MLS season opens Saturday

By United Press International  |  March 22, 2002 at 6:47 PM
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MLS kicks off its seventh season Saturday and, like many years past, the tenor of this one may well define the fate of the young, struggling league.

Questions about the league's massive losses still dog MLS, which contracted by two teams during the offseason and is estimated to have lost as much as $300 million during its existence. Finances apparently were a key factor in the decision by McKinney, Texas not to fund a new stadium for the Dallas Burn.

All but one franchise in the 10-team league is controlled by two investors, Lamar Hunt and Philip Anschutz. Anschutz reportedly lost 66 percent of his net worth last year, dropping an estimated $10 billion in the stock market decline.

MLS managed to find a TV partner of sorts as it traded the rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups to ESPN/ABC in exchange for carriage on the networks. However, it is hardly a reciprocal agreement. MLS hopes it will see some money from the deal, which may not have happened without the World Cup rights.

With the teams in Miami and Tampa shut down, the league faces a number of nagging stadium issues. Ground has been broken for a facility in Los Angeles, but New York remains in limbo; Chicago's team will be moved to a small suburban stadium; and Dallas was turned down by politicians of McKinney.

One bright light is that the level of play should be demonstrably better. The dispersal of the Floridian talent should make clubs such as the New England Revolution and D.C. United markedly better.

MLS also seems willing to admit its problems. On Wednesday, commissioner Don Garber thanked media members for their coverage and addressed accusations that MLS had not been as open as it could have been.

"Our goal is to make progress in all areas," Garber said. "That means the on-field product, progress in quality and quantity of media coverage, and progress in attendance. It will not increase on a week-by-week basis. We see a very different market this year with the stadium situations our teams are in.

"We went through a difficult offseason. But we think we made the decisions that will make us stronger. Being in 10 markets and having local people involved is where we need to be. We have to capitalize on that local involvement."

MLS has the Kraft family in Boston, the Hunts with close ties in Dallas, Columbus and Kansas City and Anschutz in Denver and Los Angeles. Whether the community ties of these men can make a difference is anyone's guess.

Is it too little, too late? Only time will tell. Sooner or later, something has to break for MLS, one way or the other.

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