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Brad Rock: Just how strong is the MLS?

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 24 2007 9:31 a.m. MST

As if Salt Lake County politicians didn't have enough to worry about as they ponder spending millions in tax dollars on a new soccer stadium, here's something else to consider: the future of Major League Soccer overall.

Beneath concerns over Real Salt Lake's viability, there is the underlying issue of whether the league itself is solvent. Too bad County Mayor Peter Corroon can't order an investigation into that.

There is some good news for Real, though. It is making headlines.

If publicity is the key to a sports team's success, RSL should thrive.

These days, it is constantly in the news. Team officials have accused skeptics, including Corroon, of being unsophisticated and overly cautious.

It will all work out, they say. All the team needs to do is build a $110 million stadium and attract 16,000 or 17,000 people to 70 events a year.

But the team requires $30 million in hotel tax revenue from the county and $15 million from Sandy to make it work.

A small price to have big league soccer in town, right?

Maybe. As long as it sticks around.

Whether pro soccer is a good investment depends largely on whether you believe the projections — and whose projections you believe. RSL's plans are the Norman Vincent Peale variety. The team believes it can sell around 17,000 tickets to 11 or more concerts a year, as well as draw 16,000 or more fans to each soccer game. But an independent study says there could actually be as few as two concerts annually.

The team also believes it can raise game ticket prices sharply in the first four years of the stadium's existence. That won't be an easy sell.

Perhaps this is a good place for full disclosure on my part.

I've known RSL owner Dave Checketts for nearly 17 years. He is a big thinker. My idea of dreaming is to go skydiving; his idea is to take a spaceship to Pluto. He didn't get to be president of an NBA team when he was in his 20s without thinking big. If I'd had Checketts around to give me confidence when I was in high school, I might have actually had some dates.

At the same time, supreme confidence can be a blind spot. Have enough success, you sometimes start thinking you're bulletproof.

Checketts and other MLS officials are especially optimistic since the Los Angeles Galaxy recently acquired celebrity midfielder David Beckham. The league also has teen sensation Freddy Adu, who now plays for RSL. That's considerable star power. Trouble is, the league is getting Beckham on the way down and Adu on his way out. Beckham's game is waning and Adu is expected to be here for only a year or two before moving to Europe.

Everyone knows of previous attempts to establish pro soccer in America that failed. Beyond that, does anyone remember the American Basketball Association and United States Football League? The World Hockey Association even acquired stars like Bobby Hull and Wayne Gretzky. The leagues were colorful, talented, innovative — and doomed.

Since MLS began 11 seasons ago, it has lost a reported $350 million. So far, only the Galaxy has made a clear profit, though commissioner Don Garber says several other teams are close. But there is no financial review of the league going on, so Utahns are left to take Garber's word on MLS's overall financial health.

The master plan is for a 16-team league with at least 10 playing in soccer-specific stadiums, including Salt Lake. Then, say officials, most teams will make money. They cite growing TV contracts and the addition of sponsor names on jerseys as other revenue sources.

Attendance average is said to be around 15,000, though a significant portion of those might be giveaways.

The league is banking its future on having soccer-specific stadiums. Yet new stadiums don't necessarily guarantee that fans will come after a first look, and TV contracts don't guarantee large audiences. With attendance dwindling at many college, high school and pro sports events, and competition fierce for the entertainment dollar, pro soccer in the U.S. remains a leap of faith.

I've seen enough figures on RSL to have an idea of its plans.

And I know enough of Checketts to expect he's going to get his stadium. If not here, he'll get one somewhere else. Whether people will flock to the stadium is a big question. But what I'd really like to know is if the league's finances are on solid ground for the next several years. A shiny new stadium in Sandy won't mean much if there's no league in which to play.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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