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For M.L.S., the Sport's Future Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Published: November 11, 2005

Don Garber pointed to a neon orange chair in his cushy corner office, which overlooks Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. With a smile as bright as the chair's leather exterior, he gushed: "How many commissioners have orange leather chairs, man? It's happening!"

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Douglas C. Pizac/Associated Press

M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber sees a bright future from his new office on Fifth Avenue.

For Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, the chair is more than a place to sit. It is a statement of where the M.L.S. is and where it is heading.

"It represents the brand that we want to shout out to everyone in this country and around the world," he said. "That we're young, that we're somewhat hip, that we've got a sense of who we are and a sense of history, yet at the same time a real sense of our future."

And what exactly is the future of M.L.S.? The league concludes its 10th season Sunday when the Los Angeles Galaxy plays the New England Revolution in Frisco, Tex., for the league title.

While intelligent marketing has helped give M.L.S. financial certainty, Garber's vision may not be universally accepted. He said the league has exceeded expectations and has an even brighter future.

"Decades from now, this will be one of the most popular sports leagues in America," Garber said.

But the sports consultant Marc Ganis said soccer "is not a traditional U.S. sport and has not grown into that. There are many people who believe it never will."

Ganis is the president of SportsCorp Ltd., a sports business and marketing consultant group.

"I think it will be a major niche sport, and it has the potential of growing even a little bit beyond that," he added. "In our lifetime, and the lifetimes of our children, Major League Soccer will not rival the N.B.A., Major League Baseball or the N.F.L."

The raw numbers alone suggest the league has shown little growth since its inception in 1996.

Average regular-season attendance was at its highest in the league's first season (17,406), but it has been up and down since and was at 15,108 this past season, slightly down from last year. Although total viewership has increased, television ratings have declined since the inaugural season.

And the league was reported to have lost an estimated $250 million in its first five years and more than $300 million over all.

But M.L.S. also has reasons for optimism.

A television deal that, according to Garber, "will drastically change the economics of Major League Soccer," is close to being completed.

The league is continuing to invest in multimillion-dollar soccer stadiums and plans to expand to 14 teams by 2007, signs that it is not planning to close its doors.

"I would say probably in some respects, the league may not be exactly where we thought it might be," said Lamar Hunt, owner of the Columbus Crew, F.C. Dallas and the Kansas City Wizards, as well as the N.F.L.'s Kansas City Chiefs. "But I think the sport has far exceeded what a reasonable expectation might be."

Though the league is still losing money - only the Galaxy and the Crew have been reported to have had at least one profitable season - the single-entity ownership structure, salary cap and marketing umbrella, Soccer United Marketing, have given M.L.S. financial security.

For Hunt, there is no comparison to be made with the North American Soccer League, which lasted from 1967 to 1984 and was driven out of existence by overexpansion and overspending. Hunt owned the N.A.S.L.'s Dallas Tornados.

The question for M.L.S. is not if it will survive, but if it will grow into a product that is largely accepted by the mainstream sports fan.

"We have the same kind of difficulty that hockey's got," Doug Logan, the former M.L.S. commissioner, said in a recent telephone interview. "We've got a rabid core fan base, but to reach a larger universe of the viewing public is a difficult thing, and it's going to take a long time for it to happen."

For now, Garber said, he is not concerned with turning football, baseball or basketball fans into soccer fans. His first priority, he said, was to turn fans of soccer in the United States into M.L.S. fans.

M.L.S. has focused on young people over the past 10 years, Garber said, hoping that as they get older, the fan base will grow.

The league is also focusing on the growing ethnic population in the United States, he added.

Before the start of this season, the league signed a 10-year, $150 million sponsorship deal with Adidas, which is more than twice as much as it received from nine corporate sponsors in its inaugural season.

Ganis said he has heard the argument that soccer's big day is coming all too often.

"There is a fundamental disconnect between the participation in the game as children and interest to watch and attend games on the professional level in the United Sates," he said. "It's one of the strangest things that people in sports have found."

Soccer participation among high schoolers has been growing since 1985, according to studies released by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Still, M.L.S. receives little national attention compared to other major professional sports in the United States. It does not have the best time slot on television.

Yet Garber, backed by a group of investors, has been patient. While M.L.S. compares itself to other sports leagues, Garber said, those involved with the league "also remind ourselves that we're 10 years through our first generation," he said. "We're only halfway through our first turn of a father and son having that shared experience of going to a Galaxy game or going to a MetroStars game."