MLS Sets Gooooals

Despite the fairly hasty exit of the U.S. team from the 2006 World Cup and pointed reminders that soccer isn’t the focus of sporting obsession as it is around the rest of the planet, professional American soccer has begun to make a noticeable mark on the landscape in recent years.

Major League Soccer, on its deathbed just five years ago, is now attracting fat cat investors from the major U.S. sports leagues as well as traditional soccer countries, and to a large degree has Denver billionaire and AEG patriarch Philip Anschutz to thank.

The league has grown to 13 teams and is in the middle of a $700 million soccer-specific stadium building spree which, according to The New York Times, will result in homes for seven of those teams.

Austrian energy drink maker Red Bull recently spent $100 million on the MLS New York team with its purchase from Anschutz, and the owner of Mexico’s popular Chivas Guadalajara team has started another in Los Angeles.

In addition, the league has made deals with ESPN, ABC and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision to broadcast MLS. The World Cup is already airing on ESPN and ABC, and Mark Cuban’s high-definition network, HDNet, started showing games this year.

“We’re at the tipping point,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.

MLS still has a long way to go. Games average about 16,000 fans, with plenty of matches drawing fewer than 10,000. TV audiences are tiny, despite the bump the World Cup is providing.

Soccer won’t become a dominant sport overnight, but growth over the long-term is being carefully plotted by Anschutz and other primary backers of MLS. The 20,000-seat stadiums and TV contracts, that pale in comparison to those doled out for major sports and events like the Olympics, are key to those plans.

“If you can own [soccer] in this country, you own something that 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now is going to be worth a lot more,” Jonathan Kraft told the NYT. Kraft runs MLS’s New England Revolution and his father, Robert, is a founding MLS investor.

The league was born when the U.S. Soccer Federation promised the sport’s international governing body that it would form a legit pro league as a condition of hosting the 1994 World Cup. By 2001, however, the league was dying.

That December, Anschutz hosted a retreat of MLS officials at his Denver-area ranch, including the elder Kraft (who owns the NFL’s New England Patriots) and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who were bankrolling the league. People close to the talks told the paper that Anschutz essentially gave them an ultimatum: Pony up or shut down.

Anschutz, Hunt and Kraft ponied up, investing more resources in MLS and with a new focus on forging better ties between the American and international soccer communities. MLS closed down two Florida teams while Anschutz took over two others, controlling a total of six of the league’s then-10 teams. He also began investing in European soccer.

MLS investors, at Anschutz’s reported insistence, also created a marketing arm to capitalize on the growing American interest in international soccer.

Soccer United Marketing was MLS’s first acquisition, according to the NYT, and obtained U.S. television rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. The company produces the game telecasts, which are shown in the U.S. on ABC and ESPN.

And Anschutz is looking at developing not only an audience for soccer, but players, too. With English superstar David Beckham as a partner, AEG owns a soccer academy in Los Angeles and has teased American fans with the prospect of bringing Becks to the U.S. to finish out his career.

“There are 40 or 50 gifted players on the world stage in football,” AEG CEO Tim Leiweke told the NYT, referring to the common international name for soccer. “We need a few of those to help us take our league to the next level.”

At press time, MLS was considering a rule change that would allow its teams to sign world-class players including the much-coveted Beckham and Brazil’s Ronaldo.