By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 16 2016) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer’s growth period doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. With cities lining up for topflight soccer, MLS knows it can be picky. Hardly a week goes by without a link between a city and a group wanting a pro soccer club.
Sometimes, those announcements are nothing more than intent. With others, it’s stadium plans and fully formed concepts. The better to make a splash that MLS can’t ignore.
To that end, MLS commissioner Don Garber held a conference call on Thursday afternoon. Part of the point was setting the bar any prospective city must clear. He also set a timeline for the next stages of expansion.
If MLS has any interested in closing off expansion, that wasn’t clear on Tuesday. The league will have 22 teams this season. Another one joins in 2018. Add in the David Beckham project to bring that to 24 spots. Garber added another four. The next round is set for an announcement in mid-2017 to start play in 2020.
That’s 28 teams, but that’s right now. Pushing past 28 remains a distinct possibility. Easy enough considering all the municipalities expressing interest.
Garber also introduced an escalating scale for the cost of expansion. The entry fee for teams 25 and 26 will be $150 million. That’s $40 million more than the fee paid by LAFC for 2018. It’s also more than double the amount the two 2017 entrants paid to join MLS. That number is unlikely to scare off any of the current suitors. That’s a group of ten who the league is considering: Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St Petersburg.
Any team will be spending more than the cost of entry. Stadium, academy, training facility, not to mention players and the cost easily approaches $300m. In September, Forbes placed the average value of an MLS franchise at $185 million, though values are trending upward at a rapid rate.
With the guidelines disclosed and a timeline in play, the real question is how the candidates rank with those considerations in mind. Selection probably won’t be a simple matter of checking the boxes. There’s no doubt that some markets will leap out in front with the news that MLS is focusing on what Garber called “buckets” (ownership, market, and stadium).
Both Sacramento and San Antonio claim they are “MLS ready”, with solid ownership, top 35 TV markets, and solid stadium plans. Impressive attendance numbers in Sacramento, and San Antonio’s expandable venue mean they have a leg up on a number of markets. The Republic have jumped through all of the necessary hoops to get their stadium construction underway, and just need word from MLS to start.
But MLS has shown that being “MLS ready” isn’t necessarily the measure that matters. St. Louis has jumped to the front of the line. They have an impressive ownership group and a flashy stadium plan that would place their venue in the heart of the city. Cincinnati doesn’t have a soccer-specific stadium or a clear plan to build one. Instead, they have the ability to get 30,000 out to USL matches. Detroit and San Diego look to be little more than concepts at this point. Both are cities MLS has shown significant interest in expanding to in the recent past.
While responding to a question about Sacramento, Garber said the League is not using any market as leverage against others. Even if that’s not the intent, a competition is underway. There are bound to be raw feelings among certain ownership groups as the league goes through this process. Sacramento met every requirement prior to yesterday’s announcements. With MLS awash in interest, will now have to go through the official bidding process.
Fair or not, the league’s 2.0 era growth has scared up a host of monied groups ready to bring first division professional soccer to their cities. Unbound by any numerical restrictions, and seemingly unconcerned with the impact on the player pool, MLS is charging forward with abandon. It makes sense to maximize demand, and now the League has a stated process.
Will that be enough to ensure that MLS adds only strong markets that will increase its audience and bolster its success? Or, as some fear, is MLS overplaying its hand and headed down a path that could lead to trouble?
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