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Barca balking at MLS entry?
by Ridge Mahoney, February 23rd, 2009 7AM

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[MLS] The "dream team" may be headed for a divorce. An expansion application to place a team in Miami from legendary Spanish club Barcelona and Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure has taken a rocky turn, according to press reports on both sides of the Atlantic.

"We'll evaluate whether or not the change in the economy in the United States renders our model still viable," said Barcelona director general Joan Oliver to the Spanish Web site Sport.es over the weekend. "We want to enter the American league, but not at the cost of financial risk. The chances of us not joining are higher than when we announced our interest."

The New York Times revealed that qualms and concerns surfaced about Barca's proposed MLS investment during financial meetings in which Oliver reported to the club's members that Barca earned a profit of about $20.5 million in the second half of calendar year 2008.

Upon being quizzed by members regarding the MLS project, Oliver hedged, saying according to the Times that the matter is "very delicate and we are evaluating if the situation allows for the model planned to be implemented in Miami or not."

The Times indicated that a half-share in the Miami team would require a $20 million investment - the expansion fee for the next two MLS teams has been set at $40 million - from Barcelona, but several sources disputed this, citing Claure as the primary investor and Barcelona more of a minority partner.

In a November interview, Claure refused to give figures or proportions and said only, "I am putting in a little more." Barcelona president Joan Laporta has stated several times that Barca is doing more than just lending its name and mystique to the project, but to what extent or by what proportion the club would share risk with Claure and other partners they could entice is known only to them and MLS officials.

Nearly-equal splits between lead, or primary, investors are not unknown in MLS. Last year, AEG sold a "half-interest" in the Houston Dynamo to a consortium led by boxer Oscar De La Hoya for $22.5 million. The majority investors of D.C. United, Victor MacFarlane and William Chang, are believed to each hold a share of nearly 45 percent. (In the MLS single-entity system, the league holds a 50.1 percent share of all teams; the investors split up the rest, which is what the percentages refer to.)

Chemi Teres, Barcelona's international press manager, said to the Times. "We want to be there, but we have to analyze everything. But this project is important to us."

In his interview, Claure referred to other details that were being worked on to close the deal. In no interview has he addressed one of the most volatile yet seldom broached conflicts: the issue of letting a Nike-branded global icon like Barcelona into a league outfitted and sponsored to the tune of $150 million over 10 years by adidas.

MLS teams are allowed to sell the jersey front to sponsors but all other uniform marks are those of adidas, which would be unlikely to allow a Barcelona MLS team to use the club's traditional colors, crest, or any other identifying marks if it approved the project.

The league has expressed concerns over several aspects of the Barca-Claure bid. One is the proposed venue, a new football stadium at Florida International University, as well as past struggles in the Miami market by soccer teams and other pro operations.

Commissioner Don Garber, during a vacation in Spain, met Oliver on Friday, but whether their meeting had any bearing or influence on Oliver's remarks isn't known. Last year, the league and Barcelona formed a strategic partnership, separate from an expansion bid, to develop and share projects during the next five years.

According to a source, Barca has "an open invitation" to play an MLS selection in the annual MLS All-Star Game but as of yet has not accepted the chance to follow Chelsea, Glasgow Celtic, Fulham, Guadalajara and West Ham United.

MLS has set a mid-March announcement, prior to the season opener March 19, to announce its next two expansion teams, which are projected to start play in 2011. Last week, Garber said that if a Miami bid is accepted, the team would begin play in 2010 as Claure insisted and not the following year.



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