MLS Expansion: Cincinnati Named 26th Franchise With An Assist From The Uncertain Future of Crew SC

The domestic soccer world learned on Tuesday that Cincinnati has been granted admission into MLS (Major League Soccer) as the 26th franchise in the top circuit in North America. The “race to 28” which is the expansion plan by the league to get to 28 franchises by the year 2020, has long been detailed here on Frank’s Forum.

The Cincinnati club will begin play in 2019 and will fill a void in that area of the map for MLS as they look to expand their reach into new markets for soccer. The bid was successful based on a variety of factors: they have an established fan base as the current USL team there has shattered attendance records averaging over 24,000 fans per game and frequently selling over 30,000 tickets to home matches, they have a stable investment group of local business leaders, and they have plans for a new stadium with government support.

However, in my view, the Cincinnati bid for expansion was fast-tracked because of the uncertainty surrounding a current MLS franchise (an original franchise no less) the Columbus Crew SC. Some fans of MLS may already be aware, but for those who are unaware, the situation in Columbus is this: the franchise operator Anthony Precourt wants to move the team to Austin, TX and they are in the middle of a lawsuit in Ohio with a group that aims to keep the team from relocating.

The desire to relocate to Austin was not pulled out of the ether, the impetus for the move was due to a common theme in pro sports in America: a dispute over a new stadium. The Crew play in the first soccer specific stadium to be built in MLS in Columbus, which was a key component of their bid back in the mid-1990s to get one of the original bids for franchise ahead of Cleveland, which had no plan for a dedicated stadium for a soccer team.

However, that facility in Columbus is now viewed as outdated compared to other state of the art facilities that have been constructed by other MLS franchises in the two decades since the Crew SC were born into the league. The plan hatched by Mr. Precourt was to use Austin as leverage against Columbus and see which city gave him the best deal on a new stadium; which is a move that has been used by other owners in other sports for years.

Columbus officials felt that the residents would not approve any measure allocating public funds (tax revenue) towards the construction of a new soccer facility for the team. They countered with a plan to renovate the existing stadium to make some enhancements that would benefit both the players and the fans.

Mr. Precourt balked at the renovation, and according to reliable news outlets, began privately ratcheting up his negotiations with Austin public officials stating that he intends to move the team to the Texas capital city. This brought about the court action which has taken several twists and turns in the past few months. It also angered the investment groups bidding for expansion teams in other markets because they were seen to be ahead of Austin in the running for a spot and saw this maneuver as Austin trying to “cut the line” and gain a team without going through the full expansion process.

In my perspective, the circumstances surrounding Crew SC provided the conditions for Cincinnati to gain an expansion bid ahead of other cities because MLS was looking at the prospect of having no franchise presence in Ohio. The population demographics and the geographic location of Ohio makes it a critical market for any professional league from a business standpoint.

The Cincinnati entry into MLS next year “covers their bases” if Precourt moves Crew SC to Texas. The bid for Cincinnati had a leg up on other bids because they do not have to wait for a stadium to be built – they are going to play in their current home, Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati for a few years. This enables the club to join and begin play seamlessly in 2019 because they are not rebranding the USL club colors.

This is to take nothing away from the investment group in Cincinnati or the Mayor or other public officials there who put together a very organized bid compared to other cities who have struggled (Sacramento, Detroit, and St. Louis jump to mind). The plan for the West End stadium is very bold and innovative and will seek to achieve what so many other MLS stadiums have been commissioned to do in the past: turn around a blighted neighborhood of a major American city.

The league now will have a presence in Ohio regardless of what happens in Columbus which will appease the major national sponsors and the league’s TV partners: ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision. FC Cincinnati will have a natural rival with the new Nashville expansion team which will be joining MLS soon as well, so if Columbus does lose the Crew, the regional rivalry can be easily ramped up with Nashville.

The demographics for Cincinnati and Austin are similar, both are attracting young professionals starting their careers or under 35 years old: MLS targets this demographic and covets it. The officials in Austin have big plans for a stadium there for soccer and they would have built-in rivals with FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo both playing in the Lone Star State currently for MLS.

The court action has damaged the business for Crew SC this season, with bad weather and fan apathy playing a part in dwindling home crowds for the matches held there so far this season. I was watching past games via the ESPN+ app which has the streaming rights to all the MLS games, and the home match I saw with Crew SC had camera angles showing an nearly empty stadium.

The court proceeding has played out very publicly in Ohio throughout the media. The latest tactic by the group in Columbus was to attempt a court injunction using the “Modell rule” which was adopted after Art Modell moved the Baltimore Colts NFL franchise in the middle of the night to Indianapolis. The rule seeks to prevent a current team owner from relocating a team without first providing another group in the team’s current local area from putting together a competing proposal to purchase the team.

The counterpoint argument by Mr. Precourt’s attorneys was very smart. I have written in the past that MLS is a single entity model structure which means that MLS owns all of the teams and the local groups are “operators” of the franchises. The legal argument was that MLS was the owner of Crew FC, not Precourt Sports Group, and MLS owns many teams in many states, so as operator of a franchise Mr. Precourt was essentially just following orders.

In the end the court will decide and that ruling could be appealed to a federal court because it is considered interstate commerce and a bunch of other legal jargon being thrown around will serve as a distraction. It will serve as a distraction from the fact that MLS wants to be in Austin because they think it provides a better long- term demographics forecast in the future than Columbus. The translation: they can make more money in Austin and play in a new facility with better revenue controls than the deal they have in Columbus.

Those factors all benefitted a Cincinnati group which was a little late to the expansion table, to get a seat ahead of other entrants who have been working for many years to put all the pieces together for a successful bid. The MLS walks away a winner because the Cincinnati team will be very successful at drawing fans because they have proven that already, they potentially gain access to the untapped Austin marketplace without giving up an expansion spot to another city, which means the league will still be able to add two more teams to get to 28 franchises.

The situation in Columbus is fluid as are the developments in Detroit with the land swap deal with the site of the jail, Sacramento and their quest for a stable “operator” to join the investment group, Phoenix trying to get their act together overall, and St. Petersburg trying to convince MLS that a third Florida franchise makes long-term business sense.

The league is growing, my own view is that I hope it does not grow too large that it collapses due to over expansion, only time will tell.

MLS Expansion: LA, Miami, “Group of 12”, Future of Soccer In America

MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced recently that the newly rebranded Los Angeles Football Club (LA FC) which are the initials they will be known by in the future, will be entering the league alone in 2018. This is a deviation from a trend of expanding the league by two teams at a time, and it also casts some doubt on the state of the Miami expansion bid.

It was anticipated that the Miami bid spearheaded by former soccer superstar, David Beckham, would also begin play in 2018 with LA FC. The Miami bid has had numerous setbacks, most notably with securing land for a stadium as well as securing total private financing for the stadium.

When the calendar flipped to 2017, the news out of Miami was, that after striking out on their attempts at obtaining land at the Port of Miami, Museum Park, and a plot of land across from Marlins Park; Beckham had secured land in the Overtown section of Miami. The group does need to acquire the adjacent lot which is owned by the county for municipal vehicle storage.

The Overtown section is north of Miami’s main downtown and is notably a high crime and economically depressed area with a very diverse population from several countries. The Beckham group proposal has the jobs generated from the stadium and team being located there as the primary piece in his pitch to the government.
The plan for the stadium, according to local news sources and the MLS site, is for a 25,000 seat venue that will cost around $200 million in the final estimates. The Beckham group is currently reported to be seeking out additional minority investors to help come up with the rest of the financing needed to get the stadium facility built successfully. The target date now is for Miami to join the league in 2019, but all parties involved caution that those parameters could change in the future.

The league has issued statements of support for Miami, which also happens to boast the highest overall TV ratings for soccer in the U.S. (which is a huge reason why the MLS has been so patient) and a demographics mix that is favorable for supporting a soccer club for the long term. In my prior coverage of the expansion of MLS, the media rights deal for the television packages both regionally and nationally has come into focus.

The league wants to grow their presence in large TV markets so they can increase their revenue capture in the next TV rights deal. The addition of Atlanta and Minnesota as expansion clubs this season and the second team in LA in 2018 as well as potentially Miami in two years, will be a huge bargaining chip for MLS to get more revenue dollars out at the negotiating table.

The second LA team mentioned earlier, LA FC, has a star studded ownership group and is the rebranded entry for the disbanded Chivas USA which shared the Los Angeles market with the Galaxy for a period of years in MLS history. The Chivas experiment was a complete failure, as the club never gained real traction in L.A. and shared a stadium with the Galaxy, which did not help their marketing attempts.

LA FC will have their own modern stadium which is under construction currently on the site of the former LA Sports Arena which is just south of the LA Memorial Coliseum. The location is very good and very convenient for fans, and the league will be releasing information on the expansion draft to help them construct their roster in the near future.

Group of Twelve

The addition of LA FC in 2018 will bring the league to 23 teams, the first time in a while they will have an odd number of teams, which will be a scheduling headache for the league office. The Miami bid looks like it is eventually going to get done as the 24th entry to MLS, which has a stated goal of expanding to 28 teams.

The remaining four spots for expansion will be decided among what is called the “Group of Twelve”, the twelve cities that submitted proposals for consideration for an MLS expansion franchise. The group consists of: Tampa/St. Petersburg, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Diego, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

I have produced individual articles on some of these cities and their quest for an MLS expansion franchise in the past, I have also completed larger summary articles on each of these bids as well as others which were not included in the “Group of Twelve”. It should also be noted that MLS executives intend on reducing down this group to a smaller number, potentially as early as this summer.

In my view, and I have no indication from the league on this part of the process, it would make sense to cut the group down from twelve bids to eight, since only four slots are available. Then it could either be cut again to six bids, or the four approved bids could be announced.

The summary of each bid can be found below:

Tampa/St. Petersburg – see my full article on this emerging and popular bid. The Tampa Bay Rowdies have an established fan base, a passionate owner, and plans to renovate and expand their existing stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront. The stadium plans do not require any changes to the city street grid or any “fill” in the bay to complete which is a big positive with local government and the residents. MLS executives are intrigued by the stadium site and the size of the market for TV purposes. They also have a very organized social media campaign.
The negatives would be that the Tampa Bay area is already part of the territorial rights for the Orlando City FC franchise and they would have to agree to another franchise joining MLS from the same region. Orlando City would also have to be compensated for the alteration to their territorial rights, which could get very sticky and expensive.
Some analysts see that territorial issue and the fact that the league had a team in Tampa which folded in the early 2000s as two major issues with the bid. I think it is still very much in play because of the size of the market, the fan base of the team, the ownership, and the stadium.

Cincinnati – The bid has many strong points such as an established fan base for their current minor league club, strong attendance figures at those matches, and a committed ownership group with great resources. The Midwest is an area of need for MLS expansion when looking at the current footprint of the league.
The negative point for the Cincinnati bid is a big one: the stadium. Their current stadium for their minor league club is too old and too small. The successful bid for this city would need to include a new stadium plan that is actionable. The government seems supportive of that concept and the stadium is a vital component to an MLS bid because the league needs full control of the facilities that their clubs play in for scheduling and maximum revenue generation purposes.
Some analysts feel that this bid only needs a vote on the new stadium and it is going to be one of the approved bids out of the this “group of twelve”. I am not so sure because the spots are limited and MLS executives are very high on the presentations by St. Louis and Detroit and may think those two cities will be an adequate representation of the Midwest at this point.

Detroit- The bid for Detroit is also a process which I wrote a separate article about several months back, it has risen from a long shot to a very real possibility for one of these last four spots on the MLS franchise expansion list. The strong points are: an ownership group that includes two billionaire professional sports owners, one of the largest untapped TV markets for MLS, a diverse population with a history of supporting soccer, and it is the second most populated metro area after Phoenix in the “group of twelve”.
The downsides to this bid: they have no high level minor league presence in the market. Detroit City FC is essentially a fifth tier team that is supporter funded, though they have done a great job on a small scale with marketing the club.
The other main issue is the stadium site. Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, the two principle potential owners are eying a site in the rapidly redeveloping District Detroit, where the other sports stadiums are located. The site is a few blocks from Ford Field / Comerica Park and is currently a failed municipal construction site for a proposed jail. The budget money ran out and the site has been abandoned for some time. Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Gores have proposed essentially a land swap where the jail would be moved to another area in the city and they would acquire the former jail site to build the soccer stadium. The city is mulling the proposal, and if they turn it down, there is no contingency plan for a site for a stadium. There are some analysts and soccer media people who feel that the stadium site could sink this deal, and others who believe that MLS is so interested in reviving Detroit that it could still move forward with a successful bid.

Indianapolis- This city which I have visited several times is one of the most underrated sports cities in the nation. The downtown is very easy to walk and all of the stadiums are in the same area which makes it very convenient. MLS favors the downtown urban setting for the stadiums for their franchises and the league has appeal with millennials, who also favor the concept of living in a downtown area with access to sports as well as entertainment options.
The city has an upper tier minor league team called “The Indy Eleven” which play in Carroll Stadium and have garnered some impressive attendance numbers. The support of this club is seen as a very strong aspect to the bid. The club has a very wealthy and well connected owner that is very driven to get into MLS.
The city also has robust support from the local and state governments, which just created a tax zone for the area that the proposed new stadium would be constructed. The tax revenue from gate receipts (ticket sales), concession sales, and tax revenue from those that work at the stadium would comprise the public portion of the new stadium funding. The proposed site is near the Colts NFL stadium downtown.
The negative aspects to this bid are that the minor league club does not have an established history, the Midwest could get crowded if the league decides to grant access to St. Louis and Detroit as well, and the last negative is the stadium. The proposal for the tax zone may not gain passage before MLS decides on the last two bids for expansion. In the event that the financing plan for the stadium is uncertain, this bid will fail. I view this as more of a long shot bid.

Nashville- A bid that has gained some traction in recent months is the proposal from Nashville to join the largest soccer league in North America. This push is being spearheaded by the Ingram family worth billions of dollars and enjoys outstanding governmental support. The city is the smallest metro area of this group of twelve applicants, and it has never supported a soccer club on any level.
The stadium site has gained some clarity now that the Nashville Fairgrounds has been zeroed in as the proposed area for development of that facility. The city has a large millennial population and a growing diversity in their population which MLS executives have noted as strength areas.
The fact that they have a strong ownership group and substantial potential corporate sponsorship support are the positive aspects to this bid.
The negative aspects are that they have no attendance figures or history of supporting a soccer club, the size of the metro area, and the lack of a definitive stadium plan puts this bid in jeopardy of being passed over for one of the final spots in this process.

Charlotte- The bid by Charlotte is one of two from the state of North Carolina (Raleigh-Durham is the other) and MLS Commissioner Don Garber has stated that the league would like to expand their presence in the Southeast. There was some confusion between the potential owners and the city council because of the timing of their request for public funds to build a soccer stadium on the site of the old American Legion Memorial Stadium. The municipal government felt it was rushed, and that is because essentially Charlotte came late to the MLS expansion party and had to apply prior to the deadline.
This bid will most likely be for one of the final two spots in the process because other cities are at a more advanced stage at this point. The positives for Charlotte are the location and the passion of the potential owners, the powerful Smith family of NASCAR fame and wealth. The political support is a bit split with the mayor on board and the county level officials on board with the bid and the stadium plan, and some city level officials that are seeking more time to evaluate the use of funds for an elite level pro soccer team.
The stadium site is fairly convenient as it is close to Charlotte’s Uptown area, which is where the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets have their arena. However, in recent weeks there seems to be some uncertainty being reported by the local media around the stadium plan and the financing for the project. That is obviously never good news when it comes to the prospects for an MLS expansion team. The other positives include the corporate sponsorship presence, the size of their media market, and the support of their other sports teams.
The Independence are a minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rapids of MLS, and they play in Charlotte currently. The support for the team will be part of the evaluation of the bid as will be the robust support that the residents there provided to the U.S. Men’s National team games held in the city recently. My view is that the demographics and some other metrics make this bid interesting, but if the city council blocks the stadium deal, this bid will be eliminated.
Raleigh – The other Southeast bid is from Raleigh, which has a successful minor league team (Carolina RailHawks re-branded recently as North Carolina FC) a dedicated ownership group led by businessman Steve Malik, and a demographic mix of highly educated professionals transplanted from the Northeast as well as millennials starting their careers.
The corporate presence is a bit lacking in major Fortune 500 types, but several large multinational corporations have a presence in the “Research Triangle” area. The bid proposal stressed the fact that the area has just one major pro team, the NHL’s Hurricanes, and that the population can support an MLS team. It also stressed the teamwork between the owner, the local government, the corporations, and the local residents.
The media market size is on the smaller side, but MLS has clubs in small markets that have done very well. The all-important stadium situation is the area where the most progress is needed. They have a design concept, a mid-20,000 seat stadium with a translucent roof. The renderings look amazing, but the site is still not determined. The North Carolina FC club plays currently in a small facility in Cary, which is outside of Raleigh. MLS prefers downtown urban stadium locations with access to public transit. The stadium will be mostly privately financed.
Raleigh is an interesting bid, I still think if Charlotte gets the stadium plan voted through it may have an advantage. Many analysts close to the league feel that North Carolina will get one of the four teams. Then, others feel that Atlanta and Orlando are so dominant in the Southeast that the league may look to hit other areas where they need a presence.

Phoenix- The entry of this city into the group was a surprise to some because the market has not done particularly well supporting their lower tier minor league team through the years. The market is the largest metro area without an MLS club and they have no competition, the next closest MLS club is over 300 miles away so that makes this bid unique.
This bid by Phoenix is a mixed bag of positive and negative elements. The positives are that they have a current minor league club: Phoenix Rising FC, they have an ownership group, and they have a stadium plan as well as a site. There are groups within Phoenix that believe that the support for the minor league club was not strong because the stadium location is not convenient. The new stadium would be in Scottsdale, an ideal location for accessibility.
The negative elements are that the corporate support for the potential MLS club is tepid, the city has other major sports so competition for entertainment dollars is steep, and the market has limited soccer heritage or history to draw upon.
In my view, the stadium moving to Scottsdale is a key component. The population and TV market numbers are very compelling. I think Phoenix has a strong chance because I think MLS wants to be there just from the size of the market and the demographics of the market, just from that perspective. I do have reservations about the ability of the area to support a team and whether it would work, particularly playing matches in the summer months in Arizona.

Sacramento- The soccer world was anticipating this expansion bid to be a virtual “lock” based on the progress that this group made in all phases of the process. The events of the past few months, however, have put the Sacramento bid in a degree of jeopardy. The capital city of California has been working tirelessly over the past four years to obtain an MLS expansion franchise. The demographics are ideal for MLS, the market size has some attractive attributes, and there is little competition with only one pro sports team in town: the NBA’s Kings.
The other main positive to the bid is that the minor league club, Sacramento Republic FC, has been a huge success in that market. The club has set attendance records in their league and was the initial reason behind the interest level for MLS being so high in potential expansion to that market. The branding of that club clearly has connected with the community and it “checks all the boxes” as far as MLS criteria for a minor league club presence and established fan support base.
The stadium site is also a positive attribute to their quest for one of the last four spots in MLS. The new facility is designed and the project is shovel ready in a tract of land in the Railyards section of the Sacramento downtown, which is part of a huge redevelopment project being spearheaded by the city.
The ownership component is a bit tricky because Kevin Nagle, who is leading the MLS bid process did not have the rights to the branding of the Republic name, logo, and colors. Those rights are controlled by Warren Smith who runs the operations of the minor league club. The two men caused the issues with the bid alluded to earlier in this section because at the time the bid was due to MLS, Nagle submitted it without the Republic being a part of the submission. This created concern within the league over whether the local ownership was fractured. In the end, an agreement between Nagle and Smith was made about four days later, and the MLS process will move forward with the Sacramento Republic being the name and branding used for the potential expansion team.
The other issue with Sacramento is the emergence of San Diego as an exciting candidate for expansion, which raises the question of whether MLS would add two more teams in California.
In my view, this bid is still very solid and MLS cannot ignore the unbelievable success pattern that Sacramento Republic FC has had over the past few years. The ownership situation appears to be solidified as far as the transition of the branding for the minor league club. This bid seems more reliable than others in the group.

San Diego- This city, along with the two bids from North Carolina, are the most recent additions to “the group of twelve”. The San Diego attempt at MLS expansion gained a huge amount of momentum when the city’s longtime NFL franchise, the Chargers, relocated to Los Angeles in January. The city officials, seeking to fill a void, moved quickly to facilitate a comprehensive proposal to obtain an elite pro soccer franchise for San Diego.
The proposal has several positive attributes from the outstanding climate, the proximity to other franchises in the league for rivalry purposes, and to the favorable demographics. San Diego has a growing millennial population and has strong potential corporate sponsorships available as well.
The other positive attribute is the stadium proposal which calls for a comprehensive redevelopment of the Mission Valley site that was home to the Chargers football stadium. The old stadium would be torn down and a new smaller venue for soccer and college football would be built there along with other housing, office, and retail space for the university.
The downside is that the San Diego bid is up against some stiff competition with cities who have been honing their MLS bids for years. The government is supportive but the league also currently has teams in California and may want to use the expansion slots to grow the game in other areas of the country.

San Antonio- The bid from this city is interesting because the support for the minor league team is solid, and that club was just recently purchased by the same group which owns the San Antonio Spurs of NBA small market success. The ownership group is the strongest aspect of this bid. The renovation and expansion plan for the facility where the minor league Scorpions club plays currently is very unclear, and thought to be the negative that could eliminate this bid from the whole process.
San Antonio has the right demographics and millennial population, but it is in a similar predicament as San Diego. MLS has two clubs already in Texas and may not want to add a third franchise there, especially when FC Dallas has struggled to connect with the fan base in that market over many years.

St. Louis – The bid is similar to San Diego, this city also lost their NFL team (Rams) to a relocation to Los Angeles. The plan is to build a soccer stadium on land near the Union Station railway hub downtown. I wrote a separate article about this city and the quest to gain an MLS spot. The ownership is dedicated and passionate and the city has great soccer heritage as well. The downtown site is ideal.
The city has hosted some high profile soccer matches which were well attended recently. The expansion there would fill a hole in the Midwest on the MLS map.
The negative aspect is the unproven aspect of being able to support a team long term from both a sponsorship and fan base perspective. The other red flag on this bid is the stadium proposal. The Governor of Missouri has pulled the state level financing, and the city has amended a bill to try to gain tax revenue for their portion, but the use of tax revenue is going to be decided by the voters.
Commissioner Garber was in St. Louis on Monday ahead of the vote on both propositions for the proposed stadium, trying to drum up support. The long and short view of this bid is that MLS wants to be in St. Louis, but they have to iron out the financing of the stadium or this bid will not be approved. The option to privately finance the stadium project is still on the table but ownership is already reportedly going to pay $150 million in an expansion fee to MLS, then they committed another $80 million toward the stadium costs plus the overruns. They would need private financing of another $80 to $100 million to get the project completed.

In the end analysis, my own view of this situation with expansion of MLS in the future is that it is a very fluid situation. The Miami club will most likely be granted into the league at some point in the near future. The league has spent an inordinate amount of time, money, and resources trying to make Miami a viable situation. That would leave four open slots for twelve teams.

The most likely group that will emerge in my view of the situation are: Sacramento, San Diego, St. Louis, and Tampa/St. Petersburg. The league is really intrigued with those four markets for various reasons. However, in the event that St. Louis cannot get the stadium deal done, Detroit or Cincinnati could slide in as a replacement in the Midwest. That is provided that they get their own stadium deals in place, if the jail site land swap fails, Detroit is out of the running.

I know two California teams seems like a wild concept, but Sacramento is the most ready of all the bids and is such a great fit as an MLS market it makes too much sense for them. The league is really taken with San Diego, and they have a fairly straightforward bid because the city owns the land in Mission Valley and is supportive of the development project there.

In the event that the St. Petersburg group cannot reach an agreement with MLS and Orlando City FC on the territory rights, that could doom that bid. In that case, I think the league would go with one of the North Carolina bids to fill a spot in the Southeast. The stadium issues being resolved either in Charlotte or Raleigh would be the deciding factor in which bid moves forward.

I also understand that many fans and those with interest in this topic feel that Cincinnati has a great bid, and they do, but they are in a small media market. I think a spot opens for them only if one of the spots fails to seal the deal, namely St. Louis. I do not see the league adding two Midwest teams.

The interest in the league is growing and the speculation around how the league will look in the next few years is an exciting prospect. The theme of this whole process is that soccer in America has really gained a foothold and is gaining popularity.

The expansion process will play out in the next several months and it will be interesting to see from the vote in St. Louis, to the land swap in Detroit, to the city council decision in Charlotte, and to the negotiations for the St. Petersburg territory; which bids will be successful in joining the league. The process will play out and the league will have some exciting new cities on the franchise map in the near future.

MLS Soccer Expansion Update

Major League Soccer (MLS) has been in the sports news lately with more announcements regarding the expansion of the burgeoning league to new markets in North America. The league currently sits at 20 teams and plans to get to 28 as a target number at some point in the future.

The first round of expansion sites gained more clarity over the last few weeks with the league announcing that Atlanta will join as the 21st franchise and Minnesota United will join as the 22nd team in the fast-growing top league in America. Both teams will begin play in 2017, which was the long rumored expectation for Atlanta because they will play in the new NFL stadium downtown; but a surprise in the case of Minnesota.

The Minnesota expansion bid had been mired in a stadium land site situation that was finally resolved with the club announcing it will construct a new facility in St. Paul but that project is still in the initial phases. The team will play in 2017 (and beyond until their stadium is ready) at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. That facility just finished a stint serving as the temporary home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings while their new football stadium was being built. MLS has been targeting Minnesota and the Twin Cities market for years to fill a geographical and TV market / media market void and now achieved that goal. The new facility that will eventually open in St. Paul looks amazing.

Atlanta FC, which is owned by Arthur Blank, announced that their franchise broke the MLS season ticket record for an expansion team with sales of close to 22,000 season ticket plans since the announcement. The Atlanta area also represents a huge television market and a growing population that is increasingly culturally diverse and interested in the sport of soccer. That expansion decision looks like it will be a “home run” for the league and they will play at the new downtown domed stadium which will have a system that will cover over the unused seating levels, similar to the system used in MLS currently by the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Next Round

The next round of expansion will feature the rebranded LAFC and the Miami re-entry with David Beckham and his investors. Both of these bids have had some twists and turns. They are also similar in that they are both in cities where the MLS is currently (L.A.) and was previously (Miami) and they are both essentially reboots from past league miscues.

LAFC as it is currently known is the rebranded replacement for the now disbanded Chivas USA, which was a team that shared the L.A. market with the Galaxy and also shared the same stadium as the Galaxy, and none of that worked or connected with the fans.

Chivas USA was owned by the same group as a major pro team in Mexico, and those owners treated the MLS team like a minor league farm team and invested little to no money in it. The results were very bad for the league and for the on-field product and resulted in a league buy out of the Mexican group and the disbanding of the team a couple of years ago. MLS made a concurrent announcement that they were planning a new rebooted LA team to take the place of Chivas USA at a later point.

LAFC has some big name Hollywood owners and a lot of star power. The owners secured land for their own stadium near the old LA Sports Arena where the Clippers used to play their home games. They will be launching with a whole new look and will no longer share a stadium with the Galaxy. The league and those involved with the new club there look like they will get this right, after the first attempt at a second LA franchise went so completely wrong.

Miami is a whole other story, but a similar narrative. MLS was in that area with a team called the Miami Fusion back around 2000-01 and they played their games out in Fort Lauderdale. That proved to be too far from the city center and the attendance and the whole concept eventually was disbanded. The league has not returned to that city until now, and this bid has been handled very differently.

David Beckham was given a clause in his contract when he came over from Europe to join MLS and play for the LA Galaxy that allowed him to become the owner of an expansion team to play in a destination he chose for a greatly reduced entrance fee. The superstar chose Miami, and the team will play downtown and will look to correct all the issues which went wrong when the league tried and failed with the Fusion.

This Miami bid has had several stadium site selection issues and temporary stadium issues but it is all starting to take shape and looks like it will be a successful venture for the league in an important market for US soccer.

Done Deal

Once Miami and the new second LA team join the circuit that will bring MLS to 24 teams. The next bid that is all but a done deal to be approved is Sacramento. I have covered their quest for a MLS franchise in the past, and the smartest thing that they did is consolidate their bids because, at one point, the city had two groups bidding to land that coveted spot.

Those involved in the Sacramento bid moved forward with the group that operates the Sacramento Republic club, which plays in a minor league currently, but has set attendance records for that league. The city of Sacramento, which fought hard to keep their NBA team from leaving and were successful, banded together to move quickly on a stadium proposal to present to the MLS. The new stadium is planned for the area downtown around the old railroad yards.

The stadium built specifically for soccer is the key piece to any MLS expansion bid because it allows the teams and the league to enhance their profitability through control of the revenue streams. A club which would be leasing a stadium and playing as a tenant would not be financially viable over the long term.

Sacramento has gained some highly reputable investors and has impressed the MLS executives with their persistence in gaining a franchise. They are also in the position of offering a scenario where the league has a natural rivalry with the San Jose Earthquakes in the same region (also important to MLS expansion) and that the team will not compete for fans with another major league team, for the most part, because the NBA season ends in April and the MLS season gets underway in March.

The bid does lack some important aspects such as Fortune 500 companies in the area for corporate partnerships, and the media market is a medium size compared to other bidding cities. However, MLS will have added the second team in LA, the Miami franchise, Atlanta, and Minnesota which are all large media markets; by the time they would consider adding Sacramento. The Kings also enjoy the support of some pretty strong regional corporate sponsors, and the capital city of California has some attractive features because many companies of all types visit there to do a variety of business matters.

The Sacramento Republic minor league team has an established fan base which would remain loyal to the team in their transition to MLS, which is a very important aspect of any expansion bid. I have to give credit to Sacramento they worked together and made took this bid from an outsider to what experts feel is the consensus pick for the 25th franchise in MLS.

Gateway to the West

St. Louis has long been known as the “Gateway to the West” and they have a long and rich tradition for soccer in America. The city has drawn upon that deep history coupled with an opportunity that arose out of a separate situation which was initially very negative, to put together a bid for an MLS expansion team. The St. Louis bid is said to have impressed the MLS executives with decision making authority so much that reports state that their bid is on a fast track for approval.

The roots of professional soccer began in America in the early 1900s, most people do not realize the hotbed that St. Louis is for the sport in our country. The city has been host to a number of professional teams through the years for both indoor and outdoor soccer. The St. Louis Stars played in the old NASL for ten years from 1967 to 1977 before moving to California.

The St. Louis Steamers were an indoor soccer team which set attendance records, and the city is currently home to St. Louis FC which plays in the USL Pro minor league system. The city has attempted to bid for an MLS team in the past and failed, most recently when the league expanded by two teams in 2010.

St. Louis submitted a bid, but due to some issues with the stadium plan and lacking a viable ownership group, it lost out to Portland and Vancouver. MLS at that time did not like the idea of their team sharing a facility with the Rams or playing at Bush Stadium and sharing that with the Cardinals. The plan back in 2010 for a new soccer stadium had several issues.

The three keys to a successful MLS expansion bid are fan support, a stadium solution, and local ownership. The St. Louis bid is building their fan support through the USL Pro team, they have multiple local ownership groups with some prominent people from the sports and business community involved, and the stadium solution is taking shape.

The stadium plan for the St. Louis bid is probably the biggest issue they have right now overall, but as I wrote earlier, they are taking a negative situation and turning it into an opportunity. The negative situation was that St. Louis lost their NFL team, the Rams, who relocated to Los Angeles this spring. The opportunity is that the city officials and those involved with the push for an MLS franchise are planning to use the land that had been initially set aside for a potential new stadium for the Rams as a site for a soccer specific stadium.

The land is on the riverfront adjacent to the Gateway Arch, which FOX Sports, ESPN, and others have reported that concept for the stadium site appeals to MLS Commissioner Garber. The city is also in close proximity to Kansas City and Chicago to form regional rivalries with those teams, which is another appealing aspect of the bid. It is going to take a significant amount of time to get all of the key elements aligned, but St. Louis is gaining traction toward the goal of adding a MLS team now that the city lost the Rams. It is a really interesting bid.

Motor City Gains Ground

The Detroit bid for MLS expansion has gained some serious ground in the race for the final three spots if you believe that Sacramento is basically in as the 25th franchise. The league has kept close tabs on Detroit for years regarding potential expansion because it fills a void in their national footprint in that region, it is a large television market (which enhances the value of future media rights deals), it is ethnically diverse which fits for the fan base of the “global game”, and it has excellent potential for corporate partnerships compared to other cities.

The latest in the Motor City bid is they are grooming a fan base with their minor league club, they have deep pocketed business leaders (billionaires Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores) interested in getting a seat at the MLS table, and they have a plan for a new soccer stadium in the same downtown area as the new Red Wings hockey arena. This bid bears watching as it continues to gain traction.

Charging Through

The San Diego bid for an MLS franchise is in some ways similar to the St. Louis bid because it is tied to the fate of an NFL team, in this case, the Chargers. In the event that the Chargers fail to get a new football stadium deal approved for the downtown waterfront district on Election Day, then I think the parties involved on the city and county level will turn their attention to getting the MLS into San Diego.

The bid is a lower priority in compared to keeping the mega bucks potential that the NFL provides the city, which is much the same way it played out in St. Louis earlier this year. In the event that the Chargers relocate to Los Angeles, the most likely course for a soccer stadium for the MLS bid would probably be a massive rebuilding and reconversion of the old Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley to seat around 30,000 and convert the other space for alternative use.

The trend in MLS has been toward stadiums in a downtown or centralized area in an urban setting, but that cannot always be the case for every city in the league. The downtown concept gets tricky with the San Diego bid because the city does not own the land.

The Mission Valley scenario is a more viable option because the city owns the land and businessman and former San Diego Padres owner, John Moores, got the exclusive rights to bring professional soccer to the area when he signed the deal allowing the team to change hands when they moved into their new downtown baseball stadium.

San Diego could be a destination city for MLS with the great weather, the proximity to the other teams in California, the diversity of the population base, and the commitment of local ownership. The issues with the bid are that the stadium would most likely not be downtown, and it is very close to two other teams in the league in Los Angeles which could be seen as market oversaturation.

The Outsiders

These cities have bids that are, at this time, equivalent to the outsiders looking in: Phoenix, Nashville, Cincinnati, San Antonio, and Austin. These bids would stand a better chance if MLS eventually determines they have enough financially viable markets with sustainability in place to expand beyond the 28 team target to 30 teams.

The league would undeniably be interested in Phoenix because of the size of the metro area population and the role that soccer could play in that marketplace. The issue right now with their minor league team is that it plays way out in the Valley suburb of Peoria, which MLS stated will not work for their league.

The local ownership could be a problematic scenario as well as getting funding for a soccer stadium in downtown Phoenix. I think this bid has too many issues to be a serious candidate until some of these issues can be resolved. The local government does not want to pay for improvements to be made to the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks stadium, so I get the feeling they are not going to jump to publicly finance a portion of a soccer stadium.

Nashville could be a really good fit for MLS and they would run mostly opposite the NFL’s Tennessee Titans schedule, so the overlap would not be a big issue. The bid has many potential owners interested but it lacks corporate sponsors and is not a very large media market, which are detractions. The stadium site and financing plan also could bear out some major concerns. This situation would take several years before the bid could merit serious consideration.

Cincinnati is a whole other story even though it is relatively close in proximity to Nashville. The “Cinci” bid has one very big positive that the MLS brass in New York have noticed: tremendous fan support for a market of that size. They have had great turnout which is the first part of the three traits I covered earlier. The other two components: local ownership and a stadium plan are the two areas which need details to be worked out. The corporate sponsorships have better potential than other bids and some of those business leaders may step forward and head an ownership group. The government support seems good but not great in so far as the stadium and other hurdles that need to be cleared.

San Antonio has long been a rumored destination for MLS expansion with the minor league team, the Scorpions, being the best selling point for the bid. The MLS execs do not like the location of the current stadium (which would need to be expanded and renovated anyway) and reports indicate that they want a downtown site near The Alamo before they consider this city for expansion. The stadium is a huge piece of the bid for an MLS team because it is the main revenue driver.
The league was also not thrilled with the Scorpions management but they were just sold recently to the owners of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (one of the best run franchises in all of sports). The Spurs management should be able to successfully market that team and present a pretty compelling pitch to MLS executives for expansion to that growing market.

I must state, in full disclosure, that I am a proponent of the MLS expanding to San Antonio, I think it would work really well because it is a growing population base with the right age and cultural demographics. However, I have read that the league views this as more of a long shot, especially if they favor two other bids from other markets. San Antonio could be left without a seat at the table.

Austin is the final market I will touch upon in this feature piece on MLS expansion. It is certainly an interesting market because it fits with the overall millennial/youthful targeted marketing for MLS at this point. It is also a high growth area for jobs and the team would have good corporate support. The team would be the only professional sport in the city, which the MLS looks at very favorably because they are not competing for dollars with other teams.

The team would have political support both locally and regionally, but it lacks a viable ownership group at this point in time. It would also be the smallest market in MLS if it gained entry, which will be a concern and leave some to think that San Antonio might be the more sustainable option in that region for expansion.

Austin does have a USL team currently but it would need a stadium plan for a new facility that is up to the standards of MLS. I think that is too many variables and hurdles to put together to have a viable bid for expansion even by 2020.

It is clear to me through my research and covering this topic in the past that MLS soccer is growing in popularity and has a significant number of interested cities for potential expansion. The downside to that scenario is what the league and the current owners must be wary of, and that is that rapid expansion was the main culprit for the demise of prior major professional soccer leagues in America. MLS must remain cognizant of this fact if they do not wish to meet with similar peril.

Major League Soccer Expansion Update

In a follow up to an evolving topic I have covered previously on Frank’s Forum, Major League Soccer (MLS) made an announcement recently about their expansion efforts. The premier soccer league in North America plans to expand from their current level of 20 franchises to 24 franchises by the year 2020.

 

In my prior coverage of this expansion effort I detailed the bid from Atlanta which was approved and they will enter the league in 2017. The league also sold Chivas USA and the new ownership group renamed the club “LAFC” which will join the league in 2017 after rebranding and attempting to build a second soccer-only venue in the Los Angeles area for their team to have a whole new identity.

 

This leaves two expansion positions and many potential bids from interested markets. The interest is so strong regarding expansion that MLS now appears to be considering the idea of going beyond that 24 team goal for membership in the league. The following are the latest potential candidates and the latest news on the bids:

 

Minnesota / Twin Cities: MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that the league has entered what he termed “advanced talks” with the Minnesota United bidding group regarding an expansion franchise. The Twin Cities area originally had two bids in play for MLS expansion: the Minnesota United bid organized by the ownership group of the minor league team currently playing there, and a bid from the owners of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings who are currently building a new state of the art multi-purpose stadium that could be used to host an MLS soccer team. However the league office announced that the Vikings bid has been eliminated and that MLS is moving ahead with the United bid. That group is rumored to have plans to build a privately financed new soccer stadium somewhere in downtown Minneapolis. The fact that this announcement was made comes as no surprise because MLS has been eyeing expanding into Minnesota for a long time and for many reasons. It fills a void on their league map as far as regions where they lack a geographic presence, it is a big television market, and the fan support and interest for the Minnesota United is very robust. It is likely that they will be one of the bids selected in the next round of expansion.

 

Miami: I covered this bid in my earlier coverage but essentially this bid has a leg up on the others because David Beckham is the key. Some background for those who do not closely follow MLS, Beckham had a clause in his contract when he came to the US to play in the league for the LA Galaxy that he could get his own franchise for a greatly reduced expansion fee and choose the market it would play in. Beckham and his business partners chose Miami for the expansion bid. The one main issue since that announcement about 14 months ago has been the stadium. MLS stated that it will not approve their bid without a solid plan for the construction of a new stadium. Miami has been unwilling to approve the sites that Beckham has proposed. A temporary stadium has been approved by the city officials at FIU Stadium on that college campus for the team to use until the permanent stadium is constructed, which Beckham thinks could take 3 years. Some other land in the greater Miami area is under consideration at this point. The Miami bid should be accepted by MLS once the stadium issue is resolved. The demographics and size of the market there in South Florida make this expansion a good fit for both sides involved. However Beckham needs to get the stadium land deal secured soon in order for that to happen.

 

Las Vegas: This bid will be easy to summarize and update. MLS sent a letter about six weeks ago to the Mayor of Las Vegas stating that the city and their bid for expansion was no longer in the running. The league has walked that statement back slightly in now repositioning and some sources report that Las Vegas is out of consideration for this current round of expansion to 24 teams, but they may be a candidate again in the future. So the door is not closed, but I never got the feeling that MLS would fit well in Vegas, it is so hot there in the summer during three months of the league’s playing season, I also think MLS does not want to be the first pro league to expand there.

 

Sacramento: The Sacramento bid had (up until the announcement regarding Minnesota) made the most progress and built the most momentum. The ownership group has grown to include business leaders who own the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL. The Sacramento Republic club in the USL Pro league has set attendance records consistently over recent years. The city leaders support the construction of a privately financed soccer stadium, which after the MLS press release regarding Minnesota’s bid, they emerged yesterday to state that they are refining their pitch to MLS specifically around the stadium proposal. Some sources report that this bid made such a positive impact on the league office that MLS may decide to go beyond the 24 team limit to add Sacramento by 2020. I have seen other reports that state that the league will eventually expand into this city at some point if the last two spots do indeed go to Miami and Minnesota in this round of the process.

 

San Antonio: MLS officials have met with the delegation from San Antonio in the past and in my view I think the market makes sense for MLS from a geographic, population growth, and demographic perspective. They have a minor league team in place with a solid fan base (which is a preference of MLS for expansion candidates) and they would have to approve expanding their current soccer stadium to meet MLS specifications. In the end perhaps the biggest issue with their bid is the fact that MLS has two franchises in Texas already and the league may need to use the 2020 round of expansion to enter regions where it does not have a presence currently.

 

St. Louis: This city is very passionate about soccer and has characteristically drawn large crowds for numerous events involving the sport. However it lacks a current minor league team and the bid is very closely tied to the proposal for a new NFL stadium for the St. Louis Rams that would also accommodate an MLS team. The approval for the stadium plan on the riverfront is still in doubt, and it is unknown whether the Rams will remain in the city or move to Los Angeles, as it has been rumored. St. Louis is considered the birthplace of American soccer and the local support for an MLS franchise is undoubtedly there, but they need to still put together an ownership group and they need a stadium. When you consider that the last stadium built there for the Cardinals in 2006 was done with mostly private funding, their bid requires an ownership group with deep pockets that could afford both the expansion fee and financing the construction of a stadium.

 

MLS has stated that they will make an announcement in 45-60 days on expansion of the league. The television ratings have been up significantly over last season in the nationally televised games particularly. The popularity of MLS is growing, and soon the league will have an announcement regarding the growth of the number of teams in the league and people in many cities wait for that news eagerly.

 

(Background information courtesy of NBC Sports.com, Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, The Sacramento Bee, St. Louis Business Journal, Miami Herald, USA Today, and the Associated Press)

 

 

 

MLS Roundup: All Star Week Edition

This week in MLS (Major League Soccer) was a busy one between the All Star Game festivities in Portland, OR and the news surrounding some of the flagship franchises in the league. The news cycle even featured a couple of stories about the potential expansion of the league.

 

I will provide some perspective on the week that was in MLS as the league continues to ride a surge of momentum from the World Cup in Brazil.

 

Empire State of Mind

 

The week began with the news revolving around the two New York Metro area franchises: the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC (who will begin play in 2015). The Red Bulls have been dealing with some negative media attention since the story broke that they had whiffed on bringing in international superstar, Xavi, who looked certain to be headed there to play in MLS.

 

The story deepened with a report that Xavi decided to not play for the Red Bulls because he learned that their current captain and star player, Thierry Henry, was not returning to the team next season. Henry is in the last year of his contract and the negotiations on a potential new agreement had been problematic over the past few months. The news that he may not be returning has been met by a mixed set of emotions from Red Bulls fans: shock, anger, frustration, and others who are ready to move on from Henry to a different core star player.

 

New York City FC was in the mix to sign Xavi but they failed to do so, as the European superstar has decided to remain in Spain. The burgeoning expansion team which will play its home matches in the storied Yankee Stadium then announced a mega deal with Frank Lampard, who subsequently was featured on all the team’s on-line promotional efforts. The deal is for 2 years and it is believed to be the most expensive annual salaried contract in MLS history.

 

In other New York soccer news:

  • New York City FC announced the launch of their Facebook page (now that they have a few players signed to the roster)
  • New York Red Bulls and their sporting director, Andy Roxburgh, spent all week refuting media reports connecting aging star Ronaldinho with being targeted by the team. Roxburgh reiterated that the Red Bulls are not interested in bringing him on the roster but that he would be a welcome addition to MLS overall
  • Thierry Henry received a wonderful ovation from the crowd at the All Star Game in Portland on Wednesday night which was a very nice gesture by some of the most spirited fans in MLS

 

 

All Star Display

 

The MLS All Star team displayed their talent and demonstrated the improved skill level of the league by defeating Bayern Munich in the game held in Portland. The week leading into the game and the event on Wednesday night showcased the immense popularity of soccer in Portland, where fans are known to sleep outside to get tickets that do not go on sale on the website because every match is sold out.

 

The atmosphere and the crowd singing the National Anthem in unison, as well as the Portland Timbers mascot using a chainsaw to slice a section of wood off a tree every time the home team scores a goal; these are the sights and sounds of soccer in the Pacific Northwest.

It was all on full display on ESPN in a nationally televised event that will further boost the profile of the league heading into their new TV contract next season. That new TV contract will:

  • Retain ESPN as a broadcast partner which they have been since the beginning of MLS
  • Add FOX Sports and their 1 year old specialty sports channel, FOX Sports 1, to the mix of national coverage of MLS
  • NBC Sports will no longer cover the MLS after the end of this 2014 season
  • MLS leveraged a great deal because they added the second New York team and they have expansion teams already announced in Atlanta and Orlando
  • MLS was able to retain ESPN who wanted to keep a toe hold in soccer after losing the rights to the World Cup
  • MLS is able to partner with FOX Sports who is the new rights holder for the World Cup in the future
  • The new TV contract is going to create more “stand alone” featured games on Sundays throughout the MLS season

 

California Dreaming – Expansion Round Up

 

Those of you who read my coverage of MLS on my blog and on two other websites know that I have covered the topic of expansion extensively in the past. The latest developments on that topic was in the news cycle this week as well:

  • David Beckham is still trying to get a deal done on a stadium in Miami for his expansion bid there. MLS has been firm that they will not expand there until the stadium plan is in place. I have written previously about how the Port of Miami would not work and that idea is no longer being considered.
  • Beckham’s former team, Manchester United defeated Liverpool earlier this week in Miami in front of over 51,000 fans at the stadium where the Dolphins play NFL football. Beckham’s group is looking at stadium sites in Broward County – north of the City of Miami
  • The owners of the Sacramento Kings of the NBA have announced their intentions to purchase the minor league soccer team, the Sacramento Republic, who lead their league in average game attendance. The city also ranked very high in the television ratings for the World Cup and both of those factors have been noticed by the MLS executives in charge of expansion.

 

One Era Closes – Another Opens

 

The MLS has never been more popular than it is currently, and the interest seems to be on an upward growth trend. A new era for the league is on the horizon. This week we learned that Landon Donovan, one of the original stars and one of the most recognizable American soccer players, will be retiring at the end of this season.

 

Donovan and his fierce competitiveness and incredible talent has left an indelible mark on the MLS. His presence will be missed, but his time and his era is coming to a close. The league is poised to grow into new markets and attract increasingly talented players from the international ranks as the popularity of soccer increases in the sport’s “final frontier” as it has been called: the United States.

 

 (Some background information courtesy of MLSSoccer.com, NBC Sports, ESPN.com, SI.com, Miami Sun-Sentinel, FOX Sports, and Sacramento Bee) 

 

Follow Up: MLS Expansion Update

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)

TV Markets and the Expansion of Sports – Part 5

This series has demonstrated the importance of particular demographic information on the decisions to expand a specific professional sports league. Each league has varied rationale behind the importance of this information and it can be weighted differently based on the respective league.

 

The first four parts of this series focused on the “Big Four” professional sports in the United States and North America. This final part of the series will focus on the emerging sport of professional soccer in the U.S. and their top league, Major League Soccer (MLS).

 

Unlike some of the other major sports reviewed in this series, Major League Soccer has already announced their intention to expand in the future. The league currently consists of 19 teams split into two conferences: the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference.

 

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has publicly detailed some of the future expansion plans for the league. Mr. Garber has indicated that the league wants to expand by 5 teams to 24 teams in the next four to five years. They have several candidates and have already announced 2 of those 5 expansion teams (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

The expansion criteria outlined by the Commissioner is:

  • Location
  • Ownership stability
  • Stadium Plan
  • Demonstrated fan base
  • Sponsors and TV market
  • Strategic Business Plan

 

Overall, the league has seen a drop in TV ratings, which they are going to have to address. MLS is currently televised by ESPN and NBC nationally, and many of the individual teams have deals for television coverage with Regional Sports Networks (RSN).

 

This past week, Forbes conducted a survey of the league and detailed the values of the franchises as well as providing some other data on the overall business side of league which just concluded its 18th year of operation.

 

On the Rise

 

The report noted that the average franchise value for MLS is $103 million, which represents an increase of 75% in the last 5 years (www.forbes.com). The most valuable franchise is the Seattle Sounders at $175 million.

 

The report continues by detailing the TV ratings slide on ESPN and NBC. The ratings for ESPN are down 29 percent to an average of 220,000 viewers. The NBC telecasts (air mostly on NBC Sports Network) are down 8 percent to 112,000 viewers (www.forbes.com).

 

However, the league is up for a new TV contract before the 2015 season begins, and MLS currently earns $30 million combined per year in national TV revenue from NBC, ESPN, and Univision according to Forbes. I have covered in other articles the trend toward huge sums of money being spent by networks to obtain the rights to live sports programming of any kind. MLS should be able to negotiate for a substantial increase in their next TV deal.

 

A particularly interesting note on the future TV deal negotiations is that Fox launched a new sports network, Fox Sports 1, in August. The Fox group lost the bid to retain the English Premier League television rights in the U.S. to NBC, so Fox will be looking to pay a premium to obtain the rights to MLS.

 

The Game Experience

 

The biggest statistic in the Forbes report was regarding the attendance figures for MLS for their games. In 2011, the average MLS attendance was 17,872 and in 2012 it rose to 18,611 (www.forbes.com). The figures for 2013 are not yet available, but the figures from both 2011 and 2012 are better average attendance numbers than both the NBA and the NHL. That is very impressive for a league that is only 18 years old.

 

Many trends drive that increase for attendance for MLS in recent years. First, the popularity of soccer is on the rise in the U.S. with so many youth leagues popping up everywhere. Next, the quality of players in the league has been dramatically upgraded. The league is starting to gain traction and so many youth leagues run trips to their local MLS team games and go in large groups.

 

The final and most lasting change in the trend toward attendance growth is that the younger people and teenagers who went to games in the early years of MLS entering the U.S. sports landscape are now older. They have jobs and disposable income and they spend it by going to MLS games with their friends. I am a perfect example of that trend because that is exactly how my affiliation with MLS progressed.

 

In fact, the average MLS team earned $26 million in 2012 from in-stadium revenue streams (tickets, merchandise, luxury suite sales etc.) according to the Forbes report.

In my own experience, I have gone to several games for my home area team, the New York Red Bulls. The live game experience is very good. The skill level of the players and the speed of that level of the sport translates so much better in the live experience compared to watching an MLS game on television.

 

However, I watch numerous Red Bulls games on TV and I think MSG Network (the RSN for the Red Bulls) has an excellent production value for their telecasts of the games. I do not like the camera angles or production presentation of the NBC telecasts, and I think ESPN does a very good job at presenting MLS, but most of their games are West Coast games which air very late in the Eastern time zone.

 

Two New Teams

 

The first two expansion slots of the five teams that MLS wants to add have already been announced. The league will expand to the following locations in 2015:

  • New York
  • Orlando

 

The long anticipated addition of a second team in New York will be a reality in 2015 and it is a very lucrative deal. The team will be called NYC FC and it is owned by a partnership between the New York Yankees and the owners of the English Premier League team, Manchester City (www.nbcsports.com). The ownership group paid $100 million dollars for the expansion rights in New York, which is a sign that MLS has truly gone up a notch.

 

The Yankees will be handling the logistics of building the stadium and operating the team in New York. The Manchester City side of the group will handle the player personnel side of the team, evaluating talent and stocking the roster with players. The team will be based in Queens, and the new stadium site has not been completely finalized but it is likely going to be constructed near the US Tennis Center and Citi Field in Flushing Meadow (www.nbcsports.com).

 

The league just last week announced the Orlando expansion approval. The city in central Florida has a very successful minor league level team called Orlando City FC, which will be elevated to MLS in 2015 (www.mlssoccer.com). The team is nicknamed the Lions and will keep that name and their purple uniform color scheme, which is extremely popular with the fan base there.

 

These decisions keep with the MLS expansion directives of a demonstrated fan base and strategic business plan. However, the biggest key piece in the Orlando expansion approval was the stadium plan approval by the government entities in Florida.

 

The new stadium will be built in an area of downtown Orlando that is in the midst of a huge development trend. The stadium is a major component of an MLS expansion bid and is required for any new teams to enter the league (www.nbcsports.com).

 

The new stadium requirement is very important to MLS because it significantly improves the live game experience for both the fans and the players. MLS began playing in the mid-1990s in mostly gigantic NFL or college football stadiums, which were not conducive to hosting soccer games. The adjustment to the configuration for soccer created some poor sight lines, and made the fans feel too far away from the action.

 

The MLS move to the Soccer Specific Stadium (S.S.S.) provided a huge lift to the revenues of the teams and the league. The teams were able to use the majority of the revenue to improve the quality of the players and the operations of the team rather than paying rent on a stadium that they were tenants playing within.

 

Potential Expansion Candidates

 

The following cities are currently on the short list for an MLS expansion team either by 2017 (three slots are left) or in a future expansion round. The revenues are going up so steadily for MLS that many analysts believe that they can add several more expansion teams in the future.

 

The league has openly discussed that they intend to target the Southeast region for near-term expansion (www.mlssoccer.com).  That region of the country has no presence for MLS currently and will have only the Orlando club by 2015. MLS prefers to develop regional rivalries, which will require additional teams around Orlando very soon.

 

The list of potential expansion franchises for MLS are as follows (all TV Markets data is courtesy of www.stationindex.com , the population demographic information is courtesy of www.census.gov and the Fortune 500 corporate data is courtesy of www.money.cnn.com ):

  • Atlanta, GA – the largest city in the Southeast is a major city of high interest from MLS for future expansion.

TV Markets Rank: 8th

Metro Population Rank: 9th

Fortune 500 Company HQ: 5

Synopsis/Overview: The Atlanta bid achieves many of the expansion directives for MLS. The rumor is that the current owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Arthur Blank, is interested in owning an MLS team. Blank has a son who plays soccer and the Falcons are going to be moving into a brand new stadium in a few years in downtown Atlanta (www.nfl.com).  The stadium could be built with coverings that will drape the upper levels of seating so that it makes for a more intimate seating configuration for soccer. This is similar to the system currently used in Vancouver who plays in a shared stadium with a football team. The sponsorship support should be excellent. MLS has current franchises in all of the metro population centers larger than Atlanta, with the exception of Miami.

 

  • Miami – This bid is intriguing to MLS but could have some issues.

TV Markets Rank: 16th

Metro Population Rank: 8th

Fortune 500 Company HQ: 4

Synopsis/Overview: The Miami bid is a bit complicated because it centers upon David Beckham. Part of the bid by MLS to lure David Beckham to play in L.A. and raise the profile of the league included an option for Beckham to, upon retirement, gain an expansion team for a bargain price fee of $25 million in a city of his choice (www.mlssoccer.com).  It has been widely reported that Beckham intends to move forward with the expansion bid and that he likes Miami for the bid. The issue here is that he needs other partners to be able to finance the project, and he has had some trouble lining them up. Beckham has a December 31 deadline to get an ownership group together and get approval of a stadium plan (www.mlssoccer.com). It is not known if MLS will give him an extension if he gains an ownership group and needs additional time to gain government approval on a stadium deal. Beckham has approached basketball megastar LeBron James about partnering with him and James is interested in a piece of the MLS team but nothing is agreed upon (www.cbssports.com).  Beckham also has to find a temporary home field until the soccer stadium is ready. MLS seems interested in Miami and has stated that the demographics there have changed since the league was there previously (MLS had a team in the Miami area – Fort Lauderdale and the team folded because of lack of support and financial losses). Other sources say that MLS is lukewarm on the Miami market and wants assurances on the stadium financing before moving forward there. This bid has very strong potential if Beckham gets it done because MLS feels indebted to Beckham for putting the league on the global map.

 

 

 

  • Sacramento, CA – location in Northern California is an area where MLS has only one other team (San Jose) and the bid has many positive aspects.

TV Market Rank: 20th

Metro Population Rank: 27th

Fortune 500 Company HQ: 0 (several large companies located in city/metro area)

Synopsis/Overview – The Sacramento bid to MLS is one that is very positive but also has a few potentially problematic issues. The city has a solid TV market rank but the population of the metro area is smaller than other cities they would competitively bid against for a team. The bid has many moving parts because right now the city is fielding two bids on alternative tracks to gaining an expansion franchise. The first group is headed up by the co-founder of the Sacramento River Cats (minor league baseball) Warren Smith, who has purchased a USL-Pro minor league soccer team franchise to play in downtown Sacramento in 2014 (www.mlssoccer.com). Mr. Smith’s plan is to establish a fan base (part of the MLS requirements for expansion locations) build a front office that understands American pro soccer, and then deliver a new stadium downtown. The other area bid is from the suburb of Elk Grove which is being spearheaded by a public-private partnership involving Mayor Gary Davis and the City Council. The Elk Grove bid is focused completely on the business side of the scenario with the focus on building a brand new stadium on the site of an unfinished mall called Elk Grove Promenade (www.fox40.com).  The Elk Grove contingency has had discussions with MLS and is rumored to be the favored bid of the two. The area having two competing bids would not be good and would most likely resort in the city getting passed over by MLS. Mr. Smith has stated to local media outlets that if it looks like one bid is progressing better, they would all get in a room and rally around one bid for Sacramento (www.news10.com).  Time will tell if they are successful.

 

  • Detroit – The “Motor City” is in the mix for a MLS team but it is more of an outsider at this point at least in terms of the initial expansion to 24 teams.

TV Markets Rank: 11th

Metro Population Rank: 14th

Fortune 500 Company HQ: 9

Synopsis/Overview: The Detroit rumor of expansion to MLS began four years ago, when the Apostopoulos family and their company, Triple Sports & Entertainment submitted the winning bid for the Pontiac Silverdome, which is the former home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The dome has not been used much since the Lions moved out in 2002 to play in downtown Detroit. The Silverdome is about 30 miles outside of Detroit and can seat 70 -80,000 depending on the type of event. That would be too large for MLS standards, so they would have to renovate the stadium or tear it down and build a new stadium on the site (www.sports.yahoo.com).  The family has deep pockets and would control all of the parking and other revenues at the stadium, which MLS finds favorable in a venue setup. The family had an elaborate plan to renovate the site which has changed dramatically. Now, the roof had been deflated in early 2013 to save energy and it has been torn apart by high winds (www.mlive.com). The family has said it is installing a solar paneled roof and they have winterized the building. The TV market ranking is very good, the corporate sponsorship support would be strong as well. The big issues with the bid are the state of the economy in Detroit, the population demographics, and the ability of a fan base to support the team long term. At the time of Triple Sports buying the dome site, Detroit had not had a major soccer event since the 1994 World Cup. Since then, the city was awarded a minor league team, Detroit City FC, and they have pretty solid attendance numbers (www.sports.yahoo.com). The population demographics are trending on the decline and MLS is probably unsure of the long term fan support based on the bankrupt city economy in Detroit (though Triple Sports maintains that they need no public money to build the stadium). The very latest proposal is for a new soccer stadium at the old dome site along with a 275,000 square foot retail space development project (www.cbssports.com).  This bid seems like an outside type of bid based on the priority system of MLS at this point.

 

 

 

 

  • Minneapolis, MN – A very strong contender for the final expansion spot of the first wave announced by the league.

TV Markets Rank: 15th

Metro Area Population Rank: 16th

Fortune 500 Company HQ: 18

Synopsis/Overview: The Minneapolis area has all of the elements of a successful MLS expansion bid. They have a potential ownership group, they have an established fan base, and they will have a world class stadium in the near future. The media market size has been the draw for MLS, they need a franchise in the top 15 TV markets and in that northern region of the U.S. Midwest. The Minnesota United currently play in the minor league NASL and are the defending champions with an established loyal fan base (www.mnunitedfc.com).  The owner of the Minnesota Vikings NFL franchise has so much interest in an MLS team, he had the soccer configurations built-in to the plans for the new NFL stadium for the Vikings, which broke ground last week and will be completed by 2016 (www.nfl.com).  In a move that is very similar to the Atlanta bid, the roof would be lowered for soccer, or a covering would enclose the entire upper bowl of the stadium to bring the seating capacity in line with other MLS facilities. This is a very solid bid which has great potential.

 

  • San Antonio, TX – A rapidly growing city with a successful minor league soccer team and a diverse population.

TV Markets Rank: 37th

Metro Population Rank: 25th

Fortune 500 Company HQ: 5

Synopsis/Overview: The San Antonio bid for MLS has been ongoing for several years. At one point, the city was hoping to obtain an expansion franchise as a tenant for the AlamoDome, which was built with taxpayer dollars in the hope of getting an NFL team, and has never had a primary tenant. The city abandoned that plan and moved forward to explore other uses for that facility when MLS informed them they did not get an expansion bid in the prior round in 2007-08. A few years ago, San Antonio was awarded a second tier minor league soccer team, the Scorpions (www.bizjournals.com).  The Scorpions are regularly near the top of their league in attendance at their new soccer stadium, Toyota Field, which is considered by many to be among the nicest soccer facilities in the minor leagues (www.mlssoccer.com).  The stadium can be expanded to MLS standards, and most definitely would be if the bid was accepted. The ownership group would not be an issue and the corporate support for sponsorship would be very strong. The fan base is established through the Scorpions current presence in the market, and the population is growing there and is very diverse, which is attractive for MLS. The TV market is small, which could be an issue, but remember that ranking is of a lower priority to MLS than it is to other sports leagues (www.sportingnews.com).  San Antonio has great potential for an expansion bid, however, it may be in the second wave of expansion further down the line. The success or failure of this bid is tied to whether or not the Miami bid falls apart (because MLS is still a bit lukewarm on that market) and the progress of the Sacramento bid as well. Those are the main bid cities in competition for those last two slots with San Antonio in the mix.

 

 

In the end, the demographics of the TV market, the metro area population, and the involvement of Fortune 500 corporate support are all very crucial elements in the expansion of professional sports.

 

The role of government is also of paramount importance in the expansion of professional sports leagues because the politicians are involved in many facets of developing land for a new arena or stadium and to garner support for the team within the business community.

 

This article series covered the interaction between all of these elements as they contribute to a bid for a potential expansion franchise. The series also covered each major sports league, their respective current situation, and the challenges which are uniquely inherent to each league regarding expansion.

 

In a society that is becoming more technologically advanced, where job related stress is expected to rise due to many factors, and where family time together or time to spend with friends is becoming more limited; sports has and will continue to take on a larger role.

 

The outlet which sports provides through following a team or a particular athlete, attending games or events, participating in sports fantasy leagues on-line, and the interaction it provides with others: either family, friends, or members of fan clubs are going to combine to make sports increasingly relevant as a source of entertainment.

 

That demand for professional sports of all types will create a need for more teams or leagues. The demographics of the country will shape that trend as well with population shifts to other regions of the U.S., for instance the migration of people out of the Northeast to Southern states. The trend is also evident in the population increase in Texas due to the economic growth there and in the migration of more people to the Western United States.

 

It will be interesting to follow the developments over the next several years of some of these situations described in this article series. The scenario currently in Detroit with the bankruptcy filing by their city government is a case study into the rationale behind the impetus by these other cities to explore gaining professional sports teams. The theory being that if their city obtains one or more teams, they can develop and revitalize their downtown centers with an arena or stadium as the centerpiece.

 

The domino theory being that these developments will bring jobs and population retention keeping the tax revenue within the city and making their city vibrant for years to come. The future will determine whether sports will play a central role in the rebirth of the American city. One factor is clear, the money involved in expanding these leagues is too significant to ignore, so expansion is in our future. The other details will be filled in over the course of the years ahead.

 

 

New York Red Bulls: The End of the Run

The New York Red Bulls marketing department had, in my opinion, a very catchy slogan for the team and their MLS Playoff campaign called: “Run With Us”. The team marketed this slogan on billboards, on their internet advertising, on their website, print materials, and on social media. The use of the hash tag on Twitter was prevalent in the days leading up to the playoffs.

 

Well, last night the “Run” for the Red Bulls ended as did the marketing campaign and, most importantly the Red Bulls aspirations of advancing in the playoffs. New York lost to the Houston Dynamo in the 2 game Eastern Conference Semifinals Series by an aggregate score of 4-3.

 

I was there in the stands at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey and I could not believe that the magical season for the Red Bulls ended last night.

 

Opportunities Lost

 

The Red Bulls had numerous opportunities in this game to put away the Dynamo and they fell short. New York controlled the entire game, outplaying Houston in every facet. They took a lead early in the game on a cross by Lloyd Sam which the Houston goalkeeper, Tally Hall, mishandled and fumbled to the feet of New York forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, who promptly kicked it into the net for a goal.

 

The crowd at Red Bull Arena exploded following the goal, the feeling in the stadium was that this game would be the end to the Red Bulls streak of consecutive losses in a row at home in the playoffs which stood at 6 games going into the game last night (www.mlssoccer.com).

Then, about ten minutes later, New York defender Ibrahim Sekagya made an ill-advised and errant pass inside his own penalty area which was intercepted by Houston team captain Brad Davis. Davis drilled a close range shot past Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles, and the game, as well as the series, was now tied.

 

New York had numerous attempts to recapture the lead in the game and reverse the tide of the series and could not capitalize on them. Tim Cahill deflected Thierry Henry’s initial shot but Hall made the save for Houston. The fans in my section could not believe that they missed a goal in that sequence.

 

In the 65th minute, Henry had a header go off the crossbar and miss scoring, and he had an incredible bicycle kick in overtime which was steered away wide of the goal by a diving Tally Hall. In total, the Red Bulls had 23 scoring attempts to Houston totaling just 9 (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

New York had 9 shots on target and Houston had 3. New York outshot Houston 19 to 7, and had 42 crossing passes to Houston totaling just 13 (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

Observations from the Stands

 

In my view from the stands I observed several aspects of this game that stood out to me, and having watched this Red Bulls team compete all season over nine months I have come to know them very well.

 

The officiating of this match was terribly inconsistent, and calls were made on both sides that were questionable. The New York fans were irate at certain points of the match as well over some dubious calls by the referee. Overall, there were too many fouls called, a total of 36, which completely disrupted the flow of the game.

 

The inconsistency also was present in numerous challenges and tackles for possession of the ball which looked like a foul had taken place and no foul would be called; only to have a subsequent play which looked innocuous and a foul would be issued at that point.

 

The Red Bulls looked tentative during most of this game, Head Coach Mike Petke made comments after the game that his players rushed their passes and crosses at times (www.mlssoccer.com). I would agree with that assessment, the crosses from where I was sitting looked as though the timing was disrupted on them.

 

I expected the Red Bulls to come out flying after Houston tied the score and they did not, they did not go full throttle after some balls I thought they could have made plays on, I did not understand their hesitation. New York knew that the Dynamo would leave three to four players back on defense to avoid losing the game since they were the road team, and that is the strategy most road teams would employ in that situation.

 

Therefore, in order for the Red Bulls to generate scoring chances they would have to bring forward several players to get a numbers advantage on the Dynamo, I do not think they did that enough in the later minutes of this game.

 

The red card suspension of Jamison Olave from the first game of the series on Sunday loomed over the game last night, I could not help but wonder if we would have had a different result with his presence in the lineup. The Red Bulls did play well on defense though overall, they just made a few mistakes at critical junctures.

 

From my vantage point in the stadium I did not get a very good view of the deciding goal scored in overtime by Omar Cummings. I actually thought that it was saved by Robles until I saw the Dynamo players celebrating in a group. I was still hopeful at that point that the Red Bulls could score a goal before the end of overtime, they had some chances, but in the end it was not their night.

 

Moving Forward

 

I exited the Red Bull Arena last night surrounded by fellow Red Bulls fans, and it was very quiet. Most of us, myself included, were in shock that the season was now over.

 

Many questions remain unanswered about this team. Some of those questions will be answered in the offseason which begins now for New York. Will this same roster of players return next season? Will the front office make some changes to the role players? Will they add a star player via trade or outside acquisition?

 

So many questions, and the weeks ahead will provide the answers. Some members of the media today have questioned whether the Red Bulls season should be looked at as a breakthrough or a disappointment? (www.nydailynews.com)  I am not sure I know the answer to that question yet either.

 

Other reporters have pointed out that the elimination of the Red Bulls cost MLS the opportunity to have their championship game played in the New York area. That is a valid point, the game being played in New York would have brought enhanced media attention to the MLS Cup.

 

Last night as I exited the stadium into the dark night, fans were throwing the promotional cards that read: “Run With Us” on the sidewalk. The brisk autumn wind kicked up and scattered those cards in the air like leaves. I watched them flutter through the air, filled with disappointment, when I realized that this team had turned a corner.

 

I began to think about all of their dramatic victories this season and realized that there will be more of those games and performances to come. I look forward now to next season when myself and my fellow loyal Red Bulls fans will begin another “run” with this team that we all are so passionate about.

 

 

 

 

New York Red Bulls Win Supporters Shield

The New York Red Bulls made a huge stride to erase their long history of disappointing results and difficult seasons for their fans by winning the Supporters Shield last night for the first time. The trophy came to New York by virtue of the Red Bulls 5-2 victory over the Chicago Fire in front of a sold out crowd at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey (www.mlssoccer.com).

 

The Red Bulls were impressive in their dominance of the Chicago Fire, especially if you consider that Chicago needed to win the game to gain the last spot in the Eastern Conference for the MLS Playoffs (www.nbcsports.com).

 

Significant Victory

 

The victory for the Red Bulls was significant for two reasons:

 

  • The team did not melt down in a big spot where they had to win to get the best record which is what prior editions of this team have done in the past
  • The Supporters Shield now gives New York the home-field advantage throughout the MLS Playoffs, including for the first time this year the home field for the MLS Cup championship game should they advance to that point

 

 

The Red Bulls are a very good home team so the ability for them to play most of their playoff games in Red Bull Arena is an excellent advantage for them. This statement should be qualified though, with the fact that the Supporters Shield does not guarantee a championship.

In fact, only six times in MLS history has the winner of the Supporters Shield gone on to win the MLS Cup championship (www.nbcsports.com). However, in my opinion, not many of those teams enjoyed the type of home field advantage that the Red Bulls have this season. I think the home field aspect is crucial for this team to have a chance to advance to the MLS Cup.

 

Forgetting the past

 

The challenge for Head Coach Mike Petke and the Red Bulls now that they will turn the page and enter the playoffs, is to forget the past. They need to forget the struggles that this team has had historically in the playoffs. They even need to forget about the success they had in the regular season because all that is not going to mean anything if they lose in the playoffs.

 

Instead, they need to move forward and focus on winning each round of the playoffs until they reach the MLS Cup game. This team is talented enough and has the right blend of stars (Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill) and role players (Peguy Leyindula, Fabian Espindola, and Dax McCarty).

 

New York also has the right coach in Mike Petke, who has done a masterful job this season, and the right goalkeeper in Luis Robles, who played outstanding at points this season. That combination of head coach and goalkeeper becomes critical to separate the elite teams in MLS.

 

The Red Bulls have a very loyal fan base who will support them along this difficult journey through the playoffs. The energy of the fans seems to really boost the level of play for this 2013 team. That will continue to be a factor in the final weeks of the season.

 

Playoff structure

 

Courtesy of NBC Sports and the MLS website I will provide the format and the list of teams which made the playoffs. The MLS has 10 playoff teams (5 from each conference) ranked in order of their finishing record from 1-5 in each conference.

 

The teams that finish 4th and 5th place in each conference play a one game “knockout game” to advance to the next round. The winners of those games will face the first place team in each conference in the semi-final round.

 

The 2nd and 3rd place teams play each other in the semi-final round, which MLS plays two games and takes the aggregate number of goals from each game to determine the winner.

 

The winners of the semi-final rounds will play in the Conference championship round, which is also a two game aggregate series. The winner of each conference plays one another for the MLS Cup, which is a one game winner take all scenario.

 

The playoff teams and rankings in 2013 are (courtesy of www.nbcsports.com):

Eastern Conference

  1. New York Red Bulls
  2. Sporting Kansas City
  3. New England Revolution
  4. Houston Dynamo
  5. Montreal Impact

 

Western Conference

  1. Portland Timbers
  2. Real Salt Lake
  3. L.A. Galaxy
  4. Seattle Sounders
  5. Colorado Rapids

 

In the format explained above, the Houston Dynamo will host the Montreal Impact in the first round “knockout game” in the East. The Red Bulls will play the winner of that game in a 2 game series with the first game on the road for New York and the second game at Red Bull Arena.

 

The MLS and NBC announced earlier today that the Red Bulls will play on national television on NBC for their first playoff game on Sunday, November 3rd at 3:30 PM Eastern time (www.newyorkredbulls.com).

 

Outlook

 

The Red Bulls match up well against either Houston or Montreal, and they played well in a victory in Houston a couple of weeks ago. I saw them manhandle the Montreal Impact in a game at Red Bull Arena this summer. So I like their chances in the 2 game series against either team.

 

The team to watch is Sporting Kansas City, they are a very talented team that is flying below the radar right now, and nobody in the media is talking about them. The MLS media focus is on New York, the drop Seattle took in the standings, whether the Galaxy can win three titles in a row, and the dominance of Portland down the stretch. Sporting Kansas City is going to be a threat in the East.

 

The MLS playoffs are upon us, and I will continue to follow the Red Bulls as they look to further erase the bad history of the franchise by competing well in the playoffs and contending for a championship. They have the advantage of playing at home, it will be interesting to see how this team will respond to the expectations placed upon them by the media and the fan base.

 

New York Red Bulls: Entering the “Home Stretch”

The New York Red Bulls enter the last stretch of regular season games in the lead for the Supporters Shield, which is the trophy given to the team with the best regular season record across all of MLS (Major League Soccer).

 

The Red Bulls further helped their cause with a pivotal 1-1 tie in a recent match against the Western powerhouse club, the Seattle Sounders, in a rain soaked game out in Seattle. These two teams are neck-and-neck in the race for the Supporters Shield, so it was an important result for the Red Bulls to get a draw in a very difficult place to win against a very good team.

 

The result of the match in Seattle was made even more impressive by New York because they played without Thierry Henry, their best player, who sat out the game because it was played on artificial turf. Henry has a history of leg and joint injuries, so the team did not want him to sustain an injury playing on an artificial surface this late in the season.

 

In his absence, Tim Cahill really stepped up for the Red Bulls and had an outstanding effort in the match in Seattle. New York returned home to play host to the New England Revolution last Saturday night, in a game that was crucial for both teams.

 

Playoff implications

 

The Revolution came into the match last weekend against the Red Bulls with a chance to still grab one of the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, most probably the 5th slot, but they would have to play very well in their last three games to get into the MLS Cup Playoffs.

 

The Red Bulls came into the match needing either a win or a tie to clinch a spot in the playoffs, and are still very much in contention for the Supporters Shield, or at least for first place in the Eastern Conference.

 

The match was sold out at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. I watched it at home on television with my wife. The announcing team on MSG Network stated during their broadcast that when they arrived at the stadium at 3:30 PM, all the ticket windows had large signs hanging which read: Sold Out.

 

The crowd was a major factor in this game, I could see that the noise disrupted the Revolution and their ability to communicate on the field. The Red Bulls jumped out to an early 1-0 lead on a goal by Fabian Espindola, and New York dominated the first half of play.

 

Controversial call

 

In the second half, around the 85th minute, the referee called a handball in the penalty area on Red Bulls defender Jamison Olave. The replays showed that the ball clearly hit Olave on the shoulder and the ball never contacted his arm. The fans booed loudly as Lee Nguyen stepped up and kicked a penalty shot by Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles to tie the match at 1-1.

 

New England suffered a setback a few minutes later when Andy Dorman was ejected from the match with a straight red card. The Revolution would have to play a man down the rest of the way.

 

However, Diego Fagundez capitalized on a mistake by Red Bulls defender David Carney, and shot the ball past a diving Luis Robles for their second goal of the match. Carney completely mishandled the ball, and should have cleared it out of the Red Bulls end, instead he tried to cut the ball back inside to the middle of the field. This miscue had the Red Bulls suddenly trailing 2-1.

 

I was in shock, this type of performance was indicative of other Red Bulls teams in the past, but not this team under Head Coach Mike Petke.

 

Cahill strikes again

 

The Red Bulls bounced back after conceding the goal, and they continued to attack the Revolution goal, which was more representative of the competitive team that they have been all season long.

 

New England goalkeeper, Matt Reis, had been very good after conceding the early goal to Espindola. He made two fantastic saves on Thierry Henry, and kept the Revolution alive in this game to allow them to be in position for the win.

 

In what would be the last play of the match, the Revolution would find themselves down two men, one because of the before mentioned red card, and another player was off the field getting treatment for an injury. The Red Bulls took advantage, and on a recycled corner kick, Tim Cahill put the ball past Reis and into the net! The Red Bulls tied the match 2-2 on the last play before the referee was going to signal the end of stoppage time, and New York clinched a playoff spot!

 

The fans at Red Bull Arena exploded, and I was elated at home, Cahill again came up with a clutch goal at exactly the right time. The Red Bulls regained the lead for the Supporters Shield with the tie, and they have a bye week before going to Houston to play the Dynamo on October 20th.

 

New England played well in the second half and could have really used the win, now they will have to play very well in their remaining games to keep their playoff hopes alive. They are currently 3 points out of the 5th and final spot in the East.

 

Supporters Shield – added importance

 

The New York Red Bulls clinched a spot in the playoffs but they have plenty of motivation to play hard the rest of the regular season because the standings are so tight in the Eastern Conference and for the Supporters Shield.

 

The Supporters Shield has added importance this year because the team that wins it will have home field advantage throughout the playoffs and including the MLS Cup Championship Game. In prior years the MLS Cup Championship was played at a neutral site predetermined by the league.

 

The ability to have home field advantage for the playoffs and the championship game is critical for the Red Bulls because they are a much better team at home than they are on the road.

 

The Seattle Sounders, who could edge out the Red Bulls for the Supporters Shield have one of the best home field advantages in MLS. Real Salt Lake is also in the race and they have a unique advantage at home because of the thin air from the altitude there.

 

The Red Bulls have to finish strong this season to insure that they will not be travelling much in the playoffs as the quest continues to bring the MLS Cup to New York for the first time.