By J Hutcherson (May 8, 2018) US Soccer Players - MLS has had the expansion game mostly to itself since their decision to revamp the league by doubling the number of teams. The expansion era is happening in isolation, save for the NHL adding Las Vegas this season. It's been a long time since the other North American pro sports teams decided expansion was nice to talk about in theory, but not their immediate goal.
Part of that is obvious. Pick a league, and you can point to underperforming teams on the field, in the stands, and economically. There's a reason relocation has become the norm rather than expansion. The NFL and NBA have moved teams, an easier way to bring in new markets without the same risk of talent dilution. That's a concern across sports, with the realization that there's not an unlimited pool of players available with the necessary set of skills.
For MLS, every expansion means talent dilution by that league's standards. Even in the era of allocation money, the bulk of the roster is an issue. What's the median MLS wants to pay for versus what the league needs to draw in fans? It's an open question in the expansion era, even when the TV ratings make the result obvious to anybody paying attention.
Now, Major League Baseball is on record as pro-expansion. Speaking during the broadcast of the MLB games in Monterrey, Mexico, commissioner Rob Manfred said his league would "like to get to 32 teams." That's the NFL's number, the biggest of the North American big leagues.
To some extent, it's an open statement. "Like to" certainly isn't the same as "will", much less announcing a quick timeline to get there. This isn't MLS, where expansion seems to happen as soon as there's a market with a plan, public support, and the expansion fee. Baseball last expanded in 1998 and one of those teams is now a major problem. The Tampa Rays rank last in attendance, and there are plenty of good reasons for that. We're well into an era where every game is supposed to move tickets, and the Rays have issues with that on weekends.
Though the team is talking about a new stadium that would move them from the St Pete side of the Bay to the Ybor City neighborhood adjacent to downtown Tampa, their future remains an open issue. It's a safe assumption that short of fans of other teams rigging the vote to move the Yankees, the Rays would win "team most likely to relocate".
For Major League Baseball, that's a problem right now, compounded if they choose to add teams. Why pay an expansion fee if there's a chance of moving an existing team for less money? The Rays aren't the only MLB team with issues. It might not be a lengthy list, but it's probably more than two. How does that work with adding teams?
If MLS is an example, you just ignore the existing teams and press forward with the next round of expansion. MLS has its own problem clubs, mostly safe in the league's refusal to consider relocation as an option. Why would they in the expansion era? The one example with San Jose to Houston happened so long ago it's almost a different league. Sort of like talking about contraction as if MLS in 2002 has much to do with MLS in 2018. There's no precedents there for much of anything now. The league moved on, revampings its expectations in the process.
Still, watching another league decide the time is right for more is interesting. There are good reasons for the success of the Vegas Golden Knights in their first NHL season. They won the Pacific Division, advancing to the playoffs where they're about to start their Western Conference finals series. Part of that is talent dilution creating a form of parity in the National Hockey League that isn't exactly impressing people. Either the Golden Knights have cracked that parity problem to their advantage, or the rest of the league needs to reconsider what it takes to win right now. It might not be what they think. That could lead to a reevaluation that may or may not be in the league's best interest.
That already happened in MLS. "New teams not necessarily struggling" might not get an MLS trademark filing. There's only so much parity worth stressing before it leads to difficult questions. How does a league reward risk? How does it create a competition that makes the regular season valuable? How does it balance spending with winning with the trophy on the line? What does a league need to do to get it right with what they already have rather than pushing for more?
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.
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- West Ham's problem
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- Chicago tries again
Logo courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights - NHL