By J Hutcherson (May 25, 2017) US Soccer Players - The MLS expansion process has never been what most would consider straightforward. The first round early in the league's existence was to answer a simple issue. Chicago missed the launch and Miami put a team in what most people assumed was a soccer hotbed. MLS addressed both of those for the 1998 season, quickly turning their attention to San Diego. That too made a lot of sense at the time, with the league trying to establish itself across the country.
San Diego got an All-Star game but not an expansion team, with the league quickly forced to address its existing franchises. That San Diego game back in 1999 was notable even though few people saw it. The scheduled national telecast gave way to the search for John F Kennedy Jr's plane. Those in the stadium in San Diego noticed that there weren't as many people there as expected. The game didn't sell well, not only denting the hopes for San Diego expansion but leading to a change in commissioner. MLS wasn't going to be able to keep to an expansion schedule.
It's ancient history now, but the dark days of contraction weren't just about the Florida teams. It was easy enough to make the case for contracting half the league, with good arguments at the time that the Mutiny and the Fusion weren't the best choices. The league was in obvious trouble, with too many franchises drawing too few fans. At a time when there wasn't the glut of professional soccer available on American television, MLS faced difficulty making a case for itself. Why this league now? Why would existing soccer fans add it to whatever club in whatever league they already supported?
Some cities had answers. DC United and the New England Revolution felt like real clubs at a time when fans were still trying to figure out what single-entity meant. If the league signed and distributed the players while owning 51% of every club, were these even clubs at all? That discussion carried through the early years, with glimpses of what the league become even with single-entity in place. Some of that enthusiasm was undoubtedly based on the league changing, dropping those supports and turning into something traditional.
All of these years later, that hasn't happened. At least not as much as those fans expected back then. Club control is still illusory in MLS to this day. The investor/operators might have more of it now than then, but it's not the self determination that helps give a club an identity. MLS used to spend considerable effort trying to convince their fan base to look past the business practices and embrace what's happening on the field. That's never been easy for anybody paying attention.
Increasing the number of teams so quickly has toned down those fundamental discussions. As the thinking goes, the league has to be in better shape because it can entice bidders to part with considerable money for teams. The existing investor/operators are spending beyond the original MLS template as well. They're doing it within league rules of course, but it gives the impression of self determination. MLS always wanted to be a league of no dynasties, creating a parity where any team could win a title. There have been enough low seed playoff runs to make that happen, though how real it feels to fans is a bigger question than the league would like.
The push forward from MLS leadership pulls those old issues along with it. It's the pacing that keeps those questions from growing too serious. The games go on as scheduled, something that's still unique for American professional soccer where it's still a mistake to assume too much. MLS gives the appearance of stability, but this is still the league built on a business model that stresses secrecy. We don't know. That hampers everything from discussions of salary cap space to whether or not the league as a single-entity is profitable. That's what makes the news out of San Diego so interesting.
As reported by The San Diego Union Tribune's Mark Zeigler, San Diego's expansion bid expects to lose $8m a season moving forward. Given the amount of the MLS salary cap, that's not an inconsequential amount of money. Given that we're in what many believe is a sports TV rights bubble with inflated fees that aren't tenable, and it's borderline scary.
This is still MLS, the league that only talks business on its terms. We don't know for sure what the financial picture looks like. Then again, we also don't have MLS getting out after this story, offering clarity. That's not exactly surprising given the league's history, but it might be worth considering when asking another round of cities to buy into Major League Soccer.
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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