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.
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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.
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MLS’ Future Is Not In The Suburbs

This past weekend a winless and pathetic DC United attracted more than 18,000 fans to a collapsing and cavernous relic of a stadium on a chili evening in Washington. Yet in Denver, the Colorado Rapids, possessing a respectable record and playing in a shiny and recently built stadium attracted less than 10,000 fans. There is something very wrong with this picture.

The hard fact that MLS must come to realize is that even if you build it (a new soccer-specific stadium) they still may not come. Now there are many contributing factors for these differences in popularity – from cultural elements in these cities, to successful management and marketing, to on the field success, but the fact is that the location of new stadiums really matter. Colorado plays in the middle of nowhere, while DC plays in the city center located on two metro lines. The fundamental lesson that MLS must learn is that its future is not in the burbs but in the cities.

If you look around the league where the crowds are strong they are all teams with stadiums in urban locations – Seattle, New York, Toronto, DC, and Los Angeles. The teams with disappointingly low attendance are almost all due to teams with stadiums in the suburbs.

Not only do suburban based teams do more poorly at the gates than urban ones, but by strategically catering to a suburban clientèle they also fail to develop an intense and passionate fan base that is vital to penetrating local sports culture and ancillary revenues – like jersey sales. By building stadiums in the middle of nowhere, these franchises may have doomed themselves to cultural irrelevance within their respective cities for the next quarter century. A stadium should not be pursued for simply the sake of a new stadium, such short term cost calculus, will hurt long term profitability and viability of franchises – and will as a result hurt the growth of the game.

The Example of Dicks Sporting Goods Park

Before Dicks Sporting Goods Park opened, the Rapids averaged throughout their tenure 14,299 playing at Mile High Stadium(s). At the new soccer specific Dicks Sporting Goods Park, the average has been just 13,593. That means the Rapids averaged more at the more centrally located, yet cavernous football stadium than at a stadium designed for soccer. One can also not attribute this drop in attendance to performance. While Colorado was not very good in 07 and 08, they were quite credible last year, yet regardless, they saw their lowest level of attendance yet.

Why is attendance so poor, despite a brand new stadium? I am not from Denver, but Dicks is very far from much of the population centers – including other suburbs south of the city. The stadium is so far on the outskirts that it actually borders a wildlife preserve! Dicks is not all that far from downtown, about 20 minute drive with no traffic. But there seem to be absolutely no public transit options. The website for Dicks Sporting Goods Park for instance only offers driving directions, because frankly there are no transit options. And while this maybe typical for the U.S., Denver actually has a decent light rail system and has vibrant centrally located neighborhoods. Urban 20 somethings looking for nightlife and entertainment, unlike in Seattle, DC and Toronto, are less likely to make the trek out for a game.

The same problems affecting Colorado, also affect other suburban locations such as Dallas, New England and to a lesser extent Chicago.

Why Suburbs Fail

For most of the last decade the major emphasis of the league has been to push franchises to get there own stadiums. The reasons behind this make a lot of sense. Soccer-specific stadiums demonstrate the league’s permanence and owning a stadium gives each franchise a significant monetary boost, since stadium ownership yields significant revenue in advertising, naming rights, and other royalties. As a result it is likely that Dallas made more money in their home opener that attracted 10,000 less fans than DC, which has to pay rent. Despite the attendance woes of certain clubs, owning your own stadium remains crucial to an MLS franchise’s long term viability.
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Why MLS Is Set For A Breakthrough Year

With the threat of a strike over and with the league making steady progress year after year, there are lots of reasons to think that this year could be a breakthrough year for Major League Soccer.

What do I mean by breakthrough? For instance, if you look at 2009, I would argue that it was a breakthrough year for the US national team. The confederations cup performance created a huge amount buzz at home and abroad. It got people talking about soccer. The traditional sports media were forced to take notice – Dan Patrick had Landon Donovan on his radio show twice, ESPN’s SportsNation talked about the game, and American newspapers gave it extensive coverage. Similarly, the US-Mexico game received unprecedented hype for a qualifier – NPR covered it in their news updates, ESPN sent a whole crew, and Bill Simmons declared his love for yanks. On top of this, ESPN got very serious about soccer – they bought the rights to the Premier League and demonstrated that they would go all out on the World Cup. Furthermore, more US players landed abroad in top leagues – Onyewu to Milan, Davies to France, Jozy to England. US Soccer after the last year is now suddenly quite respected abroad and increasingly followed at home. In that sense, 09 was a real breakout year.

In this sense, I think MLS is primed for a similar year, in which the mainstream American sports world begins to take notice in a serious way. I think MLS will have a number of things going for it.

First, and most importantly, the northeast corridor of the United States – America’s cultural and economic heart (sorry Cali) – is going to get a soccer jolt.
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Exclusive: Tottenham Hotspur and San Jose Earthquakes Developing A Special Relationship

This was cross-posted at Huffington Post Sports.

While other MLS clubs are preparing for the new season by playing lower tier US clubs, the San Jose Earthquakes are in London testing themselves against Premier League competition and practicing at the training facility of Premier League risers Tottenham Hotspur. What is an MLS club doing in London?

The preseason trip to the UK is a result of a partnership that was penned between the two clubs in 2008. This agreement was hardly unique. Throughout the last decade MLS clubs have announced with great fanfare a variety of partnerships with various big international clubs. The LA Galaxy signed an agreement with Chelsea and Arsenal with the Colorado Rapids. While the initial signings of these partnerships brought a lot of initial interest, to most close followers of MLS little has seemed to come from these deals. But as this preseason trip demonstrates, meat is starting to be added to the bones of these agreements.

The Earthquakes by all accounts have had a fantastic week, defeating both a Spurs (1-0) and West Ham (2-0) reserve side that included Premier League regulars. They also beat western conference rivals, the Colorado Rapids (2-0), who have a partnership with Arsenal. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp told the Huffington Post that he has

“been impressed with our US partners the San Jose Earthquakes; they’ve been well organised and extremely competitive against some good opposition.”

Clive Allen, former Spurs player and head Development Coach was quoted on the Earthquakes website, “they are hoping to achieve a lot more this time around and with the players they’ve brought in and the strength of that squad, it certainly looks that they are capable of doing just that.”
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Beckham’s Injury May Effect Landon Donovan’s Summer Plans

By rupturing his Achilles yesterday playing with AC Milan, David Beckham’s World Cup dreams are over. This, in footballing terms is not that great of a blow to England, as the Guardian’s Rob Smyth dryly notes. But this is a big blow for MLS and to the LA Galaxy who have now likely lost Becks until the very end of the season and possibly for good, due to Beckham’s age.

This is not only a blow to the team’s ability to win, as Beckham despite his age, clearly offered quality to the side and played an important role in the Galaxy’s run to the finals. But this is also a significant blow to the Galaxy’s bottom line. Beckham could still put butts in the seats and create a lot of buzz in Tinsel town, as well as all over the country. When the Galaxy went on the road, every team saw significant boosts in attendance when Beckham played – although that impact declined last year. The league is still losing its most marketable player and noteworthy player.

But this also raises the question Does Beckham injury make selling Landon Donovan after the World Cup less likely? The Galaxy, a fairly big spending club for MLS, would surely not want to lose their two best players and most marketable players even for a decent profit. Additionally, the league, which owns Donovan’s contract under the single ownership structure, will likely be more hesitant to sell, as it will mean losing their two most notable players.
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MLS Labor Brinksmanship – How its like the Cuban Missile Crisis

In my day job I follow international negotiations on nuclear issues (ie US treaty talks with Russia, international talks with Iran and North Korea). So when the MLS players came out of talks collective bargaining and publicly complained about the owners, only to be followed by the MLS to make their public case, I immediately thought US-Iranian nuclear tango or even the Cuban missile crisis. The basic problem we face as the American soccer public is that this is brinksmanship and brinksmanship can easily go awry.

There has been a ton of quality stuff written about the labor talks. Currently, there is no new deal and the existing deal has not been extended. So currently we are in labor limbo. However, those relieved that the players didn’t immediately strike, should think again, Ives notes that the players wouldn’t strike until they have leverage – ie right before the season. In short, there is a brief window for both sides to pull back from the brink of nuclear war if you will.

Both sides are trying to show the other that they have the stones to push the button. There is a strategy behind brinksmanship, as it can convince the other side of ones willingness to walk away, thereby demonstrating negotiating redlines which can facilitate compromise. But this type of brinksmanship is very dangerous. Things can easily get out of control and lead to nuclear war – err, a strike. As distrust mounts, tensions rise, and previously idle threats becoming increasingly real there is a dangerous tendency for hotter heads prevail. The problem is that while both sides may understand the implications of a strike/lock out they get trapped in their own posturing and rhetoric.

The negotiation no longer becomes about striking the best deal in this particular negotiation, but about sending a broader message. In another words, the negotiation becomes more a battle of wills than about any particular issue. In that sense this negotiation is not really about free agency, it is about future negotiations – ie if we give in now, we look weak and the other side will only demand more or give less the next time around. Thus, the players and owners both believe that if they concede to the others demands, they will feel they will be weaker the next go around. The owners fret that their whole model – ie their whole way of life, if this were politics – were at stake in these negotiations. The players will feel that if they can’t get more now, they will forever be downtrodden. In this view, it is not as if there isn’t ground for a compromise, but each side is taking a bit harder line than they would if this was not going to be an on-going relationship.
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