Kick up soccer to next level, with care

On Sports

Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Beavers and Timbers, has some big dreams, and I applaud him for that.

In order to pursue a Major League Soccer franchise, Paulson wants to convert PGE Park to a baseball-free venue and build a ballpark for the Beavers somewhere else. Soccer fans, who automatically assume I hate them and the horses they rode in on, will be surprised to hear that I'm not against chasing an MLS franchise for Portland.

I think it's a fine idea.

But my advice to both Paulson and the city - which is going to have to partner in this venture - is to proceed with caution. Hopefully, they have learned from history. I could support this effort if it is done in a responsible manner, but there must be an understanding of some basic realities.

And those realities are:

• The last time the city got into the ballpark business, things didn't turn out so well. PGE Park was a fiasco.

I don't think that means we can't go there again - because it's hard to find a major city anywhere in the world that doesn't believe its residents deserve a sports gathering place. And, heck, we got off real easy with the Rose Garden.

Whatever deals we make must protect the city from financial harm.

So I'm not saying the city shouldn't get involved. My goodness, enough high-rise condos, trolleys and trams get subsidized around here that a stadium - a place where all Portlanders can go with their families to have a good time - isn't totally out of line.

• Building a 'minor league ballpark' for the Beavers is fine, as long as it is built with footings that could handle expansion to big league status. Build something with a future - something that won't be out of date in 10 years.

It makes no sense to fund something that will accommodate only Triple-A baseball. Portland is increasingly showing that it has no real taste at this point for minor league sports.

That's not uncommon, by the way. Cities reach a collective limit - and Portland has just about reached the breaking point when it comes to indoor football, junior hockey, indoor lacrosse, minor league baseball, low-level soccer and all the other things constantly reminding us that we're a second-class sports city.

At some point, all the little entertainment sideshows, the goofy promotions, flashy music and fluff that accompanies the minor league experience grows old.

• Please, let's not oversell MLS. Let's not, in fact, overestimate all this 'Soccer City, USA' stuff. That term, you remember, came to be in Portland's early tenure in the North American Soccer League.

The Timbers, Portland's entry in that league, averaged 20,515 fans in 1976. But by 1982, that average, in then-35,000-seat Civic Stadium, was down to 8,786, and the franchise dropped out of the league.

Recently, there has been interest in the new Timber franchise that Paulson owns - and certainly the success of the University of Portland women has increased interest.

Yes, millions of youngsters play soccer in this country, but in spite of that, soccer hasn't shown great promise as a spectator sport. An entire generation has grown up playing soccer in this country since the NASL's heyday in 1970s -when all the smart guys told us that as soon as those kids grew up, soccer would be America's dominant spectator sport.

That hasn't happened. In fact, I'm tempted to say that soccer is still the sport of the future - and that it always will be. But I'm going to be nice. Portlanders want big league soccer, and I say go get it. Just don't overestimate the economic impact.

According to The Kansas City Star, MLS' average attendance was up to 16,770 last season - the highest since its inaugural season of 1996. That figure probably was impacted by the arrival of David Beckham, though, which cost the league plenty and brings back memories of the implosion of the NASL. The NASL drew well in many cities but was eaten alive from the inside because of high player salaries when teams engaged in an arms race to lure big names from around the world.

Only five of the 13 MLS teams finished at 75 percent of capacity last season.

In spite of its reputation, soccer does not - outside of the World Cup - draw enormous crowds worldwide that compare to American football. The English Premier League, for example, averages 34,459 fans per game, the top league in Italy averages 19,711 and the Campeonato in Brazil averages 17,461.

Still, let's proceed with this idea of a new baseball stadium and MLS at PGE Park. I'm happy that Paulson is here and even more excited that city Commissioner Randy Leonard is interested in lending him an ear. Portland is a big league city and needs to act like one. But let's not get carried away.

As we chase our dreams, we must remember our realities.

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