Host city puts on great show, but MLS commissioner says pro game struggles to be relevant
By Bruce Constantineau
Major League Soccer revelled in the glory of all that North American soccer could be this past weekend when Seattle hosted a wildly successful MLS Cup championship game.
Hundreds of boisterous Seattle Sounders fans in team colours joined their Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles Galaxy counterparts in a colourful, noisy, emotional March to the Match from Pioneer Square to Qwest Field, where upstart Real beat the Galaxy on penalty kicks in front of more than 46,000 screaming fans.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the celebration of soccer was nothing short of spectacular and those images in Seattle definitely will be used to influence FIFA when the U.S. bids to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.
But Garber said the North American professional game still struggles to be "relevant" -- a word he's used many times recently.
He said it can be an uphill battle to gain relevance not just among U.S. and Canadian sports fans, but among the very athletes who play the MLS game.
Garber cited the example of Real Salt Lake's Yura Movsisyan, a terrific 22-year-old Armenian forward who is leaving MLS to play in Denmark.
"He believes he will get better development in the second division in Denmark than he does in Major League Soccer and he probably wouldn't stay if we paid him triple [his current salary of $70,000 US]," he told the 2009 MLS Supporters Summit. "Now that's bad."
Garber said the future quality of MLS play depends on all kinds of factors, including having the right coaches, the right training programs and the right player development academies.
Having more money to attract better players would also help, but the future of the $2.4-million-US team salary cap depends on the outcome of new collective bargaining talks with the MLS Players Union as the current agreement expires Jan. 31, 2010.
Some observers hope the league expands its designated-player rule that allows a team to sign a highly paid player without putting itself over the cap -- players like superstar midfielders David Beckham of the Galaxy and the Chicago Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Garber said the recession made MLS executives nervous this year, but feels the league got through the season relatively unscathed financially, with average league attendance dropping by just two percentage points.
But the numbers can be misleading because without the incredible attendance records set by Seattle in its first MLS season -- a league-leading average gate of 30,900) -- average league attendance would have fallen by about nine per cent. Some key MLS markets -- like Los Angeles, New York and New England -- suffered attendance declines in the 20-per-cent range.
MLS will grow to 18 teams after Philadelphia, Portland and Vancouver join the league over the next two seasons and it's looking almost inevitable that Montreal will join MLS in 2012.
Garber said Saputo Stadium in Montreal must be expanded from its current 13,000-person capacity to more than 20,000 to accommodate MLS.
"So we will work with the Saputo family and the [Quebec] government and try to make some progress on funding a renovation," he said.
Beckham has an option to own a 20th MLS franchise that would likely start play in 2012 or 2013.
Seattle was fortunate to host an MLS championship in its very first year of existence, but it's unlikely Vancouver, Portland or any other new franchise will get that same opportunity as Garber appears keen to end the MLS tradition of playing the game in a neutral site.
He said successful teams should earn the right to host the game by winning on the field.
"We're getting to the point where the fans matter more than anything else and a home fan deserves the right, whether it's in a small market like Kansas City, to host a final and that's what we're trying to manage through," he said.
Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi used the Seattle MLS Cup opportunity to schmooze potential new clients in a private suite at Qwest Field.
The club wants to lure major corporate sponsors for Vancouver's MLS venture and the feedback so far has been very positive.
Lenarduzzi was in Toronto and New York last week selling the team's soccer vision to the business community.
"I won't say who we're talking to at this point, but I'm ecstatic with the way sponsors are responding to the opportunity in 2011," he said.
"It's easier for us to make that point because when we come to Toronto, all we do is point to Toronto FC and note how they sell out every game and have a waiting list of 15,000. We think we're going to do that as well."
Lenarduzzi said many companies are well aware of the Whitecaps' history and their early success in attracting 5,000 deposits for MLS season tickets.
"It's still going to require a sell, but I'm finding we're getting into [corporate] places we just weren't getting into before," he said.
The club hoped to launch phase two of its 2011 season ticket drive earlier this year, but uncertainty surrounding the future of the BC Place Stadium renovation project put that plan on hold.
The province has since confirmed the $458-million retractable-roof project will proceed, so the Whitecaps will likely promote the next phase of ticket sales around the time of the 2010 World Cup next summer.
Lenarduzzi said BC Place Stadium operator PavCo has indicated the July 2011 reopening date for BC Place is a worst-case scenario and it will try to finish the project sooner. MLS play begins in March, so the new Vancouver franchise will likely play in a temporary stadium for the first few months of its inaugural season.
Volkswagen of America vice-president of marketing Tim Ellis said the automaker renewed its partnership with MLS this year because the connection with soccer gives it a stronger appeal with target markets like families, sports fans and multicultural groups. He noted Hispanic buyers account for 11 per cent of U.S. Volkswagen sales.
Volkswagen is the presenting partner for D.C. United, with the company logo splashed on the front of the team jersey, and Volkswagen vehicles are all over RFK Stadium at home games.
"This partnership [with MLS] provides us with more demonstrative events where people can become more immersed in our products," Ellis said.
Volkswagen's association with the league puts it in the same grouping as major MLS sponsors like Adidas, Home Depot, Pepsi and Visa and Ellis said he's not concerned about the drop in MLS attendance this year.
"You can't look at that and say things are going wrong," he said. "Yes the economy is down but we're not worried about that over the longer term. The success in Seattle provides tremendous inspiration for the entire league and we think that's only going to grow."
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun