A League In Need of a Miracle

New MLS Commissioner Don Garber looks to deliver fans from their soccer hell

He's been called the second coming.

OK, the second coming of former NFL commish Pete Rozelle . . . but still.

In a country still reluctant to embrace soccer beyond suburban kiddie leagues, new Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber will hardly be preaching to the converted. Coming to the MLS from the NFL, Garber will be attempting to bring the disheartened back to the flock while growing his new congregation. Yet Garber is still in the process of converting himself. Business-minded believers like Alan Rothenberg and MetroStars owner-operator Stuart Subotnik sing his praises, but soccer purists are reacting to the "nonsoccer" person as if he's the Antichrist.

The truth is, there is no simple path to soccer salvation for the MLS. Although the dumping of ex-commish Doug Logan was not much of a surprise— most likely not even to him— he didn't take the league's woes with him when he departed. The facts of the league aren't pretty: Attendance started out at a respectable 17,406 in 1996, then slipped for two years, although it has rebounded to around 15,000 this season. Ownership interests in Dallas and Tampa are still for sale, as is one of the league's top operations, D.C. United. It's estimated that the MLS loses between $15 million and $20 million per season. The league has alienated many lifelong soccer fans with shoot-outs and sub-subpar play while failing to recruit a new audience. Television ratings on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 have fallen again, although they're reportedly still in the same boat as the NHL's numbers.

Comparisons with the NHL don't end with TV ratings. Garber is experiencing criticism similar to that endured by hockey headman Gary Bettman, whose background was as an NBA executive when he took over the NHL in 1993. Hockey faced— and still faces— many of the same challenges that soccer does: particularly a lack of "mainstream" penetration and a heavy reliance on foreign players. Bettman made a bit of progress toward silencing his critics last year when he landed a $600 million television contract.

Alexi Lalas was among those who were skeptical of Bettman when he first went to the NHL. A lifelong hockey fan and player before dedicating himself to professional soccer, Lalas says that "hockey enthusiasts generally consider themselves— and their sport— unique," and admits he was worried that the nonhockey Bettman would damage the game. But Lalas ultimately gave Bettman the benefit of the doubt, and while he once considered himselt a sports "purist," Lalas now views "ability as a businessman as essential, if not more essential" than experience with the game.

"An understanding of the sport you work in is definitely not a criteria, as we've established over the years," he says, laughing. "Hell— the fact that I'm a professional soccer player is evidence enough!"

If nothing else, Garber brings a fresh perspective to the league. Of course, those who lament his choice as MLS commish have criticized him for precisely that. But for the former head of NFL Europe, the outsider's perspective may be an advantage.

"The more I wrestle with the media over this, the more I am convinced that the best thing that MLS could have done was to bring someone in from outside the soccer community," Garber says, "because the community itself is so insular in how they view the sport and what the sport needs to be and how they need to get there."

And as someone who was not raised as a fan of the sport— and who admittedly has a lot to learn about it— Garber at least has something in common with many of the media bigwigs that he'll be trying to persuade to give his league more coverage. Perhaps he can appeal to them on their level, testifying to network pooh-bahs with cultural empathy rather than soccer snobbery: I was once like you . . . lost and alone, afraid of scoreless ties and men with only one name . . . But now I've seen the light at the end of the stadium tunnel. . . .

But it's hardly that simple. "You have to surround yourself and educate yourself, and that's what our new commish has to do," Lalas says. So far, Garber's talking, breakfasting, and lunching with everyone in TV media, from local affiliates to ABC. He acknowledges his role as salesman and fundraiser, but he still has to rely on others to give him a better understanding of the game— an understanding that he needs to work on quickly, if he is to bring MLS into the mainstream without compromising its uniqueness.

Lalas, the most marketed player in the history of American soccer, says that now is the time to take some risks, and marketing to the sports underground is important. "I know everyone's real concerned about it being portrayed as a major sport," Lalas says, "but soccer is and always will be a sort of alternative. And that's a plus."

Of course, no matter who Garber is marketing to, having a good product would help. Perhaps there's no better place to start work than right here in the bowels of soccer hell with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Forget a mere front-office housecleaning— at this point it may take a few biblical plagues to purge the evil from Giants Stadium. Garber has dined with Metros owner Subotnik and is encouraged by the optimism of all the investors (who earlier this year committed another $100 million to the league). But he'll have to pull out his best tricks with the MetroStars, who are in need of a major miracle: improving the team in the media capital will be a requirement if Garber hopes to generate any buzz for the league.

For the MLS to escape eternal damnation, Garber will have to begin by preaching unity and solidarity. "It's not the soccer world versus the MLS; it's all of us against the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and everybody else trying to make a viable sports business," Garber explains. "And we need to unite the objective of growing pro soccer against all the competition that we have.

"We are not going to be as successful as we could be if we continue to fight among ourselves over who is a soccer person and who isn't a soccer person."

In the meantime, Lalas advises, "Have a little patience."

It's a virtue, after all. Can I get an amen?

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