By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 8, 2014) US Soccer Players – At first, when the news trickled out of northern California that the Sacramento Republic might have a real shot at becoming an MLS expansion team, it seemed hard to believe. A first-year USL-PRO team that boasts several crowds of 20,000+ this season. The sudden and seemingly unwavering support among city officials for future stadium projects. Investment inquiries by the owners of the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise.
On the surface, Sacramento seems like an unlikely MLS expansion candidate. For a league that once considered Rochester, New York (more than 15 years ago it should be noted), MLS grew outgrew mid-level markets as potential expansion candidates over the last decade. One can’t help but wonder if Salt Lake City would get any attention at all from MLS headquarters in the modern era, for example. This is a big league with big ambitions. So where does a mid-tier market fit?
Sacramento, the country’s 35th largest city and 27th largest metropolitan area by population, doesn’t truly fall into the current category of potential MLS franchise locations. Certainly not when Atlanta is prepping for entry, NYCFC is ramping up, and David Beckham is still dancing with Miami. MLS focuses on improving its national television footprint, which naturally means increasing the potential fan bases by the largest numbers possible.
There is Orlando, however, to serve as an example of how Sacramento might crash the party. The Central Florida tourist hub forced its way into MLS by the size and passion of its lower division crowds. By proving to MLS that they could fill a stadium, regardless of how many people living in greater Orlando, the market overcame its handicap.
To be fair to MLS, the expansion program in recent years has something of a two-tiered approach to it. For all of the big markets MLS signed up, it has also carefully chosen slightly smaller cities that bring their own unique characteristics to the table. Like in Portland, where the Timbers have only the NBA Trailblazers as competition for inches on the sports page, Orlando City arrives as the second top-level professional sports team.
Sacramento’s rise, and Orlando’s pending debut, is also happening in an MLS environment that is swirling with uncertainty in the biggest markets. Chivas USA, the failed experiment of MLS design, is on the market for a reported $60 million, and represents something of a fixer-upper in the shadow of the LA Galaxy. In New York, whispers abound that Red Bull, owners of the MLS team of the same name, don’t have the enthusiasm for the American game that they once did and could divest themselves of the club sooner rather than later.
The NBA interest in Sacramento is fitting for an entirely different reason as well. Major League Soccer’s strange salary structure creates a team dynamic that is oddly similar to the way NBA teams are constructed. Squads in both leagues normally contain a small number of big stars supported by a host of interchangeable parts. Like the NBA, MLS is top heavy when it comes to talent.
Consider the highest payrolls in MLS, and the reason they top the list. In Seattle, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins eat up a lion’s share of the money that goes to Sounders salaries. The same is true in LA, where Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and to a lesser extent, Omar Gonzalez, make more than any other player on the team by a wide margin. That’s the deal in Toronto and New York as well.
Designated Players dominate the war of digits on the spreadsheets. The rest of the roster fills out with MLS lifers who bounce from team to team, internationals swapped out for a different version from year to year, players on the fringe, and the youngsters.
Does that make for enough intrigue to capture the attention of the masses? It works for the NBA almost entirely because the sport is played with such small teams and because one player can have an outsized influence on winning. In many ways, what happens over the summer decides the NBA season. That’s when player movement happens. When LeBron James’s choice of team is enough to bring the American sporting media to a grinding halt, it shows how important the drama of the player market is to the modern sports fan.
MLS isn’t relevant enough (yet) to get the same sort of attention, but the similarity that one or two players per team drive discussion holds true. MLS makes sure that no team will get much attention for anything but their highest paid stars, limiting the breadth of that element of interest while focusing it to white-hot levels when it can. The budget constraints of MLS, self-imposed or practical, make that the most effective approach. Spreading the money more evenly would bring no name of note into the League. The DP rule provides a platform for MLS to be part of the general transfer chatter that consumes the globe, particularly in the summer. In that way, the rule is almost as valuable on the transfer rumor page as it is to the product on the field.
A Sacramento MLS team owned by the group that also owns the Kings makes a lot of sense. Not just because of the connections the Kings can bring the Republic, but because the way the two teams’ respective leagues operate is more similar than it seems.
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