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MLS Franchise in Philadelphia???


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Posted on Fri, Aug. 01, 2003

John Smallwood | Getting a kick out of soccer


By John Smallwood


WHEN IT was announced that world soccer powers Manchester United and FC Barcelona would officially open Lincoln Financial Field with a game during their USA Tour, the 65,000-plus tickets sold out in hours.

Last month, when the sites for the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup were announced, Philadelphia and the Linc got the nod over Giants Stadium and the New York metropolitan area.

Still, despite the recent influx of big-time soccer events, and the city's historical connection with the game - remember the 1973 North American Soccer League champion Atoms? - Philadelphia isn't much closer to becoming a part of Major League Soccer than when Veterans Stadium was the primary venue for outdoor sports.

Basically, the Eagles would love to have an MLS team as a spring/summer/fall tenant in their spanking new sports cathedral.

And the MLS would love to be in the nation's fifth-largest media market to complete its Northeast Corridor cadre by having Philadelphia join the franchises already around Boston, New York and Washington.

"It's very clear that we have long believed that Philadelphia is one of the great soccer markets in the country," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "There is tremendous diversity in the market, and Philly is a great sports town. They support their teams. We have long looked at that market and hope someday for an expansion team.

"We were involved with the Eagles in [securing the World Cup]. We hope that can be the start of a process that will eventually end up with an expansion team someday coming to Philadelphia."

So what's the problem? Both sides like the idea, but there's no immediate plan for expansion into the City of Brotherly Love.

As we've learned so often in sports, agreeing to want something is a far distance from getting it done.

"We would like to have a team, and Major League Soccer is certainly very interested in the Philadelphia market," Eagles president Joe Banner said. "It's really going to depend on whether it's possible to integrate the Eagles schedule, [Temple's football] schedule and Major League Soccer. We don't know if that will work yet.

"If all three of those things can fit together, it would be our desire to pursue a team. We go in with a lot of interest and [MLS] comes in with a lot of interest so there's not much selling to each other left to do. It's more both of us kind of being practical, and making sure it fits into our plans as far as scheduling."

Well, there also could be a slight problem with the issue of ownership.

Owning an MLS team doesn't come with the license to print money that owning a NFL team does.

It's a risky venture at best.

The average attendance in MLS is 14,613 fans, and no team averages 21,000 a game. Hitting the league average would leave Lincoln Financial Field nearly 80 percent empty during a game.

The MLS is in its eighth year. Several teams already have folded and it would be easy to understand why the Eagles might hesitate to jump into the ownership waters.

From their perspective, having someone else own the team and play the games at the Linc is probably more suitable.

But MLS is wary of that kind of arrangement. It already has seen the disastrous results.

Two of the teams that went under - the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion - had such arrangements.

"The tenant being in a large stadium has not worked for us," Garber said. "I think the Eagles have been clear that they would love a team as a tenant, but we've seen that the formula for success in MLS is the owner of the stadium also owning the team."

Garber points to the Kansas City Wizards and New England Revolution as models for teams that play in football stadiums.

Lamar Hunt owns the Wizards, the Kansas City Chiefs and Arrowhead Stadium, where both teams play, and Robert Kraft owns the Revolution, the New England Patriots and Gillette Field.

"We've seen tremendous efficiency and value for those owners," Garber said. "They have additional fan attraction and limited sponsorship deals. They have a great additional connection to their communities by being an owner of one of the up-and-coming sports."

Frankly, if the Eagles don't want to be the owners, the chances of MLS coming to Philly are virtually nonexistent.

MLS likely would require any other perspective owner to place the team in a new soccer-specific stadium.

And with Philadelphia and Pennsylvania each already having put up one-third of a billion dollars to help build the Linc and the Phillies' new home - Citizens Bank Park - neither is likely to commit one public dime toward a soccer stadium.

So unless the person who wants to own the team will also build the stadium, it isn't going to happen.

"We'd consider [owning a team]," Banner said. "We don't have a position one way or the other yet. We're not saying absolutely no. We're not saying yes. When we get to the point of finding out that it can actually work in the building, we'll look at that."

Until then, Philadelphia soccer fans will have to be content to enjoy special events like Manchester United and the Women's World Cup. Perhaps the city can get into the rotation for some U.S. national team matches.

Soccer is, after all, a sport of anticipation.

Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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Posted on Tue, Aug. 05, 2003

MLS likes Philly, but snags remain?

The league would want to see a franchise here owned by the Eagles.

By Mike Jensen

Inquirer Staff Writer

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, saw the success of Sunday's Manchester United-FC Barcelona game at Lincoln Financial Field and said that his league, looking to make an expansion announcement in the next few months, still wants to be in Philadelphia.

Garber said yesterday that he would love to have the Eagles as owners of a Philadelphia team, but that it would be "difficult to impossible" for an MLS franchise to use the Birds' new stadium if Temple is playing college football games there on Saturdays.

"We're putting together a strategy to try to convince the Eagles and try to convince the Philadelphia soccer community that they would be well-served with an MLS team," Garber said.

Philadelphia does not have an MLS franchise because, until now, there has been no suitable stadium with a grass field. Garber said that there will still be no franchise if Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie decides against being involved as a majority owner.

The commissioner shot down rumors that the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns six of the 10 MLS teams, might be interested in owning a Philadelphia team. He said that the company, owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, wants to divest itself of teams, not add more.

Garber, whose league owns the television rights to this year's Women's World Cup, said that before the Eagles started working in May to get Cup games for Lincoln Financial Field, "we really had not had any detailed discussions with them about professional soccer." Before then, he said, MLS had not been aware that possible conflicts with Temple games would be an issue.

Asked before Sunday's soccer game whether there was more doubt than ever about a deal's getting done to get Temple football into the new stadium, Banner said: "You know, the Temple deal should have been done and really has been done in essence for so long. The fact that we kind of just can't push it over the finish line - I've been saying all along, the Temple deal's going to happen; it's just a question of when. I still believe that, but as time passes, you're less than 100 percent."

Officials of both the Eagles and Temple - which, because of its negotiated departure from the Big East Conference, does not have a league to play in after 2004 - have been vague about the delay in an agreement.

"It's very technical," Banner said, declining to be more specific. "It's purely legal. It's in the hands of some lawyers to figure out."

Asked about the Eagles' interest in owning an MLS team as opposed to having one for a tenant at the stadium, Banner said: "Our position is we are open to possibly being involved in the ownership of the team. We have not done any of the research that you need to do if you're really going to get involved in that kind of asset."

Meanwhile, Temple is about a month away from its Sept. 6 football opener against Villanova, but it still does not know where the game will be played.

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