Kansas City Wizards president Robb Heineman believes MLS is teetering on the brink of a new era.
From Heineman’s perspective, the time is now for Kansas City -- and the rest of the teams in the league -- to take advantage of the sport’s momentum and aggressively grow its product to begin taking professional soccer in the U.S. to the next level.
And nothing was more important to accomplishing that goal than brokering labor peace with the players and starting the 2010 season on time.
“I think we are right on the precipice of this league being a very significant and real league in the United States,” Heineman told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s no disrespect to the past 14 years, but as we continue to open more soccer specific stadiums -- and particularly Red Bull Arena opening -- it’s a big time for our league. The product on the field has to continue to attract and drive our American fan base. Having peace with our players is a big part of that.”
For more than a year, the threat of labor unrest has lurked in the background of nearly every conversation about the league’s future. In Kansas City’s case, that conversation has largely centered on the team’s efforts to construct a soccer specific stadium to call its own.
On Jan. 19, the Wizards received final approval on their new stadium and construction began the next day. Only a few short weeks later, a work stoppage looked more and more likely to throw a wrench in the team’s investment.
“We were quite concerned based on the fact that we’re early in the construction process of a $160 million partnership with Kansas City, Kansas,” Heineman said. “For us to go into some sort of a work stoppage would probably have been somewhat damaging to that relationship. I give a lot of credit to our partners here and at the state level. They were very patient as we dealt with this issue with the players.”
Heineman also confirmed what was far from a mystery for most league observers. Without a soccer specific stadium and support from local government, the Wizards ledgers would be stuck in the red for the foreseeable future, putting a damper on the product the team could deliver to its fans in the coming years.
“I’d say the state of our economics is fragile to begin with,” Heineman said, “so keeping those [player wages] in a reasonable range is very important so we can operate the team in a way we want to operate it and present the show that we want to the fans.”
And now that the 2010 season is officially back on track, Heineman is confident that the Wizards and the rest of MLS can capitalize on the increased exposure resulting from a World Cup summer as well as the buzz surrounding the three new markets -- Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland -- arriving in the near future.
Providing the public face for that growth? MLS’ most valuable commodity: its players.
“Our league is currently not the NFL or the NBA,” Heineman said. “We are still in kind of the pioneering stages with this league. We think a lot of our players. We want them to be successful so coming to an agreement where all of us can move forward -- kind of marching to beat of the same drummer -- is quite a relief.”