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Tuesday August 4th, 2015 5:43AM

MLS headed to Atlanta?

By The Associated Press
NEW YORK -- Major League Soccer hopes to place its next two expansion teams in Miami and Atlanta.

"We're making progress in both of those markets. I wouldn't say we're close," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Tuesday ahead of this weekend's championship game between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City.

Former Manchester United, Real Madrid and Los Angeles Galaxy star David Beckham is leading the Miami effort and has the right to an expansion team at a discount fee of $25 million.

"We are very excited about the opportunity of David putting together an ownership group and finalizing a stadium site in downtown Miami," Garber said. "We can't go to Miami without the right stadium solution. David understands that. The city understands that. That is an indisputable fact."

New teams have been announced for 2015 in New York City and Orlando, Fla., increasing the league's total to 21. MLS began with 10 teams in 1996, expanded to 12 and then contracted to 10 in 2002 when Miami and Tampa Bay were eliminated.

"The Miami today demographically, socially, politically is very different from the Miami of 2002 where we folded the Miami Fusion," Garber said. "So we believe Miami could work if we get the right stadium situation. We don't have that yet."

Falcons owner Arthur Blank heads the Atlanta venture, which would play at a new stadium for his NFL team, a venue scheduled to open in 2017.

"We've been working on a downsizing technology that we think would be unique, would be the only one of its kind anywhere in the world," Garber said. "We've got to continue to work hard with Atlanta to see if this whole project makes sense for them. But I am encouraged by the discussions and hope to be able to finalize something."

They would give the league 23 teams, one short of the league's goal for 2020. Garber said Tuesday that Minneapolis, San Antonio, St. Louis and Austin, Texas, are among the possibilities for a 24th team.

MLS's regular-season attendance average increased from 15,504 in 2006 to a record 18,807 last year before dropping slightly this season to 18,594. Garber said the league is spending more than $20 million annually on player development and must grow revenue.

"Major League Soccer still loses money as an enterprise, and we've got to find a way that we can get closer to being a break-even enterprise," he said.

The league receives an average of about $28 million annually from its national broadcast contracts with ESPN, NBC and Univision, which expire after the 2014 season. In the first season after Beckham left the Galaxy, regular-season ratings dropped from an average of 180,000 viewers to 170,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. However, viewers for the playoffs not including the final have increased from 240,000 to 270,000.

"We did a heat map of the MLS broadcast schedule against that of the EPL, two other European leagues and the four other major leagues in this country, and you get dizzy looking at the MLS schedule," Garber said. "What we need to have is a consistent game of the week or games of the week that run from the beginning of year to the end of the year as much as we can at consistent times. And if that can be a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday, that would be a positive."

In its first season televising the English Premier League under a $250 million, three-year contract, NBCSN is averaging 429,000 for games televised in the U.S. mostly on weekend mornings. Nine games on NBC are averaging 788,000.

"I think what NBC did for the Premier League is unprecedented in the history of pro sports. They really took the Premier League and made it as important as anything that was going on in the NBC Universal family, and it's paying off in ratings and it's certainly making economic sense for them," Garber said. "So if we're able to create that kind of a scenario with a broadcaster, I think it would be beneficial for us."

Garber also went into detail on the league's examination of whether to switch its March-to-December schedule to the international calendar, which runs from August until May. MLS discussed playing from July until December, taking a break and finishing from late February until May.

"`It's not just about are we going to play a few more games in cold-weather markets at an earlier time of the year. It's about what do we do with an extended break, because I don't care what market it is, we're not playing in February and in January in places like Toronto, Vancouver," he said. "We went through some fairly extensive discussions as a league to figure out if we could do this sometime in the future. It wouldn't have been for `14. But that's not something that we're going to do in the short-term."

He also promised more transparency in the league's complex and opaque player control rules, which make if difficult at times to determine which teams control rights.

"We are still evolving," he said. "and we still are doing some of this stuff on the fly."
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