April 5, 1996 in Sports

Take Me Out To The New Ballgame Pro Soccer Returns, With Espn, Rich Backers Betting On Success

Michelle Kaufman Detroit Free Press
 

Spring training is behind us. Rosters are set. The sun is shining and the smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. Moms and dads all over America will pile their kids into minivans this weekend and head to the ballpark. They’ll buy programs, hot dogs and peanuts. They’ll bring along balls for the players to autograph.

The American flag will wave in the breeze.

Players will run onto the field in crisp, new uniforms.

Radio announcers will begin speculating about pennant races and the big October matchups.

Ah, the joys of Major League . . .

Soccer.

Oh, haven’t you heard?

While most of America was busy filling out NCAA basketball brackets and drafting Rotisserie league teams, a top-notch outdoor soccer league, MLS, tiptoed into existence. The 10-team league had a draft, followed by spring training in Florida.

All 31,000 tickets have been sold for the opening match Saturday - D.C. United at the San Jose Clash. ESPN is televising the game live at 5 p.m., and soccer junkies on the Internet already are debating the league’s first major trade - Rhett Harty for Troy Dayak.

Major League Soccer organizers are banking on the assumption that America still remembers the summer of ‘94, when sports fans caught World Cup fever. Brazilian bongos in Pasadena. Swiss cowbells at the (Pontiac) Silverdome. Team USA’s upset of Colombia. Alexi Lalas’ goatee. Carlos Valderrama’s giant hair. Jorge Campos’ wild jerseys. Romario. Bebeto. Roberto Baggio.

Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole … Ole, O-o-le.

“I think people remember the World Cup, and if we can give them even a bit of what they saw there every single week, we can be successful,” said Lalas, who gave up a bigger salary in Italy to play for the New England Revolution. “We want to give people something on and off the field that excites them and makes them want to come back. We have a responsibility as American soccer players to give this country an exciting pro league, and it’s part of our job to promote our sport.”

Lalas’ sales pitch continues tonight with an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.

Pro soccer leagues have come and gone faster than Chevy Chase talk shows, but the sport’s executives insist MLS is different.

This league is starting with $75 million in capital and deep pockets with such investors as John Kluge of Metromedia, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and oil and railroad executive Philip Anschutz.

This league has $35 million worth of corporate sponsors - Budweiser, AT&T;, MasterCard, Fuji, American Honda, Adidas, Nike, Kellogg’s and Umbro. It has a three-year television contract with 11 matches per season on ESPN, 25 on ESPN2 and the October championship match on ABC.

Unlike the defunct North American Soccer League, which mostly had foreign stars, this league has big-name U.S. players who are products of this country’s youth programs. Thirteen members of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team have given up foreign contracts to play in MLS.

Tab Ramos and Tony Meola are on the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Marcelo Balboa is with the Colorado Rapids, John Harkes with D.C. United and Cobi Jones with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Perhaps most important, millions of Americans from ages 18 to 30 grew up playing soccer, and they are more likely to buy tickets than their parents were 20 years ago. Season-ticket sales range from 1,000 for the Tampa Bay Mutiny to 8,500 for the Columbus (Ohio) Crew. League executives hope for 10,000 to 12,000 fans per match.

“I’m very encouraged,” said Roger Faulkner, who led Detroit’s World Cup effort. “They have very credible ownership, corporate sponsors, and a structure that is eminently sensible. I didn’t think they’d get the World Cup players back, but they did, and they also got a good smattering of foreign players to add a little flair and raise the level of play.”

Valderrama of Colombia, Roberto Donadoni of Italy and Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry of Bolivia are among the foreign players on MLS rosters. Three hundred fans showed up at National Airport in Washington last month to greet Etcheverry, who plays for D.C. United.

Ridge Mahoney, who covers the league for Soccer America magazine, said he thinks fans will be pleased with the level of play.

“For the most part, the caliber of play is pretty good,” he said. “It’s not gonna be like World Cup, or Italy’s Series A, but it will be excellent soccer. Right now, we’ve got a fan base 20 times as big as we had 15 years ago. Many of those people are taking a wait-and-see attitude, but if they like what they see, they’ll come out.”

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