Rivalries May Not Be Enough For MLS To Expand Into Southeast

What ties together NCAA Division I Soccer, the recent Galaxy/Red Bull game, and the future of MLS as a nationwide league?  It’s all impacted by Title IX.

Title IX is that rarely criticized federal law from 1972 that seems at first glance so worthy of vocal praise.  But in reality, Title IX will prevent MLS from expanding into the Southeast or at least make such growth extremely difficult.

Before I go on, a trivia question that helps the explanation: How many Division I NCAA men’s soccer championships have been won by schools in the Southeastern Conference?

Apologies for the trickery.  The SEC does not sanction men’s soccer, and that is a problem for MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who recently fawned over the regular season match between the L.A. Galaxy and New York Red Bulls.

Prior to that game, Ives Galarcep wrote, “So why is the match important beyond the big names, mega media markets and chance for valuable publicity?  It matters because it will give us a glimpse of what MLS can be.”

That game stood out because it was a regular season match that attracted the interest of soccer fans and the fans of other clubs.  Those are two distinct groups.  Soccer fans, like me, will watch a random match because it’s the only MLS game being played at that time.  Fans of individual teams are interested in the individual club games but few other MLS games.  Garber wants that second group to become more like me.

Imagine if ESPN attracted only two cities to watch Monday Night Football.  Without their home team on the field, everybody would be watching “The Jersey Shore” or something on the History Channel.  That’s where MLS is right now.  For most MLS followers, if their team isn’t playing, they ain’t watching.

The solution is rivalries.  Garber wants to see bumper stickers that read, “My two favorite teams are the Sounders and whoever is playing Vancouver”.  He wants fans to pay attention to their club’s rivals when the rivals are playing somebody else.

The budding rivalry between L.A. and NYRB is fueled by American history, city size, and celebrity.  It was the two largest U.S. cities representing colonial and 20th Century America with star power.  That works for L.A. and New York.  The other markets will base their rivalries on close proximities to each other and recent results against each other.

Matches generate fervor for rematches—one form of rivalry.  Also neighbors want to beat neighbors—another form.  By creating geographic rivalries, Garber can foster history based rivalries.

He’s doing it with Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle.  We’re seeing it with the Rocky Mountain Cup between Denver and Salt Lake and in the Northeast with Philly, New England, New York, and D.C.

Growing the league via rivalries will stop when Garber looks toward the Southeast, though.  He has said that he wants MLS to be a true nationwide league with teams in every section of the country.  But it won’t be easy

Right now there isn’t one MLS team in the Southeast, much less a rivalry.  Thank you title IX.

We have heard from those lovers of Title IX.  They were everywhere after the U.S. women won the 1999 World Cup, crediting the law for enabling the championship.  But they ignored two details.

First, Germany and China don’t have Title IX even though they win global championships.  Second, the law does not require that women athletes be given a particular amount of support: it requires that they be given support nearly equal with men.  So—and here’s the part that hurts MLS—in their effort to comply, colleges may cut men’s programs instead of boosting women’s programs.

We saw that possibility just recently when the University of California needed to make athletic cuts.  The decisions on what was eliminated were balanced with the need to comply with Title IX.  We’ve been seeing that play out in the Southeast for decades.

When Vanderbilt University started discussing dropping men’s soccer for financial reasons, the financial reasons were the costs to continue some women’s programs.  By eliminating a women’s team to save money, men’s soccer had to be abolished to maintain Title IX compliance.

The elephant in the room is football.  It is the cash cow of members of the Southeastern Conference and for most colleges in the Southeast.  According to a recent AP article, the SEC handed out $209 million last month to its member schools.  Of that, approximately $139 was generated from football programs’ television contracts, bowl games, and the conference championship.

Those schools are required to have at least 76.5 scholarship football players, which means that Title IX compliance officers start their score sheet “men 76.5, women 0”.  Bringing women to equal footing is made more difficult by every men’s program each college has.  That’s why so few colleges in the Southeast have men’s soccer.

The SEC schools that do have men’s soccer leave the soccer teams to compete in conferences other than the SEC.  Still none has ever won a Division I championship.  In fact, only twice has a college in the southeast section of the country won a Division I men’s title.  Clemson, as part of the ACC, won titles in 1984 and 1987.

The consequence is that Garber’s objective of creating a nationwide league will require a professional soccer team to be placed where the game is not considered a professional or even a college pursuit.  Multiply that difficulty by three if the rivalry train is the vehicle toward expansion.

So where?  Atlanta.  That’s one.  Potential owners have expressed interest in an MLS team in Atlanta, which has hosted big games.  (The Olympics come to mind).

We are avoiding South Florida because, well, there was Miami and Tampa and contraction, and that didn’t go well.  Maybe Jacksonville.  Maybe that’s two.  Then the list gets, shall we say, second tier.  Birmingham is small.  Nashville is too small to add soccer to football and hockey.  Jackson, Mississippi?  Not likely.

Maybe—super double maybe—Memphis.  The city has a stellar history of soccer.  Maybe Charlotte.  It’s not truly in the Southeast but it is a possible expansion city that could take advantage of that UNC tradition.  Charleston is less likely.

What this exercise shows is that Garber’s means of expansion will be inadequate in the Southeast.  He wants to grow MLS into a national league, but his rivalry vehicle may not enough with the most appealing cities so far apart.

I would love to have a team closer to my home in Middle Tennessee.  But I want even more to see MLS succeed.  I don’t want to see new teams that later contract or move.  I don’t want the league to force or allow teams where they don’t belong.

I thing Garber’s strategy is good for now.  But if he wants to expand into the Southeast, he’ll need to take a critical look at how to do it.  Or he could turn the clock back to 1972.

Jamie Clary is the author of The First American Soccer Trivia Book, available at www.soccerprofessor.com and on twitter @soccerprofessor.

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  • Amy

    This is pretty heartbreaking stuff for most of the Yanks Are Coming writers, I’m sure, Jamie. Good work. I hope you are wrong because it would be great to see a franchise in Atlanta, which is a tremendous soccer town and a youth talent hotbed.

  • Kevin in Denver

    Title IX is a miserable failure. It succeeds only in lowering the bar for intercollegiate sports and is a function of our PC society run amok.

    The southeast needs teams in MLS, but not just one – 2 is good, 3 is perfect. How do we get there?

    Well, maybe #20 shouldn’t be taken to a market already saturated with soccer. Sacrilege alert: Do we really need a second NY team, even if that team happens to be the Cosmos?

  • Adam

    That’s quite an insightful — yet flawed, article!

    Have you ever heard of Orlando? They’re getting a USL-PRO team in 2011 owned partially by Stoke City and Burnley owners. The owners have every intention to bring the team to MLS within 3-5 years.

    Also, Tampa failed because of bad ownership, not because of the location. As a reminder, Tampa was the second most successful NASL franchise.

  • http://www.yanksarecoming.com Jon

    I’m from South Florida, and aside from the steadfast support of the Miami Dolphins, it’s a horrible sports town from a fans-going-to-games perspective. Sad, because everyone I know is Hispanic; they’re supposed to love the futbol right?

    Tampa and Charlotte are both good destinations for a team, but ideally you set up in Atlanta first. There is something to be said for the newfangled paperback BEFORE hardcover approach though, and if the MLS goes that route, Charlotte makes sense as the test market.

  • http://www.yanksarecoming.com Jon

    Orlando? Never heard of it!

  • Adam

    The Hispanics in south Florida aren’t Mexican or South American, like in Texas. Many of them are Caribbean and Central American, places that play croquet and baseball, not soccer.

    Why the heck would they pick Charlotte?

    Orlando has successfully hosted an MLS All Star game. Orlando also has the least amount of sports competition with no pro hockey, baseball or football franchise. Plus, their college football team is insignificant.

  • http://www.yanksarecoming.com Jon

    Charlotte has proven to be a good small market sports town over the last 10 years. Orlando, while lacking in sporting competition, can’t boast that pedigree.

    And South Florida has plenty of South Americans. While the roster of my high school football team resembled the cast of “Remember the Titans,” our soccer team looked like Boca Juniors junior. You’re right on the Mexican population though, gotta head north on Florida’s west coast to the Tampa area to find a large amount of El Tri supporters.

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