Wednesday, October 16, 2002

NON-AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Brooks pasted up a BusinessWeek article on the MLS and WUSA so we could all read it. As you may have guessed, neither league is doing so hot:

The painful truth is that since the 1970s, soccer leagues big and small have folded--lost in a haze of Hail Mary passes, three-pointers, and stat-smashing home runs. Today, both pro leagues remain financially frail. MLS has accumulated losses of $250 million to $300 million since its inception. And WUSA was forced to solicit new funds from main investors such as Cox Communications, Comcast, and John S. Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, after burning through its five-year budget--$40 million--in its initial season. It now has backing for the remaining three years of its five-year plan but won't disclose how much more investors have put up.

And yet soccer leagues can always find people wanting to buy in. Do speculators admiring the franchise values of your average NFL team still consider soccer the final frontier of major league American pro sports? Like, thinking, "If I can just get in on the ground floor of this, I can make a mint like the old-time NFL owners." So these leagues keep cropping up and going bad, like when Bullwinkle used to try and pull the rabbit out of his hat--you knew it was not going to work. Personally, I think what the MLS has working against it is that it is not the best soccer league in the world--which is what is working for the WUSA, which is the best women's soccer league in the world. Then again, the NASL has Pele and they still went bust, but wasn't there a brief flowering of huge crowds in the NASL? Google says no, there wasn't, so there you go.

I also like pro women's soccer's chances in this country because it is a nascent cult sport and all a cult needs is some followers and it can be sustained in perpetuity. Plus it remains a tiny league and hopefully will not overreach; I can see moving a team to Portland, but other than that the WUSA is good like it is. It also has Lorrie Fair going for it. And Heather Mitts. Yes it does. It's completely invisible on the national sports radar except to its cultists, and as long as it has enough of those and remains the fun little low-rent league that is, it'll be fine. MLS has the stink of "we still can't get people to watch" all about it, on the other hand, something the pioneering WUSA does not have.

All those sports business speculators should''ve been trying to buy into the Arena League anyway, which hits primetime broadcast teevee next season and has seen its franchise values go up over the years. Even if it crashes and burns XFL-style in rating terms it'll survive, since it has built an audience for the past twenty years and isn't a made-for-tv product like the XFL was. Of course, this is a different set of circumstances as NBC is using the AFL as its ultimate anti-NBA weapon, which sounds like a crummy, shortsighted plan. But we'll see.

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