SBJ/April 22 - 28, 2002/Opinion

Soccer hunts one more success story

When people ask Lamar Hunt when soccer will succeed in this country, and many do, he responds that it already has.

"It's our top youth-participation sport in some surveys I've seen, and our women players are among the best in the world," he says. "Our men's national team used to be nowhere internationally, but it's qualified for four straight World Cup fields and has been ranked in the top 15 for the last several years. If that's not evidence of success, I don't know what is."

He does, however, recognize that there's a gap in that picture, and it's one with which he's intimately acquainted. No elite men's pro soccer league has established a firm foothold on American soil, and that includes Major League Soccer, the circuit in which he holds a stake. It has recorded only red-ink numbers in its six completed seasons, and last month opened its seventh with two fewer teams than it had the year before.

Nevertheless, Hunt believes that if one takes the long view, the prognosis for MLS is less than dire. "When you remember where we started, where we are isn't bad," he maintains. "I've been involved in situations that looked worse at about the same point, and they worked out just fine."

Attention should be paid to the views of the 69-year-old Hunt, in part because of his been-there, done-that credentials. In 1959, the oil-fortune heir was one of eight fledgling team owners who provoked laughter by betting that their new American Football League could challenge the hegemony of the National Football League. Seven years later, he was an original investor in the Chicago Bulls, the National Basketball Association's 10th team that was playing its home games in the International Amphitheater, a venue that was better known for, and on some days smelled like, the livestock shows staged there.

Neither the AFL nor the Bulls (nor Hunt's Kansas City Chiefs football team) were instant hits, but in time they rewarded their backers handsomely.

To be sure, football and basketball were entrenched parts of the U.S. sports landscape when these professional entities were taking root, while soccer can make no such claim. Further, Hunt admits that MLS' leaders erred on the side of optimism when they opened in 1996 with 10 teams and expanded to 12 two years later. Hindsight shows that beginning with eight teams and growing to 10 would have been wiser, if only because it might have prevented the embarrassment of contraction, he acknowledges.

But Hunt sees encouragement for the league on several fronts. These include the completion of a soccer-only stadium by the Columbus Crew, one of the two teams he operates (the other is the Kansas City Wizards), and the building of a similar but grander edifice in Los Angeles; the deep involvement in the league of billionaire sports investor Philip Anschutz; and the improved prospects of the U.S. national squad as the May 31-June 30 World Cup tournament approaches.

"Having our own venues not only will give us control of our revenue flows but also will help establish us as an independent presence. I think that second thing is as important as the first," he says. "Having Phil Anschutz aboard gives us the sort of financial credibility no one can ignore."

The U.S. outlook in the quadrennial World Cup is more problematic. Yes, the team looks better than past crews and boasts a couple of attractive young stars (and MLS performers) in Clint Mathis and Landon Donovan, but the competition is tough and strange things can happen when foot meets ball.

"I'd like to say that the team's showing won't affect ours [the MLS'], but I'm sure it will," Hunt says. "We Americans love success and expect nothing less from our national teams. If we don't get some in Korea and Japan [the World Cup sites], it'll be a long four years before we can try again."

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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