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Nov 14, 2006

Ownership diversity drove the Beckham rule

Before Major League Soccer could land a David Beckham or two, it had to gather up a few Neal Pattersons. MLS took a stride forward last weekend in its bid for greater relevancy. At the board of governors meeting in Frisco, Texas, prior to the 11th MLS Cup final, league chiefs granted approval for the so-called Beckham Rule. The league suits always smile politely at that unofficial moniker. They prefer to utilize its proper name, the Designated Player Rule. In short, officials from each team can employ one hired gun, pay their marquee A-lister whatever they darn well please, protected and somewhat insulated by the provision that it costs only $400,000 against the salary cap. So, maybe MLS fans will get to see Beckham in something other than a commercial. Soon, "Becks" could be sipping lattes at a beachside Starbucks along with other So-Cal soccer luminaries like Jürgen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan, Thomas Dooley, etc., before serving crosses from the Home Depot Center. And, just possibly, Luis Figo will soon have a Manhattan address. Claudio Reyna, anyone? But perhaps instead of the Beckham Rule, this thing should be nicknamed the Ownership Diversity Rule. That is, it may have never happened but for the likes of Patterson and others like him. Patterson is one of the Kansas City Wizards' new owners, one of a six-person outfit that purchased the K.C. outfit from Hunt Sports Group. The Wizards' new money men weren't the only fresh faces at last weekend's board of governors meetings, which until recently could have been held in a minivan. More or less, the Hunt family, the Kraft family and the Anschutz group could have sent a representative and had things worked out while tooling down some stretch of I-90.

What's New In MLS For '07
The implementation of the Designated Player Rule wasn't the only new change that MLS will see next year. Here's a list of other things to look out for:

• The expansion franchise, Toronto FC, will begin play.

• The 2007 MLS season will feature a 30-game regular season. Each week, one of the 13 MLS clubs will have a "bye."

• A change in the playoff structure. Eight teams will qualify for the playoffs. The top two teams in each conference, plus four "wild cards" with the most points after 30 games, regardless of conference, will qualify

• An increase in each club's share of transfer revenue generated from the transfer of a player on the club's roster with a commitment to reinvest all of such revenue into a replacement player or players.

• For the first time in the league's history, all MLS games will be broadcast on live television.

But in Frisco last weekend, there was also Stan Kroenke to be heard. His Kroenke Sports Enterprises is opening a new facility in Denver, and wants a chip in the MLS decision-making game, of course. And there's Real Salt Lake's Dave Checketts, increasingly involved in the league moving and shaking. And there's a Red Bull in the room, as the Austrian energy drink giant gets its bite off the league apple. The Red Bull voting block may have been the most aggressive in reaching for the Designated Player Rule. Other first-timers this year: representatives of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, getting their Canadian say and attaching a wealth of sports ownership experience to the process. MLS&E owns and operates the NHL's Maple Leafs, the NBA's Raptors and the Air Canada Centre. Of course, Kraft family members remain in the mix, when they can pull themselves away from the NFL's Patriots long enough. This has been commissioner Don Garber's plan all along, to diversify the ownership, to dilute the substantial Hunt and Anschutz influence. It's not that Garber or anyone else carries any disdain for HSG and AEG influence. It's just that everybody recognizes the value of fresh ideas, of new and varied opinions. Clark Hunt, who attended the meetings for HSG, laughed about the size of the meeting room this year: it's rather large by comparison to previous versions. "It's a really good thing, because not everyone is going to see the world the same way," Hunt said. "There is a really different dynamic in the room now, because everyone has an opinion." And that definitely is a good thing, for the MLS product needed a little more zip, a wee bit more pep in its step. Stadium development and TV issues are humming along. But outside of those important elements, the league got a little complacent with its product on the field. It had gone a bit stale. Inside the touch lines, the league needed some sprucing up. The Beckham Rule could certainly provide it. League directors talked about the Beckham Rule a year ago in Frisco but couldn't reach a consensus. That failure to act is easy to fathom considering this reality of MLS in many of the early years: the principals were all too predictable. The Hunt and Anschutz influence was too strong, which often led to stalemate. AEG was the aggressive faction, more willing to move boldly forward. HSG was the conservative arm, understandably cautious following its heavy involvement in the old NASL. HSG patriarch Lamar Hunt personally watched that league's demise amid an absurd spending spree. While HSG folks had seen the economic light and been bullish on stadiums, they preferred a safer course of slow-and-steady growth when it came to player salaries. The fresh new ideas may have also affected another league change approved last weekend: the MLS regular-season schedule goes from 32 to 30 games. HSG previously opposed any such reduction. Groups with stadiums wanted more games, not fewer. No longer hamstrung by unprofitable rent agreements, they sought to maximize the chances to sell sodas, pretzels and parking places. But the diversity of ownership, along with the normal growth of ideas, revealed a different side to the equation. Recently, the value of international matches has been discovered. And this new crossover MLS-Mexican club competition adds an even more delicious twist. Four MLS teams will engage in meaningful competition against Mexican clubs, competing for prize money that Garber says could reach well into seven figures. They see a CONCACAF version of Champions League. Thus, clubs aren't really eliminating play dates at their parks. They are simply exchanging matches. Who wouldn't trade another match against, say, Columbus, for a tournament match against Club America or an exhibition against Bayern Munich? There is further diversity of thought thanks to the newly created MLS Technical Committee, which includes Crew manager Sigi Schmid, Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas, D.C. United president Kevin Payne and New York Red Bulls manager Bruce Arena, among others. The technical committee was created to ensure that general managers and coaches retain a voice on matters. Owners will still approve or reject the technical committee's recommendations. The idea, Clark Hunt said, is that Arena, Schmid, et al, will do the initial vetting of any proposed changes or adjustments. Before, the owners may have done all the ground work. This way, the owners are free to work the bigger picture, while the coaches and GMs get a pipeline into the procedure. Diversity at work, see? As for this new Beckham rule: Old concerns that this gambit will potentially unscrew the league's competitive balance now seem unfounded. At the least, it seems worth the risk. There's little danger of MLS devolving into a New York Cosmos fiasco, where one team overwhelms the field competitively, forces all challengers to keep up financially and eventually drives the league to ruin. That shouldn't happen if the league maintains its discipline and limits the excess spending to one player per team. Stadium ownership and TV contracts are assisting in cash flow now. More than that, the board of governors recognizes that big names haven't really tipped the competitive balance so far in MLS. Really, what did Luis Hernandez do for the Galaxy? Or Roberto Donadoni or Lothar Matthaüs for the MetroStars? The Houston Dynamo just demonstrated that the path to MLS glory must be paved with solid workadays, not glamour boys. So, getting a Beckham or a Figo is really about marketing, and about adding a little flavoring to the soup. And it's a necessary step. It just took a few Pattersons in the process for that to sink in. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.