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Jerry's World

Columbus stadium gives reason to celebrate, but MLS has work to do.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, May 13, 1999) -- Itís feel-good time for Major League Soccer which is ready to celebrate Saturday nightís opening of the soccer-specific Columbus Crew stadium. An overflow crowd of 24,000 expected for the match against New England Revolution.

It is a great moment for soccer in the United States. We can forget, for the moment, flat attendance, lack of goal-scoring, and inconsistent officiating of the first two months of this fourth MLS season. The stadium will create an intimate and festive atmosphere.

Major League Soccer hopes it will create the same positive fan reaction that has occurred with new baseball parks in Baltimore, Cleveland and Texas. "There have been events and people that have shaped the future of every sport," Columbus president Jamey Rootes told the Washington Times. "This is going to be one of those events. The sport of soccer (in the United States) is never going to be the same."

We hope so. But the fulfillment of Lamar Hunt's extraordinary quest in mid-Ohio is merely the start of a very long journey -- and by no means the complete answer -- to the ultimate success of the sport here.

Among the comments:

Commissioner Doug Logan: "The quicker we get into stadiums that are of a scale that's appropriate to the league, the quicker we start creating demand (for tickets)."

D.C. United general manager Kevin Payne: "It's not good for any of our teams to be playing second fiddle in stadiums that are too large."

MLS marketing director Randy Bernstein: "This will help us get to the next level, establish a tremendous base of credibility despite what the media says."

There are 12 teams in Major League Soccer, and nine now play in huge football stadiums, most of which create little or no atmosphere -- with crowds of 15,000 rumbling around in complexes designed to seat 50,000-80,000 spectators.

Columbus has the ideal. The San Jose Clash and Miami Fusion also have similar-sized facilities, which means MLS is 25 percent there -- though expansion to 14 teams in 2001 and 16 teams shortly thereafter undoubtedly will reduce that figure.

The others:

Los Angeles Galaxy - Rose Bowl, primary tenant UCLA.
Chicago Fire - Soldier Field, primary tenant Chicago Bears.
Colorado Rapids - Mile High Stadium, primary tenant Denver Broncos.
D.C. United - RFK Stadium, former home of Washington Redskins.
Dallas Burn - Cotton Bowl.
Kansas City Wizards - Arrowhead Stadium, primary tenant Kansas City Chiefs.
New England Revolution - Foxboro Stadium, primary tenant New England Patriots.
New York/New Jersey MetroStars - Giants Stadium, primary tenants New York Giants, New York Jets.
Tampa Bay Mutiny - Raymond James Stadium, primary tenant Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Crew officials say four teams have sent delegations to Columbus to view construction. That's encouraging. There needs to be more movement toward soccer-specific stadiums encompassing delights before matches, during matches (atmosphere), and after matches -- with reasonable-size capacity so empty seats don't dwarf those in attendance.

Are there any more Lamar Hunts around? He already has discouraged talk about a soccer stadium for his other team, in Kansas City, where the Wizards play in a stadium with 79,500 capacity where the fan base for the sport is limited, at best.

Colorado also plays in a stadium with 76,000 capacity, where the fan base for the sport likewise is limited.

No one questions the fan base for Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York/New Jersey. but the stadiums are 3-4 times larger than most crowds attracted by MLS teams there.

RFK Stadium, with a capacity slightly more than 50,000, can create considerable atmosphere with 15,000-20,000 attendance because of its configuration.

Commissioner Logan appears satisfied with huge Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, despite the capacity 65,400 - and the Mutiny's attendance struggles in recent years.

What's it going to take to get more soccer-specific stadiums? And in the right place?

MLS takes kudos for the Fusion facility, but many observers believe the Lockhart Stadium location in Fort Lauderdale is the wrong one, too far away from Miami.

Other challenges the league faces?

* Get attendance out of the 14,000-15,000 range and up to 17,000-18,000.
* Television ratings in the 1-2 range.
* More teams like D.C. United and Chicago Fire last year.
* More players like Marco Etcheverry and Carlos Valderrama, and we can't afford to lose too many elite young stars overseas.

Success stories like Columbus -- helped no doubt by having the easy fairgrounds availability of 6,000-7,000 parking places as well as not having major league teams in baseball, football and basketball -- are needed to encourage millionaires to build facilities. But the stadiums aren't the sole answer.

The sport must succeed first, and the facilities will come.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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