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Can better packaging improve the product?
September 30th, 1997 12AM

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Cozier stadiums are a start, but revenues must also be spent on better players Which comes first, the stadium or the justification thereof? Where MLS is concerned, that depends ... By the year 2000, three MLS teams ù San Jose, Columbus, and Ft. Lauderdale ù could be playing in stadiums either built or redesigned primarily to accommodate soccer. Such stadiums were a component of the league's original formulations, before the league's founding fathers realized they had no shot to float this magic balloon. Its stopgap measure, downsizing, reflected the U.S. Army's policy of spending a lot for a little. Thousand-dollar screwdrivers are a bargain compared to spending more than $1 million on brightly-colored tarps to cover sections of stadiums not to be used anyway. But now that the league is off the ground, and although a few teams are still tightly tethered to poor markets, the concept of proper soccer facilities has been revived. Deep into its second year, a year of sliding attendance and shabby television coverage and teams wracked by mismanagement, MLS at least is getting the stadium stuff rolling. Through good fortune, D.C. United now has RFK more or less to itself, and has built a fine practice facility as well. The late Jack Kent Cooke first delved into soccer 30 years ago, yet his lasting legacy to the sport will be building his own stadium for the NFL Redskins and fleeing RFK. Kansas City, on the other hand, can't successfully market Preki, and has been run off practice fields (13 at last count) by the likes of sixth-grade girls P.E. classes. But at least the ownership conglomerate operated by the Hunt family is pledging its support of a suburban stadium for the Crew, whose own practice facility was unveiled in August. In San Jose, negotiations are nearly complete to renovate Spartan Stadium, which includes widening the field to international standards, as well as sorely-needed upgrading of parking areas, concession stands, and restrooms. Spartan, in fact, could well become a regular stop for the U.S. men's and women's national teams. It will almost certainly host matches for the 1999 Women's World Cup, and its projected capacity of 32,000 would be just right for international friendlies and perhaps a qualifier. Much of pro soccer's legacy in this country is of teams fleeing for greener pastures or disappearing altogether, but not many teams can boast that it left a city high and dry before ever playing a game. Fed up with the obfuscation of Miami mayor Joe Carrollo in negotiating a lease for the Orange Bowl, Fusion operator-investor Ken Horowitz has pulled strings and moved levers sufficiently to relocate his team to Lockhart Stadium, former home of the NASL Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. For the NASL, Ft. Lauderdale proved to be a decent market, but then, in the mid-1970s, the Rowdies ran Tampa, and look how the Mutiny is doing at the gate. For all its alleged devotion to demographic surveys and TV-rating analyses and marketing mullahs, MLS has a team in Denver because billionaire operator-investor Phillip Anschutz lives in Colorado (two failed NASL teams), and it has a team in Kansas City (one failed NASL team) because that's where linchpin Lamar Hunt just happens to run a football team. Location, location, location. Only time will tell if Horowitz has blundered into a good thing or simply blundered. (Speaking of Anschutz, kudos to him for squelching Nike's attempt to perpetrate Rhythm as the Chicago nickname.) Artificial turf strips soccer of its subtle beauties, and seeing Roberto Donadoni and Tab Ramos dribble over the 30-yard line is a crime. Although Tony Meola is finally getting his chance to play on a field bearing the logo of the New York Jets, he'd certainly be happier giving up own goals on grass instead of plastic. The MetroStars' building their own place might be a longshot, but it's worth pursuing. Perhaps a move to cozier stadiums will help the league focus on elements paid much lip service but little practical thought: Ambiance and quality of competition. Parity is good, mediocrity is not. And MLS is riddled with mediocre matches. Sheer competitiveness must be spiced with flair and quality, otherwise, fans come away with the cloying, stale taste of last week's donuts. Three teams ù Kansas City, Washington, and Tampa Bay ù finished above .500, and not surprisingly, those three ù plus Los Angeles ù are the only teams worth paying to see on most occasions. On the morning of Sept. 21, the penultimate Sunday of the season, not one, but two teams sporting 12-18 records were still in the playoff hunt: San Jose and the MetroStars. The league cites this as excitement. I'm sorry, but if you're mired at .400 with two games left in the season, by all rights you should be licking your wounds, apologizing to your season-ticket holders, and issuing votes of confidence for the head coach you're about to fire ù if you haven't already. You should not be crunching numbers and awaiting the go-ahead to print playoff tickets. (Neither team made the cut, with San Jose grabbing the booby prize at 12-20 to edge out the gallant MetroStars, who beat D.C. United in their finale to wind up 13-19.) Hopefully, the league's new TV deal will generate enough money to upgrade the salary scale and improve the product. Teams want to pay their superstars more, and should, but not a whole lot of improvement can be bought by upgrading salaries 10 or 15 percent, although it would make a lot of players happier. MLS and ABC have been going back and forth over how many games per year the network would televise; according to sources, the league balked at any single-digit figure (including playoffs and the final), and threatened to court Fox Sports. A recent proposal calls for 12 matches on ABC next year. (This year, ABC will show the final, and the combined ESPN/ESPN2 coverage is about 35 games. The ESPN/ESPN2 package would be the same for next year, then increase to about 50 games in 1999.) The league would no longer have to pay for airtime as well as actual production costs on its national telecasts. Network exposure increases the value of league sponsorship packages, many of which come up for renewal next year and in 1999. MLS is also pursuing much greater control over foreign marketing of its matches and highlights. The present arrangement binds the league to whatever deals Eurosport, a partner in ESPN International, can arrange. Added together, the league estimates it could eventually generate about $5 million in saved production costs, increased sponsorship value, and foreign distribution revenues, although it would not bank a rights fee. Getting back to the home base, MLS is beset by cut-rate players and deprived of too many stars for too many games. But such drawbacks are less glaring amid intimate settings, in which crowd noise is magnified and intensity increased. It might not be great soccer, but it can still be good entertainment. Ambiance consisting entirely of roaring rock music, beach balls bouncing in the stands, and dance programs is rubbish. I know this is the modern wave of sports marketing, and if it's good enough for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it should be good enough for the Tampa Bay Mutiny. I suspect most NFL, and MLS, fans tolerate such hysterics, rather than enjoy them. But you can put all the icing you want on a plain cake donut, and it's still a donut. And fans in some MLS cities aren't even being sold the donut. They're being sold the hole. by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney


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