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MLS Beat: Garber going after the grass-roots
November 30th, 2000 12AM

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Youth market is on leagueÆs radar screen for 2001

One of Don GarberÆs drawbacks is he isnÆt steeped in soccer lore. In 2001, heÆs out to prove that same trait is one of his strengths.

He danced on both sides of the fence last month at ticket meetings in Dallas when he delivered a speech that was sobering and inspiring, encouraging and humbling.

The result was part therapy session, part revivalist rally. He admitted the task of turning MLS into a successful enterprise is far more difficult than heÆd ever imagined before he took the job. He also pounded home his conviction to do just that.

ôI wasnÆt here, so I canÆt comment on everything that was done,ö says Garber of the startup and early seasons. ôBut for the first few years this league concerned itself mainly with the soccer side of the business, and thatÆs certainly something it had to take care of.

ôThere wasnÆt enough attention paid to the marketing of our teams and the league, and the selling of tickets. We are going to shift our focus.

ôI didnÆt predict our attendances would go up this year because I didnÆt believe they would. But they will go up next year.ö

A YEAR LATER. Garber has been in the commissionerÆs job since September, 1999. He spent some of that time listening to fans, observing operations, and quizzing his employees.

While he backed the abolition of the shootout and the revamping of timekeeping, he also knew mollifying the purists wouldnÆt spark a stampede at the ticket windows. An improved standard of play and increased scoring ù two of the standard ôsolutionsö cited by so many ôexpertsö ù didnÆt drive the numbers up, either.

Garber has convinced the operator-investors to significantly increase the marketing budgets at the team and league levels, although final approval has yet to be given. He has formed a new department within the league office to monitor the teamsÆ ticket operations and track their sales totals every week and has also started a grass-roots marketing department.

Former Burn senior vice president Paul Mott will head the new ticketing department, and Steve Hamilton ù brother of the FusionÆs general manager Doug Hamilton ù is in charge of grass-roots marketing.

ôThe league is going to be more aggressive,ö says Fire GM Peter Wilt, who runs an operation acknowledged as one of the leagueÆs best. ôTheyÆre taking a watchdog, hands-on approach to make sure teams are organized and doing their jobs.ö

TWO HAILED EXAMPLES. Garber has vowed to take on the grass-roots market, a target MLS has fluffed since the leagueÆs inception. The teams that have made inroads to that market ù Dallas, Chicago ù are exceptions.

The BurnÆs ôFifth Major Sportsö program was cited by Garber as an example of what can be done, and the FireÆs impending alliance with the Chicago Sockers of the A-League and local club Chicago Magic is ôa model for the rest of the league.ö

He does not accept the sad lament that chasing the youth market is futile. ôIt is not unattainable,ö he says. ôThatÆs a cop-out.ö

Of course, officials of every American league have sung this same song of youth and the vast untapped soccer market therein. More than one former MLS general manager has left the league muttering about the impossibility of luring the youth market.

ôThese people have shown a passion and a commitment to soccer,ö says Garber. ôThey donÆt have to be converted. What they donÆt have is a passion and commitment to MLS. We have to change that.

ôRather than buying a quarter-page ad in the newspaper, IÆd rather see teams spending that money with the grass-roots. If you get those people to come, then you can start going after the fans of other sports.

ôI had somebody ask me once why we donÆt run our ads during baseball games. I couldnÆt believe it.ö

Garber says MLS will be working with U.S. Soccer, USYSA and the NSCAA as well as expanding its Dribble, Pass and Shoot program. Camps, clinics, promotions and activities are all part of his vision for the future.

Miami tried the grass-roots-first philosophy in 2000. The Fusion pulled the plug on its newspaper and television advertising to pour more resources into local promotions.

Its programs took a hit when Community Outreach Manager Ray Hudson left the kiddies to mentor Diego Serna and Jay Heaps, so the FusionÆs 14 percent attendance drop from 8,689 with a 13-19 record in 1999 to 7,460 at 12-15-5 in 2000 may not be conclusive.

Alarming, maybe, but not conclusive. Cynics may question why the brother of a GM that has struggled badly in Miami is running an important department in the league office.

Tampa Bay GM Bill Manning has extensive experience with the grass-roots contingent from his days in Long Island and Minnesota. He tells an anecdote from a meeting with local youth soccer leaders after heÆd arrived in Tampa.

ôI asked them to tell me what itÆs been like since the Mutiny arrived,ö said Manning, ôand this one guy stood up and held his hand out.

ôHe said, æThe Mutiny was always asking for something and never gave anything back.Æ That told me a lot.ö

Manning says he took $100,000 from his advertising budget to spend on grass-roots projects, and heÆs doubled his ticket-sales staff to nine, including three people who will cater to the grass-roots community.

The Mutiny also hosts a monthly meeting of the leaders of the local soccer clubs at Raymond James Stadium, and has arranged for many of the clubs to wear Mutiny patches on their uniforms.

ôWeÆve told them we want to be a sponsor of their teams,ö said Manning.

MEDIA PLAN. Garber also believes the league needs a stronger media presence. The debut of ôExtraTimeö on ESPN2 is an encouraging sign, he spearheaded the shift from Univision to Telemundo, and heÆs much less reliant on network telecasts than predecessor Doug Logan.

In past seasons, the number of ABC telecasts has shrunk from 12 (1998) to six (2000) to two (projected for 2001). Garber believes whatever prestige the league may have gained from network telecasts dissipates because of low ratings and staggering costs.

ôI think we can make better use of that TV time,ö he says. The league can also probably make better use of the money spent. ABC telecasts cost the league about $150,000 per game, and the portion of ad revenue MLS receives as part of its broadcast partnership falls far short of repaying that money.

He is not ready to divulge all the elements of his media plan, but his ticketing and marketing operations are up and running. He expects improvement across the board in season-ticket sales and group sales

ôIf we do this right, and it still doesnÆt work, then those people can come back to me and say we canÆt attain it,ö says Garber. ôBut I think we can.ö

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney



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