By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 16, 2014) US Soccer Players – When it comes to judging MLS expansion, part of the fun is trying to predict the future. We don’t know what MLS looks like in Atlanta. We have some stadium art and the idea that Atlanta’s MLS team is planning something similar to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Plus, there’s the added bonus of cashing another expansion check right now rather than waiting.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. With all due respect to MLS, the league itself recognizes its still in a growth stage. That’s what expansion is all about. Grow the league, get in as many stable markets as possible, and perhaps take a few risks along the way.
American sports business tends to gloss over growing leagues. In part, that’s because the four biggest leagues are well established. Yes, there are a few examples of teams moving in the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball. All of those examples are exceptions. There are very few teams in crisis in any of those leagues, and the solutions end up looking obvious.
MLS doesn’t have those same options. There’s a difference between moving a team and starting a new one. A big part of that is the expansion fee. That’s why contraction was a better option than relocation and only one MLS team has ever relocated. MLS moves so quickly in reinventing itself that it’s almost worth the reminder that there was an earlier version of the San Jose Earthquakes.
For MLS, the ambition is clear and it includes the revenue from expansion payments. Yes, that makes long-time soccer watchers think of earlier leagues that couldn’t resist one more check from one more market. Is that fair? There’s no real impression that MLS is going expansion crazy. The markets getting the most criticism are New York City, Miami, and Atlanta. All are established pro sports markets with multiple professional teams.
If there are better options, they don’t currently fit the MLS timeline. It’s already clear that there’s not a meaningful cap on expansion or the size of this league. In the past, MLS officials have talked about an end to the current expansion era. Whether or not that’s really in play is a good question. It certainly doesn’t seem like MLS will turn away a motivated investor with or without a stadium plan in a market they want to add.
For right now, maybe that’s enough of a distinguisher. There aren’t a lot of metropolitan options in the Southeast. The NBA and NFL went through that same scenario in the late 80s when cities like Charlotte, Orlando, and Jacksonville started to make sense. Orlando was a potential soccer market just prior to the founding of MLS. There was a reason the Citrus Bowl hosted World Cup games. A national league can’t afford to cut out an entire region, especially when doubling up on teams in other areas.
There’s a way of looking at the blowback from Atlanta’s expansion as a critique of MLS expansion in general. For some, there’s the feeling that the nice little league that once existed is now one without a coherent plan other than adding more teams. Not helping is the perception that MLS seems to want to ignore any existing club that can’t fix its own problems.
Again, the contraction winter still resonates all these years later. It wasn’t just the Florida teams in trouble, far from it. If you were making a league table of troubled MLS clubs following the 2001 season, there’s a strong argument that Miami and Tampa Bay weren’t top of the table.
It’s easy enough to gloss over season-after-season of problems in Kansas City because eventually things worked out. To a lesser extent, you can do the same with Dallas and Colorado. Yet, all are original MLS teams that required significant time and money to figure out how to average more than 10k fans per season. Part of that was soccer-specificity. The apparent end to that era in MLS strikes many as problematic.
Atlanta is a co-tenant in an NFL stadium. NYC FC plans to spend three seasons sharing with the New York Yankees. Soccer-specificity in all its glory, soccer fans seem to be complaining more about that setup than baseball fans who have the bigger gripe. This isn’t the era of the New York Generals playing NASL games in the original Yankee Stadium back in the early 1970s after all. The Yankees built themselves the third iteration of a baseball palace, or at least attempted to. Now, it’s a part-time soccer stadium.
That’s the landscape MLS gets. In the real world, things don’t always stick to a plan. Does this mean MLS is just another American soccer league chasing expansion?
Unfortunately, we’re right back where we started. It’s too early to tell. MLS expansion is in the same category as those predicting the collapse of a sports TV rights bubble, a generational change in interest in sports, and other ways of predicting a troubling future. What we do know about MLS is that they’re willing to give an investor/operator time to turn their local business into a success.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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