SBJ/November 20 - 26, 2006/This Weeks News

Playoff attendance ends on a high note

Looking out over Pizza Hut Park before kickoff of MLS Cup, league officials surely were beset by orange crush.

Bright orange shirts and white-and-orange flags worn and carried by Houston Dynamo fans dominated the sellout crowd, pushing the day’s attendance to 22,427 and lifting the league’s overall playoff attendance 5.5 percent above 2005.

“We would have sold out the game anyway,” said MLS/Soccer United Marketing President Mark Abbott, “but it really adds to the story and creates a great atmosphere.”

Through the first two weekends of the playoffs, average attendance fell to 12,735, down 4.1 percent from an average of 13,273 over the same period in 2005. But a playoff high of 23,107 when Houston hosted the Colorado Rapids in a semifinal game lifted the final average to 15,179, up from 14,389 in 2005.

“The rise didn’t surprise me,” Abbott said. “What I didn’t know was how compelling the games would turn out to be. We had great atmosphere and great soccer, and that really made a difference.”

FOX, ESPN PLANS: Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN, two of the four networks that will begin paying rights to MLS next year, will offer the league more coverage than it has received in the past.

Fox Soccer Channel will put broader emphasis on the league, as the network plans to offer more than three hours of MLS coverage each Saturday. A live half-hour pregame and postgame show will sandwich each of its eight games in an exclusive time slot on Saturday nights.

Supplemental coverage will be offered on “Fox Sports World Report” throughout the week, and game highlights will appear on Wednesday nights on a program called “MLS Pulse.”

ESPNews also is considering enhanced coverage next year. The network, which did the exclusive announcement of the league’s most valuable player over the weekend, is considering showing live interviews from its Thursday night game and offering MLS highlights.

Univision and HDNet are the league’s other two rights holders.

YOUTH DEVELOPMENT: MLS teams will be able to acquire top youth players from their region and develop them for their team, following a new rule passed by the board of governors.

MLS teams will be required to create youth programs, which can register young, regional players. Once a player has been registered with a team for 24 months, he can sign a professional contract with the team without entering the MLS SuperDraft. The move would be the equivalent of letting the New York Knicks sign Coney Island prodigy Sebastian Telfair to a youth team at age 16 and moving him onto their professional team when he matured.

Players on the youth teams will wear the team jerseys and train under the team’s coaching staff, offering each team an additional property to sell. With teams able to sell jersey sponsorships, they can highlight the value of having their youth teams wear those jerseys in tournaments nationwide, said FC Dallas general manager Michael Hitchcock. Plus, they’ll be able to sell signs on the youth fields surrounding MLS’s growing number of soccer-specific stadiums.

Teams also will be able to keep a greater amount of transfer fees. In the past, 80 percent of transfer fees for players such as forward Brian McBride, who was sold to Fulham Football Club for $1 million by the Chicago Fire, went into the league’s general fund. Now, two-thirds of that money will be kept by the team with the stipulation it must be reinvested in the player’s pool, sources close to the league said.

The goal, Commissioner Don Garber said, is to motivate teams to invest more in their youth programs. Should a team develop a player, sign him to a contract early in his career and sell him to an opposing domestic or international team, it could pocket a substantial profit. At clubs such as Brazil’s Atletico Paranaense, such sales can reach more than $40 million a year, Hitchcock said.

PLAYERS UNION: The MLS Players Union met formally for the first time in Dallas on Nov. 13. Topics under discussion included the development of an agent certification process, which the union does not now have. 

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