By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 18, 2017) US Soccer Players - Since its inception in 1996, Major League Soccer has been fighting for fans. As a fledgling league, plenty of fans spent their money and time to lay the foundation for future support in cities across North America.
The fight for fan attention has been an ever-present struggle for the league. Despite recent successes, is one that the league figures to continue to wage for years to come.
So what happens when the league fights with fans and becomes an adversary rather than an ally? That's what is happening in Columbus. Ownership this week announced their intentions of moving one of the league’s founding franchises to Austin, Texas, as early as the 2019 season.
The league has had its share of fights for and with the fans in the Los Angeles market. Any longtime observer would likely have come to the same conclusion that Columbus-area fans are realizing now. MLS league will fight for fans, sure, but it will fight for money even harder. If the fans benefit, great. If some get left out, then so be it.
Fans are important but profitability and sustainability are more so. The rise and fall of Chivas USA reveals as much, as does the rise and sustained ascension of the LA Galaxy. The genesis and early life of LAFC shows that as well.
Profitability is not in the Columbus Crew’s future, if we believe the investor/operator and league officials. Both pointed to the club’s inability to get a new downtown stadium in Columbus as the reason to look outside the market. Austin promises to provide an opportunity for a brand-spanking new facility, which is the shining jewel of any new team in MLS.
Stadiums are a major part of the expansion story. When a new team enters the league, they must either have a stadium in place or plans to build a stadium. Atlanta United came into the league as the latter and played the first half of the season at Bobby Dodd Stadium on the campus of Georgia Tech University before moving into the glitzy Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They promptly set a league record for attendance with 70,425 fans turning up to watch Atlanta play Orlando on September 16.
LAFC is building the Banc of California Stadium and construction is moving along swiftly. Plans to open the stadium in early 2018 are a go. That newness associated with a stadium opening will surely draw fans to LAFC matches, if nothing more than to experience the hot new thing in LA.
While it is an enviable place to be for both sides, this could have happened years ago with the team that had already established itself a bit in LA. Chivas USA joined MLS with great promise in 2005. While the promise was never delivered, an ardent fan base formed quickly and stuck with the team through the good times (2006-2009) and the bad times (2010 and after). Once the club spiraled out of control at the beginning of the decade, the league did little to step in and help steer the ship in the right direction.
Remember, the league stuck with Chivas USA ownership until they were the ones left holding the club. They allowed the restructuring of the club in 2013 that alienated fans. The league did not fight for the fans then and neither did it do much the following year when it essentially seized operations and ran the club for the final season.
On the field, the team was bad. Off the field, it was an embarrassment. Attendance figures fell below 10,000 for many games that season, and the average attendance of 7,063 is the worst in league history. In fact, Chivas had the lowest average attendance for three years running at the time the club folded, from 13,056 in 2012 to 8,366 the next year before the club’s last season.
Now, many of those same fans who supported Chivas USA at some point or another will surely be out at LAFC matches. At least one Chivas USA supporters club - the Union Ultras - has rebounded. They've swapped out its red-and-white banners and shirts for black-and-gold and will support LAFC, this time as the District 9 Ultras. Another group, the Black Army 1850, kept its name and has also backed LA’s new club.
But the support for LAFC is because of a love of soccer and a love of Los Angeles, not necessarily a love and full backing of MLS. And Chivas-turned-LAFC fans are fortunate for their location, as MLS fought for a foothold in Los Angeles beyond the Galaxy because it is a huge market. The league tapped into some of the deep pockets found in LA and Hollywood with the club’s ownership group, which includes the likes of Magic Johnson and Will Ferrell.
Columbus has no such support or backing. While LA is one of the top two markets in the country, Columbus is not even in the top 30 according to published reports. Los Angeles is large and diverse enough to support two teams in each of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball. Columbus has an NHL team to go with, at least for now, the Crew. Columbus also boasts Ohio State football, but LA also has USC and UCLA football.
MLS was always going to fight for the LA market because it is lucrative. Whether the fans turn out and LAFC plays before sellout crowds regularly is an open question, but the likelihood is that the support will be there.
Nobody is saying the same about Columbus. If the Crew leave, it is unlikely MLS will find its way back there, That's a shame given the history the Crew and their stadium have had.
Fans certainly feel betrayed by the league. Unfortunately for the Columbus faithful, unless they move to Los Angeles they will simply be a casualty of the league’s battle to chase its top priority... funding.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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