MLS Commissioner Don Garber gave a State of the League address from an All-Star news conference at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus Crew and Kansas City Wizards Investor/Operator Lamar Hunt introduced Garber.
Thank you, Lamar. It's a real pleasure to be here in Columbus to celebrate the fifth annual Major League Soccer All-Star Game. It's an understatement to say how important your vision and contributions have been to this league and to soccer in America. Thanks from all of us -- and thank you for hosting this year's All-Star Game. I'd like to welcome our great athletes, coaches and team personnel and thank them for providing some terrific soccer so far this season. We're certainly looking forward to a great race towards the playoffs and MLS Cup 2000 in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 15.
I'd also like to welcome our investors -- a group of sports visionaries who have been supporting the dream that professional soccer can continue to establish itself as a vibrant, productive and meaningful part of the sports landscape in America.
Lastly, I'd like to recognize the media in attendance today and thank you for spending your Soccer Saturday's -- and a Wednesday now and then -- with us. Our coverage continues to improve throughout the League. We believe our fans want more -- and we will continue to try to convince your editors that we deserve it.
We have a great All-Star Weekend planned -- and the response from the community here in Central Ohio has been nothing short of phenomenal. Many of you have already attended some of our events last night. Over 18,000 people attended the Newcastle-Columbus Crew exhibition on Wednesday, and last night's All-Star Pro Skills Challenge was a fun and creative way to showcase the great talents of our players in a casual and fan-friendly environment. I also had the pleasure of meeting many great supporters of our game last night at the All-Star Salute to Soccer.
For Saturday's Game, we look forward to a standing-room-only crowd and a national ABC television audience, showcasing our league, the best soccer facility in this country in Crew Stadium, and the great city of Columbus.
Speaking of Crew Stadium, as I've said many times before, it is truly a wonderful showcase for the sport of soccer, and is a major milestone for a young league like ours. It certainly will serve as an inspiration for soccer specific stadiums to come.
Major League Soccer has made great strides in our five short years. While you have heard this before -- let me remind you again -- that it took the NBA 29 years to average 10,000 fans per game. We are not nearly satisfied at where we are today and there is much work to be done before we achieve our goals. We are fully committed -- at all levels -- from our investors, to our players, coaches, team personnel and League staff -- towards increasing the quality of the game on the field, the popularity of the game off it, and the overall credibility and of professional men's soccer.
Speaking of goals -- we've established our's -- and it is to be among the best soccer leagues in the world. It's a big dream and one that will take time, but we firmly believe it is achievable. Thirty years ago, Sony -- the leading electronics company in the world today -- had a vision that they [would] become the company most known for changing the worldwide poor-quality image of Japanese products. They have certainly achieved that and more. Just ten years ago, Starbucks hoped to have 100 stores by the end of the decade. They have over 2000 today.
Looking forward, I can't think of another sports league in America that has as much opportunity as Major League Soccer. And here's a few reason's why --
It starts with a committed owners who have the passion, resources and faith in Major League Soccer's potential to succeed.
Soccer is a sport perfectly suited to capitalize on the qualities of a "New America."
A country where the Internet is eliminating physical and cultural boundaries. A place where kids are becoming the "influencer" in the household -- determining what families do and what they purchase -- and most of those kids love soccer. A nation of increasing ethnic diversity, finding it's place in a larger global community, and linked by one language shared by all -- the sport of soccer.
In short, we are confident based on these factors and trends, that soccer is the sport -- and Major League Soccer will be the league capturing a greater share of the multi-billion dollar American sports market.
We began this year by changing the rules of competition to be more in line with the world's standard. This was important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is respecting the sport itself. Soccer is the world's most popular game for a reason. We want to capitalize on this powerful position -- not change it. We believe in the game and the potential for what it can be. There are over 50 million people in this country who say they are soccer fans. Not nearly enough of them are fans of MLS. That's our market. Going forward, it will be the focus of every decision and we make.
We have received a great deal of positive feedback on the rule changes. We said we were going to give the game back to the fans, and we did. Scoring is up 15 percent and we have fewer ties this year, proving that teams have not sat back and played for the tie.
In fact, five percent of MLS matches have been decided by a golden goal in overtime, including one decided in the 100th minute here at Crew Stadium earlier this year
The quality of our player pool and performance on the field continues to improve. While we can't judge ourselves on exhibitions alone, we've recently defeated European powerhouses Newcastle and Hamburg in impressive fashion. In this week's USA Today, Premier League great Alan Shearer described our league as being on the right track -- He went on to say he was impressed by the performance of D.C. United -- who beat Newcastle 3-1 by the way -- and how "Times have certainly changed. ..."
This year we signed the best group of young Americans in league history with the likes of Bobby Convey, Damarcus Beasley and Adin Brown, just to name a few. We've renewed deals with Ben Olsen, Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, and Jason Kreis ... as well as many others who deserve mention. These are the present and future stars of American soccer.
We also have the best group of new international players in league history, including many of the players you see here today. From Luis Hernandez -- and one of the best players in North America, to Bundesliga and world superstar, Lothar Matthaeus -- to Tren Valencia, Ariel Graziani, Khodadad Azizi and of course, Big Mama -- our current scoring leader -- Mamadou Diallo -- international players that continue to excite, teach and inspire both on and off the field.
I would like to specially recognize a player who has become synonymous with Major League Soccer.
At the age of 38, he's shattered the MLS season assist record, prior to the All-Star break. He's having one of the best seasons of his career and we're pleased to have him lead the West All-Stars this weekend. Of course, we talking about "El Pibe" -- the Kid -- Carlos Valderrama.
It's no secret that corporate America believes in MLS. We have secured more than $140 million in long-term sponsorships and their continues to be a great deal of interest from corporations looking to become involved with the league. In fact, we announced earlier this week that the American Dairy Association is our newest official sponsor ... and we are the first professional sports league to have such a partnership. You'll notice MILK signage on the East uniforms at tomorrow's game and in the future look for MLS players to take their place in the wonderful Milk mustache advertising campaign.
In addition, we're pleased to announce that KAPPA is expanding its relationship with MLS by becoming the official ball for the league in 2001. You'll see a sneak preview tomorrow when we debut a virtually all white KAPPA ball at the All-Star Game. The ball is without design this weekend because our fans will help select the new look for the MLS game ball from a variety of designs we will present on MLSnet.com. We will be the primary focus of their soccer marketing efforts at retail as we take our new branded icon to the public.
Our television partners continue to be bullish on MLS. Our fans for the first time have a broadcast destination day -- Soccer Saturday -- that they can call their own.
Additionally, along with the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball and auto racing, we now have a regularly scheduled weekly show -- "MLS ExtraTime." The show has been a real hit with the critics ... and more importantly -- the fans.
In a world where sports TV ratings are decreasing, MLS ratings are up three percent on ESPN and up 19 percent in the all-important men 18 to 34-year-old demographic group. With nearly half our schedule left on ESPN2, our overall rating to date is down slightly. However, in the men 18-34 demographic -- our ratings are 37 percent higher than last season.
For the first time, our key demographic ratings on ESPN2 are equal to Major League Baseball, greater than the NHL's and significant higher than the "X-Games." We have been pleased with ESPN's support this year and their terrific network-wide promotional campaign featuring many of our players -- "The Takeover."
We're pleased with the progress we've made with television, but we still have a long way to go. We need to continue to look at creative ways to present the sport on television and bring the game closer to our fans. We realize the league needs a larger focus on building stars and we will continue to develop ways to make our players more well known and present them as inspirational heroes to the millions of soccer fans in this country.
Recently you've seen some of the progress in this area. The campaign on ESPN -- a spread on young American stars in Rolling Stone Magazine -- fashion features ... Stay tuned, there will be more.
Staying with new media, Slingshot, a digital media production and distribution company has just signed on to webcast a variety of programming this week, and we are about to announce a partnership with a leading on-line marketer to youth sports communities. Youth soccer teams will now be able to post team information on our site, enabling us to continue to forge allegiances with this important constituency.
We have a solid core of fans, but must continue to build upon our foundation. There are approximately 50 million people in this country who are soccer fans. It's our job to make them MLS fans and to convince them to attend our games and watch them on television.
This past year, we've been working on a strategic plan to better understand our position in the sports market and to better understand our fan base. We undertook the most comprehensive fan research study in the league's history. To no one's surprise, we found that kids are playing soccer in record numbers ... to the tune of two out of every three kids age 10 to 15 playing at least once a month. And the research shows that connection with our teams and players is the key to their desire to attend a game or watch a game on television.
In fact, the desire to attend an MLS game is exponentially higher when fans participate in one of the league's grass roots initiatives. It shows their parents have a greater likelihood to attend or watch a match if their child has participated in one of our league or team programs. You will soon see a major emphasis on expanding our grass roots efforts.
This summer, we distributed over 100,000 posters featuring our best young players at elite soccer camps nationwide. We will continue to expand our MLS Camps program -- the largest soccer camp program in America, and our New York Life Dribble, Pass & Shoot program and the MLS 3v3 tournament. We have several new programs on the drawing board. This area of our business will be our major marketing priority.
The study also confirmed that every segment surveyed believed MLS is great family entertainment, a fact that our players, coaches and team personnel should be proud of.
Another key challenge is stadiums. Columbus Crew Stadium is the pride, and envy, of everyone in Major League Soccer, but we need more. The Los Angeles Galaxy has a firm commitment to build a new stadium and their plans clearly will up the ante on design, construction and fan amenities. The MetroStars and Chicago Fire are also making progress. We are also very excited about the new Foxboro Stadium -- slated for completion by the 2002 MLS season -- it will have a 30,000 seat lower bowl with great soccer viewing lines.
Expansion is also an important priority for a variety of reasons. First, we believe that there are a number of markets that have a great tradition of professional soccer and strong grass roots support and deserve an MLS team. Secondly, we need to expand our national footprint for television and media support. We will expand by two teams by 2002. We are targeting a second team in the New York Tri-state area as well as a second team, likely in either Philadelphia or Atlanta.
We are in active discussions with potential investors for Tampa and Dallas, as well as potential expansion in Houston, Seattle, Rochester, and Sacramento for expansion in 2004. A key component of any expansion market decision will be the quality of facility, history of soccer support -- we are particularly looking for strong grass roots soccer infrastructure -- as well as the strength, commitment and vision of potential ownership.
As all of you know, we spent many months both evaluating and discussing the potential for a women's professional soccer league and we are pleased that we were able to reach agreement with the new women's United States soccer league. Through our unique co-promotion agreement, we will be able to take advantage of their media assets and expertise. We know a lot about how to operate a professional soccer league and they can take advantage of that knowledge.
We have both committed to operate a team in each other's league by 2002, ensuring mutual strategic support. Importantly, we will cooperate on marketing, scheduling and growing the professional game overall. As we've said before, each of us can achieve a lot more together, than either could achieve working alone.
We will support the game at all levels -- and together with the entire soccer community -- from youth to amateurs to the pro's -- we will finally achieve all that people have been dreaming of for years.
We know that success does not happen overnight, but we believe we have the elements necessary to establish a greater presence on the American sporting landscape. We have strong and committed ownership -- perhaps the best in sports ... a growing TV audience in the key demographic areas ... an outstanding group of corporate sponsors; and most importantly, a dynamic sport with elite, yet very approachable athletes.
We believe we are well positioned to build upon the success of our first few years. This is only the beginning of a long process... a process where we are not only creating a league for a "New America" ... we are creating a legacy for the largest and fastest growing youth sport in history.
I appreciate your time and I look forward to enjoying this great weekend with you.
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