MLS Expansion race: An overview

In 2003, Major League Soccer was desperate. The struggling league was forced to cut two teams, dropping from 12 back to 10. Attendance was low everywhere, and the league needed a spark in the form of new investors. One of the few places with stable (and high) support for soccer didn’t have an MLS team. Starting in 1997, the Rochester Raging Rhinos had several consecutive seasons where they averaged more than 10,000 fans per game. The Rhinos were even building a soccer-specific stadium at a time when most MLS clubs couldn’t manage that.

And so there’s this short article, still on the internet, from November 11th, 2003. At that time, MLS was on the verge of handing Rochester an expansion franchise for the 2004 season, just some four months away. They were so close that Rochester had the league create two separate schedules for 2004: one with Rochester, and one without.

For one reason or another, it didn’t happen, in 2004 or ever. When the league began its post-contraction growth, it handed expansion clubs to Salt Lake City and the Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara. Real Salt Lake has been very successful, but the market was not MLS’s first choice. In 2014, Chivas USA is a failed experiment, but at the time Mexican clubs were among the few willing to invest in American soccer. Club America nearly bought San Jose around the same time.

So consider where Major League Soccer is today. It has doubled in size since 2003, with 19 teams on the field and three more in the works. And it isn’t done growing. When Don Garber announced at last year’s All-Star Game that MLS would have 24 teams by 2020, the race was on, with several cities fighting to be a part of the 24. It’s entirely unclear what will happen after the reaches 24 clubs; will it stop there? That uncertainty has heightened the stakes on this current round of expansion. More than one set of supporters is worried that if they don’t gain entry into MLS now, it might never happen. They might become Rochester.

Without further ado, here are the cities and teams vying to get in.

Sacramento

Population: 466,488 (City) 2,215,770 (Metro)

Current team: Sacramento Republic FC, which began play just this year in USL Pro. In their inaugural season, the Republic set league records for both single-game and single-season attendance.

Ownership: The Republic’s ownership has been highly ambitious in just its first year, and has pointed to Orlando’s quick rise to MLS as a blueprint. Today, news broke that Kevin Nagel, who owns the Sacramento Kings, will buy the team as they push to join MLS. This will provide them with significant clout in stadium negotiations; Nagel well-liked for keeping the Kings from leaving Sacramento and agreeing to a deal for a new arena.

Stadium situation: The Republic currently play at Bonney Field, which holds just 8,000 and has sold out for every game. Bonney Field, which is on the site of the Cal Expo (the state fair) can expand up to 14,000 seats. However, it seems to be understood that a new, downtown stadium would have to be built for expansion into MLS.

Pros: Sacramento is just a two-hour drive from San Jose, and the Republic would become instant rivals with the Earthquakes. I imagine there would also be animosity between Sacramento and the team(s) in LA. Rivalries of this sort are good for MLS.

-An MLS team in Sacramento would be just the city’s second team in the big five leagues. MLS has had a large amount of success in under-served markets such as Portland and Salt Lake City.

Cons: If Southern California continues to have two teams, Sacramento would be a fourth MLS team in California. California is the largest state in terms of population, but there are still large portions of the U.S. map where the league doesn’t have a team.

-Because of its inland location, Sacramento is actually much hotter during the summer months than San Jose and Los Angeles. This is ultimately a minor thing, but that heat can often slow down games and keep fans away.

-While there is reason for optimism, MLS needs a guarantee of a stadium if it’s going to expand to Sacramento. These things aren’t often easy.

Minneapolis

Population: 382,578 (City) 3,459,146 (Metro)

Current team: Minnesota United FC, which began as the NSC Minnesota Stars in 2010. Their first couple seasons were defined by ownership issues and poor attendance, but since then they’ve seen stability and a steady growth in crowds.

Ownership: Two different groups are seeking to bring MLS to the Twin Cities. The more popular of the two features Minnesota United in conjunction with the owners of the Minnesota Twins. The other group currently owns the Minnesota Vikings, and would like to have a soccer team to fill their 65,000 seat new stadium.

Stadium situation: United currently plays in a small suburban stadium that looks like something out of eastern Europe. It is not the future home of an MLS team, and this is where the Vikings ownership has the upper hand. Construction is underway, and the Vikings expect to move into their new stadium in time for the 2016 season. The United/Twins group, meanwhile, would be looking to build a soccer-specific stadium near Target Field, where the Twins currently play.

Pros: Minneapolis is one of the largest markets that doesn’t already have an MLS team. The league’s new television deal provides it with much more money than its current contract in part because of expansion to big television markets like Atlanta and New York.

-A team in Minnesota would give MLS a foothold in the upper midwest. As it currently stands, the nearest team to Minneapolis is Chicago, some six-and-a-half hours away. Filling in the map provides the league with new fans.

Cons: The Wylf family, which owns the Vikings, is not particularly well-liked. There are worries that a team playing in the Vikings’ stadium, under their ownership, would be more like the New England Revolution than Seattle (or even the amicable start Atlanta has gotten off to). Turf would be a given.

-Meanwhile, a soccer-specific stadium faces its own challenges. The city has provided new stadiums for both the Twins and the Vikings in the past decade, but not without difficulty. Stadium fatigue may hamper efforts to get yet another new facility built. And while Sacramento would have to deal with the heat, an outdoor stadium in Minneapolis might not be so pleasant in March and November.

-Minneapolis is a crowded sports market, and in the past MLS has struggled to gain a real presence in cities like Boston, Dallas, and Denver, which already have four major teams.

Las Vegas

Population: 596,424 (City) 1,951,269 (Metro)

Current team: N/A

Ownership: The push to bring MLS to Las Vegas belongs to Justin Findlay, a developer and the son of successful car dealers in the Vegas area.

Stadium situation: Plans for a 24,000-seat stadium have already been put to the City Council. The stadium would, crucially, feature a retractable roof and air conditioning to deal with the oppressive desert heat. The Council delayed a vote yesterday, and support for a publicly-funded stadium currently seems shaky.

Pros: Vegas, due to the gambling connotations, suffers from a dearth of pro sports. MLS would be the first of the big five leagues to place a team in the city, and as such would have the opportunity to monopolize the sports coverage in a way that it can’t elsewhere. Recent rumors have the NHL considering a Las Vegas expansion as well.

-Las Vegas would be the closest away team to RSL, and closer than any other city to the two LA teams. But it would be a destination for supporters from across the league; away trips to Vegas would have a certain appeal.

Cons: There is no team currently in Las Vegas, and so it’s very hard to judge the potential support for an MLS team in the city. In addition to the risk, the league would face criticism if it leapfrogged markets with proven support for Las Vegas.

-MLS would be the only game in town when it comes to pro sports, but it’s not quite true to say that it wouldn’t have competition. Vegas runs on tourism and entertainment; would you rather go to a casino, a show, or an MLS game?

-According to Nielsen, Las Vegas is the 40th largest television market in the country. It would be the smallest in MLS, behind Salt Lake

San Antonio

Population: 1,409,019 (City) 2,277,550 (Metro)

Current team: The San Antonio Scorpions, who are currently in their third NASL season. The Scorpions burst onto the scene, leading the league in attendance in each of their first two seasons, but they’ve been usurped by the Indy Eleven this year.

Ownership: The Scorpions are owned by Gordon Hartman, who made his money in real estate. Under Hartman, all profits from the Scorpions go towards Morgan’s Wonderland, a theme park for adults and children with special needs. That is an unquestionably good thing, but Hartman alone does not have the finances required to make the jump to MLS. A few different people and groups have been rumored to be interested in joining forces with the Scorpions for an MLS push, but little is concrete.

Stadium situation: The Scorpions play at Toyota Field, an 8,000-seat soccer-specific stadium that, as recent renderings show, can expand to at least 18,000 for MLS. It’s not exactly a downtown location, but nor is it particularly out of the way.

Pros: Of the major candidates, San Antonio’s stadium situation would be the easiest to sort out. The stadium is already there, and expansion is cheaper than constructing an entirely new building. That ease should not be the only selling point for MLS, but it is a selling point.

-Bringing the Scorpions to MLS would create a three-way Texas Derby along with Dallas and Houston. As with Sacramento, the creation of these new rivalries would mean more opportunities to draw in away supporters and create great atmospheres.

-As in Sacramento, San Antonio would face limited competition. But where the Kings have struggled in recent years, the Spurs have been exceptionally well run and I’d assume they have a stronger hold on the local populace.

Cons: Soccer wasn’t really meant to be played in the heat of a San Antonio summer. The league already has two teams in Texas, but in both places heat has been cited as keeping some fans away.

-San Antonio, as a television market, is smaller than Salt Lake City. It’s possible that a San Antonio MLS team would also draw fans from Austin, but as the NBA knows, this is not a large market. 

Miami

Population: 419,777 (City) 5,564,635 (Metro)

Disclaimer: Yes, David Beckham has exercised his option to buy an expansion franchise in MLS, and yes he seems to want a team in Miami. But this is not a guarantee that this will pan out. With little good news coming out of South Florida, perhaps we shouldn’t consider it a given.

Current team: Miami proper does not have a professional team at the moment. Nearby Ft. Lauderdale is home to the Strikers, who draw middling crowds in NASL.

Ownership: David Beckham, whom you should know by now, is the main force trying to bring soccer to South Florida.

Stadium situation: Right now, there isn’t one. Don Garber is adamant that Miami will not get a team if it doesn’t have a downtown stadium, but so far that threat hasn’t produced much in terms of results. It’s all very unclear at the moment.

Pros: By population, Miami is the largest metro area without an MLS team. There’s a reason the other four leagues have teams here, and it’s not just the weather.

-Miami’s large television market is routinely among the highest-rated for international soccer. And that’s before you factor in the Spanish-language audience.

Cons: Heat. Not the basketball team, but the high temperatures I’ve mentioned as being a problem in other cities.

-Jeffrey Loria ripped the city off in building Marlins Park, which both the city and the county will be paying off for decades to come. As such, the political climate right now is not fond of providing public funds for sports stadiums. Beckham has been stonewalled on the first two stadium sites that caught his eye.

Misconception: MLS has failed in Miami. The Miami Fusion entered the league in 1998, but didn’t live long enough to see 2002. But it is not fair to hold that against Miami. The Fusion played in the exact stadium that now hosts the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. They played in Ft. Lauderdale, not Miami. What’s more, they managed in spite of that fact to outdraw Kansas City in three of their four seasons. 2001 was a long time ago for MLS. Kansas City is now one of the league’s model franchises.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s