MLS Expansion… Now’s The Time To Push

Many have questioned whether the World Cup would provide a boost to MLS. They have rightly pointed out that past big national team tournaments didn’t really have an impact on MLS attendance. But these writers are looking at the place. The World Cup for MLS was not about gaining fans, it was about gaining investors. And gaining investors is about increasing their confidence in the stability of the game in the US. That is why the World Cup was so huge. No one now can question the stability of the game.

While the economy is still depressed, the country has been jolted by soccer. The 25 million people watching the final, the excitement and enthusiasm for the US team and the outpouring of rage after getting robbed against Slovenia and the explosion of joy against Algeria, should drive home that soccer is not going anywhere. Furthermore, the average of the viewer during the World Cup was just 37 – a considerably younger demographic than other sports, demonstrating both that soccer has a bright future and that it is a marketing goldmine. Add the fact that ESPN – the “worldwide leader in sports” is fully on board – and you have a situation where an investor should be extremely confident about dumping money into the sport.

As a result, MLS stands to see a potential windfall. MLS is cheap and the most obvious place to invest. You can buy a team for a paltry $40 million and get in on the ground floor of a sport primed to expand. The interest and enthusiasm in the league is already apparent. Atlanta business owners have banded together to promote soccer and push for MLS. Investments in high profile designated players is expanding. And chatter has increased of Premier League sides buying teams and existing teams move to new stadiums.

All of this makes it the time for MLS to make a strong push into new markets and to consolidate its presence in some existing markets. MLS survived the economic collapse and they are getting through the current economic downturn in very promising shape. The economic crash in 2008 forced MLS’ hand for expansion. Markets like Atlanta and Miami no longer became viable as potential owners and investors pulled out. So the league chose safer bets in Portland, Vancouver, and followed these with Montreal, thereby consolidating its position in the Pacific Northwest and expanding into two Canadian markets. But now is the time to push into the major markets that it has neglected to this point.

Push to Expand to the big markets. It isn’t all about attendance, for sports leagues it is really all about television revenues. And to increase MLS’ rather low tv ratings and the meager sums they get from selling the rights, they have to truly become a national league. And currently they are missing the market that had the largest World Cup television ratings – South Florida – and the largest TV market without a team. Not having a team in the South is a big problem and prevents MLS from really entering the national conversation. This means MLS needs teams in Miami, Atlanta, North Carolina, and even NYC. As for a team in New York City – ie Queens – that would serve as a tremendous boost to the sport in the largest market in the US. The fact is that New York can support two teams – especially since one is in New Jersey.

Announce a New Round of Expansion. The insightful WV Hooligan takes a more laizes-faire approach toward expansion, insisting it is about the right ownership group emerging. That is no doubt true, and especially so for cities like Atlanta and Miami that are feeling the full effects of the housing market crashes and have histories of poor attendance for professional sports. But the fact is that MLS, by having bypassed these markets in the past, increasingly needs them. There is a reason why every major professional sport has teams in these markets. There is an economic reality here.

Therefore, MLS needs to actively push these markets to put together an ownership group, especially in the wake of the momentum from the World Cup. In Atlanta the formation of a “soccer cabinet” made up of some really high profile and deep pocketed people is a sign of the enthusiasm for the game. What is interesting about the motivations of the “cabinet,” is that it is guided by a sense that without soccer Atlanta will not truly be seen as a global city and that soccer is a great way to market to the large and growing Hispanic community. There is clearly interest and enough resources in Atlanta to attract a team. By announcing a new round of expansion, MLS will create a sense urgency among these business leaders and can help work with them to create a solid ownership group.

Now a solid ownership group may not emerge and MLS should not willy nilly place a team into a city, but the fact is that it needs to expand in the south and now there is some momentum to do it.

Push some existing markets to step up – that means you DC and New England. While DC is one of the most stable franchises in terms of support and history, the team is currently bereft of a deep pocket owner who has the money to build a new stadium or splash for high profile designated players. DC’s ownership is looking for additional local partners and investors with some pull in the city council, but there has been little news to date. United has a chicken and egg problem, where investors are weary to invest since there is no concrete stadium plan on the table and the city is weary of developing any concrete stadium plan until the team can actually provide clarity on what it can spend. But now is the time to break this impasse and get more investors involved. A new stadium would be a huge draw in DC and would push United higher up the DC sports radar.

Less attention has been paid to the disaster that is New England. They have been solid on the field for the last decade but playing out in the middle of nowhere in Foxboro has put them totally off the Boston sports radar and given them poor attendance. What is the point in having a hugely deep pocketed owner if he isn’t going to spend a dime on the franchise. Now is the time for Bob Kraft to be pushed to step up and invest in his team or seek additional investors. Murmurs of moving a team to Somerville, which is just north of Cambridge, would be like adding an entirely new franchise to the league. Boston is incredibly young, has a huge university population, and has a diverse population – but currently none of these people are going (or will ever) regularly go out to Foxboro.

Another thing MLS should advance is moving Chivas to San Diego. While Chivas’ attendance is not horrible, they don’t have their own stadium, they draw far fewer than the Galaxy, have very low season ticket levels and the ethno-sectarian divisions between Chivas and the Galaxy is also troubling. The World Cup TV ratings, in which San Diego had the highest ratings of any city should push MLS to consider how to get a team in that market.

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6 Responses

  1. I’ve never once thought of WVHooligan as insightful, but okay.

    There are reasonable points here, and I’m especially behind the last one.

  2. Yes we need MLS in Miami.

  3. The real reason the Foxboro location is so bad is that it is only accessible by public transportation when there are specifically tasked MBTA commuter rail trains going there – which is not true for the MLS matches! So in a city in which most of your target (younger, university-educated, and Hispanic) potential markets are heavily dependent on public transit (and which has good public transit to MOST locations, if not Foxboro) you’ve cut out a huge percentage of potential market by locating that far out. A Somerville location would be good; it would be accessible by bus, and by 2014 by subway, given the current expansion plans.

  4. Great article. You hit all the major points and the EXACT teams that needs MLS teams. Miami, NYC, and Atlanta would put the league at a perfect 22 teams and into all major markets. Plus Chivas to San Diego is an idea it seems everyone agrees with, hope it happens!

  5. Miami already did have an MLS franchise, anyone remember the Miami Fusion, they only lasted 4 years! granted they played in Ft. Lauderdale but still, look at the Dolphins they ranked 27th in attendance percentage in the NFL!
    http://espn.go.com/nfl/attendance/_/sort/homePct
    Too many distractions in south florida with the beach and the weather and also the economy is really bad there, I know my father lives there and he tells me it’s really bad.
    Also, just because there is a high percentage of hispanics, it doesn’t mean that they will pay attention to any soccer team, they’ll pay attention to a GOOD team with star players, that’s the key.

  6. If the league wants to increase their TV audience, the last thing they need is televising an empty stadium in places like Miami. I call it the night club mentality. People are excited to go where the action is. Most would rather stand in line for hours at a full nightclub than go down the street to a half empty one. As much as I like good soccer, I even find it difficult to watch a game on TV be it Brazil, Argentina, Columbia or the MLS if the stadium looks empty. Part of the game is the crowd singing and chanting.

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