MLS finally growing up and getting places of its own
Soccer, as any American will tell you, isn't football. And it certainly isn't baseball.
Yet for its first decade of existence, Major League Soccer played most of its games in stadiums made for those other sports. Sharing turf is nothing new in pro sports, but it's a little hard for a new league to be taken seriously when it's spending so much time at somebody else's house.
If soccer is ever going to develop a following in the United States close to what it has in the rest of the world -- or grow beyond a kids' sport -- MLS has to find better ways to set itself apart.
And that starts with its teams moving out and getting places of their own.
MLS is in the midst of a building boom that could be as vital for the game in the United States as the creation of the league itself. Four of the 12 teams are now playing in stadiums built specifically for soccer, and the Chicago Fire moves into its new home in June.
Soccer stadiums are currently under construction in Denver and Toronto, and there are plans for ones to be built in the next four years in Salt Lake City, Washington and the New York area. That would be 10 soccer-specific stadiums by 2010, all built since 1998.
Ten buildings may not seem like much, but they're a visible sign that professional soccer has a presence in the United States. And a lasting one, at that.
"Throughout the history of pro sports, facilities have played a very important role in connecting fans to their team,'' MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "Think of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field. Think of Wrigley Field and the Cubs. They're intrinsically linked. It's where the shared experience takes place.
"And up until very recently; we had to share that experience with many other tenants."
Soccer remains something of an enigma in the United States. It's wildly popular as a kids' rec sport, with boys and girls of all ages playing in every corner of the country. It's so ingrained that the term "soccer mom,'' not "baseball mom'' or "football mom,'' is part of our jargon.
But the MLS lags behind the NFL, major league baseball and the NBA when it comes to interest and popularity. Those millions of kids who play don't automatically create a huge fan base. Playing in stadiums built for other sports isn't the only reason, but it doesn't help.
There is, first of all, the economic factor. Having your own stadium means you get all the revenue generated from tickets, parking and concessions. You don't have to split it or, worse, give it all to somebody else.
It's no surprise that the first team in league history to make a profit was the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Galaxy moved into The Home Depot Center, a soccer-specific stadium, in June 2003, and declared a profit that season. The Galaxy also has ranked first in attendance the last three seasons, averaging more than 21,900 fans a game.
"As we've been building these stadiums ... it's really changed the economics for Major League Soccer," Garber said. "Because now we're able to capture far more of the revenue."
Then there's the image issue. Average attendance at an MLS game last year was about 15,000. While that's a respectable crowd in a place that seats between 20,000 and 30,000, it looks pitiful in an NFL stadium.
And no matter how hard you try, you'll never be anything more than a visitor when you're playing in a stadium originally built for somebody else. Though the Fire spent most of its first eight seasons at Soldier Field, the stadium was the home of the Chicago Bears. The Fire just happened to play there occasionally.
Carving out an identity is tough enough for a new team or a new league. Trying to do it in someone else's shadow is next to impossible.
"We were, literally, guests in somebody else's house. Our players felt that way and our fans certainly felt that way,'' Garber said. "We now have our own homes. We now have bricks and mortar in the ground. It provides a far greater level of perceived stability for the league.
"It's going to be an important chapter in the history book of professional soccer in this country.''
Of course, fancy stadiums alone won't elevate the MLS to major-league status in the country's consciousness. But it might help make the climb a little easier.