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Red ink deeper, season shorter

But the commissioner sees brighter days ahead for MLS.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


When Major League Soccer begins its sixth season Saturday, Don Garber will have one eye on the field and one on the stands. In his second full season as commissioner, he has seen improvement in the quality of play, but the league is still in the red.

"The goal is to make progress on the business side of things this season," Garber said. "We need to show progress in that area. Season ticket sales are up in every market, which is encouraging."

As of last season, reports had MLS losing $250-million since it started in 1996. Expansion plans have been put on hold. Attempts to build several soccer-specific stadiums have hit road blocks.

The season has been cut to 28 games, four fewer than before. The season starts three weeks later than last year, but the MLS Cup, Oct. 21 in Columbus, still is in football season.

Garber, a former NFL executive, knew that making MLS the fifth major sport in America would be a big task.

"All sports are getting tougher to sell," he said. "You need to be cognizant about putting a good product on the field. And I think the country is changing quite a bit. It's never going to be easy selling soccer in this country, at least not in my lifetime."

The Mutiny has had off-season success with ticket sales. General manager Bill Manning said group sales are up 81 percent from last season and total sales are up 261 percent.

For the first time, the Mutiny is selling to companies tickets in bulk that are good for any home game, not just a particular date.

"We ask people in the business community and in youth leagues what they want, and this is what they told us," Manning said.

Things have changed slightly on the field for MLS as well. There has been a stronger effort to keep promising young talent and to attract young players from around the world.

An example was the signing of 19-year-old forward Landon Donovan, widely considered one of the most promising U.S. forwards. Donovan was with Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga, but he was lured to MLS by a four-year contract and the chance to play closer to home.

Young stars DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey are further proof of MLS' youth movement.

"Clearly, (young players) are a priority of this league," Garber said. "We can build our future product around these younger players. And it doesn't just have to be the American player. They can be of Hispanic descent or any other ethnicity. But I think it's very important that they view our league as a viable option.

"That being said, it doesn't mean we're not trying to get the best players in the world. We still have three foreign roster spots per team, so we can still mesh a younger player with players like Carlos Valderrama or "Big Mama' (Mutiny forward Mamadou Diallo)."

MLS will not be the only soccer league this summer. The Women's United Soccer Association begins April14. The leagues will work together this season, and Garber said the WUSA won't be a threat.

"We'll certainly be keeping an eye on them," he said. "It's like having a sister in the family."

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