MLS growing, but still finding its way

Sacramento Republic team officials and boosters of the United Soccer League team were on hand at the Major League Soccer championship Sunday in Carson, making themselves heard in an attempt to help sway the MLS and its commissioner, Don Garber, shown at a news conference earlier this fall, in their choice of cities for a new MLS franchise. A decision is expected by June.
Sacramento Republic team officials and boosters of the United Soccer League team were on hand at the Major League Soccer championship Sunday in Carson, making themselves heard in an attempt to help sway the MLS and its commissioner, Don Garber, shown at a news conference earlier this fall, in their choice of cities for a new MLS franchise. A decision is expected by June. The Associated Press

Their pursuit of a Major League Soccer franchise brought Sacramento leaders to the suburbs of Los Angeles over the weekend, and the setting couldn’t have been more spectacular.

A jampacked crowd, a tight game, a Hollywood ending: Mayor Kevin Johnson and investors in Sacramento Republic FC were treated to a brilliant afternoon of soccer at Sunday’s MLS Cup championship. Invited by the league, they mingled with MLS big shots and chatted up Sacramento’s MLS credentials as the hometown Los Angeles Galaxy eked out a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution on a goal in extra time.

It was a tantalizing glimpse of Sacramento’s potential soccer future. “We’ll be here soon,” said Erin Sansoni, one of 40 members of Republic FC’s booster club, the Tower Bridge Battalion, who made the bus trip to the game. “It will happen.”

Throw in a win for retiring American-born superstar Landon Donovan, and it added up to a near-perfect showcase for the progress MLS has made in establishing professional soccer as a big-time sport in the United States.

But as it closes out its 19th season in existence, MLS also has a ways to go. Look no further than L.A. for evidence of that.

Barely a month ago, MLS took the embarrassing step of disbanding Los Angeles’ second team, Chivas USA, which shared the Galaxy’s stadium, StubHub Center, but couldn’t overcome a decade of fan indifference and financial woes.

The league quickly announced the formation of a replacement Los Angeles franchise, set to begin play in 2017, with a glittering array of investors such as Magic Johnson and women’s soccer star Mia Hamm. MLS officials said the new team will build its own stadium and won’t repeat Chivas’ mistakes, which included a botched attempt to market the team solely to Latino fans.

Still, the demise of Chivas was a stark reminder of MLS’ continuing struggles to find a place in the U.S. sports scene. From television ratings to franchise values, MLS ranks behind the other major professional sports leagues in America. It’s also fighting the perception that its product is inferior compared to overseas leagues.

“The popularity is growing rapidly, but it’s not economically at the place, it’s not as mature yet as the NBA, NFL or (Major League Baseball),” said Irwin Raij, a New York sports lawyer and investor in the new L.A. franchise.

It’s safe to say that, in the run-up to Sunday’s game, Los Angeles failed to catch MLS Cup fever. The region’s sports-talk radio stations were saturated with talk about the NBA’s Lakers, college football and other hot topics, and mentions of the Galaxy were rare.

“They have a very solid, passionate fan base – it’s a big deal to the niche of soccer fans in Los Angeles,” said John Ireland, co-host of a midday talk show on ESPN 710. But in the pecking order of Southern California fandom, MLS “is way down the line.”

This being L.A., there were some celebrities in the house Sunday, including actor Ty Burrell of TV’s “Modern Family.” The full house of 27,000 at StubHub Center did itself proud: roaring, chanting and, for one day at least, refuting the notion that Southern California sports fans are too laid-back.

“Anyone I try to convince to come to a game, they get hooked,” said season-ticket holder Doug Stone, lamenting the team’s comparatively low profile. “People don’t know what they’re missing.” The Long Beach resident said StubHub Center’s out-of-the-way location – on the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills – hasn’t helped raise awareness of the sport.

The league’s challenges go beyond fighting for Angelenos’ attention. MLS officials have said the teams are losing collectively more than $100 million a year, although the losses are partly offset by profits from the league’s centralized marketing arm. With MLS heading into negotiations with players on a new collective bargaining agreement, some experts say the league has an incentive to exaggerate its troubles.

Sacramento’s investors said they aren’t fazed by the prospect of joining a league that’s still not fully matured. “Anyone who’s run a business, it’s well known, you typically run lots of losses first,” said Kevin Nagle, a pharmaceutical executive who is Republic FC’s lead investor. “Nineteen years in sports, I would say, is very young.”

And the MLS is gaining ground, in terms of dollars and eyeballs.

League attendance hit an all-time high this year, and the average attendance of 19,149 a game surpassed the typical turnouts at many NBA and NHL arenas. MLS’ new TV contract will pay three times as much as before.

By any measure, MLS has made tremendous strides since 2002, when two teams folded, a franchise could be purchased for as little as $5 million and the league’s very existence was in doubt. Today, the entry fee is a reported $100 million, and the intense competition between Sacramento, Minneapolis and Las Vegas is further evidence the league is gaining a more permanent foothold in the American sports landscape.

“MLS is in a state of growth,” said Ted Philipakos, a player agent and professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute of Sports Management. “We’re no longer in a place where viability is a question.”

Sacramento has become a serious contender for MLS status because of Republic FC’s extraordinary first-year success, which featured sellout crowds and the championship of the minor-league USL Pro circuit.

Sacramento’s chances of graduating to MLS remain unclear and will depend in part on MLS’ ever-shifting expansion strategy. MLS wants to have 24 teams playing by 2020. Four new teams will begin play over the next three years, bringing the roster to 22. Miami has been tentatively awarded the 23rd franchise, leaving Sacramento and its rivals to fight over the last spot.

Minneapolis could have an edge, in part because it’s larger than Sacramento and Commissioner Don Garber has made it clear he wants more Midwestern teams in a league loaded with franchises on the East and West coasts. “Minneapolis is a big priority for us,” Garber said recently.

An additional spot could open up if Miami falls out of contention. The city has been unable to come up with a stadium plan, to MLS’ growing frustration. “This can’t go on forever,” Garber told Reuters last week. But the league said it hasn’t handed Miami and its lead investor, soccer legend David Beckham, a hard deadline for getting a deal done.

The MLS board of governors, consisting of every team’s owners, discussed the expansion competition for the first time Saturday but agreed only to seek additional information from Sacramento, Minneapolis and Las Vegas. None of the three cities made presentations to the owners Saturday, although all three sent representatives to the game.

Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott, speaking after the meeting, said MLS expects to make a decision sometime in the first half of 2015.

Despite the interest from Sacramento and the other cities, MLS remains a league that does business on a modest scale compared to its U.S. peers. Forbes magazine estimates the Galaxy, one of the league’s elite franchises, is worth $170 million. By contrast, the small-market Sacramento Kings sold last year in a deal that valued the franchise at $534 million, and the Los Angeles Clippers sold for $2 billion.

The relatively humble nature of MLS is seen by some experts as an impediment to the league’s growth. For instance, the minimum player salary is $36,500, vs. $507,000 in the NBA. Only 15 players earned $1 million or more this season, and that’s hindered MLS’ ability to compete for top talent against more established leagues in Europe and elsewhere.

“It’s about money, it’s about infrastructure, it’s about coaching,” Garber said last week. “It’s about having people respect our league more.” He got into a public spat in October with the coach of the U.S. national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, who had denigrated MLS’ caliber of play.

TV revenue is another area where MLS is playing catch-up. While the league’s new television deal will pay MLS a record $90 million a year, three times as much as the old contract, that’s just a sliver of the $2.6 billion a year the NBA will get when its new TV agreement begins in 2016.

“Major League Soccer, even with the new (TV) deal, is lagging behind those other leagues pretty significantly,” Philipakos said. “The reason is the ratings are soft.” Last year’s MLS Cup was watched by an estimated 1 million viewers. The last game of the NBA Finals drew 18 million viewers.

Philipakos and others, however, said the MLS audience will only continue to grow. “Ultimately, the television ratings and the rights fees will come,” he said. “The fan interest is there.”

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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