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Commentary
Soccer can't kick minor tag
October 19, 2001: 5:23 p.m. ET

Despite staying power, Major League Soccer failing to live up to its name.
A twice weekly column by Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNmoney) - Major League Soccer is a scrappy survivor, backed by deep-pocketed investors and loyal fans. But as the MLS heads into the championship game of its sixth season Sunday, one wonders whether the league will ever live up to its name. Even fans have to admit this is, and likely will remain, a minor league.

"Right now, I wouldn't put it in the top 10 of soccer leagues in the world," said Mark Bojanowski, a Chicago fan who goes to about 10 MLS games a year. "Could it reach that potential? That depends if fans start showing up."

There's a horse and cart problem here. To attract fans, the league would need to start paying up to get the world's best players. With a top salary of $268,000 a year, many top players can make more sitting on a European team's bench. But to be able to pay big, the league needs a big TV contract and it won't get that without more fans.

The league's teams also need homes of their own. Only one stadium, in Columbus, Ohio, was built for soccer. Most teams play in football stadiums that hold two to three times as many fans as show up for an average game and produce none of the sponsorship revenue reaped by a team with its own field..

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U.S. national team star Landon Donovan is one of the MLS's most popular players, but he may not be stay with the league long term.
The larger stadiums can even hurt sales: fans know they don't need to buy tickets in advance, and rows of empty seats can leave those who do attend feeling as empty as the stadium itself.

"I went to a game in Columbus - it's a different experience," said Chicago fan Bojanowski. "They're very dedicated, very loud. I was maybe 40 feet from field. You're right on top of the game. Here, even though at times we've drawn 26,000, there are still a lot of empty seats."

Deep pockets back league

The MLS is not profitable, but big-time owners provide the resources that have allowed it to survive longer than many upstarts. All 12 teams are jointly owned by investors, who include financial heavyweights such as Philip Anschutz, chairman of Qwest Communications International Inc. (Q: Research, Estimates), and Texas oilman LaMarr Hunt, one of the original owners of the American Football League back in the early 1960s.

But even with top-flight ownership, the league is saddled with a perception, which is the reality, that its players aren't the best.

"It really suffers that way in American sports," said Paul Kennedy, managing editor of Soccer America. "All the other big American sports have all the best players in the leagues here."

Kennedy says the talent elsewhere leaves many U.S. soccer fans watching other nation's leagues on cable or satellite.

MLS executives argue that the quality of play is stronger than people realize. "There are very few teams in the world, even major clubs, that don't have to worry their best players will get a better offer somewhere else," said Kevin Payne, the general manager of DC United, the league's most popular team.

World Cup could help league



MLS is hoping for a big boost in interest with next year's World Cup. The stars of the U.S. national team are some of the MLS's top players, including San Jose Earthquakes striker Landon Donovan, whose team is playing in this weekend's championship. But while the 19-year old Californian is signed through next season, many fans expect he'll head to Europe soon after.

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There isn't even a television deal yet to broadcast the World Cup in English in the United States, although ABC Sports confirms it is in negotiations.

But ABC doesn't expect a bonanza. The U.S. team, while more competitive than past entries, isn't expected to advance far into the finals. The U.S. team's appearances on ABC in the first round of the 1998 World Cup got a 3.5 rating in the politically-charged game versus Iran. By comparison the Women's World Cup final the following year, in which the U.S. team beat China, got an 11.4 rating, the highest ever for a U.S. soccer broadcast.

MLS, meanwhile, pulled a 0.7 rating, or 694,000 households, for its finals game on ABC last year. Regular season nationally-broadcast games on ESPN2 got an average 0.2 rating this year, and with local broadcasts the league reached an average of 138,000 households per game.

So, unless the men's U.S. national team shocks the world and makes it into the finals next year, women players Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain will continue to be far better known by the average U.S. sports fan than Landon Donovan. And MLS will continue to be a minor league for the world's No. 1 sport. graphic

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  RELATED LINKS

Major League Soccer

U.S. Soccer Federation

Federation Internationale de Football Association





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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.