MLS Can’t Stop At 20 Teams – It Must Become A National League

WV Hooligan is adamant that MLS take a break from expansion at 20 teams. This makes sense since at 20 teams the league will have reached the size of other big time leagues, it will give it time to consolidate and will give time to allow for the quality of the league to improve. All these points are true. But frankly MLS has to get bigger than 20 teams, because even at 20 teams it will still not be a national league.

MLS lacks national reach and it is not just because three of its teams are/will be in Canada, but also because the league specifically targeted smaller niche markets like Columbus and Salt Lake City in order to have less competition from other sports. Both these franchises have largely paid off and the coming conquest of the Pacific Northwest with Portland and Vancouver – similarly small or midsize markets – were probably wise expansion moves, especially considering the down economy.

But lets get real for a second. The key to growing a leagues revenue is the growth of television viewership and therefore TV rights. Hence, leagues need to go where the people are, since they need to expand its viewership base. Many millions of America will never live close enough to an MLS team to regularly go to the games. To connect with these folks the league needs to not just put out an engaging product, but it needs to give these people a team to route for. All other major pro sports have 30+ teams (NBA, NHL, MLB all have 30, the NFL has 32). MLS doesn’t need to get close to that number soon, but it does need to have a presence throughout the country.

Yet MLS does not have a team in the south – 60 million people live in this region or 20 percent of the US population. MLS does not have teams in two of the ten largest markets in North America. Passing over the south in upcoming expansion is just not (or should not be) an option for the league.

Now many fret about the fickle fans of Miami and Atlanta whose sprawling cities often depress attendance to sporting events and worry about whether a strong enough ownership group can be found. These are all very legit concerns and a new MLS franchise in these cities would no doubt need to be well crafted. But frankly MLS is running out of realistic options – because the league needs to expand to this region for its own sake. By having gone to smaller markets, MLS’ hand is now forced a bit.

It seems that the only real metric that people talk about when judging a team’s success vis-à-vis the league is attendance. If there are sell out crowds of 18,000 in Portland for every game, this would likely not make that franchise more valuable to the league than a Miami team playing in front of 13,000. Why? Because having a presence in South Florida suddenly makes MLS accessible to about 6 million people, while in Portland about 2.5 million. Don’t get me wrong attendance is important. Atmosphere is important. But in the business of sport, I would argue that it is not everything. The Marlins may be a joke in terms of attendance, but having baseball in the Miami market is very meaningful to baseball. It gives baseball a presence in one of the largest markets in the country and ensures that the game itself is covered in the cities local newspapers and television. This is important in increasing the sports visibility and sponsorship revenue as well.

Why is MLS targeting Queens with a new expansion target ahead of the south? Well for the very same reasons the league must expand to the south. New York is the largest media market, which has yet to take to the Red Bulls, the population and breadth of the media mean that the city can sustain two teams and create a cross-town rivalry that can perhaps capture New Yorkers attention. But more importantly New York drives media coverage around the country – it tells America what is important. Therefore another team in New York in essence is all about increasing the exposure of the league.

Similarly, expansion to Atlanta and Miami would put MLS in all the major cities and media markets in the country. Miami also holds the promise of linking MLS to Latin America and to the Latin American financial center (Miami is the financial capital of Latin America). Expansion to the south’s capital of Atlanta would give the league reach into all the neighboring states. These states are used to routing for the Braves and other Atlanta teams. Smaller cities like Tampa and Charlotte could also merit attention, but not until MLS gets into the two main markets.

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5 Responses

  1. I agree that TV deals are the lifeblood of a sports league. The MLS should do everything that they can to hit the american/canadian audience with as many games as possible. However, the big market/small market/TV audience is a bit of the chicken and the egg.

    For me personally, I am MUCH more drawn to watch something on TV that the fans are fully engaged and the stadium is rocking. One of the big things that soccer has going for it versus other sports is the fact that there is no game stoppage. No game stoppage means no commercials (they kill baseball, football, and basketball). No game stoppage means no jumbotron telling passive fans what to do ala basketball “Defense! Defense!” More than any sport, soccer fanship is an active, participatory event. Soccer fans have a huge impact on the game, the atmosphere, the EVENT. And THAT’s why Americans are starting to come around to soccer- the buzz around the event, and the opportunity to participate in something rather than passively sit. In today’s HD world, there’s no reason to go to a sporting event like the NBA and allow the entertainment to wash over you- you’ll have a better experience at home in front of your HDTV with your remote in one hand and a beer in the other.

    I live in Chicago and I go to a couple Fire games/year. They’re ok… but ANY time that Sounders FC has a home game on TV or online, I’m watching because the team is exciting, and the game atmosphere is an event. I live vicariously through the fans that thrust themselves into the TV viewing experience by their sheer numbers, volume, and colors. Chicago’s a way bigger TV market than Seattle, but I’d rather watch the Sounders on TV than the Fire. Compare that to a Chivas USA home game where the stadium is half empty. Los Angeles is a huge market, but as a fan, the event is really not television-worthy for me. I find myself asking the question- if no one in LA cares about this team, why should I?

    It’s really a both-and scenario… If the stadiums are empty and the games are on TV, the games are boring and feel irrelevant. If the stadiums are packed and no one is watching on TV, that’s obviously no good either. The route that the MLS seems to be going is “Let’s make sure that as many butts are in seats as possible, we’ll grow fan participation/excitement, and then slowly grow our TV presence.” All things considered in our already sports-saturated culture, I think that this is the right way to go.

  2. I would love to see a team in Raleigh or Charlotte NC. Not everyone in the South loves Atlanta teams.

  3. I totally agree for a team of the South, though I would argue against one in Florida.cause I wouldn’t necessarily call.Florida part of the south. If you look at the Bravest, they’ve been called the.Team of the South for a while now and while the Atlanta fans can be fickle at some times, it could be argued that now would be a good.time as any, due to the success of the Hawks and Falcon along with decades long traditions of the Braves, to build a MLS team based in Atlanta. Unfortunately, the Silverbacks occupy the title of soccer team in Atlanta, and they are woefully horrible in the newly established NASL. There are many other cities worthy of a MLS home: Nashville, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Columbia, Birmingham; shoot, I’d even settle for a team in Virginia. The south is riddled with NASL and PDL teams, we need a strong MLS team based in the South. How can you even talk bout expansion and breaching the soccer world without a.team of the South?

  4. Atlanta and Miami are horrible sports towns. They have zero fan support in all of the sports except NFL. A smaller city (Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, Charlotte, Birmingham, Huntsville, Nashville) would be a better option in my opinion. Most of these cities already have a stadium built are are pretty good sports towns. I would love to see a team in Huntsville or Jacksonville. Soccer is followed pretty closely in these areas an I believe the support for the team would catch on pretty quickly.

  5. Atlanta is a great city but I would also be worried about a lack of support. Nashville would be the perfect spot. If the support for the Nashville Predators is any indication of the the city really taking to a new team and sport then Nashville would completely support an MLS team. Plus, there has always been great attendance for the national team games held there. I did a post about the expansion to 20 teams as well, check it out at http://offthelaces.com/ Thanks!

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