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MLS improvements are welcomed, but there's a lot of work still to do.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, November 18, 1999) -- Abolition of the shootout got the headlines, overshadowing far more significant action by Major League Soccer as it attempts to reverse sluggishness both in attendance and television ratings.

Much more work needs to be done.

The establishment of Saturday Night Soccer -- with games on 19 consecutive weeks, including nine doubleheaders -- provides the sport with an unprecedented consistent "destination'' period for viewers. Just as important is the one-hour MLS highlight show Monday nights.

There will be no reasonable excuses if ratings don't dramatically rise from present languid levels. No more complaining about unavailability of soccer on television. It's time to see if there are enough fans to justify calling soccer a major American sport.

Following the game in Europe or Central America or South America doesn't count; we're talking Major League Soccer in the United States. Commissioner Don Garber probably already has earned his pay with this package, but he could double it with a solution to the equally vexing problem of attendance, which has fallen from 17,416 the first euphoric season to 14,616, then 14,312, and finally 14,282 in the three succeeding ones.

Half the teams showed increases from 1998, but dragging down the totals are the big-city franchises -- New York\New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Miami. The MetroStars need a decent team, the Galaxy need a new stadium, and the Fusion situation might be similar to Kansas City -- impossible.

Weeknight games are a big concern for Garber, with attendance averaging 8,469 for 35 games in 1999, with the possibility of more dates in 2000 with the schedule shortened by a month. More promotion is needed for these matches, which frequently are ignored by marketing departments.

Summer should be an ideal time for weeknight soccer - no school, no youth games -- and MLS needs to step up here, and not put all its promotion muscle into the more lucrative weekend dates.

The 1999 attendance breakdown:
Weeknights (35) - 8,469 average.
Fridays (11) - 11,967 average.
Saturdays (107) - 14,979 average.
Sundays (39) - 17,663 average.

The shift to three divisions is good in that it produces three races rather than two, and also to be applauded is the decision to have the rest of the playoff berths go to wild cards along with the three regular-season champions. Conceivably all four teams from a division could make the post-season.

The "purists" or "hard-core" soccer fans especially welcome the demise of the shootout because it was a gimmick, unnatural to the sport, and also unfair to the "loser," who deserved better. But does that translate into more attendance, higher TV ratings?

Are there many fans who didn't watch 90 minutes of "real" soccer because there might be a tie, and then the dreaded shootout would occur? If so, are they going to return in droves? I don't think so.

MLS rightfully paid heed to the core audience with its decision on the shootout, and some enthusiasm should replace the negativity for that reason. But the television package -- along with continued improved play on the field with more additions such as Ariel Graziani and keeping stalwarts like Ronald Cerritos. improved marketing by MLS teams, and improved media coverage nationally -- are more important.

The TV element has been resolved, as has the controversial shootout; there are more areas to be confronted.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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