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Major league Soccer has built it. But will the fans come?

MLS, led by World Cup '94 Chairman Alan Rothenberg, is the latest attempt at pro soccer in the U.S., and "it" is an innovative business structure and marketing program that should secure the financial stability and promotional support MLS' predecessors lacked. That structure will promote integrated marketing efforts, and already signed as sponsors are the top players in beer and long-distance communications.

Despite a successful U.S.-hosted World Cup and soccer's kid appeal, the conventional wisdom persists that this country still favors sports leagues heavy on entertainment, high scores and TV-friendly formats.

`FURTHER AHEAD' AT START

"We know we're going to be compared to the other leagues, and we don't mind it," said Randy Bernstein, exec VP at MLS. "We're further ahead than the others when they started, but with that said, we have a lot of growing to do. What you'll see in year one will be completely different in year five."

The season starts April 6 with teams in 10 markets-New York/New Jersey; Los Angeles; San Jose, Calif.; Washington; Boston (New England); Dallas; Denver; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; and Tampa, Fla.

More than a year ago, MLS bought blocks of time on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and Univision.

The significant difference between MLS and other pro sports leagues is its "single entity" structure: Investors not only own their teams, they own the league.

The structure should help keep player salaries sensible, and it also allows for integrated marketing programs, as all inventory is centrally controlled. Individual teams can sign their own local TV and radio deals, but MLS' sponsors have rights to first refusal on ad deals.

AT&T and Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser have signed on, at $2 million each, as official sponsors.

Fuji Photo Film USA will soon be announced as a sponsor, and MLS is in final negotiations for the credit card category with finalists MasterCard International and Visa USA, as well as for the automotive and toy categories.

There are no TV timeouts, but MLS is finding ways to get exposure for each sponsor, through field boards in each arena; exclusive on-jersey logo exposure with one team; and commercials before, during and after halftime of MLS broadcasts.

Official corporate partners, at $500,000 each, include Pepsi-Cola Co.'s All Sport and Kellogg Co.

Like other leagues, MLS is creating grass-roots marketing programs targeting kids. It has joined forces with North American Soccer Camps to create MLS-branded camps this year; league sponsors will tie in.

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