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It Seems To Me . . .

Dear Don: Will MLS institute openness as part of its new regime?

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Wednesday, August 11, 1999) -- An open letter to new Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.

Dear Don (if I might be so familiar):

I thought I would ask you a couple of things in this kind of public forum so that my readers can see that I am asking. I really don't expect a direct answer. I know you are not yet full-time on the job. But I would hope you think about the issues I raise as you settle in for what we all hope is a long and prosperous stay.

The other day one of my readers, Tony DiMilo, passed along some questions that he thought should be asked of you and the others up there in New York. "Has MLS attempted to measure the extent to which existing soccer fans support and do not support MLS? If not why? If there is evidence that there is a sizable contingent of soccer fans who do not support MLS, or whose view of the league is lukewarm at best, what does MLS intend to do to win soccer these fans back to MLS? And if MLS cannot gain the support of existing soccer fans, what makes the MLS leadership so certain that it can attract the support of non-soccer fans? These are important questions and I don't think MLS has a clue to the answers, but if they do, I'd like to hear them."

I think I had a good relationship with your predecessor. But Doug Logan had a few blind spots. One of the worst, from my perspective anyway, was his refusal to even engage in a discussion of the central issue Mr. DiMilo raises: whether there is a conflict between trying to lure new "casual" fans to MLS matches while at the same time not alienating what its base audience -- longtime soccer fans. Doug was unwilling to see that any sort of inherent conflict exists. I think he believed if he turned a blind eye to the situation, and refused even to discuss it, it would eventually go away.

What you will come to learn, quickly I think, is that most soccer fans in this country have gotten used to seeing their sport regularly denigrated in the media as some kind of slightly "un-American" sport played primarily for ethnic audiences by little guys who just couldn't make it in the manly sports like football and basketball. Therefore, by nature, soccer fans tend to be both defensive and suspicious. They have looked to the leaders of MLS, to become the champions of their sport, and to help it gain a public acceptance that it still lacks. But what they think they had in Doug Logan was someone who was willing to compromise the integrity of the sport in an attempt to lure those casual fans into the seats.

Doug believed, as apparently do many of the MLS marketers both in New York and around the league cities, that the game must be "Americanized" to appeal to a broad section of fans who have grown up on baseball, football and basketball. Thus the shootout and time clock have becomes symbols of this Americanization, and what to soccer fans seems a willingness to compromise the sportís integrity.

The other day you said you thought there was a fairly even split among fans for and against the shootout. I think here you are seeing evidence of the difference between die-hard soccer fans, and Doug's casual fans. But it also may depend on how you ask the question. Ask the following question even of casual fans: "Your team just played courageously to earn a draw after 90 minutes. Now they are engaged in a shootout, and if they lose they will come away with nothing, while in most soccer leagues around the world they would have earned at least a single point. Is that fair?" I think this would give you another measure of shootout support.

If you ask the question, as apparently MLS survey takers have in the past, "Do you find this exciting?" Well, of course they do. If you had team mascots meet in the center circle with six-irons, they would find that exciting too. Political pollsters will tell you that you can always get the answer you want by asking the wrong question.

You are a sports marketing guy. That's why you have been hired. Based on the e-mails I have received since your appointment, the worry exists that you will be quick to compromise the game in the name of marketing expediency. Many can see the day when one of your broadcast partners will tell you that you could improve your numbers if only soccer scores were more like lacrosse scores (19-17, 15-14, etc.). So your marketing people will say you need to widen the goal, do away with the offside rule, blindfold the goalie, whatever. The worry is you will be quick to say "OK, let's do it." Back to Mr. DiMilo. He says I should ask that question of league officials. But I won't waste my time. If there is one thing reporters have learned over the past four years it is that it is much easier to get straight answers out of the Kremlin and the CIA, than out of MLS offices.

My colleague Brooke Tunstall pointed out the kind of secrecy the other day in your phone press conference when player personnel head Ivan Gazidis refused to give any of the financial details of the transfer fee paid by MLS to acquire Ariel Graziani. You come from a culture of relative openness in the NFL, where by the terms of its collective bargaining agreement, details are given out about player contracts -- length, amounts, etc. Now you are coming into an organization that treats these subjects as the most closely guarded of trade secrets.

It is not just that openness would make a reporter's job easier. It would, of course. But this secrecy is causing the league real credibility problems, and they will only get worse. Go around the league and talk to the fans. What you will learn is that fans of all 12 teams, and I do mean all 12, believe that their teams have been shortchanged by the league in player personnel dealings one way or another. This perception is fed by the secrecy.

Look at the Graziani acquisition. Stories are rampant that MLS paid $2 million to his Mexican team, plus who knows how much to him in salary. All the league will say is this is not accurate. How is this received by fans in the other cities besides New England? They are left to think that basically New England has been given a player worth more than the entire roster of their team, given the $1.7 million salary cap per team.

Another example. A couple of weeks ago Dundee United of Scotland's well respected manager, Paul Sturrock, was widely quoted in the Scottish media as saying he was close to making a deal with MLS for a midfielder with U.S. national team experience. That obviously is a rather small universe of players, so it was of considerable interest to the fans of a number of teams that one of their best players was about to be dealt away.

All that came from MLSí New York offices was silence. "We don't talk about these things," was an actual quote. Finally when stories kept coming out of Scotland that a deal was imminent, the league admitted talks had been underway, but that the player involved was not a U.S. national, and finally that no deal was likely because the amount being offered was insufficient.

Soccer fans are used to a great deal of openness. Around the world, player contracts are public knowledge, transfer lists are published, negotiations are all but held in public. Here all this is closely held, with the result that suspicion grows. And how much more so in the world's strangest ownership situation, where owners control multiple teams.

So in the coming weeks, as you meet with your owners, you might want to advance the idea that for the league's own good, maybe it's time to be a little more open about your dealings with players and player personnel movement between teams.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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