In an effort to "carve out our own real estate" on the sports calendar, Major League Soccer plans to shorten the length of its season by up to two months next year, Commissioner Don Garber said yesterday.
"Shrinking, condensing our schedule is a high priority," he said. "Having a schedule that stretches across all major sports doesn't allow us to have any span [of time] to call our own, or at least give us the ability to get more attention.
"We have our most important part of the season [the playoffs] right now getting mixed with the most important part of the season in baseball and the excitement with the launch of football."
In a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters that also included D.C. United President and General Manager Kevin Payne, Garber addressed several issues concerning the 12-team league that he has overseen since August, when he replaced Doug Logan as commissioner.
Ideally, Garber said, he would like the regular season to end in late August or early September and for the championship game to be played in late September. This year's regular season started in mid-March and finished Oct. 10, with the final scheduled for Nov. 21.
Each team plays 32 regular season games, but Garber said a slight reduction may be necessary to accommodate a shorter schedule.
"It would be great for us to be a late spring, summer sport," said Garber, a former NFL executive. "I don't think we'll get there [ending by Labor Day], but I guarantee we'll get there much earlier than this year."
In an effort to draw more hard-core soccer fans to MLS, Garber said league executives likely will vote to drop the shootout as a way of deciding tie games. "The shootout is going to be gone," he said, "if we can figure out a good conclusion to our games. We haven't done that yet."
Garber, 42, said he has encountered overwhelming opposition by fans to the shootout, which is similiar to a hockey penalty shot and is used when a game is tied after the 90-minute regulation. MLS is one of the few pro leagues in the world that uses a tiebreaker; most others let ties stand in regular season matches.
"We have got a very passionate core audience that isn't as involved with us as we need them to be," Garber said. "If anything, they've been alienated in many ways and are probably working against us. . . .
"There are rules that haven't pleased them. They haven't felt they have someone listening to them--an advocate. They're looking at international soccer on television, and thinking our game is not that. They have not necessarily been embraced, and we've got to bring those people in."
MLS attendance has dropped each year since averaging 17,406 per game in the 1996 inaugural season. This season the average was 14,282, and league officials have attributed some of the problems to a loss of diehard soccer fans.
Garber said he hopes to announce several on- and off-field changes prior to the Nov. 21 league final in Foxboro, Mass.
Garber also said he would like to build a stronger relationship between MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, American soccer's governing body that oversees the league. MLS and the USSF often compete for the same sponsors, television packages and ticket-buyers. Also, U.S. national teams often pull players away from their MLS clubs to play in international competitions.
"We need to have a centralized offering to the soccer community at large," Garber said. "We've got to figure out a way that we can manage the soccer schedule and manage the inventory of soccer in this country better than we do now. . . . How do we do things together so the league is not competing with its federation? It's our big challenge.
"We've cut up an already small market. That makes no sense to me."
On other topics, Garber said:
* The league's major investors, including NFL owners Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, are "committed for the long term" and that the leagues continues to try to sell the operating rights to the Dallas and Tampa Bay teams, which have been run by the league.
* Concerning the sale of D.C. United's operating rights for an estimated $25 million, Payne said: "There is no transaction as of yet. We're nearer to that occuring than we were in the past."
As for United building its own stadium under new management, Payne said the prospective buyers--who, sources said, are led by a New York investment banking firm--are "committed to doing what is necessary to get us into a venue where the bottom line starts to make more sense."
United earns only a small percentage of parking and concession revenues under its RFK Stadium lease, which expires this year.