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Donovan the hope of a sport
By Michael Hiestand

Lots of dominoes will need to fall just right before pro soccer can be successfully mass-marketed in America. And this one might be the most important: When America finally produces world-class players, Major League Soccer better be able to hang onto them.

That happened Wednesday when MLS announced that Landon Donovan will play in front of U.S. fans at least two more years through a complex international deal with a twist that might seem foreign to U.S. fans: Donovan chose the path that will pay him less. (Related story: Donovan set to stay in MLS)

Donovan is just 20. And he'll stay in MLS only because the German team that owns his contract gave permission. But in a 7-year-old league still trying to prove soccer won't always just be America's sport of the future, MLS Commissioner Don Garber sees Donovan as a sort of messiah: "He'll be the first to tell you he doesn't like to be compared to Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. But he has the promise to be that kind of breakthrough athlete for us a special athlete with the mark of greatness."

MLS sure needs one. It has high hopes for the potential of soccer-only stadiums, but it has just one so far in Columbus with another coming to Los Angeles next year. Game attendance, under 16,000 last season, has been largely flat for years. ABC, airing MLS' big games, and ESPN2, which airs a weekly game, don't pay MLS to do so and MLS games produce ratings as close to zero as anything on TV.

And, in a so-called single-entity league, where teams' owners are meant primarily to be investors in the league itself, power is unusually concentrated. That MLS owners can own more than one team isn't necessarily bad.

But it might seem risky. Philip Anschutz owns five teams and founded Qwest Communications, whose accounting practices are under investigation by the Security and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department. Says David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports marketing consultant: "What would happen if Anschutz pulls out? And you've got to wonder at what point he might quit throwing resources into soccer."

So it's no wonder that Garber seems almost giddy about a Southern Californian who has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and David Letterman's Late Show, who already has endorsement deals with Nike and Gatorade and is on the cover of a new video game from Electronic Arts. He's even fluent in Spanish. In winning an ESPY Award in July, Donovan said he isn't shy about becoming a "poster boy" for U.S. soccer: "I'm fully welcoming and able to take that responsibility."

And in an era when sports stars are criticized for always following the money, Donovan made a sacrifice. In staying with MLS' San Jose Earthquakes, he'll make $350,000-$400,000 compared to maybe $1.5 million if he'd gone to Germany. Says Richard Motzkin, Donovan's agent: "He's very happy in San Jose and has a huge debt of gratitude to the league. He took a significant financial hit to do this."

Donovan himself doesn't see a quick fix. "We have a product we feel is so good," he says. "But with other sports in America, you've got years of history. This will take a long time to develop. You've got to be patient."

Starting out

Landon Donovan's parents divorced when he was 2. He says his mother, Donna, signed him up for soccer at age 5 for a reason million of parents would understand: "She just wanted me to burn off some energy."

The soccer world was jolted by that energy when Donovan, on the U.S. under-17 team, made 35 goals and 16 assists in 41 international matches.

At 16, Donovan signed with Bayer Leverkusen, which meant leaving Redlands, Calif., for a team just outside Dusseldorf in Germany's uber-intense Bundesliga. "At 16, I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I was just a kid trying to have fun. It was eye-opening, to say the least."

Donovan, juggling play in Germany with roles on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team and the U.S. national team, was relegated to the German team's reserve squad. Being a foreigner, he says, didn't exactly help: "It just didn't work out. If one guy has the same ability as another, or maybe a little more, but one guy is American and the other German, who do you think is going to play? But, we do that kind of thing in America, too."

In 2001, the German club and MLS worked out a two-year deal for Donovan to play in San Jose. As it ended, says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, it was replaced with a "complicated" new deal focused on Donovan's "desire to stay in the U.S. And this time around, he was one of the top-rated young players in the world."

Gazidis says the deal involves MLS making an annual payment to the German team, which then would have to pay MLS to get Donovan back. And MLS would get a portion of any "transfer fee" that Bayer Leverkusen would get if it sells Donovan's contract to another club such fees can total millions of dollars for soccer stars. Overall, Gazidis says, "it will probably be a break-even for the league, a great deal."

Gazidis also suggests there was an odd backdrop to the deal-making: Because Bayer Leverkusen is owned by Bayer aspirin marketers, "it had some interest in being seen in a good light in the U.S. that most clubs wouldn't."

Maybe. Bayer Leverkusen general manager Reiner Calmund, in a statement, says Donovan's deal "confirms our long-term interest in developing some of America's best talent." But Ilja Kaenzig, the club's director of sport, also foresees a payoff: "We anticipate him (eventually) becoming an integral part of our team."

For now, Donovan will simply fuel debate on pro soccer's fate in America. "Soccer can't be stopped," says Rick Burton, who oversees sports marketing studies at the University of Oregon. "Keeping Donovan means it may get closer to a really good league." But Nova Lanktree, a Chicago-based consultant who links athletes and advertisers, says, "If Wayne Gretzky couldn't give hockey the big bang, I'm not sure what Donovan can do for soccer."

And Donovan himself could be a wild card.

"The thing I'm learning most is that my mind changes constantly," he says. "Maybe in two years, I'll want to go back to Germany. Who knows?"

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