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Brad Rock: Despite rough economy, MLS looks to expand

Published: Wednesday, March 2 2011 12:41 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY— The blue in Don Garber's shirt matched the high blue sky, the brilliant Tuesday sunshine matched his brilliant Tuesday smile.

Bad economy got you down? Gloomy business forecast? Not in Major League Soccer. The way league's commissioner sees it, life is one big penalty kick. There might be obstacles, but there are also opportunities straight ahead.

While most American businesses are cutting back, MLS soccer is aiming for the high corner of the net.

"Expansion," Garber said, "is a very big part of our strategy."

The occasion was Real Salt Lake's CONCACAF match with Columbus at Rio Tinto Stadium. Garber made the media rounds earlier in the day, spreading his own brand of sunshine. The man's an incontrovertible optimist. Despite soccer's spotty history in America, MLS is now entering its 16th season. Real Salt Lake, a risky venture in a small market, is entering its sixth season and one of the league's relatively successful teams. RSL president Bill Manning is projecting a profit in 2011 for the first time.

Meanwhile, the league hopes to soon be up to 20 teams.

"Then I think we'll stop for awhile," Garber said.

Since RSL joined the league in 2005, MLS has added Houston, Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia, with Vancouver and Portland joining this year and Montreal in 2012. Soon thereafter, Garber expects to put a second team in New York.

Portland has already sold 12,000 season tickets, Vancouver 16,000.

Those are numbers almost anyone's team, in almost anyone's sport, would appreciate.

"We're excited to see how far this can go," Garber said.

League attendance is up about a thousand a game since 2006, but that is mostly due to the natural boost that comes with adding teams. If you take out the 36,000 a game the Seattle Sounders sell, attendance figures are fairly flat.

It's widely agreed that soccer stirs more emotion than almost any sport. There are lovers and haters and not many in between. On one hand, it's a game that's easy to hate. Few sports can turn a tie into a win of sorts. For a country that considers winning — and the ensuing trash-talking — an inalienable right, it's jarring to see so many draws.

At the same time, almost everywhere outside the U.S., soccer is considered the quintessential thinking person's sport. Can billions be wrong?

All of which makes MLS's case interesting. This isn't the first attempt at converting the American viewing public. Several tries — most notably the now-defunct North American Soccer League — failed. But the current pro soccer incarnation has carefully selected its battlegrounds. It doesn't have the huge salary burden or powerful players' unions that Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA have. Thus last year a work stoppage was averted.

Along the way the league found different formulas that work. In big markets, large numbers of expatriates from soccer nations attend games. In Salt Lake City, it found modest summer competition and tens of thousands of returned LDS missionaries who in the process of finding converts became converts of a different sort.

Meanwhile, the league has survived contraction in the early 2000s and is now growing.

"We're more teen than toddler," Garber said, "and we have many years ahead of us. Soccer is a growth business in North America."

That doesn't mean it's exactly printing money. Garber admits, "It certainly would be unfair to say we're successful in every market, because we're not. I should say we're not as successful as we'd like to be in every market."

He continued, "I certainly hope that at some point all teams are making money; that would be unique in pro sports. Not every team makes money. We have a bunch teams that are making money, some that are breaking even, and a bunch are losing money. Overall our business is strong, overall we're bullish in overall financial position of the (league)."

Most media reports say only a couple of teams a year are in the black.

To his credit, Garber is avoiding outlandish predictions. The landscape is littered with the remains of pro sports leagues with big predictions. Despite soccer's claim of being the world's sport, he isn't even latching onto that.

Laying the soccer guilt trip on Americans isn't his approach.

"We hope in time that we'll be one of the top soccer leagues in the world and an important part of the sports culture in our country; that's our goal," he said. "I would say I don't believe soccer or anyone's sport can take over the world, but our goal is just to be relevant, to be bigger to be better and to be just more important in the lives of people in our country."

On a sunny late winter day, awaiting RSL's first home match of 2011, he seemed to be doing just that.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

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