Sports Sermon: MLS president discusses the league and the economy

October 23, 2008

I’ve used this space several times in the past to discuss the progress of soccer in the United States and, quite frankly, I’m embarrassed that until recently I didn’t know that one of American soccer’s key figures is a Georgetown alumnus. Mark Abbott (SFS `86), the most recently featured speaker of the Michael Jurist (SFS `07) Distinguished Alumni Roundtable Series, is the president of Major League Soccer and the principal author of the league’s original business plan.

Last Friday, Abbott weighed in on how the current economic recession will affect Major League Soccer. Sports like baseball have always remained relatively unscathed in dire economic times because the venues provided affordable distractions. But, according to Abbott, sports are no longer recession-proof because of the commercial sponsorships and contracts that are intertwined with the rest of the economy. He hopes, however, that MLS will prove more resistant.

“I would be surprised if there was an impact at the gate,” he said. “Right now our tickets are so affordable that economic problems shouldn’t really affect attendance.”

But as the league continues to grow and scrape out a place among the country’s more popular professional sports, it too will have to seek out more commercial sponsorships and may begin to feel the trickle down effects of the recession.

Abbott, however, believes that the key to the financial success and popularity of MLS lies in the conversion to soccer-specific stadiums. Following the success of World Cup `94, the league’s original teams shared professional and college football stadiums. These venues, however, were not conducive to games that attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 spectators, and the franchises took a hit financially. The soccer-specific stadium trend began in 2003 when the LA Galaxy opened the Home Depot Center. FC Dallas followed suit two years later with Pizza Hut Park, and Los Angeles and Dallas became the first two teams in the MLS to draw a profit. Four other teams have opened new stadiums since then, and the rest are trying to follow this new trend.

With the collapse of the credit market, funding for these stadiums will be much tougher to come by. Things won’t get any easier when two new expansion cities, Seattle and Philadelphia, begin play in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Abbott believes that if Major League Soccer is going to be hampered by the current economic environment, this is where it will hurt the most. This is especially relevant to the District, where hometown franchise D.C. United has been pushing for a soccer-specific stadium for years. United is the sole remaining tenant of RFK Stadium, and according to Abbott, a move to a state-of-the-art soccer complex is something that needs to happen, one way or another.

“As one of the league’s flagship franchises, we are obviously paying close attention to what is happening with United,” he said. “It needs to happen, and if not in D.C., then maybe in Maryland.”

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