SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2007/Around The Globe

MLS considers Americans’ interest in Premiership a plus

Billions of dollars have left the United States to support professional soccer abroad over the last several years, but that hasn’t left Major League Soccer feeling overlooked.

As the popularity of buying English Premier League clubs has surged among U.S. sports owners, MLS officials feel the domestic league has benefited, as well.

MLS’s Ivan Gazidis

“It’s very good for the sport in this country,” said MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis. “Investors are seeing soccer as the one truly global sports property.”

Since Malcolm Glazer became the first American to buy a stake in an English Premier League club in 2003, gaining ownership control of Manchester United in 2005, MLS has seen its ownership base expand from three investors to 10, franchise values rise from $15 million to $30 million, and four TV networks invest more than $150 million for broadcast rights.

Interest in expansion franchises also has surged, with more than eight groups taking interest in bringing teams to markets like Philadelphia, Seattle and New York.

“Is that due to our efforts and the success of MLS and [Soccer United Marketing], or is it the interest in the Premier League?” Gazidis asked rhetorically. “I think [the interest in the Premier League] has some degree of impact.”

As an infant league, MLS, now in its 12th season, remains a very different investment from the established Premier League.

“You have North Americans investing overseas in mature brands because of the growth potential,” said Tom Anselmi, chief operating officer for one of MLS’s most recent investors, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. “That’s different than ground-floor investments in a sport that looks poised for dynamic growth.”

Added Rob Tilliss, founder of sports and media investment firm Inner Circle Sports, “Domestically, MLS has continued to advance its business model through focusing on new stadium development and tapping into new markets.”

Tours by American-owned English teams, like the upcoming visit by Randy Lerner’s Aston Villa to Columbus and Toronto, could become more prominent as U.S. owners try to expand their overseas brands. Even more tours could occur if current MLS owners buy foreign clubs. Such investments would not violate the league’s noncompete rule, Gazidis said, because MLS teams do not compete directly with European teams.

Should Colorado Rapids owner-operator Stan Kroenke obtain a majority ownership of Arsenal, in which he currently holds a 12 percent stake, or New England Revolution owner-operator Robert Kraft buy a foreign team, as has long been rumored, or Philip Anschutz’s AEG expand its acquisition of an English player (David Beckham) to an English team, those foreign clubs likely would be tapped to appear in MLS All-Star Games, which pit top MLS players against a foreign side.

“Soccer is a game that involves global competition,” Gazidis said. “With the U.S. being the first fully international country, it poses a great deal of opportunity, and you’ll see more integration of [international teams and players] in the future.”

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