By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 29, 2020) US Soccer Players - The deals professional sports franchise owners and government leaders make to build stadiums vary from the egregious to the nearly passable. Rare is the stadium built only with private funds. Even in those cases where an owner foots the bill, there's bound to be some public element to the deal. Stadiums require infrastructure and urban land is tough to come by. It requires the power of government to move roads, relocate utilities, and force landowners to give up their parcels for a project as big as a stadium.
Major League Soccer is currently riding a wave of stadium building that emanates from a heady combination of rising interest in the sport of soccer and the relatively low cost of building a soccer stadium. For politicians, jumping on the soccer bandwagon is a savvy move that can help them appeal to a young, diverse generation of potential voters. It's also easier to push past the finish line because the numbers look good next to the billions it takes to construct a state-of-the-art NFL or Major League Baseball venue.
It's not that soccer stadiums don't cost a lot, it's just that they don't cost quite as much. There's always the bonus of "job creation" and "revitalizing the neighborhood" that elected officials can fall back on to sell the public on a deal.
Building soccer stadiums with public assistance means that they can't justifiably be used only for the 20 or so soccer game an MLS team might play at home in a given season. Whatever the cost: $200 million, $300 million, $500 million, paying the public back for the money invested in the stadium means doing everything possible to fill up the calendar.
Concerts have long been a staple of the moderately sized MLS stadium, going back to the beginnings of soccer-specificity. Even though beggars should be careful not to turn themselves into choosers, soccer fans often lamented the semi-permanent stages that marred the soccer-specific confines of places like Columbus's building and FC Dallas's home in Frisco, Texas.
Those expressions of dismay are nothing compared to the upset over newer soccer-specific venues hosting different sports. That changes the look of a stadium altogether. Soccer's relationship with American football is complicated. Gridiron lines are an unnecessary reminder of shared stadiums not on MLS terms.
Heading in the 2020 MLS season, several MLS buildings will not only serve as homes to soccer teams but also American football teams playing under the banner of the revived XFL. The XFL's model is built on smaller budgets and smaller crowds than the behemoth NFL, the better to succeed where so many spring American football leagues have. That makes MLS stadiums good fits for the league. Two new XFL teams, the Los Angeles Wildcats at Dignity Health Sports Park and the DC Defenders at Audi Field, will use MLS venues in their inaugural seasons.
The shock of seeing gridiron lines in a stadium ostensibly built for soccer isn't a rational one for fans. From the beginnings of MLS up until the current day in a handful of places, football lines on the field during MLS games has been a fairly regular occurrence. Watching soccer players navigate a surface so busy with lines of various colors, thickness, and numbers served as a stark reminder of soccer's place in the hierarchy of sports in the United States. It told fans that soccer wasn't important. It smacked of minor league.
MLS fans trying to defend the competition in a world where Americans could easily choose European leagues over the domestic product felt helpless to do so. More, the football lines reminded soccer fans that MLS teams were little more than vagabonds, interlopers in fancy buildings erected for another more popular game.
Soccer fans coveted the stadiums, but not the other sport's lines. Many likely never thought of a scenario where there would be gridiron lines in soccer stadiums. Soccer-specific stadiums were supposed to fix the problem.
There are some legitimate concerns with MLS stadiums hosting things like concerts and American football. Both are notoriously hard on grass surfaces, sometimes leading to poor playing conditions when soccer returns. DC United famously had issues with the Audi Field turf in 2019, a problem unlikely to be helped by large men wrestling in the center of the playing surface.
"Soccer-specific" was always a misnomer. Nothing about the new wave of MLS stadiums is specific to soccer beyond the design of the sight lines and the shape and size of the playing surface. Even if there was a good argument for limiting the use of MLS buildings to soccer, the league is a business. The individual clubs are businesses. If an opportunity arises to use a stadium for other purposes, most of them will take it. That would be true even if MLS soccer revenues were higher and clubs made money across the board.
There is no good argument for limiting MLS stadiums to soccer only, however. The public's investment in a stadium happens with the belief that a stadium will do the community well, economically and civically. Many studies suggest stadiums are rarely the driver of economic activity proponents typically claim. That doesn't mean that after a venue goes up, those in charge of programming its calendar shouldn't do everything possible to maximize the building's return.
Stadiums are, by nature, incredibly inefficient edifices. They take up too much space relative to their utility. Urban locations with high real estate costs amplify those negatives.
It's remarkable that MLS has managed to get so many stadiums built in the last ten years. Each one is something of a miracle considering a host of factors. Putting up with the occasional American football lines is a small price to pay. If MLS fans still need solace, it's this. In 2020, MLS teams control the venues. American football teams, including one NFL team in Los Angeles, are paying soccer clubs for the right to play in stadiums built for the sport of soccer.
Once the renters, MLS teams are now the landlords. What are a few extra lines when it's soccer that now has the upper hand?
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Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com