wear industrial-strength shades. Expansion is proceeding at a consistent pace. Three soccer-specific stadiums have been built, a fourth will be completed in midseason and several more are in the works. The league is also poised to garner its first-ever rights fee for a television contract. And as MLS heads into its 11th season, these positive developments are beginning to be noticed in the wider sporting community.

"I think [MLS's] longevity has allowed them the kind of continuity that advertisers and sponsors are looking for," says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "There is a real air of confidence about what [MLS] is doing. They are at peace with where they are, and they realize that they are going to be around for a very long time."

Yet despite the progress that MLS has made, plenty of questions remain. Why can't the league break through the attendance barrier of 15,000-plus fans per game? What can be done about MLS's paltry television ratings? And why is it that one of the league's few recognizable stars is a teenager who has done little to warrant the considerable hype surrounding him?

All of these queries point to two things: the product on the field and how the league is marketed -- otherwise known as getting people to care. On the marketing front, it's not solely the league's job to generate buzz and create stars. Agents, apparel companies and the individual players share that responsibility, as well. And soccer has certainly become a more ubiquitous presence in advertising. The recent fashion spreads in such high-profile magazines like Maxim and Men's Health are proof that the game is creeping more and more into the country's collective sports consciousness.

However, it's the butts in the seats and the eyeballs on the televisions that provide value to that kind of exposure. So, what must MLS and its teams do to increase both? To the league's credit, the television side of things is set to receive a considerable boost. Past television deals saw MLS pay for all of the production costs while keeping the ad revenue. It was a contract that, according to a source close to the negotiations, made it a break-even proposition for MLS. The pending deal with ABC, ESPN and Univision will see the roles reversed. The networks will incur the production costs and keep the ad revenue, while MLS will receive a rights fee, which will not only earn the league a considerable profit but also make the networks just a bit more motivated to promote the games and expand the audience.

But things are less clear on the attendance side, mostly because of the Balkanization of the fan base in this country. There's the youth soccer market, ethnic fans, young adult fans and families as well as the soccer snobs who will watch the foreign leagues such as the English Premier League and nothing else. It makes for a marketing nightmare.

"People go for different reasons," Carter says. "Consequently, it makes it more challenging for the league or a given team to put out a single, coherent marketing message that says, 'This is the reason you attend.' You see that throughout sports, but it's a little bit more fragmented in soccer because you have the multiple target markets and you have the difference in the style and size of the stadiums."

That's not to say MLS hasn't had its share of successes. The league has been very successful at selling tickets to large groups. But according to former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt, that will only take the league so far.

"What MLS needs to do a better job of is creating passion for their teams," says Wilt. "What you ultimately want to do is create an emotional connection between the community and the team."

That lack of passion explains why MLS has had decent attendance during the regular season but has struggled during the playoffs. Without the lead time to generate significant group sales, a drop-off occurs in the postseason, even though that's when the games matter the most.

This development hasn't been lost on New York Red Bulls general manager Alexi Lalas. While he admits that markets like youth soccer remain a huge part of MLS's business, he says that the time is right for a shift in priorities.

"I think giving the adult MLS soccer fan something to enjoy is crucial," Lalas says. "The days of the 'Barney' show are over, and have to be over. The [adult] audience can enjoy the game, spend just as much if not more money, can drink [alcoholic beverages] and can create the atmosphere that so many people associate with soccer. Around the world, the game of soccer is not a day at Knott's Berry Farm or Disneyland."

Lalas' desire to attract more passionate fans is intriguing given that some recent MLS decisions have seen passion take a backseat to other concerns. An ardent fan base in San Jose was dumped for the economic promise of Houston. The MetroStars' name was shelved for Red Bull's millions, thus riling some hard-core fans. While it's evident that Lalas' sentiments are genuine -- the team is offering to bus fans to their opening game in Washington, D.C., this weekend -- the extent to which the rest of MLS follows his lead will be interesting.

As far as the on-field product is concerned, plenty of work remains there, too. MLS has undertaken some important initiatives, especially in the form of the Reserve League, which did much to aid the growth of players like Los Angeles Galaxy forward Herculez Gomez and Chicago Fire defender Gonzalo Segares. The next logical step is to have each team begin developing youth players and start behaving like clubs everywhere else in the world. Lalas says that will happen, "sooner rather than later."

But there are still numerous obstacles to improving things on the field, some more easily scaled than others. The status of MLS as a feeder system to the more lucrative leagues of Europe is one that isn't likely to change anytime soon, which leaves the league in its current position of having to cherry-pick which key players it wants to keep while still losing other quality performers.

One way of stemming the tide of MLS exports is through the marquee-player exemption, otherwise known as the Beckham Rule. This would allow teams to sign high-priced overseas players with no adverse affects on the salary cap. But according to a league source, the implementation of that rule won't take place until 2007 at the earliest. Expanding the salary cap is another option, but if history is any indication, the chances of a large increase are nonexistent.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the devalued regular season. The fact that Los Angeles -- which last year finished eighth in a 12-team league -- claimed the MLS crown shows just how meaningless the regular season is.

While expansion will cure some of that, a technical committee comprised of coaches, former players and U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena is examining ways to create a more competitive environment. According to a league spokesperson, every possible consideration is being discussed. Going to a single-league table, placing more emphasis on the MLS Supporters' Shield (awarded to the team with the best regular-season record) and utilizing a split season to make games more meaningful are among the options being considered. The committee will announce its findings during this year's MLS Cup.

There is also the issue of having national-team players -- the performers fans most want to see -- being made unavailable for as much as a third of the campaign. It's a factor that further cheapens the regular season, and it will continue during this summer's World Cup. There were rumors that MLS would go to a reduced schedule during this summer's festivities in Germany. But the league has gone ahead with its normal slate of games, leaving one to wonder if MLS will ever align its schedule more closely with the FIFA calendar.

It is hoped that the proposed television contract will force more competitive integrity in this area. Are fans really going to tune in if Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are with the national team instead of with their clubs? And will the likes of ESPN and Univision put up with it? One can only hope that the answer to the latter question is "no."

MLS has developed plenty of confidence in the last few years. Whether that leads to finding solutions to these problems remains to be seen.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com