Commentary > SportsBiz
Much Adu about nothing
14-year old soccer star's dreams of playing overseas not a nightmare for U.S. game.
November 21, 2003: 9:54 AM EST
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - For long-suffering U.S. soccer fans, the Babe arrived this week in the form of a 14-year old from suburban Washington.

Freddy Adu's signing by Major League Soccer's D.C. United team gives the 10-team league real star power. Heck, Adu even kicked back with David Letterman Wednesday night.

Freddy Adu is likely to hold up the MLS banner for only part of his career.  
Freddy Adu is likely to hold up the MLS banner for only part of his career.

Adu, who moved to the United States from Ghana with his family as a nine-year old, may be the most talented young player in the world. Top European teams courted him and he sometimes leaves adult pros in the dust during practice sessions.

But while Adu could jump-start interest in MLS when he starts playing next year, he's unlikely to stick around for long. Rather than Babe Ruth or Red Grange, who put professional baseball and football into America's consciousness, Adu is more likely to be the U.S. version of Hideki Matsui -- the Japanese baseball star who eventually left home to test himself against the sport's best in this country.

Adu's signing by MLS has brought the league its greatest star power, even if it's not for the long term.  
Adu's signing by MLS has brought the league its greatest star power, even if it's not for the long term.

Adu is signing with MLS so he can play near his home. Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but it's believed he's making close to the league's top salary, reported to be about $600,000. But he hasn't given up interest in playing overseas, where the competition and the money are much better.

"The contract is for six years. We'll see after that," Adu told me Thursday. "It has always been a dream of mine to play in the British Premier League for a team like Manchester United."

Business of Sports
Freddy Adu

There's no broadcast-rights money in the United States for soccer, a game in which play doesn't stop, making it hard to run commercials. In fact, MLS has to pay ABC and ESPN to carry its games. This means low salaries, which is why many of the best U.S. players are found on the benches of European teams rather than on the field for MLS ones.

"Jovan Kriovski, who grew up in Escondido, Calif, is with Birmingham City (British soccer club) today. I don't believe he's gotten a minute of playing time for the first team, but he's paid upwards of a half-million," said Ty Keough, ABC's and ESPN's lead color commentator for MLS.

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So Keough and many fans expect that before the end of Adu's six-year contract, there's a good chance he could be sold by MLS to one of the deeper-pocketed European teams. It's a process that U.S. fans have come to accept, even see as a sign of success, not failure, for the league.

"I think it's actually a good thing. It shows that the U.S. is bringing up quality players who can compete in Europe," Adu told me when asked about the sale of players overseas.

Meanwhile Adu and many ordinary U.S. soccer fans are already using satellite or cable to tune into overseas games more often than they watch MLS games, in order to get a chance to see the game played at the highest level. That's another factor that will stop MLS from ever having enough revenue to compete with the European teams for the world's top players.

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"As an American you want to see Adu stay here so we can watch him in person. But you understand the talent is Europe," said Aaron Ketter, an Oklahoma soccer fan who says he watches more European games than MLS games.

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Exhibition games by European teams earlier this year sold out U.S. football stadiums -- a testament to the sports' growing popularity, even if most MLS games continue to be played before more empty seats than fans. Adu will fill many more seats for MLS while he's here, but even those excited by the signing say they can accept he'll eventually be going overseas.

"Until they can get more than 16,000 to 17,000 to an MLS game, you have to expect that kind of transaction," said D.C. United fan and youth soccer coach Robert Wiles. "I'll just watch more of the European games, just the way the Chinese like to watch Yao play in the NBA."  Top of page

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