Want A Stadium For Football? Try A Little Soccer

If Paul Allen builds a new state-of-the-art football stadium, Major League Soccer would like to be a tenant.

Alan Rothenberg, chairman of MLS and president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said yesterday a soccer franchise could help sell the idea of a new stadium to Seattle.

"We're the answer to a community's prayers," he said.

Seattle was among the cities discussed for future franchises during the league's first expansion-committee meeting yesterday. MLS operates in 10 cities, with a season running from April through October.

Rothenberg said he'll talk to Bob Whitsitt, Allen's representative who is trying to resolve the stadium issue. Allen acquired a 14-month option to buy the Seahawks from owner Ken Behring, but the deal hinges on whether the team gets a suitable, long-term stadium.

Rothenberg, president of soccer's 1994 World Cup organizing committee, has a long relationship with Whitsitt. Both worked with the National Basketball Association; Rothenberg with the Los Angeles Clippers, Whitsitt with the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers.

One of the biggest concerns for local leaders has been how to pay for a potential stadium that would be used for only 10 National Football League games a year.

Professional soccer could add as many as 30 dates for a stadium. Rothenberg said a new stadium also would attract international exhibitions and regional- and state-championship matches.

"Suddenly, we can make a (new) stadium make economic sense," he said.

MLS officials are trying to forge a relationship with NFL owners across the country because they have determined that baseball-only stadiums are not a good fit for soccer. They also realize they can fill a void during football's offseason.

Seattle, considered one of soccer's strongholds, was targeted for one of the 10 original MLS teams. But the region was not awarded a team because it lacked an adequate outdoor stadium.

The Kingdome has artificial turf, and soccer must be played on grass as mandated by the sport's international governing body. MLS made an exception for its New York-based team, which will finish its season on an artificial turf in Giants Stadium.

MLS debuted this year with modest expectations but has proven to be more successful than even Rothenberg dreamed. Through its first 25 games, the league is averaging 29,000 a game.

When the league sold franchises to prospective investors, it projected an average of 10,000 to 12,000 the first season. MLS hoped to slowly increase its attendance by building a grassroots base.

The Pacific Northwest is one of the country's strongest soccer regions and considered a viable market for MLS. The Seattle Sounders, now an A-division team, were once one of the biggest draws in the defunct North American Soccer League.

"For our timing (a new stadium in Seattle) is perfect," Rothenberg said. "It wouldn't be ready until 1999 or the year 2000.

"We want to make sure everything we have is stable and working good."

Michael Campbell, president of the Sports and Events Council of Seattle/King County, has been part of a group trying to lure an MLS franchise to the area and said yesterday that a soccer team would be a logical tenant for a new stadium.

Information from Seattle Times staff reporter Richard Seven is included in this report.