League System Ousts the Owners

SPREADING THE WEALTH

Owners of sports teams can be troublesome.

Some have moved their teams to more lucrative markets, others have made financial deals that boost their own interests while hurting their league, and nearly all have tried to one-up each other in the auction for top players.

But Major League Soccer thinks it has found a solution: Get rid of them. MLS's "single-entity" structure is the first test of a radical concept: each team and player contract is owned by the league - not by individual franchise owners. Some call it sports socialism, saying that it makes the game bland by quelling free market forces. But the league is adamant that in an era of rising costs and exponential salary growth, this is a model for the future. Many are listening.

Both new women's basketball leagues - the American Basketball League and the Women's National Basketball Association - have adopted a single-entity structure that has found some support in the soccer community.

"The single-entity will probably be the salvation of professional soccer in America," says Will Lunn, president of the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. "It will save soccer from what is becoming a real problem in other sports - huge salaries."

MLS's single-entity structure works by spreading the wealth - or debt - to all teams.

Teams are run by "operators" - usually local investors who have a large financial stake in their team and a smaller stake in each other team. The operators act the way owners do and can make many decisions about their team's operations without the league getting involved.

Because player contracts are also owned and negotiated by the league, owners cannot get into bidding wars. The league decides the player's salary, then assigns him to the team that shows why it needs him most.

But many members of the media have lambasted the structure. They say that the league's unwillingness to let owners fend for themselves on the world market has left the MLS boring and predictable.

"I can see why they're trying to keep costs down, but they're keeping them down too much and giving the public a third-division product," says Grahaeme Jones, soccer reporter for the Los Angeles Times. If you let John Kluge [operator for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars] and Jonathan Kraft [operator for the New England Revolution] be totally free to go ahead and get whichever players they want from wherever they want and put the best product on the field, that would certainly draw [fans]."

But that would also consign a number of cities to mediocrity. Cities like Kansas City, Mo., or Denver - which don't have as good a fan base as New York or Los Angeles has - would not have the money to buy quality players and would perennially languish near the bottom of the standings. While this hierarchy of haves and have-nots is commonplace in Europe, MLS has decided to put its teams on equal footing by assigning players to teams based on their needs, not on how much money they are making.

While the system has caused an uproar among some players who feel that it keeps salaries down, Mark Abbot, MLS marketing director, says that's not the point. "We're in a worldwide market.... If the guy doesn't like what we're paying, he just gets on a plane," he says. "The driving factor is marketing and the desire to jointly exploit television, sponsorship, and licensing - that's the lifeblood of the league."

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