SBJ/July 23 - 29, 2007/This Weeks News

MLS adds franchise; are more on the way?

Major League Soccer’s expanding owner-operator base scooped up another new member during the MLS All-Star break. Lew Wolff, who owns a large percentage of the Oakland A’s, will return MLS to the Bay Area with a second edition of the San Jose Earthquakes, an expansion franchise that will give the league 14 teams.

San Jose Earthquakes owners John Fisher (left) and
Lew Wolff join Commissioner Don Garber last week
to announce plans for the MLS expansion franchise,
which will begin play in 2008.

Wolff will be joined in the endeavor by fellow A’s owner John Fisher, the son of Gap founder Don Fisher.

MLS retained the name and records of the Earthquakes, so those will be reverted back to the new team. The original franchise, owned by AEG, moved to Houston after the 2005 season.

Wolff and Fisher acquired the option to the team in December 2005 for a $20 million expansion fee. Though the option extended until 2010, the group began meeting with the league 30 days ago about exercising it sooner, said MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

“We have an office, we have a staff, we have excitement in the community,” Wolff said. “We decided if the ownership was willing to do so we would exercise the option now, get a team fielded for next season and start to have some fun.”

Though the team will not have a new stadium next year, Wolff said he has focused on two potential sites for the 2008 season. He would not specify where those are. He hopes to have a stadium built by 2010.

With MLS at 13 teams this season, adding a 14th sooner rather than later will help balance the league and make scheduling easier.

Wolff said he’s a new fan of soccer. He traces his interest in the sport back to watching a game in Phil Anschutz’s box at Home Depot Center a few years ago.

Usually a quiet person, Anschutz became very animated during the game, which led Wolff to believe there was something special about the sport. He called Fisher after the game and said, “We have to start taking a real look at soccer.”

The board unanimously approved the addition of Wolff and Fisher as owner-operators. Garber pointed out that investment in MLS had reached an all-time high with 11 owners for 14 clubs.

 Future additions: Interest in acquiring an expansion franchise was at an all-time high last week, according to league officials, as 10 potential investors took in the all-star festivities. The unprecedented interest has Garber eyeing not only the addition of two more teams by 2009 to create a 16-team league, but another two teams by 2012 for an 18-team league.

The commissioner shared that news with Real Madrid President Ramon Calderon during a Monday lunch, leading the Spaniard to say, “That means people are interested in soccer.”

Without prioritizing any one market, Garber listed possible expansion cities as: Vancouver, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, San Diego, San Antonio, St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Rochester, N.Y., New York City, Atlanta, Miami and Las Vegas.

The expansion price for future teams is believed to be between $30 million and $35 million. D.C. United reportedly sold for $30 million in December 2006.

 Jersey sales: Adidas has sold 250,000 Los Angles Galaxy jerseys, Garber said during his state-of-the-league address. That figure tops the number sold by Real Madrid in David Beckham’s first season with the Spanish team.

Chris McGuire, Adidas’ sports marketing manager for soccer, said Beckham’s Icon line was already beating expectations in the United States, as well. The line is similar to Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman.”

The company has added two new shoes to its Beckham portfolio to coincide with his MLS debut. He will have a blue pair and a white pair to match the Galaxy’s home and away jerseys.

Adidas is seeing its licensing relationship with the league pay off beyond Beckham, as well. The rest of the league’s jersey sales are up 300 percent — without Beckham — from last year, setting a league record, Garber said.

Partner activation: The league held its first Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Soccer Jam in downtown Denver the day before the game. Usually, the event is held at the soccer stadium where the game is set to be played.

This year’s Jam featured two bands, a game of soccer-tennis between members of the all-star team and autograph sessions. Several hundred people turned out.

Sponsor activation around the event was limited. Sierra Mist set up an inflatable jersey; Chase and Visa collaborated on a card sign-up tent; Budweiser offered a beer garden with giveaways; and Burger King’s logo was on the stage.

One of the most creative activations was scheduled to come during the All-Star Game from new sponsor Luggage Express. A skydiver was expected to land on the field with the game ball in hand as the PA announcer said the ball had been delivered “safely and on time by Luggage Express.”

The All-Star Game was scheduled to start after press time.

Short notes: The 2008 MLS All-Star Game will be in Toronto. … MLS will launch a new diversity program designed to boost diversity in team and league offices. … MLS WORKS, the league’s new nonprofit arm, announced a partnership with Right to Play that will see 20 MLS players become ambassadors for the organization.

Executive editor Abraham Madkour contributed to this report.

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