MLS in cities
By J Hutcherson (May 31, 2018) US Soccer Players – From my perspective Chicago was booming in the late 90s. Tech companies with plenty of jobs, people opening things like hipster newsstands to go along with the new restaurants and Japanese stationary stores. Lots of people around my age happy to be there.
The dotcom crash wiped most of that out. I don’t mean in theory. I mean whole sections of my version of the city that went from occupied to just about empty. I lived on the 10th floor of a 12-story building back then and in a matter of months had nobody living above, below, or beside me. People who had lived there for years packed up and left for somewhere else. So did we, eventually.
With that in mind, it’s easier for someone like me to see Chicago in the early 2000s revisited whenever someone makes a case for an emerging city with a revitalized downtown. Especially places relying on things staying just like they are right now. Things tilt, people leave, and you figure out it doesn’t take too many doing that to send your city into a decade-long tailspin. Chicago and Cleveland both have spent the last few years reviving things that shut down in the early 2000s.
Do we really think that we won’t see another NYC in the 70s or DC in the 80s? Urban planning isn’t that good. Cities don’t normally exist on a chart that only trends upward. Right now, it doesn’t seem that way. We’re in an odd situation when it comes to revitalization and committing to locality. It seems like a lot of people want to belong where they are, not where they’re from. That’s a change when it comes to sports fandom, something that used to move with people.
All of that brings us to Major League Soccer’s current choice to expand to two smaller markets in the latest round. There are plenty of people embracing our current era of hyper-locality where that designation isn’t supposed to matter anymore. If 30k will show up for soccer, that’s enough to sell the sport. Maybe. There’s still the overwhelming issue of attracting people willing to watch it on TV. You know, the outlet that the younger generation supposedly no longer cares about but still produces the massive rights fees for pro sports.
So it might be bordering on insulting to talk about market size in 2018, but it still matters. It matters a lot. So does footprint, a borderline cliche of MLS 1.0 back in the early 2000s. MLS used to talk about expanding the footprint at every opportunity. They were well aware that you could look at a map of the United States and find no teams south of DC and east of Dallas. They knew the Midwest was underrepresented and the Pacific Northwest empty. They really wanted a team on the New York City side of the Hudson and in major metros like Houston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.
Now, MLS has all of that, and it’s the same old problem. The ratings aren’t good enough. They’re not good enough compared to other North American pro sports. They’re not good enough compared to other pro soccer leagues. They’re certainly not good enough up against Liga MX. For a league that will double in size next season from where it was at the start of the century, this isn’t just an issue. It might be the issue.
It’s not just drawing a line under the top 20 markets and doubling up in the biggest. It’s finding a balance that can absorb trends that might not last. Nashville is the 36th largest metro market in the country. Cincinnati is the 29th. Both are growing rather than contracting, but that’s true of pretty much every metro market in the top 50 outside of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Hartford. People are currently choosing cities, from the looks of it any city. Revitalize a downtown, build some bars and restaurants, and people will buy up the available condos and single-family homes. All of that hedges on the idea that these people will stay. It’s too early in this latest demographic shift for anybody to know that.
What happens should things change? What happens when people embody the last verse to Rush’s Subdivisions and start thinking about a different style of living? It’s happened before all over this country. There’s nothing extraordinary in place to stop it from happening again.
Easy enough to say, and there’s always plenty of good reasons not to take a chance. Still, cities depopulate and they don’t do it according to schedule. Cleveland, Baltimore, and St Louis used to be in the top ten metro areas. The thing is, when a large metro area begins to depopulate it can still seem big for years. That’s not the same situation when a smaller city begins to lose people.
For MLS, this is a demographic chance that they’re taking and fair enough. So are other leagues. Maybe they don’t necessarily even have to take the long view when making their expansion choices. Perhaps enough time has passed from the bad old days of the 1970s when a fledgling North American soccer league overdid it with the second-tier cities in their era. There’s plenty of space between relying on a best-case scenario and kidding ourselves.
Still, this isn’t new territory for MLS. Their insistence on soccer-specificity pushed big market teams to the suburbs. Once demand for teams meant better locations for stadiums, MLS moved on from the suburban soccer issue that made so much sense a decade ago. It’s still easy enough to link the problem teams in the league to their location. It’s also still too easy to make location the league’s biggest ongoing issue.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- What does Europe want from the Champions League?
- MLS, MLB, the NHL, and the expansion game
- Who has the most to lose in Europe?
- West Ham’s problem
(Photo by Robin Alam – ISIPhotos.com)