Soccer Chief Relies on Hispanic Support

New York -- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said his league, now in its 11th year, had no illusions about futbol’s core supporters in this country.

“Stated very simply, if not for what’s going on in this country with Hispanics, professional soccer would not exist in the United States today,” he said in a keynote speech Thursday at the Fourth Annual Hispanic Television Summit 2006 here.

“It’s not about the 18 million kids who are running around today in suburbs across the country,” he added. “It’s about those people who are from the game, believe in the game and bring to their love of sport -- in this case, the sport of soccer, or futbol -- an enormous passion.”

Hispanic fans want to see international teams and players, especially from Mexico and Spain, so that’s MLS’ focus, too, Garber said. The league abandoned earlier efforts to tailor rules to what American fans would like, embracing international rules instead, including tie games, he added.

Teams from Mexico and Spain are particularly of interest to Hispanic fans here, and MLS generated $15 million in revenue from a five-match exhibition series last year featuring MLS teams and Spain’s Barcelona and Real Madrid. The average attendance was 58,000 and the average ticket price was $43.

“For those of us in this business who think the Hispanic population is not going to buy a ticket early, is not going to buy a reserved seat, we proved them wrong,” he said, adding that all but two of the games were completely sold out.

Garber said 40% of MLS’ staff speaks Spanish, and teams increasingly are employing Hispanic marketing squads. The league’s next franchise will be in Toronto, and its marketing head used to hold the same post for Visa in Mexico City.

Surveys show that 84% of U.S. Hispanics are from countries where futbol is a way of life, Garber said, and the World Cup’s huge television success last year spoke to the game’s marketing potential here.