By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 27, 2014) US Soccer Players – On Wednesday, rumors broke that the NHL is considering expanding by four teams in 2017. Seattle, Quebec City, Las Vegas and a second team in Toronto may or may not be in that league's immediate future. Regardless, it's certainly interesting when a major North American sports league finds itself linked with expansion talk. Unless you're talking about MLS, expansion seems like a throwback to an earlier era.
The major leagues in North America stopped expanding a long time ago. 1998 for baseball, 2000 for hockey, and 2002 for football, and 2004 for basketball. A blend of markets, quality control, and the need to relocated troubled teams put a damper on expansion efforts. The last expansions for the NFL and MLB were to address markets that lost teams to relocation. Franchise stability took precedence over addressing new markets with no previous connection to the sport.
Meanwhile, MLS began their expansion efforts around the same time the big leagues slowed down. As a 10-team league after the expansion to contraction era from 1998 to 2001, MLS needed new markets. How many was an open question. FIFA's preferred 16 or 18-club first division didn't matter to MLS. In part, that was an old stubbornness when it came to applying FIFA directives to a market the size of the United States. In part, it was adding another country with the addition of the first Canadian MLS team in 2007.
Step one for MLS was showing that they could expand successfully. Only half of their first expansion class lasted, after all. Getting back into the game in 2005, MLS expanded and relocated while trying to build up the number of teams. That's the old footprint issue, and it matters for every professional sport in the country. Even in the age of every sports network with multiple channels and online options, there's still the issue of getting games on nationally available TV in good time slots. Once that's accomplished, the next step is finding an audience to watch those games. Both require teams all over the country.
MLS began to address this by doubling up in Los Angeles and expanding to a small market in Salt Lake City. The mix of major and mid-table markets continued through multiple rounds of expansion. Ten teams in 2004 became 19 a decade later with two more coming in next season and a 22nd team in 2017. If rumors hold true, more will follow.
Yes, MLS leadership said at one point expansion had reached a plateau and would slow. MLS leadership says a lot of things. Instead, any emerging market willing to link itself to MLS seems to get a warm welcome from league officials. The NHL isn't the only one reportedly looking at Las Vegas. An expansion bid from Sacramento has legs.
Back in the early 2000s, it was always fun to see what small market could link itself with a possible MLS expansion. Now, the expectation is MLS will expand at will and every target is serious. Part of that is the quality of the expansion bids. We're no longer seeing cities like Rochester, NY, Trenton, NJ, or Winston-Salem, NC linked with MLS. Instead, it's places the major North American sports leagues either are or would like to go.
It's an interesting time throughout professional sports. The rights fees to televise games are at an all-time high both for national and regional contracts. The money flowing through the sport is significant. Owners and cities want in. Prices are rising, for both existing teams and the concept of expansion whether or not it actually happens. How long this lasts is a good question, but there's no mistaking the current pro sports economy as anything but a success.
The NBA just had a team that few people identify with sell for $2 billion dollars. Troubled franchises in any of the major leagues wouldn't have problems finding somewhere else to make money. Amid all of this, MLS is still looking for its place. The TV ratings aren't there nationally. The quality isn't the same as what any US-based soccer fan can see for the cost of cable through NBC Sports and their blanket Premier League coverage.
For MLS, expansion is now an entrenched part of the business model. What the current rush for more almost has to ignore is what happens when expansion stalls growth rather than encouraging even more. This happened in every major league during the last rush for more teams. Enthusiasm waned for numerous reasons in multiple markets. Leagues had to alter plans, rework territories, and in several instances try again as franchises relocated.
MLS has only relocated one team in its entire history, something that should stand out as an oddity considering how often young leagues move clubs. Yes, a league champion moved from San Jose to Houston. Yes, MLS followed the lead of other sports by quickly putting an expansion team back in San Jose with the old team's name and record book.
This offseason, MLS partially relocates a team with the rebranding and potential move of Chivas USA out of StubHub Center. However, the team isn't leaving the greater LA market. That plan makes the Chivas USA issue more about market stability than a true relocation. In a sense, all MLS is really doing is resetting the clock on an idea that didn't work. The uniqueness of the Chivas USA situation almost removes it from the expansion discussion.
Meanwhile, MLS isn't saying no to new offers. The All-Star and MLS Cup visits from eager expansion markets look likely to continue. League support for even contingency bids like what is happening with Miami hasn't waned.
Right now, MLS remains in full growth mode. How long that lasts is an open question by choice. With those other leagues as the example, enthusiasm for continued expansion can end quickly. Then the scenario shifts to market stabilization and the hard work truly begins.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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