SBJ/January 24 - 30, 2005/Labor Agents

Soccer dispute could be tough on MLS

The continuing labor dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the U.S. National Soccer Team Players Association could have negative repercussions for Major League Soccer should it keep America from participating in a fifth consecutive World Cup.

U.S. players such as Clint Mathis could be on the sidelines for World Cup qualifiers.
As negotiations have slowed and a national team of replacement players has begun practicing for World Cup qualifying matches, the next of which is Feb. 9 at Trinidad and Tobago, many industry insiders are wondering how MLS would be affected by a poor performance or even a failure to qualify for the 32-team World Cup tournament, which is set to take place in Germany in 2006.

Chris Canetti, vice president of marketing for the MLS MetroStars, said the national team and its performance in the World Cup every four years is instrumental in growing awareness of the sport in America.

“I think it’s important for our national team to have a strong showing in the World Cup,” Canetti said. “If we can have another strong performance in Germany in 2006, that would be another step in the right direction.”

Jamey Rootes, former president and general manager of the Columbus Crew and now senior vice president of the Houston Texans, said that even though the national team and MLS are separate entities, a strong showing in Germany would help the league.

“High tides lift all boats,” Rootes said.

That has held for MLS’ TV ratings. ESPN2, the network with the most consistent MLS coverage over the last six years, enjoyed an 18 percent jump in ratings following the 1998 World Cup. In 2003, following America’s best finish in a World Cup since 1930, ratings remained steady on ESPN2.

But right now, even making it to the World Cup is not a given as the USSF has brought in replacement players from the United Soccer Leagues and the Major Indoor Soccer League for a training camp in Carson, Calif., to prepare for next month’s qualifying match.

“We either have to cancel the event or field a team that is going to show up,” said Jim Moorhouse, USSF director of communications, about next month’s qualifying match.

Ken Neal, a soccer industry consultant and agent who represents a list of MLS players that includes Brian Kamler, Steve Jolley and Tyrone Marshall, said the timing of the dispute is tough for the MLS, which in recent years has been “heading in the right direction” with the addition of several major league sponsors and the development of soccer-specific stadiums in key markets across the country.

While Columbus and the Los Angeles Galaxy are the only two clubs with soccer-specific stadiums, FC Dallas will open the 2005 season with its own stadium, and the Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids and MetroStars have all announced plans for stadiums.

The league recently signed a 10-year, $150 million sponsorship deal with Adidas — MLS’ biggest deal to date.

In addition to the attention that a solid performance in the World Cup brings to soccer domestically,, Neal said the league could suffer on an international level, noting the importance of foreign players in terms of MLS attendance, ratings and corporate sponsorship.

Rootes said nothing positive can come out of a dispute that hinders America’s chances in the World Cup.

“Anything that winds up throwing a wrench in soccer’s plans is not good for the game, not good for MLS, not good for the fans,” he said.

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