MLS team in Seattle no sure bet

The prospect of a gleaming new Seahawk stadium does not also guarantee that Major League Soccer will award a franchise to Seattle in 2002, according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

That may come as a disappointment to some of the state's voters who helped pass the stadium referendum, in part, because it was promoted as a venue for professional soccer. That also runs contrary to what current Sounder co-owner Neil Farnsworth remembers former MLS Commissioner Doug Logan promising the city.

"We had Doug Logan come to Seattle and he guaranteed that we would have an MLS team here, even without an ownership group," Farnsworth said. "Basically, he came here because we asked him. We needed the soccer vote. Then I met with the new commissioner two months ago and he basically was shocked Doug would make that commitment."

No one as yet has stepped forward to express an interest in investing and operating a Seattle franchise, although it's still early in the process. If investors can't be found, that would be enough to deter Garber from granting the franchise to Seattle.

"I know that soccer helped to get the stadium approved, but I don't think it's a good business decision to have league-operated teams anymore," Garber said. "It might have made sense years ago, but to take on the additional burden of running a team is not something that's smart for us or Seattle."

Two of the league's 12 teams are league-operated, Tampa and Dallas, but Garber said he expects those teams to have local investors within 12 to 24 months. He wants the league to be completely free from operating teams within that time frame.

MLS is unlike most of the other professional sports leagues. All the teams are owned by the league and are franchised out, much like McDonald's would do with its fast-food restaurants. The league takes care of all the player salaries and much of the expenses, while sharing a portion of the TV, advertising and sponsorship money among the franchises. The local investors buy the right to operate the franchise in a market and can keep any local TV/sponsorship money generated by the team.

Farnsworth and his Sounder co-owner Scott Oki are not interested in being principal owner/operators of a new Seattle franchise. Their interest always has been to develop youth soccer programs in the area, although they won't rule out being minority investors.

"I know (Garber) feels strongly that Seattle would be a good venue, especially with the new stadium," Farnsworth said. "But unless we resolve the owner problem, we probably won't have a team."

A new MLS team here, which would likely take on the Sounders name because of its high recognition factor, would cost somewhere between $25 million and $35 million. The last expansion franchise in Los Angeles cost $26 million. Teams that play in a soccer-only stadiums are preferred.

"But a new stadium that was built with soccer in mind is a close second," Garber said.

The MLS plans to add two new franchises in 2002. One has already been guaranteed to investors who will operate a second team in the New York City area. The other one potentially could be Seattle, although it would have to play one year at an alternative site, such as Memorial Stadium or Husky Stadium, because the new Seahawk stadium would not be ready until August 2002.

"Seattle is very high on our soccer index," Garber said. "There is a high participation rate there, a new stadium, a successful NFL franchise and (pro) soccer has been very successful there in the past. Plus, it's a great area for sponsorship, such as shoe and high-tech industries. But we have been unable to secure an investor, although we haven't been very active in pursuing one yet."

When the Sounders played in the North American Soccer League from 1974 to 1983, they averaged more than 22,000 a season four times, including more than 24,000 a season twice. The team set the league's single-game record with a crowd of 49,606 at the Kingdome for a 1980 playoff game.

Two current NFL owners, the Chiefs' Lamar Hunt and the Patriots' Bob Kraft, own four of the 12 MLS franchises. Garber said there are benefits to dual NFL/MLS ownership, and he has approached representatives for Seahawk owner Paul Allen, who is building the stadium.

"They have said they have their hands full at this time and have not expressed an active interest in talking to us" about investing in an MLS team, Garber said.

He said he would like to make a decision by the end of this year. Two more expansion teams are expected to be awarded in 2004.