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It Seems To Me . . .

Anemic playoff attendance and potential defection of sponsors are major MLS concerns.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, October 28, 1999) -- In case you haven't noticed, there have been a few empty seats in Major League Soccer stadiums during the first round of the playoffs. In fact, to be uncharitable, fans are staying away in droves.

A number of factors seem to be at work including length of the season, some strange scheduling, and a crowded sports calendar. But whatever the reason, it has to have league and team officials deeply worried.

How much is attendance off? Of the nine home games played in the first playoff round, only two teams exceeded their average season attendance. D.C. United, for its opening match against the Miami Fusion, drew a respectable 18,011 This was greater than United's 17,419 regular season average, but still less than the 20,695 who showed up for the final match of the season -- a meaningless affair against New England.

Tampa Bay was the only other team to draw better than its season average in its home playoff match against Columbus. The match was attended by 14,392, better than the 13,106 the Mutiny drew during the season. A third team, Miami, came close. Miami, in the D.C. United visit to the Fusion's Fort Lauderdale home, while drawing only a poor 8,446, came close to its season average of 8,689.

The rest did not come close. Los Angeles drew 16,307 for its match against Chicago. This compares with the Galaxy's season average of 17,632 and only about half of the 29,161 Los Angeles drew for its final weekend home match. Chicago drew only 13,197, below its 16,016 season average.

Colorado drew a miserable 6,542, less than half its 14,029 season average. Dallas drew 10,980, less than its 12,211 season average, for its opening game against Chicago,, then had only 9,795 at the Cotton Bowl for its decisive third game against the Fire last night. That was, however, the only weeknight match in the playoffs so far.

And perhaps the biggest surprise, Columbus, with a league leading average attendance in the regular season of 17,696 drew only 9,188 for its first round match against Tampa Bay.

Why? The league points out that in many sports, attendance declines in opening round playoff action. But in MLS, first-round playoff tickets are a part of season ticket packages. In most sports they are not. But this also gives MLS teams the ability to count season ticket no-shows in their attendance figures.

Another reason is MLS's need to fit the playoff schedule to match its television commitments. This has meant that matches must be scheduled for 1 p.m. (ET) on Sunday for Univision, and later on Sunday afternoon for ESPN. The fact that MLS teams shares stadiums with National Football League teams meant that the Tampa Bay contest was played on Friday night, so the stadium could be ready for a Buccaneers NFL game on Sunday.

League officials believe they would have drawn better had all matches been played on Saturday night. This sounds logical. But that being the case, the league is in further trouble because none of the second-round conference championship matches are going to be played on Saturday night, even if both series go the maximum three matches.

Especially annoying for D.C. United fans, and club officials, is the scheduling of United's home opener against Columbus, probably the best matchup of the playoffs, at 1 p.m. Sunday. That not only is a time when many amateur and youth soccer leagues around the D.C. area are playing, but it is also the exact time the NFL's Redskins kick off at home against the Chicago Bears.

Reportedly United tried desperately to get the match rescheduled, but was unable to. MLS was obligated to provide a certain number of playoff matches both to Univision and to ESPN. The only way it could fulfill the obligation was by scheduling both United-Crew matches for successive Sundays at 1 p.m.

Which brings up another point. Arguably the United-Crew series is the best of the playoffs. Yet the only way Americans will be able to see it is if they are on a cable system that carries Spanish-language Univision. And then they will be able to understand what they are seeing only if they speak Spanish, because English is verboten on Univision.

For instance, last weekend I watched the United-Miami Fusion match on Univision with a room full of knowledgeable soccer fans. The was an incident in the 35th minute, away from the camera, and United's Richie Williams was shown getting a red card and then shown being escorted from the field. Obviously he had been ejected. But it was not until well into the second half when we started counted players on the field that it became apparent that a Miami player was also missing. Further study led to the deduction that the Fusion's Henry Gutierrez had been ejected also.

Some United fans I talked with said they did not know that United was not playing a man down until the next morning when they read the paper.

I am sure that Univision's wonderful soccer broadcaster Andres Cantor had kept his audience fully informed. But their pictures showed only Williams. A couple of lines of English would have helped, with Cantor explaining to the English speaking audience what was going on.

I asked Cantor one day why he could not throw a little English into his broadcasts to help his non-Spanish speaking audience. A charming man who is very fluent in English, he said simply "I am not allowed."

A league official, asked how MLS could allow playoffs match with national interest to be broadcast only in Spanish when a second audio feed would be a simple matter, replied, "We have explored that with Univision in the past and all I can say is they have not been receptive. But they have new ownership now and we will revisit the issue."

New MLS commissioner Don Garber was brought in by the owners because of his experience with broadcasters and sponsors. He is now on the hot spot because between now and the end of the year, MLS must renew its sponsorship deals with six of its most important sponsors. Given where attendance figures and television ratings are, it is likely going to be a difficult process to get renewals at anywhere near the dollar figures that the sponsors have been paying in the past.

MLS's contracts with AT&T, Allsport, Anheuser-Busch, Honda, Pepsi and Bic all expire at the end of the year. How much they have been paying MLS is a major state secret. But reportedly, each has been paying somewhere between $2 million and $2.5 million annually in deals that get each sponsor on-field billboards, their names on various team jerseys and their ads on MLS sponsored broadcasts.

Last year three major sponsorships were up for renewal. MasterCard renewed, but reportedly only after some long and tough bargaining. Two others of the league's original sponsors did not renew - Fuji Film and Bandai. The league has since blamed their defections on Asian economic problems.

According to sports marketing sources, a difficult decision facing Garber and MLS is whether to insist that all sponsors renew at current levels and whether to insist that deals be all cash, or whether to accept portions of the deals in various kinds of cross promotional marketing tie-ins. For example, it might be worth more to MLS if next summer, Pepsi were to put players' pictures on cans and six-packs and run promotional contests built around MLS, than simply to get a check.

But this presents a dilemma for MLS. It badly needs the publicity and the promotion. But at the same time, given the amounts it is losing annually, MLS also needs sponsor dollars. These are the kinds of problems Garber has been brought in to solve. It will be interesting to watch him in action.

Robert Wagman’s "It Seems To Me . . ." column appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at

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