The Case For MLS Clubs Going Regional

While I think MLS teams are doing a relatively good job in their own local markets, especially with attendance, I think they are missing big opportunities to grow their brands and potentially the leagues TV revenues. TV numbers for MLS on ESPN are not great and the notion of the World Cup tv bounce appears to have been a myth. To grow TV viewership, which is key to financial growth of the sport, teams need to think regionally and should play some games in other surrounding cities.

While this won’t work for all teams, there are certain teams that can definitely expand their reach. The nature of professional sports in the US is that most fans of a team are unable to regularly – if ever – attend their team’s games. Hence, the importance of tv ratings and viewership. Teams like the Redskins aren’t just DC’s team, they are Virginia’s team. The Patriots and Red Sox aren’t just Boston’s teams, they are New England’s as well. The Braves aren’t just Atlanta, they are the south’s team. In other sports, cities and regions surrounding professional teams have coverage of this team on local tv and in the local newspaper. MLS teams tend to get coverage almost exclusively from their direct locale, not from surrounding cities in their region. They need to try to broaden their reach.

MLS teams play a substantial amount of games in the league, US Open Cup, Superliga, Champions League, a few games a year can be played elsewhere. DC United for instance already does this with the US Open Cup playing some games in the Maryland Soccer Plex in Montgomery County. The Boston Breaker of the WPS recently played in Hartford to good effect.

One way to do this is for MLS clubs to play a few games a year in neighboring cities. MLS clubs play a good amount of games in a lot of different competitions from the league itself, US Open Cup, Superliga, and CONCACAF Champions League, if the NFL can spare a home game to play in London, MLS clubs can do the same.

Now in some places this won’t work – attendance will be low, logistics will be too complicated, facilities won’t be suitable or won’t be available. But for some of the lower profile games such as in the US Open Cup, I don’t really see how teams could do much worse in terms of attendance. Furthermore, the novelty aspect of an MLS team playing in a city that likely never gets professional soccer, should prove to be a decent draw and will draw some local media attention as well. For instance, if DC United were to play a game in Richmond or Virginia Beach local press would give that game considerable coverage. Additionally, some potential rivalry games could be played at neutral sights – ala the “World’s largest cocktail party” between Georgia and Florida is played in Jacksonville. One could imagine Columbus and Philadelphia playing in Pittsburgh for instance or Philadelphia and DC playing in Baltimore.

Now doing this would have some drawbacks. In some cases attendance would be pathetic, it would cost clubs money by sacrificing a home game, it could step on the toes of smaller clubs in those markets, and it could annoy overtaxed players. But really the downside in trying to do this is very low.

Here are some teams that would benefit from going regional:

Columbus: This really should be Ohio’s team. They play in the middle of the state just two hours between Cleveland and Cincinatti. Furthermore, they could play the Philadelphia Union in Pittsburgh.

DC United: While they play games in Montgomery County in the US Open Cup, the fact is that this is hardly a different market. It’s on a DC metro line. United should seek to become Baltimore’s team, just as the Orioles were DC’s baseball team for many years. Baltimore clearly has a yearning for soccer given the positive showings of big summer friendlies over the previous years. Furthermore, cities like Richmond and Hampton Roads area would be other locations that United could play and expand their marketing. The Redskins dominate Virginia, United should try to as well.

New England: They are called New England for a reason. The Revolution could play in Hartford, Providence, Manchester New Hampshire and Portland Maine. Actually, come to think of it, they could actually play a game in Boston since they don’t really play there now. They could play at Harvard’s stadium.

Kansas City: They should seek to become Missouri’s team and should play a game in St. Louis.

Chivas USA: This is a team that is supposed to have broader appeal to the Hispanic market. Playing exclusively in LA makes little sense. They should branch out and play in San Diego, Pheonix, or even Las Vegas.

San Jose: While they are the bay area’s team, games in the East Bay in Oakland and perhaps in Sacramento as well could solidify their status as Northern California’s team.

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2 Responses

  1. With all due respect, why would us folks in St. Louis want to see the Wizards play? I know that Jeff Cooper completely screwed up the St. Louis bid, but at some point the individual fans in St. Louis who are being yanked around need to take a stand. Call it sour grapes, but I personally won’t give a moment of my time or money to MLS until there is a franchise in my city that I can support. Until further notice, AC St. Louis is our professional team, thank you very much.

  2. I’m with Mark on this one. No team from Columbus is ever going to represent the entire state of Ohio (not even OSU, despite their inflated self-opinion). I have no connection with the Crew, and I wouldn’t pay money to see them play in Cleveland. The only exception to that would be if NASL and USL can get over their issues, give us a chance to see a re-established City Stars and start a regional rivalry, even as an exhibition. I’d be willing to bet that most potential fans from Cincinnati feel the same way, and that’s before you even get into the whole Philadelphia/Pittsburgh thing.

    Like it or not, this is one of the downsides of the original MLS’s top-down, national-coverage model. Outside of the big cities, they put several teams where they thought they could market them at a regional level – Tampa Bay, San Jose, KC, Columbus, Dallas and Miami/Fort Lauderdale. Given that the original San Jose team moved to give Dallas a regional rival and the Florida clubs were contracted, it would seem that the idea never really caught on. Perhaps they’ve learned, though: the recent Pacific Northwest expansion looks like it will be a much better system for creating regional interest in the league as a whole.

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