In a follow up to a recent story covered here on my blog, Frank’s Forum, Major League Soccer (MLS) will, according to a number of high profile media sources, announce the expansion of the league to Atlanta.
This expansion franchise addition in Atlanta has been long rumored and the team will begin play in 2017, when the new downtown stadium for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons is scheduled for completion. The official announcement is expected next week from the league, and Arthur Blank, the owner of the Falcons is expected to be named the owner of the MLS franchise as well.
I have written previously in my article series on sports expansion and demographics that Atlanta made sense for the future of MLS because it is a Top 10 TV market, the metro area population size, and the need for franchises in the Southeast.
MLS currently has no presence in the Southeast, and with the population demographic shifts in the U.S., they realized this needed to be addressed in future expansion. Atlanta will be the 22nd team in the league which currently has 19 teams split between two conferences. New York City FC will be the 20th franchise and will begin play next year along with Orlando, the 21st franchise and the first in the Southeast.
Miami is rumored to be the next expansion target for MLS with David Beckham heading the ownership group there, the bid is hinging on the finalization of both a temporary stadium, and more importantly, a plan for a dedicated soccer specific stadium being approved.
The South Rises
In the event that the Miami group headed by David Beckham gains approval for an expansion franchise, MLS will have 3 teams in the Southeast, reflecting the importance of the region to the future of the league. It will also create regional rivalries between Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami which MLS also prefers to cultivate in order to grow the overall intensity within the league and the fan base.
These expansion plans will launch MLS into the local and regional markets of some very large demographic areas which also have high yield population growth potential in the future. Each market in the South (Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami) has a nice blend of multicultural diversity which lends itself well to soccer with its strong homogenous global popularity.
Atlanta hosted a big international soccer match last month which drew the largest paid attendance for a soccer game in the city’s history. Orlando draws very well with their current minor league level club, and those numbers are expected to grow with the jump to MLS and the larger capacity in the new stadium.
Miami has been much maligned in the sports media regarding the previous failure of an MLS franchise called the Miami Fusion. The Fusion played four seasons in MLS from 1997 to 2001, and then the franchise was contracted by the league. The franchise failed for many factors: it played in Fort Lauderdale not in Miami, the team lacked corporate support, and it played in an old stadium, Lockhart Stadium, which lacked access to public transportation.
The ownership of the Fusion also lacked the financial resources to operate the team further after the losses they suffered, which will not be present in the group that David Beckham is bringing to this new franchise. The Fusion did spend money to convert Lockhart Stadium into a soccer specific stadium, which is a trend that lasts today and has contributed greatly to the financial stability of MLS.
The new Miami franchise will not have any of the same issues that beset the Fusion. The team plans to play in downtown Miami in a location with excellent public transit access. The latest rumor is that Beckham wants to purchase land for a stadium in the Port of Miami, which has caused the cruise industry to raise objections with the city regarding traffic and parking issues.
The cruise industry objection is a legitimate one being that the busiest day for the cruise industry is Saturday, and the busiest day for the MLS during the soccer season is Saturday as well. I am not sure how that situation will be resolved, but the Beckham group does not require public financing for the new stadium. That is a big factor toward this stadium being located basically wherever they want it to be located.
One More To Go
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has openly discussed reaching 24 teams by the year 2020. That leaves one more expansion slot left after these other plans which have been made public in recent months. My prior article in the series on sports expansion and marketing demographics speculated on where that other franchise might be awarded, and I still think it is most likely going to be in Minneapolis or in Sacramento.
The league has a hole to fill in the franchise coverage of the Midwest which would be filled by Minneapolis, which is also an excellent TV market with an established soccer fan base. The stadium used would be the new NFL stadium for the Vikings, similar to how the MLS plans to operate in Atlanta with the new NFL stadium there being used to host the soccer team during the spring and summer NFL off season.
The case for the growth of MLS is clear, the interest in the league here in the U.S. has never been greater, and the future only looks to be even brighter when these new franchises spread the game even further through America.
(Background data courtesy of AP.com, SI.com, AJC.com, and MLSSoccer.com)