Major League Soccer Expansion and you

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Dear MLS fans, if you are shocked or amazed that Don Garber would publicly state at halftime of the MLS All Star match that the league isn’t done expanding, well you haven’t been paying enough attention. Last year at the BBVA Compass opening he said the following:

“This expansion project is a 20-year process,” Garber said. “It’s not a two- or three-year process. I can’t imagine that 20 years from now we’re not in markets like Miami or Minneapolis or [Atlanta]. I think we’ll be in most major markets. We have to be. It’s a big country. The question is: How long will that take?”

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I talked about it then, but that was another blog and we did learn some things yesterday when Don mentioned his plan to add 4 more teams by 2020.  We learned that the 24 number which was one mentioned by several people over the last several years, is the short term goal, and it makes sense from a scheduling standpoint.   It could be different but we have been force feed this unbalanced schedule for a reason, it fits perfectly with the 24 team league.  The structure could be different but likely you will still have an Eastern and Western Conference (maybe with some type of sub-divisions) of 12 teams each.  You play each team in your conference twice each year with a home and away format (22 matches) and each team in the other conference one a year alternating home and away (12 matches) and presto you have 34 matches or the same number we have had the last two seasons.

I know some of the purists out there who believe that MLS should run like the EPL with 20 teams, a balanced schedule and promotion and relegation won’t like it, but the reality is they just need to get over it.  They may not like it, I may not like it but the reality is that trying to compare the US sports market and how soccer is a part of it, is very different than the other parts of the world, and if we want to make Sepp Blatter wrong and create a soccer league that is relevant in the US, we are going to have to do some things different than nations that have leagues that are 100 years old, or where it is the primary sport of a nation.

So I did think it was good to hear from MLS about their plan, and today we got some specifics about what they consider as requirements for expansion.

Here is what MLS released in their press release on expansion:

The process to determine a future MLS expansion market will be selected on the basis of multiple criteria.  Factors taken into consideration include:

  • Committed and engaged ownership;

  • A comprehensive stadium plan;

  • Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market;

  • Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents;

  • Geographic location;

  • A strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club.

While those are great goals, they are a bit generic.  We know back in 2009 that MLS had a vision for how the geographic part would work out:

2009_Map_from_MLS

 

I am sure that map has probably changed a bit over the last 4 years as markets like Orlando, San Antonio, and even Sacramento have emerged with plans of moving from USL Pro into MLS, while markets like Las Vegas have had their hearts broken by plan after plan breaking down or turning into some type of scam.  Detroit still says they want a team but the city also just filed for bankruptcy so who knows.

Now we have a couple of issues that we have to deal with, first it may seem to a lot of people that MLS will need more officials to deal with 4 more teams, but unless there are major changes to the format of the schedule, a couple of new hires will be more than able to cover the expansion that is currently planned and there is 7 years to get them (and the rest of the PRO officials) up to speed.

Second, there probably will be an impact on the talent pool as you are talking about 120 more players potentially be on rosters, it could be more if you factor in how the partnership with USL Pro goes and impacts the reserve rosters, it will also mean more academies.  It does open up a chance to work on some of the roster things that confuse fans and hinder some players from coming to MLS.  A revamp of the international roster spots could be in order, I personally favor leaving the number at 8, but I only like that number if we create a NAFTA like exemption for US, Canadian, and Mexican players, who would no longer count as internationals.  I also believe that it will require more dramatic increases in the salary cap, if we want to attract and retain more talent at all levels of our rosters (not just DP’s) we need to raise the minimums and overall averages of salaries.

Finally, we have to realize that at some point expansion will stop, it may not be for another decade or two, but at some point all leagues in the US stop expanding.  Since 2005 almost all the net growth in MLS attendance has been as a result of expansion, and by adding additional matches to the schedule.  The league has to ensure that all teams figure out a way to grow their existing fan base, in some markets this means taking a hands on approach, in others a hands off local approach works best.  As the league gains relevance both locally and nationally it will make the demand for the product go up.

So love it or hate it the next round of expansion talk, which was already underway for many of us, is now official.  Orlando and Miami you are on the clock, but with just 4 slots available for the next 7 years, any missteps by any market could mean a decade long wait to bring MLS to their city but is unlikely to mean that you never get a shot.  As soccer fans you should be excited, more teams, more player, more rivalries, more fans are all things that expansion can bring to MLS.  If you look at the last batch of expansion teams (Philly, Montreal, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and even Toronto) all have done most things very well, and only TFC really have had issues that kept their incredible fanbase from being reward with a competitive team on the pitch.

That’s How I See It

 

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