Major League Soccer Is Alive and Kicking in US

Growing fan support, star players, and positive publicity have helped league garner steady support

It's raining, hard. It's a weeknight, and Major League Soccer's New York/New Jersey MetroStars are ready to play the last-place Colorado Rapids - a mediocre match-up on an awful night.

To add to this, ESPN2 is also broadcasting the game live, so fans can watch the game at home without getting wet or having to deal with New York traffic.

So as Soccer Magazine's Dan Herbst takes his seat in the press box, he agrees with his fellow reporters: The game will be lucky to draw 5,000 fans.

More than 14,000 came. Four months later, Mr. Herbst puts the May 17 game in perspective.

"It was the most remarkable crowd of the year," he says. "You sit there and you say maybe the time is right for this sport."

Compared with the 50,000 fans that many football games routinely draw - even in bad weather - this number may seem rather modest. But for Major League Soccer (MLS), the new American soccer league finishing up its first year, it is a welcome achievement.

"We thought the [season] attendances would be in the 10 to 12,000 range," says Mark Abbott, the director of financial affairs for MLS. "Right now we're averaging around 18,000. That's a pretty sizeable amount to exceed your original expectations by."

For now, MLS is set on reaching achievable goals - increasing fan support, solidifying its financial situation, and signing quality players. And although they have run into a few problems, they are determined not to try to do too much too fast - and for good reason.

So far, America is still not a "soccer country." Before the 1994 World Cup, the game had virtually no history here. Now, MLS is determined to steadily build support.

Good publicity has helped. While the explosion of nationwide coverage during the opening of the season has died away, local fans and local media have continued to support their teams.

"When something starts out, there's going to be an initial bang, and we got that," Mr. Abbott says. "What's impressed me is that it has sustained itself throughout the season - not at the same intensity - but good, basic, everyday coverage."

Jonathan Kraft, the primary investor who runs the New England Revolution, says the Boston area was ready for soccer.

"We've been pleasantly surprised by the kind of pent-up demand that exists for soccer [here]," he says.

Chosen to host the first MLS championship on Oct. 20, the Revolution has succeeded in some areas that even more well-established Boston sports teams have not.

"The crowds have been extremely heterogeneous," he adds. "If you go to a game for any other major league sport in this town, you'll find a predominantly white, male, adult crowd."

The diversity of MLS's fan-base has helped buoy the league this year, but Abbot points to two other key ingredients.

Average ticket prices have stayed firm at $13, he says, and the league is getting more money from sponsors than expected - including commitments for $50 million over the next four years.

Herbst adds a third element - MLS's ability to sign attractive players. Not many soccer players in America are household names, but MLS was able to recruit those few that are well-known.

"If you had a wish list of five Americans that you would like to have for this league, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda, Paul Caliguri, and John Harkes would be on that list," he says. "And they're 5 for 5."

But while these players are bringing in more fans than the league expected, there are still more empty seats than fans come game time.

In a perfect world, the MLS would like 30,000- to 40,000-seat soccer-only stadiums. Such stadiums don't exist, so the league had to choose between cavernous football stadiums and 10,000-seat stadiums.

"Clearly, we chose to go into the big, professional stadiums," Abbott says.

The problems that choice creates are obvious: an unwelcoming scene of thousands of empty seats, and the fact that the MLS teams have to take a back seat to the resident football team.

MLS has tried to remedy the first situation by strategically covering the empty seats with colorful tarps.

The tarps are intended to make the stadium feel more intimate, and help keep the sound of 18,000 roaring fans from feebly dissipating in the empty seats, Abbott says.

All told, the tarps have cost MLS $3 million in production, maintenance, and installation - a cost Abbott thinks is well worth it.

"We need to do everything we can to enhance the fan's experience at the stadium," he says.

Being second tenants has its downside, too. From Washington to Colorado, teams have had to play on fields with football yard markers and logos, a distraction for fans. The greatest concern has been raised in New York, where the primary tenants, the New York Giants, have re-installed AstroTurf for the regular season.

The astroturf seriously alters the style of the game because it is not conducive to slide-tackling and the ball travels much faster. In frustration, MetroStars coach Carlos Quieroz has called it "ping-pong soccer."

The MetroStars are trying to convince the Giants to keep a natural grass field through the whole year, but even without that, Herbst says, playing six games on AstroTurf out of a total 160 games is not a tragedy.

The two teams that had the lowest fan support - Tampa Bay and Colorado - are also a concern. But the MLS has made a commitment to work on these markets, rather than moving them to another city at the first sign of trouble.

"We have an investor group" made up of people "who are very long-term thinkers," Abbott says. "Nobody has a thought of leaving a market because it didn't perform as strong as other markets in the first year."

Herbst says the league's prudence has put it in a good position, and he hopes it will keep its eyes on the future.

If the league makes "good, smart, prudent, long-term decisions, [it] will be around for the long haul," he says.

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