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.
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.
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.
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.