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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:14 EST

MLS considering weight-loss program

By Jeff Bradley [ESPN The Magazine]

At first, I thought this would be a Step Back and Look at 2000 column.

Then, I changed my mind. It would be a Looking Ahead to 2001 column.

But as I started to talk to some people about Looking Ahead, I learned that MLS is considering Stepping Back, so all my plans changed again.

As you can see, my goal now is simply to confuse you as much as possible.

Here's what we know as confirmed by multiple MLS sources. At their recent meetings at the Anschutz Ranch outside of Denver, the MLS Board of Directors began to seriously discuss trimming the league back to 10 teams for the 2001 season. The San Jose Earthquakes, Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny were all mentioned as teams that could be disbanded, with the Quakes and Fusion taking the early lead as favorites to go. In the event that two teams would be cut, some 40 players would be made available either in a special draft or they would simply be placed into the upcoming SuperDraft.

These discussions are ongoing. Nothing has been decided either way, but the theme of the special meeting was "Getting Back to Slow Growth," and the leaders of the movement, the Hunt Family, are supposedly trying to push for a "re-launch" of MLS in the coming year as a leaner and stronger league.

Cutting the Quakes and Mutiny would seem most logical, simply because it would leave the Dallas Burn and D.C. United (who may be operated this season by Anschutz), as the only league-run clubs in MLS, but one source said a majority of the investors would prefer to force Miami owner Ken Horowitz (who has asked the league to pay for his club's marketing and advertising) out of the picture.

Horowitz is currently trying to operate the Fusion on a bare-minimum budget, claiming MLS owes him something for his investment. Clearly, the league's high-rollers, the Hunts, the Krafts, Philip Anschutz, John Kluge and Stuart Subotnick, don't want to hear it. Strong undertones have been coming out of the MLS offices for a while that Horowitz simply does not have the money to play in this type of company. He's been likened to the guy who begs into the game of high-stakes poker, but only has enough money to play a couple of hands. On behalf of the Fusion, GM Doug Hamilton said, "We're preparing our team for the season as we would any other season."

Of course, as reported last week, the Fusion are also investigating a 2002 move to Winston-Salem, N.C., where a group of local businessmen are trying to convince Horowitz they can get a stadium built and break even in Year One.

Let's backtrack just a second here and reiterate, nothing has been decided on this matter of MLS reduction. But, these are serious conversations. Asked if the investors seemed to have a lot of concerns at their meetings, one high-ranking official said, "Only about 250 million concerns that are now out in public." That would be the number of dollars MLS reported as losses during their recent court battle with the players.

Commissioner Don Garber is on vacation through the New Year and is hoping to hold a conference call early in 2001 to find out just how serious the investors are about cutting back to 10 teams. One source offered, "From a business sense, it makes a lot of sense. You cut a lot of costs by getting rid of two teams and that money can be re-allocated in a number of ways to make the league stronger. But from an image standpoint, you wonder if it will look like the league is starting to crumble if you begin to disband teams."

Another part of the logic is that fewer league-run teams and more teams closer to break-even might make the job of selling teams easier. In five years, the league has seen the proposed sales of San Jose, D.C. and Tampa Bay fall apart and may want to re-focus on other aspects of the pro sports business, namely making its strongest teams stronger while not spending any more money on teams that may never make it.

Along those same lines, the league is also discussing (albeit begrudgingly) some modifications to the single-entity structure that would allow for more team autonomy because several potential big money investors (including AOL and Yahoo) have backed off from buying MLS clubs when they realized how limited their control would be.

Stay tuned. Oh, and Happy New Year.

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