Featured, Major League Soccer

MLS In The Time Of Expansion: Where Do We Go From Here?

Contributing writer Kartik Krishnaiyer breaks down potential MLS expansion cities and their likelihood of landing a top division franchise.

SAN ANTONIO

Flying somewhat under the radar while others try and make a splash and effectively play the media, San Antonio is a sure-fire bet for a successful club should MLS select the city. San Antonio combined solid ownership in the form of the San Antonio Spurs with a strong and established fan base.San Antonio has proven willing to support a club whether it is in NASL or USL, winning or losing, and regardless of brand or ownership. The area has never seen a meaningful drop in attendance despite the ebbs and flows in competitiveness during the era of the San Antonio Scorpions of NASL (2012-15) and that support continued as the Spurs purchased the stadium and in a complicated set of maneuvers started a club in USL while the NASL one disappeared in 2016.

Unlike most other expansion hopefuls, San Antonio has full buy in from city and county as well as established pro sports owners and settled stadium situation. Two drawbacks could be the stadium location as well as the smallish size of the overall TV market. But MLS is as interested in growing hispanic audience as anything other factor and San Antonio is the Nielsen no.7 Hispanic TV market.

Positive: Ownership, political support, stadium, large Hispanic TV market, steady fan support
Negative: Stadium locale, smallish overall TV market
Bottom line: MLS needs a team in Texas that moves the needle. Bringing the Spurs in with a ready made fan base is a no-brainer.

SACRAMENTO

Sacramento remains a solid market despite the recent tumult around the ownership of the Republic and those involved in the MLS bid. The league loves political leadership and owners of other sports teams being involved in MLS expansion and Sacramento has that as well as a ready-made fan base that has supported D3 and D3 soccer as well as a club with the infrastructure to make the move about as seamlessly as possible. The formula followed by Portland, Orlando, Minnesota and others makes Sacramento a good bet.

Positive: Ownership, fan support, established club, large TV market.
Negative: Declining interest in the Republic – albeit small declines.
Bottom line: A turnkey operation hitting some inertia recently but still a solid bet.

SAN DIEGO 

I’m personally far from sold on this market. In fact, I’d state I would stay away. San Diego for better or for worse reminds me of Miami. Lots of soccer fans who haven’t necessarily adopted the American club game, lots of other local entertainment options (including USMNT-heavy Xolos, currently top of the Liga MX table right across the border in Tijuana) and the potential location of the stadium are all drawbacks. Also the lack of successful history for clubs that have played in the lower divisions is an issue. NASL looks poised to create a linkup with Albion youth club for a new pro team that could begin play in the 2nd division in 2018 or 2019. This would be unrelated to the MLS bid. But MLS wants this market badly and the potential upside here is better than in most prospective expansion cities.

Positive: MLS really wants this, sexy market
Negative: Local competition, indifference of fans, no history of supporting lower division soccer
Bottom line: I wouldn’t pick SD personally. In fact it would be last on my list. But MLS is moving heaven on earth for this it appears.

RALEIGH/DURHAM

North Carolina FC has transformed from a struggling NASL club on the brink of extinction before being rescued by Steve Malik in October 2015 to possibly the most impressive complete pro soccer club outside MLS in April 2017. Malik has secured the long-term future of the club formerly known as the Carolina RailHawks, bought and relocated the NWSL Champion Western New York Flash who are now playing as the North Carolina Courage and integrated the CASL youth pyramid, one of the best in the country into the club.The Raleigh/Durham market isn’t the largest but it is one with an almost unparalleled history of support pro and college soccer both of the women’s and men’s variety. It seems a natural fit for MLS.

Positive: Steady ownership, built-in youth structure, large soccer community
Negative: TV market size, unlikely to get a downtown stadium
Bottom line: Solid but unspectacular. It really depends on whether MLS wants consistency or splashiness. If they want the later look below.
CINCINNATI
FC Cincinnati is the flavor of the year in American soccer. Drawing crowds upwards of 20,000 on a regular basis, many have placed FCC right at the top of the prospective MLS expansion list. Not so fast – the market has shown it can support soccer at a high level for one year only and that has been thanks in large measure to extravagant spending. The TV market would be the smallest in MLS and there is no Hispanic population base either. But given the ambition and support this organization has show and elicited, it would be a shame if they missed out. Proximity to Columbus is also a consideration though regional rivalries should be encouraged rather than discouraged.
Positive: So far a really rabid fan base
Negative: Smallish TV market, proximity to Columbus
Bottom Line: Cincinnati’s “We invented the wheel!” mentality worked in Orlando and Seattle. But those were bigger markets.
TAMPA / ST. PETERSBURG

The largest TV market in the US without an MLS team, Tampa/St. Petersburg is also one of only two markets to lose an MLS team. The Tampa Bay Rowdies revival in 2010 rekindled a fan base that has been dormant, but immediately demonstrated the strength of this market. Usurped by nearby Orlando who eclipsed Tampa Bay as an MLS consideration in 2012 and 2013 as the Rowdies struggled with ownership, the MLS dream never really died. Enter the controversial, swashbuckling Bill Edwards, who saved the Rowdies weeks before potentially folding in early 2014. The Rowdies quickly reemerged as a hot ticket in town and shifted from NASL to USL at the end of the 2016 season.On the surface Tampa Bay is the best market for MLS to grab. But there are drawbacks. Firstly, MLS might prefer being on the Tampa side of the bay rather than in St. Petersburg. Secondly, the Rowdies proposal for renovation and expansion of Al Lang Stadium is quite frankly substandard by MLS standards. This is despite the fact that the vista where the stadium sits would arguably be the best in the league. Thirdly, Edwards himself is a wild card, unpredictable and in a league whose image-consciousness is often over-the-top, Edwards may not be a clean fit in MLS. Fourthly, MLS would be smart to want a “war on I-4” but perhaps they are fearful the Rowdies would cut into Orlando City’s supporter base.

Of course, as a Floridian I very badly want the Rowdies to get into MLS. But at this point, I believe they are just on the outside looking in.

Positive: Waterfront vista, HUGE TV market, political support
Negative: Unpredictable owner, proximity to Orlando, stadium really not up to MLS level even after refurbishment.
Bottom line: I’m still not sold MLS wants to be on the Pinellas side of the bay. Bill Edwards unpredictability might cost this bid.

THE REST

Chasing the pack (keep an eye on): Detroit, Phoenix, Charlotte
Long shots: St Louis, Nashville
No chance: Indianapolis

What are your thoughts on the next city to land an MLS franchise? State your case below:

 

Daniel Seco